I’ve fallen head-long in love with Le Tour.
This has surprised me as, in years gone by, I’ve thought of the world’s highest profile cycling race as something of an irrelevance – something I just couldn’t get in to and couldn’t see the point of.
Well, what a change this year.
It’s odd that’s it’s taken me this long to be honest: I love cycling and did an Ironman triathlon in 2011. Also, my wife is a professional dietitian and recently finished the IOC’s sports nutrition diploma. I can at least partly blame her for having a keen interest in the nutrition strategies of the riders and for having books like “Inside Team Sky” lying around (which I’ve now devoured).
Perhaps a series of coincidences have aligned themselves and I’ve finally got it. It’s certainly helped that our family holiday near Bergerac, France has just had Le Tour storm past our road end, with the penultimate stage (a time-trial) up the road the following day.
Actually, arguably, I’m a year (or two) too late.
I was aware that Chris Froome won last year and Bradley Wiggins in 2012. And of course this year – just my luck – Froome and Cavendish succumbed to the tarmac early in 2014’s race. In fact lots of the big names have either joined them – Contador, Costa, Cancellara, Gerrans – or didn’t even make the start line: Mr Wiggins probably the most notable.
But it didn’t matter. We followed ITV 4’s coverage on telly and online and plotted for the two days: the TDF, actually in France! The anticipation grew: where we were going to stand for the best view? Would La Caravanne still chuck us freebies being so far out in the sticks? Was it feasible to get north of Bergerac for the time-trial the next day? Could we actually get a baguette on the day of the race? All the roads were going to be closed! We needn’t have worried.
By the time it came to Stage 19’s Maubourguet to Bergerac on 25th July, Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali had already securely glued the yellow jersey to his back. Froome and Cavendish were distant, sad casualties of England’s and northern France’s roads. But we were still beyond exited. The whole extended family drove up to our road end at the hamlet of Armillac and parked at the top of a field next to the tiny rural road that Le Tour’s circus would grace. An apologetic young man got out of a truck, sidled up and said, “I’m sorry but the helicopter needs to land there.” The helicopter?! In the end, two France TV helicopters were refuelled in our field before continuing to cover the race.
For those who don’t know, La Caravanne comes past at least an hour before the race leaders. Tens and tens of promotional vehicles hand out everything from polka-dot hats and Haribo sweets to free sausages. My brother-in-law, James received a glancing blow by a saucisson sec to much guffawing.
Excitement mounted to fever pitch as we heard the first helicopter in the distance. The breakaway riders were imminent! It’s difficult to explain the emotion as first a break of four riders careered past directly under a violent thunder storm, closely followed by the peloton of the remaining 160 riders, hell-bent on catching them. Woosh! Wow. Woooooshhhh! Awesome.
Then something unexpected: Thomas Voeckler punctured right in front of us. The Europcar team car pulled up behind him and performed the fastest wheel change I’ve ever seen. A sling-shot later and Thomas was back chasing down the peloton.
And to top it all, the Team Sky Jag beeped a hello at the random English people going bonkers at the sight of the only team cars with British plates. Not just a normal car horn, but one of those ridiculous ones you hear on the Tour. In a Jag. Excellent.
Off to Bergerac the riders went, to crash spectacularly near the finish, as is their wont. Just another day at the office for the cyclists and all was well for the following day’s time-trial.
Next day, for Stage 20, Bergerac to Périgueux, we drove on tiny roads cross-country to meet up with the time-trial course north of Bergerac. On the smallest road imaginable, in the middle of absolutely nowhere we nearly collided with a bright yellow juggernaut: the Saxo Tinkoff team lorry to be precise. What it was doing there (and if it even managed to find its way out) I have no idea. Anyway, we pressed on into rural Dordogne and came upon the small village of Maurens. No-one about other than some Dutch people. Follow the Dutch people! Sure enough, a couple of kilometres down a hill we found hundreds of other mad people waiting for the time-trial.
Unlike our soaking at Armillac, we got a sunny view of every single rider as they came past 2 minutes apart with motorcycle riders and team car. Everyone left in the race went past us, one after the other, including the stage winner, Tony Martin (accompanied by a helicopter of course) and all the jersey-wearers: Nibali (Yellow GC winner), Sagan (Green Sprint), Majka (Polka-dot King of the Mountains) and Pinot (White Best Young Rider). So exciting.
We spent hours getting sun-burnt in proper English style, shouting encouragement to anyone and everyone and eating baguettes and Orangina. Clichés well and truly dispatched, we collapsed, exhausted with smiles on our faces. The riders processed into Paris for the final stage the next day, but for us, the previous two days had been exceptionally exciting.
We can’t wait for next year. For now, we’ll just keep randomly shouting, “Allez, allez, allez!” at passers-by.