This story originally ran in July 2008.
The big grey Skoda nearly nails us, I gasp, Gerard switches line in a blink, and I exhale and clap him on the back; that was close! – Welcome to the world of Tour de France ‘motos.’
I’ve been feeling like a condemned man all morning, even looking at the beautiful Liquigas Cannondales and the waft of Chanel from the podium girls can’t make me forget that in an hour or two, I’ll be on the pillion of a 1,400 cc Kawasaki in amongst the peloton in stage 19 of le Tour de France
Ed does his best Alfred E. Newman: ”What, me worry…?”
‘Cinq minutes! Cinq minutes!’ crackles the intercom on the big Kwak.
Helmet on, climb aboard and we’re off.
My pilot Gerard Dupin lives 10 kilometres from here and half of Roanne knows him, this is cool, except that every time we see someone he knows – which is every ten seconds – the beast slews across the road as he waves to his ‘amis’.
He also shoots the breeze one handed at 50 kph, with his ‘motard’ buddies, I’m sitting high on the pillion and the view is great – if scary.
By Kilometre zero I’ve lost the compulsion to wrap my arms round his waist and shut my eyes; now I’m Joe Cool, writing in my notebook and waving to the kids.
The air is warm on my bare arms, the noise comes from the air rushing past my helmet, but there’s little road or engine noise and just a little vibration coming through the seat.
Even the stony faced gendarmes smile at Gerard.
The view is fabulous, much better than from the car, we pass hay fields, chateaux and the two lane black top runs off to horizon which is hazy in the heat. Barbecue smells are great, they rush in and fill the helmet, you’d swear you can taste that French beef. Race radio is coming in, ‘wall to wall, tree top tall’ as we used to say in the CB days, there’s even English translation.
We stop, Gerard’s buddies, I have to promise solemnly to send them copies of the pics I take of them chatting to France’s most popular motorcyclist.
The first climb of the day and we weave up through the greenery on a ribbon of red chipped tar. Motard gendarmes slide us past through impossible gaps between us and the official cars – of which there are scores – one handed, nonchalant.
All of a sudden, the arcade game goes up a level – the break is just behind us – Gerard guns it until we’re clear again.
I spot Wessel the Dutch motard photographer, he’s promised to take my picture, from his bike; “ah! Pezcycling!” and he rattles the shots off.
The crowd is wonderful and I’m suddenly struck by a thought, ‘why can’t life be like this all the time? Everyone having fun, no one is a stranger, just folk enjoying each other’s company and the race.’
‘Quatre coureurs, neuf seconds!’
Oh! Yeah! Bike race, I forgot about that… There are four in the break as we approach the King of the Mountains and the crowd is brilliant. On the descent, Gerard is smooth and quick through the bends; I try to relax; ‘don’t stiffen up Ed, be part of the bike.’
The radio crackles; ‘and the gap is 35 seconds for our four breakaways.’ The smell of ferns pours into my helmet – lovely; making the rolling countryside seem even more beautiful. It drops now, through trees, a tunnel of green.
The lead car sweeps past us; I hear the chopper and wow – The break!
There’s Martinez from Euskaltel, skinny, born to climb; Ballan from Lampre, loose limbed, classy; Fedrigo from Bouygues, stocky, desperate for a result and Schumacher from Gerolsteiner, robotic, powerful.
The smell of exhausts and hot tar fills my nostrils and the speedo says 80 at as we exit the trees. The four men, united in desperation for a win, spell smoothly, behind Liquigas are chasing the radio tells us. The quartet has to crack the resolve of the men on the green Cannondales, that time gap has to soar, if the move is to succeed.
We’re climbing now, they don’t want to go ‘rouge,’ there’s too far to go but they have to break that thread that binds them to the men in lime green. The speedo says 60, even though were cresting rises, they’re giving it everything, if it starts to ‘go’ then they can ease a little.
The race radio tells us ’45.8 kilometres in the first hour,’ this is a for real.
Gerard takes us up to the break, I could touch Ballan, I’m so close;
He ‘gives it a handful’ – as the motor bike guys say – I grip tight with knees and the small of my back digs into the top box. The gap is coming down and we have to get out.
Caisse and QuickStep are chasing; Valverde must be feeling good; Patrick Lefevre won’t be – he’s desperate for a stage win after Barredo blew it yesterday.
Cusset and Gerard flicks it through the roundabouts, smooth, no drama, I try to look as cool as possible in front of a huge crowd.
On one roundabout, we’re so far over that I move my foot, just waiting for the sparks as the pegs ground – Gerard is way too good for that nonsense though. To my amazement, the cops are hopping the centre reservation on their big BMW’s, Evil Knievel style.
I’m regretting that light breakfast I had, I figured it would damage my street cred if we had to halt for a ‘sick stop.’
