Utrecht, the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands, will be at the centre of the sporting world this weekend, when it plays host to the Grand Depart of the 102nd Tour de France.
Saturday’s time trial and the start of Sunday’s second stage will take place in the city, in front of an estimated crowd of over three-quarters of a million people.
Staging the Grand Depart beyond French borders is not unusual. It has happened on 20 previous occasions, including last year when Leeds played host, a precursor to two days of remarkable crowds in Yorkshire as the race made its way towards London and then into France. The success of Yorkshire’s Grand Depart even spawned a new event, May’s Tour de Yorkshire, sanctioned by Le Tour organiser Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO).
As part of its efforts to further expand Le Tour’s international footprint, ASO has also turned to Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Ireland and Monaco as starting points for cycling’s most famous race. This year’s race will also spend two days in Belgium en route to France, where the traditional tests of the Pyrénées and the Alps await the peloton.
Utrecht 2015 will be the sixth time the race has begun from the Netherlands; Amsterdam hosted the first non-French start as long ago as 1954, while Scheveningen, Den Bosch and, in 2010, Rotterdam have all also hosted Grand Departs.
The view from Utrecht
“What they are doing very well is organising a lot of side events,” says Roelien Luijt, Managing Director of Repucom’s Dutch office, of Utrecht’s preparations for its moment in the spotlight. “There is so much to do and it is giving a boost to race cycling in the whole area, not just Utrecht. The city is investing highly in participation in cycling – you see cyclists in yellow jerseys, all sorts of people cycling through the city – and that’s been going on for about a year. The government of Utrecht – in cooperation with local sports clubs – have done this really well.
“Internationally,” Luijt continues, “everybody always talks about Amsterdam and Utrecht has always to fight against that, but they’ve always been humble about it. That’s the way they’ve organised this tour; it’s been very subtle but very visible; the city has been coloured yellow everywhere.
The largest sporting event in Utrecht’s history comes just weeks after the Netherlands withdrew its innovative multi-city bid to stage the 2019 European Games, after the country’s Olympic committee failed to secure the support of the Dutch ministry of sport and several city authorities.
Another city in the limelight
But the country’s ambition to stage world-class sporting events remains intact, even if plans to bid for an Olympic Games have been placed on the backburner for economic reasons. That much was underlined by last week’s news that next year’s Giro d’Italia cycling race will begin in the city of Apeldoorn, part of the Gelderland province of the Netherlands.
Apeldoorn, which has around 158,000 residents, is the latest example of a city looking to the hosting of sports events as a means of establishing a presence on the world stage. Repucom has already been tasked with producing media research based on next year’s Giro ‘Big Start’, while the city is currently one of four Dutch cities hosting games in the FIVB World Beach Volleyball Championships. “They are highly investing in sports events in an effort to become more well-known,” confirms Luijt. “Apeldoorn is using sport – really big events – to improve their image.”
According to Repucom Sponsorlink data, cycling is the Netherlands’ most popular participation sport while professional cycling is the third most popular in terms of interest. This weekend and again next May, two of the country’s lesser-known cities will get its chance to demonstrate that interest on the world stage.