HARROGATE England (Reuters) - Massive crowds greeted the cream of world cycling in the Yorkshire countryside on Saturday as the Tour de France began in style but some riders said their enthusiasm was dangerous.
The 190.5-km stage from Leeds to Harrogate was hailed a huge success by race director Christian Prudhomme as an estimated two million people took to the hills and lanes.
He described crowds at the quaintly named Cote de Buttertubs as like those seen at the summit of the mountain-top finishes in the Alps.
However, the proximity of the masses, many wearing cycling outfits and carrying flags, caused problems with the peloton coming to a standstill at one point during the day's first ascent up the Cote de Cray.
"It's great to see such huge crowds but the police should do something about it tomorrow because our health is in danger," leading Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara told reporters.
Germany's Marcel Kittel, who sprinted to victory to take the leader's yellow jersey, said fans needed to be wary.
"Some spectators were in the middle of the road taking pictures," he said. "Then there is the classic one where they are all in the road and when the peloton comes they move off but they leave grandma in the wheelchair still there.
"We are very happy to have them and it was an amazing crowd today but they have to take care to stay off the road."
Slovakian runner-up Peter Sagan added: "The public at the Tour de France is incredible but also dangerous. I wish people paid more attention."
Despite the concerns there were no crowd-related accidents and the biggest crash occurred when British hero Mark Cavendish was involved in a horror smash on the sprint to the line.
Orica GreenEdge sports director Matt White, whose rider Simon Gerrans was involved in the Cavendish crash, said the crowds were incredible.
"That's what the Tour de France is all about and these are probably the biggest crowds we'll see. It's going to be a great day tomorrow and I can't wait," he added.
Prudhomme said the stage was "beyond his wildest imagination".
"Unforgettable, huge crowds, French flags, British flags, bicycles painted yellow," he told Reuters. "I've had 25 texts from people from all over the world telling me it's wonderful.
"The crowds are unbelievable. We are very proud to have the Royal family here too. Amazing.
"I think the Buttertubs climb can now call itself the Alpe d'Huez of Yorkshire."
Sunday's stage is a 201-km ride from York to Sheffield with nine categorised climbs and more huge crowds predicted.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)