There’s a gnawing realisation that I’ve never been on a motorbike before. I’ve never hurtled downhill at 110 kms/h with my life in someone else’s hands. I’ve never been on a ‘foto moto’ in the biggest race in the world. The butterflies vacate my stomach and the circus elephants take over as squatters.
I try to find solace in art as the appointed hour approaches.
I reach the village at the appointed time and Marylin reads me the rules – strictly no photos while the bike is moving. You can overtake the break or the peloton, but you can’t stay behind them indefinitely. Safety comes first. That’s fine by me.
My pilot for the day is Serge Guerin, an affable guy with an air of calm confidence, no gung-ho heroics. Again, fine by me.
We check the road book for the day and Serge makes a few suggestions. It’ll be the top of the three climbs (Port d’Envalira, Col de Port, Col d’Agnиs), the feeding zone in Tarascon-Sur-Ariиge, and – if the time gaps allow it – the descents and a while riding beside any breakaways.
Serge has done this before … many times. “I’m a pilot for the Tour, Paris-Nice and Paris-Roubaix, you know, on the cobbles.”
Is that the hardest race to pilot?
“No, it’s easy! Always easy! Stress is not good in this job!” I like his style.
Serge reckons: “It’s a good day, the sun is out, the road is like this (motioning his hand up and down). Yesterday was a bit cold at the start, now it’s nice.”
We hang out at the start line for a while and Serge chats with the other pilots as the riders come up from signing on for the day. Brice Feillu is getting a lot of attention, and why wouldn’t he after yesterday’s heroics?
The race rolls off at 12.20, so it’s on with the helmet, onto the bike, aaaand …. we’re off, skimming through the streets of Andorra La Vella, and out of the town for the real start on the way up towards the Port d’Envalira. 50 kms/h, then 60 … hey, this is alright after all.
We pull over for a moment, after watching a precision display of high-speed in-line riding by the gendarmes, who scream past. The Tour racers are not messing about and they appear in the distance in minutes. Serge and one of his Kawasaki-piloting buddies point them out, and we’re on the way again.
Today’s a tough start, straight up out of Andorra La Vella, and a 23.5 km drag up the Port d’Envalira. The views are pretty, but I’m already deciding that hanging on for dear life is a good option.
Serge reckons this is going to be: “A very hard stage for the riders, lots of climbing, and it’s hot and a bit windy.”
We sweep through Encamp and Canillo, and stop above Soldeu to look back at the break as it forms way, way below us.
There’s not enough of a gap to the peloton yet, so I remember to jam the helmet back on and we’re flying again. The Port d’Envalira is a pretty climb which starts out gently and gradually ramps up as we get higher.
The scenery is breathtaking, so is the bike ride, even if Serge hasn’t opened out the throttle fully. There’s not as many fans as I’d expected, so we get a chance to pull in near the top. The radio is crackling, giving us names like Evans (attacking), Zabriskie, Casar.
Even foto moto pilots need a snap or two, and Serge gets the camera out. As we wait for the riders to appear, I discover that this isn’t a regular gig for Serge. The rest of the time he lives near Biarritz where he is an artist specialising in painting gold leaf. Pretty cool. The job takes him to many different countries, and coupled with this little sideline, it sounds like a nice life.
We belt down the other side, and after the fairly leisurely uphill, Serge gives the Kawasaki the gun. I flip the visor down and seconds later “THWUUNK!” A now former insect sacrifices itself, right where my nose is. Some would say it could have been an improvement.
Serge opens it up as we rocket through the closed-for-the-day customs post, and down through Pas de la Case. 90, 100, 110 kms/h reads the speedo, as I remind myself that it’s probably not a good idea to look again. I jam the camera behind my back, and grab the handles …. the wind snatches at my clothes. When I turn my head to look at something off to the side, it’s a noticeable effort to get back into an aero position.
An old woman gets a spring in her step that she hasn’t had in years as she tootles over a pedestrian crossing and clears the last few metres in a bound when she clocks us coming.
We pull over in Tarascon-Sur-Ariиge, for a jambon and fromage demi-baguette which Serge kindly whips out of the panniers. The new break has a bit of a gap, so we fire off some pictures and wait for them to whizz by.
There’s some good names here, Hincapie, Flecha, Astarloza. We drop in behind them, and I decide that trying a few sneaky shots just isn’t worth it so the camera stays locked. The riders look smooth, and even so close, you can’t hear anything but the thundering wind round the helmet and a roar of acceleration from the bike.
Meanwhile, at the press room in Saint-Giron, the electricians Arij and Antoine are giving it laldy on the Fussball table …
… while the technicians opt for the real thing …
… and the gendarmes are snaffling free Le Credit Lyonnais hats.
Serge takes us by through a mesh of press bikes, official cars and hangers-on. Next up is the Col de Port and we fly up to get clear of the riders. It’s perfect weather, hot and sunny, with the wind keeping us cool.
In what seems like seconds, there’s cheering below us, horns going, whistles blowing. Cancellara drags the breakaways through a hairpin, and Serge gives the word for the off. We can’t afford to let them get ahead as the descent is a hairpin-fest, and we’d be behind for too long.
The race radio keeps the info coming, and Serge doesn’t seem to mind the occasional blast of white noise when interference strikes.
We’re through the town of Massat, through Le Port and on up the Col d’Agnиs.
It’s another beauty of a climb. We have a bit of a longer wait and Serge shoots the breeze with a couple of old guys who give us some water.
We hear the whump, whump of helicopter blades. The race isn’t far away. Serge had reckoned we’d be good to see the break pass then chase them but the race radio isn’t co-operating. The time gap is coming down again.
We’ve got to go again, and this time it’s all the way to the finish as we’re less than 20kms from home when we hit the bottom. Serge apologies, but that’s the way it goes. We belt through the last section of the stage, and in a few brief moments my joyride is done.
Quelle experience! A fantastic day out, but Serge and I both have work to do and places to go, so we swap emails and go our separate ways. I’m off to the finish line to check the riders coming home.
It’s been a long hard day for Laurent Lefevre, but with Voeckler having won on Wednesday his team are having a great race.
Fabian Wegmann’s day looks up approximately 400 metres past the finish line.
Pierrick Fedrigo has to fight the crowds to get to the Bouyges bus … his ride over those Ports and Cols wasn’t as much fun as mine.
Cavendish had a very tough day, and Hushovd took advantage winning two sprints and going on the attack to snatch the green jersey.
Tony Martin kept the white jersey and the flowers for another day as best youngster.
For me, too, it’s been an amazing day. A huge thank you to Marylin and Dominik at ASO for setting everything up, and to my co-pilot Valerie for making sure everything ran smoothly from our side.
And, of course, to the man himself Serge Guerin, for an amazing day on the Tour, one of the absolute highlights of my time with Pez. Merci beau coup, Serge!