If you’re reading this you are almost certainly a cycling fan so please excuse me if I am preaching to the converted. If you are a cycling fan that has yet to visit the Tour de France live you simply must add it to your ‘bucket list’. Quite simply the Tour de France is unlike any other cycle race. It’s a phenomenon, a spectacle, a French institution that needs to be experienced first-hand. TV simply can’t replicate the drama and the atmosphere…
There is though a downside to the Tour that you do need to be aware of, particularly if you only have experience of other races. Because it’s the Tour everything has to be multiplied by at least 2. The crowds will be bigger and at the more popular spots border on being uncomfortable, you will need to arrive at your spot far earlier than you would for other races, the traffic will be heavier meaning the traffic jam after the race has passed will be bigger and longer (forget seeing the race two or three times as you currently can at a spring classic). Security is ridiculous and you have virtually no chance of interacting with your favourite rider, unless you know their hotel, as the start and finish areas are strictly controlled, and finally the speed of the race is significantly higher that any other race during the year – Conversely, the atmosphere is greater (with the possible exception of the Tour of Flanders), the peleton contains the absolute best riders in the world and the media coverage is second to none. Don’t let any of this put you off attending the TdF, I wouldn’t keep going year after year if it was that bad, you just need to know that the TdF just can’t be compared to any other race – its unique and that’s what makes it so special.
With a welcome return to the North, and easily accessible from the UK, this years must see stage (aside from the high mountains) was Stage 3, featuring the Paris-Roubaix cobbles and only a couple of hours drive from Calais.
Catching the 0730 ferry I had an uneventful drive to Haveluy where I parked up around 10 km from the course. Parking any closer would have been a nightmare. This year I had brought my bike and enjoyed a leisurely ride onto the course and towards the day’s last section of cobbles, the Secteur pave d’Haveluy. At 2,300 meters long this was likely to feature heavily in the race.
Riding onto the cobbles I managed about 100 m before I got off my bike as an alternative to falling off and making a fool of myself in front of an already large crowd. The pave was so dry and dusty I was slipping and sliding all over the place. So with fate, and my very poor bike handling skills, deciding that 100 m from the end of the cobbled section was where I would watch the race I secured my spot.
There was still a good 4½ hours before the race came through but already there were many spectators lining the route. It was a beautiful day with the sun shining brightly and getting hotter as it approached midday. Not a good day to be standing in a field in Northern France for 6 hours with my suntan lotion at home in Dover…
As the crowd steadily increased I saw loads of replica Sky jerseys, not bad when you consider that they haven’t been available until recently. I handed out quite a few teamskyfans.com cards so hopefully the site will get a few hits.
After a few hours the road was pretty well packed on both sides. On my left was a French family (no children thankfully) and on my right two Belgians, two English lads and a gentleman from Scotland resplendent with his Scottish flag that I have to agree does bear a more aggressive looking lion than that depicted on the Belgian’s Flanders flag. Unfortunately I did not get their names but a group photo features in the Stage 3 photo gallery and hopefully they will read this blog and leave a comment. It was a pleasure talking to you gentlemen…
Another thing that is unique at the TdF is the Caravanne Publicitaire that proceeds the race. I am convinced that some spectators simply attend on the off-chance of getting a free key-ring. A psychiatrist would have a field day as the French public immediately take on a new identity during the 30 minutes it takes for the Caravanne to pass. The two gentleman on my left, combined age of approximately 120 years, immediately became homicidal maniacs who would happily gouge your eyes out if it prevented you from getting your hands on a Skoda hat that was clearly destined for their ‘swag bag’. I no longer partake in the public melee that is taking place all around me and simply watch with amazement and amusement the battles that are taking place on either side of the road.
After the Caravanne has passed it is usually another hour or so before the main event. Once upon a time the majority in the crowd would not have a clue what was happening in the race and who was leading until the first riders arrived. Now with modern technology and mobile phone internet we were aware that Spartacus was driving Saxo Bank on and putting distance between Andy Schlek and his rivals. We knew that Frank had abandoned and that both Wiggins, Armstrong and Contador were not with the leading group. The stage was shaping up to being everything it was anticipated that it would be.
Just a few minutes before the riders arrived, and as is the norm in my personal experience, a young couple spotted the gullible Englishman (me) that had been protecting his ground for the last 5 hours, that had been unpleasantly sunburnt as a result, and decided that that was the spot for them – it happens at every race!! The girl did have the decency to say that she would ensure she did not get in the way of my camera, her boyfriend/husband on the other hand decided that for the next 20 minutes or so he would do his level best to get his hand, elbow, head or any other part of his anatomy into as many of my photographs as he possible could. Later I gave the girl a TSF card and if you are reading this blog thank you for your consideration – your partner, on the other hand, is an inconsiderate moron that I really, really, wanted to slap!
