The Ultimate Challenge - John McPherson

In 2014 Yorkshire hosted the opening of the Tour de France, generating, according to the official impact review, around £130 million for the region. John McPherson takes le Grand Depart as the starting point for his imaginative and amusing story with a stimulating subtext.

Six. Through and off.  Then the bunch, at coffee-shop pace, sounding like a modern-languages class on slick tyres. Team cars stop-start in sympathy with a road missing the selfish jostle of traffic. The voiture balai passes, bringing an unexpected chilly blast and he is there as I turn away from the road, so close I tread on his brogue.

“Un peu de respecte!”, spat out from beneath a dark moustache. Brown eyes, a century older than the rest of him, flash challenge. “But, mes p’tits gars chéris du Yorkshire, you think it is you who are les patrons aujourd’hui, non?”

I know him, of course. “Monsieur Desgrange?” He responds with a comically over-done Gallic shrug, stubbing a spent Gauloise under his scuffed toes. I catch myself bowing slightly. “Not at all, sir. This is your race. Your creation. Your genius. Your gift.”

One side – the left – of his moustache twitches. A smile maybe, or a snarl. “Sacrebleu”, he grunts, then, heavily accented, “listen very carefully…”

“I hid for much of that first Tour de France, in 1903…” Another Gauloise has appeared, magically aglow and spreading its pall like incense in an airy cathedral. He clearly wants to talk. I listen, very carefully. “Not even my idea, you know. That idiot Lefèvre’s. No cycling man. A desperate measure to put one over on those ‘salauds’ at Le Vélo. Of course, it went well. I emerged to take the credit.”

Henri, smokily indistinct, pauses – ethereal. I speak. “But you believed in human endeavour, surely? In heroism and resilience? In achieving the unthinkable? In the health and identity of a People? Hell, man, you were a rider yourself! You invented le Tour because you believed these things.”

Perhaps it is the Gauloise, but Desgrange’s eyes are misty. “Non. Mais non. I saw le Tour grow and only then I believed. A bicycle race to sell my paper; it became le Grand Boucle, speaking for my nation and my sport. A bicycle race to sell your Yorkshire… ça va!” Again the elaborate shrug. “Now let it speak for you. What will you have it say?”

With a background in arts marketing, John McPherson started in local government promoting the cultural sector. Over the years he developed an interest in staff engagement and how people deal with change; these are his main areas of work at Leeds City Council. Outside work he is prone to serial obsessions.

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