‘Echappe termine,’ says the radio.
‘Mange?’ says Gerard – the man is psychic as well as all his other skills.
He guns it to get ahead of the race, 110, 120, 130, 140 – no longer Joe cool, I snuggle down behind Gerard, and fold my arms to stop my creds and camera disappearing into the scenery.
A ham sandwich, tarte citron and a bottle of Vittel – magnifique!
Despite our Starship Enterprise impersonation, the race is upon us in no time, Chavanel from Cofidis and Roy from F des J have timed it right, counter attacking perfectly as the bunch catch the four escapers and wonders what will be in the lunch musettes.
We pick up the chase and catch the dawdling bunch at the feed, it’s a tad scary as we zigzag through the highest paid cyclists in the world, but Gerard is an expert machine handler and there’s not a suggestion of any contact.
The souvenir hunters scrabble for musettes and bottles just after the feed – I was that soldier, once! The speedo says 30, time to visit Sylvain and Jeremy; they’ve timed it beautifully, unlike the first four who slogged and slogged to get to a minute, they have four minutes in no time.
We have to go to Arcade Game ‘level three’ to catch them, the big Kawasaki knocks a 130 kph hole in the hot afternoon air, but it still takes an age to get to them.
Just two guys on bikes, but at least a dozen cars and the same number of motor bikes swarm behind them. In correct pro fashion they just ‘ride through’ the PMU sprint.
The crowds are great today, every village is alive and even inside the helmet there’s a wall of sound. Back into rich, green, rolling country and the armada around the two desperados is building, it’s like the Normandy landing.
No nice smells in the helmet now, thick diesel fumes and sweet, sickly exhaust gasses from the Kawasakis. There are no fumes for the VIP’s in their air-conditioned Skoda Superbs though.
F des Jeux Manager, Marc Madiot, sweats in the team car – he needs a stage win, the escapers will need a minute per 10 k to fend off the sprinter team apocalypse, there are 50 k to go and the gap is 4-15, it’s not good math.
The posse behind the duo is becoming crazy now, as Chavanel dances up one of the never ending, gravel chip surfaced, rises which punctuate the second half of the stage.
Sunflowers line the road, but all I can smell is diesel fumes.
Tunnels of trees; endless lines of parked cars; young and old; big and small; smooth skinned French beauties and old toothless gypsy women with skin like parchment – all here to see the break for five seconds and the bunch for maybe ten times that.
They wave, clap, sing, applaud, cheer, dance – crazy; ‘mais le Tour est le Tour!’ Picnic hampers, barbecues, cool boxes, baguettes, wine, biere and the greatest race in the world.
Meanwhile the VIP’s in their leather seated Superbs are bored, the wine has been finished and now they send text messages.
We pass Madiot again, I look into the car and our eyes meet, he gives me a half smile cum raised eyebrow look that says; ‘I hope so!’
The speedo reads 80, then 90 as we drop down a little valley, on the other side it’s Roy out of the saddle, Chavanel looks easy on the tops, he takes a drink then goes through – they are brothers in pain today, until the ‘flame rouge,’ then they become the deadliest of rivals.
Chavanel has won Belgian semi-classics this year, but at the presentations it’s giant bottles of sour Geuze beer that they hand out, in the Tour its French Champagne – light and heady, nothing tastes sweeter to a Frenchman.
By the road side there are little cameras, big cameras, videos, camcorders and even disposables.
One long straight follows another, the management in the Cofidis car give an interview on the move; ‘for sure, Sylvain wins!’ There’s the 25 k banner and it lifts them, like thoroughbreds smelling oats.
There’s Didi, the devil, but the real demons are at that the head of the peloton, trying to ride them down; but the blackboard says 3-53, it looks good.
The crowds are amazing, so dense, 20 k to go; ‘3-50 the gap, 3-50 the gap,’ says the radio.
Another crowd lined drag, the two rouleurs punch at the pedals; over the top, Gerard guns it and we scream past the two Frenchmen, Chavanel is the favourite, but Roy looks good too.
It’s nice to be in clean air, in front of the invasion force, the air is sweet and soft on my skin, there are five to go and we have to head for the finish, it’s too crowded in there now.
We pull big speeds through crowd lined streets, and there’s the flame rouge, arrow straight for the last kilometre, Cipo used to dream about finishes like this. The crowd is huge, we blast along the straight and I jump off; ‘merci Gerard, encroyable!’
‘Casquette!’ he says and points to my head, I’d clean forgotten it was there.
Chavanel wins and freewheels to a halt, just stops metres away, I barge in and get the shot, he’s close to tears of joy – I know how he feels.
With special thanks to Gord Cameron, Dominik Englert of ASO and Gerard Dupin, France’s most popular and best motor cyclist.