The Copenhagen Way part two: Gearing up for the Grand Départ

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“To Copenhageners, cycling is not just a sport, exercise, or a way of transportation to get from A to B,” Sophie Haestorp Andersen, the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, explains. “It’s a way of life.”

Such is the reason why the Danish capital has been recognised by ISPO as the world’s most cycling-friendly city, a title to which it has proudly laid claim since 2015. A city with more bikes than inhabitants, where bins are even elevated at an angle above the pavement for cyclists to use while passing by, the Danish capital’s attitude and commitment to cycling are second to none.

Whereas bike routes and lanes in many other urban areas are seen as little more than an afterthought, Copenhagen’s bike-first infrastructures are not simply adapted for cyclists – they are dedicated to them. From the Inderhavnsbroen at the city’s inner harbour to the Cirkelbroen (circle bridge) at the Christianshavn canal, Copenhagen’s wealth of bridges and more than 1,300 different cycling routes secure the city’s reputation as a playground for cyclists.

On 1st July, Copenhagen’s cycling-oriented landscape will meet its match when it hosts the start of the world’s most prestigious cycling event, the Tour de France. Serving as the chosen destination for the 2022 Grand Départ, Denmark will host its largest-ever sporting event, marking the first time the tour has visited the country in its 118-year history.

“We have cycling in our DNA,” affirms Alex Petersen, spokesperson of the 2022 Grand Départ. “For us in Denmark, we are using the bike everyday more or less – especially in Copenhagen – for transportation. But it’s also a matter of lifestyle for the Danes to use the bikes.”

A former professional cyclist from the small Danish town of Herning, Petersen made it his mission to bring the elite peloton to his home country. But, as he recalls, there were many doubts initially over Denmark’s capacity – both economically and logistically – when he first pitched his plan to host the showpiece cycling event ten years ago. 

“In the beginning, when we started off the project, the idea that my friend and I [came up with] back in 2012, there were not so many here who believed that it was possible to bring the tour to Denmark,” he reveals.

As the once-distant dream of hosting the Grand Départ gradually became a reality, Petersen earned something of a reputation within Denmark for his resolute commitment to the tour and Denmark as a hosting candidate. Often asked about the best places to watch the cycling race, his answer remains unchanged: “Be a part of the tour, because it will maybe [come] once in your lifetime.”

To that end, Andersen says that Copenhagen is running various events that will enable cycling enthusiasts to get involved, including the FestiVélo at Faelledparken, the city’s largest park, in early July. Fans will also have the opportunity to ride the 13-kilometre route being used for the time trial during stage one of the Tour de France, which will be closed to traffic the day after the Grand Départ.

We are currently doing everything we can to create awareness and prepare events that will include tourists and Copenhageners in this extremely exciting race,” Andersen tells SportsPro.

With the start date just weeks away, Petersen believes it has yet to sink in for the majority of Danes that an event of the grandeur and global appeal of the Tour de France will pass through its roads, streets and bicycle lanes in the near future.

“No one will notice it before it is here,” he predicts. “[But] I think afterwards everyone will say, ‘wow, what was happening last week when the tour was here?’”

A match made in heaven

After selecting Denmark as the hosting destination for the 2022 Grand Départ, Tour de France general director Christian Prudhomme is full of praise for Copenhagen, a city which has captivated him with its approach to cycling.

“The most cycling-friendly city in the world meets the greatest cycling race in the world,” he declares. Outlining the reasons behind taking the Grand Départ to Denmark, he adds: “Something which seduced us was the link between the everyday bicycle and the mountain bike of champions.

“In Denmark, the symbol is that there are more bicycles than people. There are 5.8 million inhabitants, but there are more bicycles.”

Last year’s edition of the tour reached 150 million viewers across Europe, while 42.2 million tuned in to watch coverage of the event on French TV channels.

Prudhomme cites the opportune timing of the event in July, a time when Danes are likely to be away from work or school during summer holidays, as another plus for viewership of the race. “This means that more Danes will be in front of the TV to watch the tour,” he jokes.

Prudhomme adds that ASO has had its eyes on Copenhagen as a potential host for quite some time. As far back as 2012, when the Giro D’Italia started from Herning, a Danish city of cycling pedigree and the hometown of 1996 Tour de France champion Bjarne Riis, Prudhomme says the organisation was already considering another Danish city as the perfect place for the Grand Départ.

“In all the opinion polls on the best cycling cities, it’s always Copenhagen which is first everywhere,” he says.

A track record of hosting

In 2008, Copenhagen became the first city to receive the International Cycling Union’s (UCI) Bike City label, an accolade that not only underlines its unwavering commitment to promoting cycling, but also neatly aligns with its established culture of healthy living and sustainability.

