From my rural Scottish home to the madness of a mountain top, from watching Cavendish sprint home in Montargis on TV to watching Chavanel clawing his way up to Station des Rousses from the press tent. It seemed hyper-real then; now, it hardly seems real at all.
Our brief was to bring you, dear readers, a differently flavored Tour coverage, a more concentrated roadside concoction. It was the people we met who made that brew just a little headier. Simone had been camped out in the heat of the day in La Rippe waiting for the caravan on stage eight, waiting for the riders to go by a little slower in the feed zone.
This shot, with sunflowers stretching to the mid-distance and faded hills hanging in the background, shows the scale and timelessness of the Tour. There are crowds on the narrow mountain roads, but there’s also a space for personal reflection.
You leave the race route to jump from start line to hotel. The majesty of the Alps takes the breath away before you realize that there are no supporters waving their homemade banners at you.
The fans at Les Rousses had come very early to the finish though, and many were making it a family day. Wine, water, cake, bread, song, laughter, hide-and-seek … and waiting. Every day, there’s always the waiting.
The effort that people put in is massive; the first year I covered the Tour, a BBC journalist told me to sleep wherever possible to save energy. The technical staff on the Tour took that to heart, napping on the baked grass of the Les Rousses finish area the day we arrived.
Sleep doesn’t always come easy – my testimonial was a nightmarish, sweltering clock-watch in Bourg-les-Valence in a well-known ‘budget chain’ hotel, with no air-con and not helped by a salad of dubious origin from a local eaterie. Still, we had a better night’s sleep than Mark Renshaw that Thursday, after Cav’s pilot got himself booted from the race.
We did manage a couple of surprise culinary finds along the way, such as the Au Relais de Chabriиres hotel, and Auberge Chez Mamette just down the road from it which served up a steak of gargantuan proportions as the cicadas chirruped to serenade the setting sun.
This was my third Tour as a reporter, and fifth at the road as a fan. The inside track that a press pass offers is something that you can’t take for granted. It brings you a couple of steps closer than ‘the ordinary fan’. It allows you to see Contador, up close and looking uncomfortable, like he was here in Bourg-les-Valence.
It allows you to see Andy Schleck looking calm and confident, even if that ultimately only netted him the second step on the podium. If Schleck can stay on top of things, he might be pulling the malliot jaune on more finally in future.
We saw Anthony Charteau put a smile back on French faces with his battling mountains competition win over veteran Christophe Moreau …
… even if the almost parental affection shown by the legendary yellow jersey wearers Jeannie Longo and Bernard Hinault in Bourg-les-Valence was directed at Jerome Pineau.
The home nation had a better Tour this year than for a long time – maybe part of the problem is history, and the reverence in which past heroes are still held. Is it intimidating to see so many famous faces around the start and finish areas? Is it too much pressure for young French riders to see posters of Raymond Poulidor staring from bookshop windows as they go out training, or see portraits of the great man being painted as he patiently signs autographs just yards away? And Poulidor never even won the Tour.
It’s not just the French that are under pressure to succeed. If you’re the foreign talent on a French team it takes balls to run the show. Rein Taaramae’s time might well come next year, but the ex Estonian champion was pretty anonymous here.
Despite the hoopla, despite the hullabaloo, the Tour can still be a lonely place. In the strangely subdued start village in Morzine we spotted the perma-smiling Yukiya Arashiro having a private moment. There was not a soul near him.
While the Japanese rider could find a quiet space, the barriers leading to the start line were always lined four or five deep. The cops and the crowd all seemed to be watching the stars and the water carriers coming out to face another day on the road.
Leader or pack fodder, all the gadgetry in the world won’t make the experience hurt any less; sometimes, you just have to cannibalise your road book so you know when the pain is going to kick in on the road to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.
The Cфte de Laffrey hurt, even at half distance on a ‘moyenne montagne’ stage to Gap. The break ground its way skywards; the peloton crawled through moments later with the Radioshack over-30s all-stars (only Janez Brajkovic skewing the average age) conspicuously thankful they had a stage winner off the front that day.
Andy Schleck looked serene that broiling Wednesday afternoon. He impressed us, even if he did make a few labor-wasting mistakes along the way. Next year, Andy.
Apparently, viewer figures for the Grand Tours are falling in continental Europe, and there were times we felt that the roadside wasn’t quite as populated as it had been in the last couple of years. In the towns the race was passing through, life was continuing as normal; the generations go about their business as the anticipation builds.
The next wave of young fans is being introduced, though. It’ll take Victor a while to grow into his Vittel freebie, but this is one of the images I’ll remember for a long time.
Victor and his papa, sharing a happy day out in the sun, the living embodiment of French Tour tradition – father and son on the roadside waiting for the heroes of the day.
It was a Portugese who won the day Victor saw the break leading up the Cфte de Laffrey, but, yeah, it was a good Tour for the French. It was a good Tour for us, too. I hope you enjoyed reading about it.