The rich kids and little kids were messing about in and on the waters of Cap d’ Agde as the Tour hospitality was in full swing just metres away. The yachts glided elegantly out to the Med as we had a few people to see in the start village, and some greetings to exchange.
Then there he is – Lance Armstrong rolling towards us with minimal security and minimal fuss. It seems nobody can quite believe he’s just pedalling towards the sign-on. Lance is enjoying himself on this Tour and it showed this morning. The biggest star in bike racing, shooting the breeze and stretching in the saddle.
We were only driving 4kms on the race route today but the fans, waiting on the kerb, legs precariously jabbed out in front, gave all the Tour cars something to think about. You have to concentrate all the time, and your nerves stretch as people threaten to commit pedestrian suicide in front of your car.
The sun was beating down and the wind was howling again. Five days in and it’s been a hard start to the Tour. We can feel it even through the sunblock on our faces, and through the steering wheel of our rental car as the ‘vent violent’ batters us from the side. The riders will know all about the elements, too.
The brown-tiled houses are baking nicely as we speed west along the D112 and the A9 towards Perpignan.
We’re in the Salle de Presse in no time, and load up at the buffet with the finest of local wines courtesy of Escluse Andrй from Chвteau Pradal. He’s the head of Les Vignobles des Perpignan, a collective of small wine producers, doing things the right way. Rosйs, rouges and blancs, made from special varieties of grapes, and allowed to sweeten naturally. No added sugars.
And how could we not take a picture of the gorgeous Sarah, showing off all that is fine about Perpignan, and some wonderful regional specialities?
It’s a calming feeling, sampling this glorious fare, but the race is coming closer. Life is going on in Perpignan as the wait gets shorter, tenser. Cafes are doing brisk business, fruit stall holders are hard at it, and the PMU bar down the side-street is fixated on horse racing … for now.
The cheerleading squad have a big moment coming up, but there’s a lot of sitting, waiting, to be done.
The people waiting on the Boulevard des Pyrйnйes can see everything on the big screen. The tension grips harder and harder as they will the six breakaways, and then Voeckler solo, to hold off the chasing field to the line.
Not many people want to see another sprint …. it’s a day for the underdog, and everyone seems to be feeling the pressure of expectation. A home win would be huge.
Voeckler’s pixelated form flickers on the screens in ‘the cage’, the ‘Espace Presse’, where the journos can watch the action then go straight onto the road to catch the riders as they finish.
There’s 12 kms to go, and the lead is under 1’25” – the publicity caravan is still crawling across the line, the giant, freakish shapes looming over you as they pass within inches. The heat from the exhausts blasts against your legs and the smell of overcooked engine oil invades your sinuses.
Behind the scenes, it’s all go. The Nesquik guys get some novel publicity by jamming their vehicle on the road divider, and need some nifty make-shift ramps to escape before the race finishes.
The fans are ramping it up as 10kms to go flashes past, then six, then four… we can see the chase, hear the roar as Voeckler goes under the red kite, takes a right on the Boulevard Felix Mercader and a right again to the line.
It’s been a good day for Bbox Bouyges Telecom, with their top guy landing a solo stage win on prime time TV. Whoever negotiated the sponsorship deal will be feeling pretty smug right now. All their guys got interviews and a moment in the afterglow of Voeckler’s victory.
All that nervous energy, stored up in the wait, explodes out. The fans erupt, and the police get caught up in it. There’s such a crush of riders, TV crews, radio teams, officials, team staff and journalists that there’s nowhere to go when the riders steam through the finish. There’s pushing and jostling, shouting and pointing, most of it unnecessary.
Arms are bruised, toes trampled, egos inflated, tempers raised. People are shoved into imaginary spaces. No-one wants to delay the riders, but there’s a tremendous snarl up as they try to get out of the finish zone to the buses parked just a few hundred metres away – it must seem like miles when all they want is a drink, a towel, to recover from the race and the heat.
The mкlйe begins to subside as Johan Van Summeren towers above us. Riders are tired, polite, but they’re human. Patience is finite and a chorus of shouts and whistles is required to get things moving.
A rider behind me, I’ve no idea who, because it was too frenzied to see, calls out: “Excuse me!” His hand grabs my arm to steady himself as he weaves between the parked officials’ cars … and the sweat from his glove runs down my skin. That’s how close you can get to the pros as a journalist, so close that you can feel the effort they’ve made so dynamically.
We join the throng streaming up towards the buses, all parked in a long multi-colored stream, to see what’s going on. Saxo Bank are lucky – they’re quite close to the line. Astana and Euskaltel are at the far end, and it’s a bit of a hike to reach them.
More screaming, more shouting, more whistling. Everyone starts running. We do the same. And there he is again. Lance in a fresh top, bibs showing loose under the hem, cruises pasts.
It’s not just the journalists – this is how close the fans can get to the riders. You can reach out and touch the image on the TV, in the sweating, steaming, pulsing flesh.
Pushed, cajoled, thrilled, elated, tired. We marched the 2 kms back to the press centre to get to work. Mathilde Durand, a lovely part of the Tour entourage, calls us over and hands us some drinks to help make the walk go quicker. thanks, Mathilde!
It’s days like this, and the way your senses are jangled, that still make cycling the best sport on the planet.