As Andersen explains, the Grand Départ will serve as the perfect showcase for everything the city has to offer.

“The Grand Départ is also a lever to showcase all our efforts to make cycling first choice,” she says. 

“Over the last decade, the city has invested more than €100 million in improving the cycling infrastructure, making cycling one of the key actions to become the world’s first carbon neutral capital city by 2025.”

As well as championing everyday cycling, Copenhagen has a track record of hosting major events, including the UCI’s BMX World Cup in 2008 and 2009, the UCI Track Cycling World Cup from 2007 to 2009, the 2010 Track Cycling World Championships, and the UCI Road World Championships in September 2011. The city’s cycling routes also form part of the annual Ironman Copenhagen event, which will return on 21st August this year.

The opening day of the 2022 Grand Départ will take place at a 13km circuit around the city centre, passing through landmarks such as the Amalienborg Palace residence of the Danish royal family. While the event will undeniably serve as the perfect showcase for the city’s cycling infrastructure, urban spaces and most prized tourist attractions, its Ironman race continues to generate further exposure for the city.

“When we built the event back in the day, the whole point was to show the great attractions that Copenhagen has,” says Thomas Veje Olsen, Ironman’s senior vice president and managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). “The finish line is in front of the [Christiansborg Palace], the run course [goes] past the Little Mermaid, and the harbour front of Copenhagen, which is a centrepiece of Copenhagen, [is] basically where the whole event happens. So it is an event that definitely touches all these landmarks.”

Olsen adds that Ironman Copenhagen is one of the series’ most popular races, so much so that it is bookmarked by competitors, fans and organisers as one of its standout destinations. Distinguished by its family-friendly ambiance, proximity to the event itself and focus on sustainability, the Danish capital is, for Olsen, a premier hosting city.

“What makes Ironman Copenhagen special is the fact that we can have the event directly in the city centre – it’s not outside, it’s right in there,” he illustrates. “That’s a testament to the work that Copenhagen has done over the past ten to 15 years in really making it an attractive sports city with a lot of great facilities and clean water.”

Citing the opportunity for spectators to catch glimpses of the event while taking their weekend stroll around the city, he continues: “There is a special vibe in Copenhagen. There’ll be a lot of people around the event and it’s a fantastic clash between people in spandex and tourists and Copenhageners on a Sunday.”

With the event drawing many international athletes, Olsen adds that the triathlon helps bring more tourists to the region. “More than 60 per cent of the athletes are international athletes coming to the event and coming from outside of Denmark. And that’s because, as much as it’s a race, it’s also a tourist destination.”

Once In a lifetime

As Copenhagen braces itself for a yellow makeover this summer, Andersen has high hopes for the impact the Tour de France will have on the Danish capital.

“The whole city will be buzzing with enthusiasm and events,” she declares. “The city will be decorated in the iconic yellow colour, and it will be bursting with events for all.

“Copenhagen is known as one of the greenest and most liveable cities in the world – the harbour is so clean that you can swim in it. I hope that the many visitors and TV viewers will be inspired by our city and our unique cycling lifestyle.”

Looking ahead, Petersen encourages all Danish people to join Denmark’s so-called “yellow party” in celebrating the tour this summer.

“The main reasons that they should go out and see the tour is that it’s one of the absolute biggest sports events in the whole world that is passing through our small, beautiful country,” he says. “It will be really once-in-a-lifetime. You can just go and watch the absolute best athletes in cycling for free. I really hope, and I’m sure, that all the Danes will really follow the tour.”

With the eyes of the cycling world on Copenhagen, Petersen is hopeful that the event can prove successful financially, highlighting the race’s reach of more than 190 countries globally as providing a “good economic case”. Beyond this, however, he hopes the publicity from the Grand Départ will help inspire the younger generation to get involved in cycling clubs.

Despite the prevalence of cyclists in city areas, he references a decline in youngsters taking up the sport over the last ten years. 

Perplexed and somewhat saddened by the dip in participation, Petersen is optimistic that the Grand Départ can generate the fanfare and interest necessary to break this trend.

“We have very, very good riders,” he enthuses. “Maybe we have 25 or 26 [Danish] riders and ten to 12 of them are some of the best riders in the peloton.”

A number of Danish cyclists will be itching to get their hands on the revered yellow jersey in this year’s tour, such as Mads Pedersen, Michael Valgren and Jonas Vingegaard, who placed second in the 2021 race and has been tipped as one of the favourites for this summer. The 25-year-old currently ranks as the ninth-best cyclist in the world according to the UCI.

“I really cross my fingers,” says Petersen, “and hope that the local cycling clubs will have more members after the tour has been here, and the years after.”