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Tour de Pez: In The Village Depart
Roadside St. 3: So, what’s a Tour de France rider to do when there’s an hour to go before the race kicks off, and it’s too hot and sunny to sit on the bus? He heads to the start village to drink coffee, hang out with friends and family, sign autographs for fans and flirt with pretty girls. After all, with a long, hot day ahead, who can blame him?

And what’s a Tour journalist to do on a day like today with a flat, sprint-fest stage in the offing? Having opted out of the Grand Depart from Monaco yesterday, it was only proper that we went to see what was going on in Marseille’s rather grand Vieux-Port. Rows of yachts, crammed into the harbour, blessed for their voyages from the church above the waters.

On flashing your media credentials to security, there’s a couple of old familiar favorite scenes greeting you in the Village Depart – Vince, who comes from the town of Royan, and his buddies sculpt the Tour de France sandcastle. Vince was pretty nifty, and damn accurate, with the spray paint. His handiwork was pretty fitting for another brutally hot day.

The sandcastle, and trowelled-flat ‘race course’ hosts these little chaps. Cycling figurines which the kids (and their Dads, more usually) play with. You flick a little marble along and move your figure, so the youngsters can compete to get Thomas Voeckler, Stephane Auge or the French hero of the moment to win the Tour.

Also pretty handy with the more conventional oils is the Tour’s resident artist … he’d legged it by the time we arrived today, probably fried after creating this work of art.

The tricks riders were out, entertaining the fans, and hangers-on. This volunteer handled the peril of the famous ‘flick-the-cap-off-the-face-with-the-backwheel’ trick with remarkable assurance. I know it’s not quite catching a bullet with your teeth, but still ….

Now, I’m not having a go. Those guys were pretty damn good, but the folks that line the barriers, on the outside looking in, and the folks who have access to the village are looking for ‘names’, and for ‘faces’.

There were plenty of crowds out and about, and once 11.30am had rolled around, and it was sign-on time, the riders started to appear in the start village.

Any freebie that comes to hand gets thrust in front of the nearest hero. With a lot of the big names still cloistered away until the last minute, it’s the French guys, and those with less lofty aims, who come out to play. Stephane Auge is still phenomenally popular, and the old stager was in demand today.

To see kids looking up at these sportsmen … well, it reminds me of how I felt at their age, and still feel sometimes today. It’s good to remember that these guys are just ordinary people, with normal failings married to exceptional athletic gifts. If we could recapture a bit of childlike awe to temper our grown-up cynicism, the world would probably be a better place.

It’s nice remember that although we get let down by cyclists, by people, they can still thrill us, too. In days gone by, it was always Reeechard Virenque who got the fans going. Nowadays, it’s Thomas Voeckler, and he was mobbed by the youngsters. This is the spirit of the Village Depart for me, rather than watching people who should know better jumping the queue for free water from Vittel. Seeing the public, the kids, getting up close with their heroes.

Leonardo Duque from Columbia has been on French teams so long he more or less qualifies as a local rider. The Cofidis mainstay won the Tour of Britain a while back and can always be counted on to do his job. For today, that’s signing his autograph on a team poster and keeping the public happy..

Also popular was 2006 maillot jaune winner Oscar Pereiro, and those kids we saw before finally got his attention for an autograph.

And the reason for the delay was the lovely story of the eyes a beautiful blond sponsor’s girl and a handsome, swarthy former Tour champion’s meeting across a publicity booth for some extended flirting.

Mind you, if I was looking at five boiling hours in the saddle, I’d be perfectly happy to spend the moments before execution hanging out like this.

Flirting was the order of the day, it seems, with Pippo Pozzato and one of his old QuickStep buddies enjoying the chance to hang out with one of the girls from the Festina stand.

In fact, Pippo managed to double up once his pal had gone for coffee, or lost his mind … why would he walk away from this?

By 12.30, sign-on is closing, the sponsors are packing up for the trip to the finish and it’s time to put the next stage of your day’s plan into operation.

Three choices: hang back and get your breath in the start town, race them to the finish on the motorway off-course route or head for your hotel.

Valerie spotted the helicopters before I did, as we sped within the 130kms/h speed limit to our hotel in Lattes. The police were out blocking the motorway exits … and then, as we got clear of a huge articulated truck, there was the field screaming out of sight on the flyover above us.

Team Columbia’s car was towards the back of the field but their man was up front as we watched Cav’ take the stage with ease on TV later.

Hopefully, these little vignettes will give you an idea of the kind of dynamics in the start village, and what comes next, but if you have anything you really want to find out, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Au demain,



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