INTERVIEW: Sir Rodney Walker talks TDF 2014

Sir Rodney Walker. Picture Scott Merrylees SM1003/33c
Sir Rodney Walker. Picture Scott Merrylees SM1003/33c

He was the man the government wanted behind the scenes of Yorkshire’s Tour de France phenomenon.

And as Sir Rodney Walker reflected on the weekend’s events with me this week he revealed the uncertainties, last-minute dramas and incredible teamwork that were involved as well as the legacies that the world’s biggest sporting event will leave behind.

Alberto Contador (centre) tackles on the Holme Moss climb during the Tour de France in Yorkshire. The SportsTalk panel discuss an epic occasion. (Picture: Simon Hulme)

Alberto Contador (centre) tackles on the Holme Moss climb during the Tour de France in Yorkshire. The SportsTalk panel discuss an epic occasion. (Picture: Simon Hulme)

It all started with a phone call last year - but not a call asking him to support Yorkshire’s bid as I’d thought.

The exact opposite in fact.

The British government was at the time sponsoring a bid from Edinburgh to secure the Grand Depart, and they had got in touch with Sir Rodney to ask him to use his influence to call off Yorkshire’s rival advances.

He said: “The first call I got was an enquiry from UK Sport to see if Yorkshire could be persuaded to back off.

“I advised them that Yorkshire, and Welcome to Yorkshire’s chief executive Gary Verity, was not the kind of place or the kind of person to back off once minds were made up, and of course he didn’t.

“I also warned them not to underestimate his ability to win.”

As we all know that was the eventual outcome, but even after Welcome to Yorkshire had secured the contract and subsequently contacted Whitehall, “the lines were silent.”

It was at this point that they got in touch with the man from Wakefield regarded as one of the highest profile operators in the world of sport, someone who has a CV with a pantheon of chairmanships ranging from the Wembley Stadium build through to the Rugby Football League.

Conversations with sports ministers ensued, and eventually the government were persuaded to support the event to the tune of £10m through the TDFHub2014 company that Sir Rodney was asked to become chairman of.

At that point, with 12 months to go, there was no TDF team.

By the time that the race set off from Leeds city centre on Saturday, there were 100 employees, 7,000 stewards and 10,000 volunteers.

Considering that any job offer was for a fixed term, Sir Rodney’s “one stroke of luck” was to bring in Nicky Roche as chief executive, a woman who had been senior member of the operations team at the London 2012 Olympics.

Many other staff were seconded from local councils, while supermarket giant Asda was instrumental in kitting out and training the volunteers.

Sir Rodney said: “I can say my job was made easier by the calibre of chief executive and staff that I had. ~They, together with the local councils, have been outstanding.”

There was some arduous, and by no means glamorous work, undertaken.

Every 100 yards of a 330-mile route was assessed, 1,000 road closures enforced, street furniture removed, businesses and householders consulted and contingency plans put in place.

These plans were nearly triggered by the initial forecast of heavy rain on the Saturday - a late change of route was nearly implemented in the Yorkshire Dales for fear of flash floods on certain roads.

But there was one other problem that did cost upwards of half a million pounds.

Sir Rodney explained: “Very late in the day we ran into what was our biggest single problem.

“We found that all the radios wouldn’t work properly because of the topography of the route. We ended up having to spend an additional half a million pounds flying in special transmitters from around Europe so that in the event of an emergency the radios would definitely work.

“Fortunately that emergency never occurred, but of course you can’t leave things like that to chance.”

And weather wasn’t the only potential crisis on Sir Rodney’s mind as the peloton embarked on its journey.

Airport security had been tightened and the third day of the tour coincided with the anniversary of the 7/7 bombings.

On a racing front, the enthusiasm of the crowds meant that on occasions the leading riders only had three of four feet of space to pedal through.

“So when you stand on the start line, and you’ve done everything you can, your heart is still in your mouth and you just hope that you’ve legislated for everything,” he said.

So what will the legacies of TDF 2014 be?

Sir Rodney believes that as well as an increase in road cycling and fitness, the Tour of Yorkshire and additional commercial overseas investment thanks to the increase in the area’s profile, there will be a more unexpected legacy.

This was down to necessity of councils, police forces, transport companies and health authorities having to work together and communicate with each other.

Sir Rodney said: “I cannot thank often enough, or highly enough, all the partners we’ve had - they have all bought into the event and I think that’s why it was the success it was.

“The other thing they’ve told me is it will really help when, for example, we get deep snow in the winter again - the lines of communication are open, they know who to talk to and that’s because of the team-working on this event.”

The other legacy is a personal one for Sir Rodney.

He recalled that as a child, one of his teachers told his mum there was “not a cat in hell’s chance” he would pass a GCE in one of his subjects.

“I thought to myself, I’ll show you, and this was the attitude I have when someone throws down a challenge to me.

“You have to remember that I was 70 years-old at the time they asked me, and I rather thought I’d become a forgotten man.

“It’s given me personally a real boost. As any active 70 year-old will tell you, you don’t want people to think you’re past your best.”

So what next?

There are “two big world-stage opportunities” that had been put on hold during the Tour, one in technology and one in healthcare. We will hear a lot more about both of them in the very near future.

And he thinks that Yorkshire must work hard to capitalise on the success of the Tour, which he believes will be back in Britain within the next five years.

But his over-riding thoughts are of the other individuals and the team that made last weekend’s experiences possible, and under budget to boot.

He said: “I wouldn’t have been asked by government to do the job I’ve done without the tenacity and vision of Gary Verity and Welcome to Yorkshire who brought the event here. He did that against all the odds. And I’ve been blessed by the team I’ve worked with.”