In the thick of it. Today I found out what it's like in the middle of the Tour de France...

The cyclists ride at breakneck speeds whilst all around them there is ordered chaos; mechanic’s cars, radio cars, official cars and of course the infamous publicity caravan.  Spectators waive their picnics from the roadside as the riders tear past.  Boozey kids run alongside, shouting and jumping up and down.  More than a few crowd members get perilously close in the quest for a perfect snapshot to share with friends.  I took a ride in the Tour de France, and here’s what it’s like to be right in the middle of the world’s most famous cycling race.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 19.46.17

The summers of my youth were always filled with the Tour de France, enjoyed by the whole family as much for the lingering shots of magnificent French scenery as for the riding itself.  We cheered on Greg Lemond and talked endlessly about Lance Armstrong as though he were some kind of cycling superman.  Looking back it seems like a cycling age of innocence, but I loved all the poetry and drama of a journey around a nation by bike. Not just a journey, but a race no less.

This was all before talk of drugs, “enabling” Doctors, self-administered transfusions and blood bags in the hotel room fridge.  Doping cast a deep stain on professional cycling, and it was a long time before I allowed myself to get back in to bike racing.  It’s all the fault of Mark Cavendish, really.  His technical prowess and sheer bravura meant I’d find myself tuning in for the sprints again. Then came Sir Bradley Wiggins.  A Brit winning the tour was the stuff of dreams when I was a kid, but then it actually happened.  Seeing young rider Simon Yates power to the top of Hay Tor during the Tour of Britain in 2013 meant I was roadside - along with about a million other people - to cheer him on when the Tour de France visited our shores last year.

So when official Tour partner Ibis Hotels got in touch asking if I’d be interested in spending the day right in the middle of the race, they didn’t have to ask twice.


The route from Antwerp to Huy was one of the first ‘real’ stages after the ceremony of the Grand Depart in Utrecht (a time trial) and a flat spin across the green fields of Holland.  With Quintana, Contador, Nibali and of course Chris Froome all keen to prove their metal in the initial stages there was plenty of scope for pushing, shoving and hard racing from the off - and the first real uphill finish; the short and steep Mur de Huy.  Both Froome and Cavendish were out of the 2014 Tour within the initial 5 stages, so there was lots to prove.

Going to spectate at the Tour is a funny business.  You’ll stand on a dusty roadside for many hours, and the whole thing flashes past you in a matter of minutes.  The cyclists themselves pass in mere seconds.  Being stuck in the middle of it all gave me a totally different perspective.  The first thing you notice is the speed at which the entire convoy clips along.  These boys - all 198 of them - don’t hang around.  And somewhat paradoxically for cycling the centre of the convoy is a noisy place.  There’s no elysian wheeling through the countryside here - right behind the cyclists are roaring mechanic’s cars, powerful Police motorbikes with sirens, commissaires hurriedly jabbering on their radios, helicopters and not to mention the crowds.  Despite the tumult, they do a great job of cheering and shouting at the riders and its surprising how much of what they say is legible.  Chris Froome must hear people telling him to cheer up all of the time.


Not all of the drama in the peloton takes place at the front of the bunch, either.  Domestiques - the worker bees of the Tour - are always falling back to pick up supplies from their team cars (themselves zipping along at a steady 40kph or so) and relaying it forward to their team mates.  Bidons are hung out of car windows and you watch as the riders grab hold, perhaps for a second more than is sportsmanlike.  The team crew and the cyclists amiably chat as though riding next to a tonne of car moving at speed with a man inside shouting at you is the most natural thing in the world.  No wonder Britain is doing so well in pro cycling these days.

And what of the Brits?  There’s Froome of course, and Cavendish who’ll be relishing the absence of young German sprinter Marcel Kittel this year.  There’s eight other British names - compared to last year’s four - and this when well-known names like Wiggins and David Millar are past their peloton prime and not in the Tour.  Ian Stannard will be working hard to pull Chris Froome safely across the cobbled sections tomorrow, whilst hour-record-grabbing rider Alex Dowsett will be looking for a good ride after fracturing his collarbone earlier this year.  Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Peter Kennaugh will be riding for Team Sky under the tutorship of Sir David Brailsford, whilst the 22-year-old Yates twins - Simon and Adam - are racing with Australian team Orica-GreenEDGE and are the riders I’ll be watching most closely.  Steve Cummings, riding aged 34, will be in a lead support role in his team MTN-Qhubeka.  Surely a golden age of British pro cycling if ever there was one?


Along the route, entire communities find themselves making the most of an enforced day off.  Their streets, no longer enthral to the motor car, are closed down and become occupied by people again.  Kids chalk drawings on to the tarmac.  Families put out picnic tables and share food with friends and neighbours. In Tienan we saw a Belgian oompah band keeping a whole village entertained.  There’s a certain holiday atmosphere which, coupled with sunshine, makes for a wonderful day out.

Today’s stage raced along at incredible speed.  With nerves in plentiful supply and lead riders keen to establish their position, a crash seemed almost inevitable.  When the crash came, with about 60km still to go, it was a big one, leading the race director to temporarily suspend the Tour whilst medical staff dealt with a multitude of serous injuries.  Yesterday’s Yellow Jersey winner, Fabian Cancellara, completed today’s stage but has now withdrawn from the Tour after it became apparent he’d broken pieces of his back.  White jersey-wearer and young hopeful Tom Dumoulin is also out of the rest of the Tour.  Cycling is a tough sport.


The sheer scale of the entire Tour operation becomes apparent at the finish line when you finally see all those riders, all those support vehicles and all those bikes in the one place.  It’s like a happy cycling chaos, with riders being ushered in to trailers, pursued by journalists, fans, erstwhile bike bloggers and doping control.  Masseurs swing in to action, whilst stage host Mayors beam from the podium for the cameras.  I can understand why Ibis loves supporting the Tour de France - all those riders, team directors and hangers on (not to mention the spectators) have to stay somewhere. Indeed, some 1,500 hotel room beds are reserved every night of the Tour just for organisers and teams.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 19.45.34

Ibis, who have been putting me up in their super comfortable hotels here in Belgium (I love their specially designed Sweet Beds and have been sleeping like a baby throughout my trip) decided that it wasn’t enough for a cycle racing fan to be allowed in to the thick of the action and had one final surprise in store for me; a transfer to a helicopter about 20kms out from the finish line to watch the peloton from up on high.  Watching the bunch snake its way around corners and up hills through the spectacular, green countryside is a memory that will stay with me forever, and I feel exceptionally lucky to have had such an opportunity.  Thank you, Ibis, for your support of the Tour, for such a welcoming stay and for an incredible day of cycling I’ll never forget!


Share |

No comments: