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Tour de PEZ St.21: It’s our 5th year following Le Tour into Paris, but never have we seen it like this. Our treasured seat today was inside the most popular place in the race – the Festina crew-carrier, smack dab in the middle of the famous Tour Caravan. The parcours, fans, and Champs Elysees never looked like this…

But Boss, I want to write about sprinter’s trains runnin’ out of control across the Place de la Concorde at 60 kph; and desperate flame rouge bids by French riders whose teams have won nothing and whose chain smoking DS is screaming at them; ‘Attaque! Attaque!’

Thanks to our driver Pierrot, and the lovely Johanna!

‘Loco, loco, loco!’ blasts the PA as Pierrot taps the steering wheel of the Festina Renault Espace in time to the beat, meanwhile, the lovely Johana, who is standing on the back seat, with her upper body out of the sun roof, smiles down at me – I guess this gig might be OK after all, Boss.

It’s 10.00 am and we’re in the car park of a Carrefour super market in Etampes – which is any town, France – sitting there, looking like a Disney invasion from Mars are giant horses, giraffes on time trial bikes, coffee cups the size of cars, giant bottles that can walk and a red cow who can walk too – welcome to the Tour de France caravan publicitaire.

I’m a guest of Festina for the day, courtesy of Pascal Orsini, who runs this show; he has 15 staff, five vehicles and 200,000 Day-Glo green ‘snapper’ bands to give away.

Unlike in the press car, where everyone gawps straight at you, there’s not much eye contact because most folks are looking up at the lovely Alexandra gyrating her slim cocoa coloured body on top of the van in front, or the equally lovely Johana behind and above me.

Ricky Martin is giving it, ‘Maria!’ on the tape loop at mega volume and Johana’s hands are a blur as she fires the bands out of the sun roof; the fans go crazy to get their hands on the ‘goodies’ as Pascal calls them, or ‘presents’ as Pierrot would have it.

Freshly cut wheat fields stretch out as far as the eye can see, from horizon to horizon, but out here in the ‘sticks’ there are fans aplenty. They shout, plead, demand, beg and argue for their share of the swag.

Meanwhile, matronly French ladies wiggle their hips to our mobile samba club. Lou Bega’s ‘Mambo Number Five;’ ‘a little bit of Monica. .

He played at the Berlin Six, one year when I was a runner, nobody knew or liked any song other then Mambo # 5; however he had this posse of scantily clad, gorgeous dancers – so nobody really cared if the music was any good.

We come into a tree lined avenue and Pierrot keeps a weather eye open – one of Alexandra’s occupational hazards, way up there, is her thick black hair ending up in the greenery. She was born to dance, even if there are no fans to see her, still she wiggles her hips and moves her arms to the music.

An immaculate lady in her 50’s, clad in a pink linen mini dress of immaculate cut, Gucci shades, stilettos and pearls makes a world class soccer goalie style save to get one of the 10 cent bands.

This is agricultural France, wheat and maize by the kilometre, then the unmistakeable smell of old turnips – lovely!

It’s ‘La Bamba’ now and no one is ‘cool’ roadside, they all try to out do each other in their efforts to attract Johana’s attention – they leap, scream, bounce, jump and point; there’s not an inhibition in sight.

Gloria Estefan thinks it would be good if we all ‘do the conga,’ despite the fact that Pierrot has heard the track a thousand times, his feet begin tap. Dogs look up at their masters in disgust as middle aged men drop leashes and try to emulate Alexandra’s gyrations as she continues with her fly past.

Sometimes, even battle hardened pros like Johana and Pierrot – who’s studying to be a dentist – laugh at fans’ antics in their effort to get the ‘goodies.’ Lou Bega pumps again as the sun floods into the Renault, it warms the skin of my arms, as up ahead Alexandra makes Madonna look arthritic – maybe this gig isn’t so bad after all, Boss.

A roundabout and with ‘Top Gun’ precision the Festina convoy splits – three vehicles to the right, two to the left; everyone must get their chance of ‘presents.’ It’s hardcore French Europop now, ‘Paris Plage’ and I get a tad jumpy as fans get scarily close to us, Pierrot just keeps chompin’ on his apple.

Still the wheat and maize lines the road, even the usually stony faced ASO guys have a smile and a wave as they weave up through our convoy.

There’s the Devil; even he waves his trident in a friendly way.

It’s the ‘Ketchup song’ now as we bowl along tree lined avenues with orchards at the entrance to villages. English fans wave and their kids bounce up and down, inhibitions gone and with no need to worry about the neighbours.

We stop briefly and a ‘crazy’ in a French basketball strip lopes down the road, usually we don’t give out the ‘goodies’ when we stop, but his rap is so good that he gets two bands.

Johan drops a strip on my ear; ‘oh! sorreee!’ I pick my moment and fire it out to a guy with a look of desperation in his eyes.

‘Festina! Le meilleur temps!’ bawls the tape loop, then it’s ‘La Bamba’ again. ‘Paris’ says the sign and right on cue, there she is, filling the valley below us; hundreds of high rise towers – but she gets prettier when you get closer.

Conga time again and it seems that the closer we get to the Capital the more life there is in Alexandra’s booty. We pass the first of the high rise, and then it goes leafy again as the barbecue smells flood in.

There are a lot of black girls here, they are all great dancers and have little trouble catching Johana’s eye; their big, handsome John Shaft ‘look-alike’ boyfriends wave and smile.

As we get close to the centre, I notice a certain sophistication creeping in as far as the fans go – nods, eyebrow lifting and thumbs up become more prevalent, Parisians don’t do all that ‘country types’ stuff.

There’s a lull and Johana uses the time to crack open more packages of ‘goodies,’ she hasn’t stopped working since we left the car park. I catch my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and get a bit excited, Pierrot looks blankly at me.

Another stop, to re-arrange the convoy and the local kids go crazy; ‘Madame! Madame! Madame!’ we can’t distribute here though, they’d swamp the car.

We cross the Seine and that Tower is getting bigger all the time; and there’s the Statue of Liberty replica on the island in the Seine. ‘Bonjour’ a black shirted CRS (riot squad) cop mouths to me from the kerb; usually they’ll give you a smack with the baton for looking at them sideways.

All of a sudden we stop, just before the Place de la Concorde, the vehicles begin to reform, it’s like the Roman Legions forming up to attack the barbarians.

Johana thinks she’s going to cry, because it’s all so beautiful and the finish is so close; Pierrot is thinking about his forthcoming holiday in Tunisia, so he’s fine.

To the blast of air horns, we move out, through the tunnel, past Joan of Arc then left onto the Rue de Rivoli, fans line the barriers.

We stop, a ‘crazy’ from behind the barriers want’s to swap his Swatch for a Festina – Pierrrot tells me that this is a common request and some folks think that they give away watches!

Norwegian fans used to insane prices for beer, back in Oslo think that the extortionate prices in the Rue de Rivoli are a bargain and are ‘getting it down them.’

The Champs Elysees, fabulous, we pass the VIP’s in the CSC hospitality suite. ‘The man who started to smile again,’ some of the Danish papers are calling Bjarne Riis, meanwhile the ‘bin men’ as us journos call the guys who rake through the trash to help provide material for their stories, are still hard at work for the tabloids.

There are a lot of Aussie and Luxembourg flags about, but surprisingly few Spanish ones.

The convoy zigzags to maximise on the exposure as Daniel Mangeas, the ‘Speaker’ treats the crowd to a reprise of all twenty stages – from memory, no doubt.

We turn at L’Arc de Triomphe and begin the downhill run, the crowds are huge, but behind barriers, we’re not allowed to distribute here, the fans are too far away, plus there are safety and litter issues.

At the bottom, we turn right, it’s over.
We park-up and I say my thanks to Johana, Pierrot and Pascal.

Paris – fabulous! But give me the village, forests and wheat fields, any day!

With especial thanks to Pascal Orsini and all the folks at Festina for allowing us to see the Tour from this most special and unusual place.


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