Anyway, despite the above, the dust cloud that could be seen in the distance indicated the approaching riders. The atmosphere and noise levels increased as they came into view and the most apparent thing to me was the speed. As the leaders approached long-time leader Ryder Hesjedal was being caught by Fabian and the lead group. The speed was unbelievable, considering the conditions you would never believe they were riding on cobbles, most people couldn’t ride that fast on a flat road. Another example of the TdF being bigger and faster than any other race.
Geraint was right up there in the leading group that simply flashed by. A few seconds later Alberto and Brad came past, then anther group containing Cav, then Armstrong on his own, his face caked with dust and grime. The dust was unbelievable, riders were emerging from the dust cloud one-by-one and in small groups. Visibility was just a few meters and contributed to the surreal atmosphere and unique situation that was unfolding in front of us. Every single rider was applauded and cheered, battered bloodied and bruised they came by, the effort and pain ingrained on their faces – This what every single spectator had stood for 5 hours (except my mate on my left!) to see, this is cycling at its very brutal brilliant best. An unbelievable stage that was a pleasure to witness first-hand.
Twenty minutes or so after the lead group had passed the last placed rider on the road came by to no less a cheer and encouragement than anyone else. I bade farewell to the Belgians I had been chatting with and made my way back to the car in relatively quick time as the road was still closed to all but cyclists and pedestrians.
Back at the car the road had just re-opened and the inevitable traffic jam had formed. Progress was painfully slow and it was the best part of three hours before I checked into my hotel and enjoyed a long cold shower before settling down to the World Cup semi-final with a few, alright lots, of beers.
The following day I decided that I would experience a first. I’ve been to many Tours, stage finishes, team and individual time trials and stretches on the road. I have not been to a stage start before (except London but that doesn’t count because I was the incredibly lucky recipient of corporate hospitality at the finish line and that is never likely to happen again). I therefore decided to make my way to Cambrai for the start of Stage 4.
Arriving in Cambrai around 0830, I found the town virtually closed to all traffic. The organisation behind the TdF is immense and planning must take many months. Eventually I managed to park on the outskirts of the town and walked into the town centre where the start village had been erected. Already the area was busy and people were laying claim to their spot where they were going to watch the riders roll-out. If you look at the photo gallery for Stage 4, the second photo shows the start at 10 o’clock. Already the crowds are enormous and the race not due to start for another 4 hours… At this point I bumped into the two Belgians I had stood with the day before and they assured me that they would be visiting the TSF website later.
I wanted to get some good photographs, particularly of G in the white jersey. I therefore had no choice but to take up position in row 2 (the barriers were already occupied) and wait.
Although 4 hours is a long time there is always something to see at the start and although it is physically uncomfortable it is never boring. Endless promotional material is displayed and offered to the crowd. Without having to fight anyone off I was handed two Skoda hats, three other hats, some crisps, a sausage, free bottled water and a newspaper, and this was before the official Caravanne Publicitaire arrived. When the Caravanne did arrive it was completely different from the procession that came past the previous day, obviously some vehicles were unsuitable for the cobbles. They are not allowed to throw out their goodies at the start and finish section so thankfully there was no pushing and shoving as by now it was at least 5 deep on either side of the road.
Around about 13:40 the riders started to form up in the road. Although I was right next to the start line the riders were being stopped about 150 m further down the road until the whole peleton were together, only then did the yellow, green, polka-dot and white jerseys slowly made their way to the start line to much applause and cheering and giving everybody a good photo opportunity. Once the media photographers had finished the rest of the field moved up giving the crowd a good five minutes to spot their favourites and take photographs. I noticed that the main players, Armstrong, Contador, Cavendish etc made sure that they were in the middle of the bunch and not within arms reach a spectator.
At 13:50 a local dignitary formally started the stage and the riders slowly rolled out. As the last rider disappeared from view there was a noticeable reduction in the pressure within the crowd that had been packed together like sardines. Although we hadn’t seen any racing every single rider in the TdF including the current champion, former champions, world champion, former world champions, national champions current and past, and no doubt future, had been within just a few feet of us – name me another sport where this is allowed to happen?
Although the original plan was to leave Cambrai and watch the race on the road it became apparent that this was virtually impossible. Sure enough by the time I had shuffled my way back to the car and fought my way through the traffic the Tour was long gone. I therefore made my way back to Calais and arrived home just in time for ITV’S highlights.
I thoroughly enjoyed Stage 3 & 4 for different reasons. For my Tour this year Stage 3 was all action, aggressive racing, Stage 4 was the enormity and accessibility of the best riders in the world – two completely different contrasts in two days – If anyone reading this is persuaded to visit the Tour in the future – Good. That was the intention. If you do, you won’t regret it.
For debutants Team Sky are doing really well so far. Although finances dictate that I will not return to the Tour this year I might have to have a major rethink if any of the boys make the podium in Paris – If they do I’ll probably see some of you there…