A lot changes in a couple of hours. Just ask Alberto Contador … he was grilled half to death in his press conference, then meshed in a maul of cameras as he tried to get to his team bus, then laughing with his pals at the Puy du Fou presentation entrance then roundly booed as he took the stage in the mock-Roman amphitheatre. Not as quick as how his life changed when he got that phone call late last summer.
My trusty photographer reported back from the SaxoBank-Sungard press conference as I finalised our car credentials. “An Irish guy asked a long, long question about doping. Contador spoke for about ten seconds … the interpreter translated for about a minute!” Most of the team were just forgotten about.
It was the usual mayhem, barely even standing room in the hall. Tucked discreetly out of view was SaxoBank DS Brad McGee, so I grabbed a quick word. “Did it take you long to come to terms with not doing this as a rider?”
“About four seconds! I don’t miss that at all. Look at them, do those blokes look like they’re having fun up there?”
What’s the relationship like between the SaxoBank and Leopard-Trek after the rider migrations of last autumn and winter?
“There’s no problem at all. These guys have known each other for so long … you have a pretty short life span as a professional if you start getting dirty with each other over something like that.”
We head out to the bus to watch the mayhem as Contador emerges. It is chaos, pushing and shoving. Contador just strides through, no minders, no helpers, a straightforward and polite ’S il vous plait every five steps and he’s soon away from the mics and lens. His team mates, especially the Spaniards Noval, Hernandez and Navarro, have no such hassle. Brian Vandborg ambles past completely unmolested, with his cyclist’s tan lines visible where the helmet straps and jersey collar have protected his neck.
Two camera men spy UK presenter Orla Chennaoui from Sky TV filming a link. She’s very glamorous. One turns to his mate: “Dude, why didn’t you pack your red dress?”
Job done at the press centre, it’s a quick 15 minutes out from Les Herbiers to the Puy du Fou theme park, a massive complex which is run with spectacular efficiency this afternoon.
The fans get up close and personal with the riders as they make their way to change for the presentation. Jean-Christophe Peraud is a popular choice for words of encouragement.
It’s like a slow death march as we enter the replica Colusseum, but it’s an impressive amphitheatre, packed out with fans. From having been rolling down the E3 a few hours before, suddenly Stephen Roche is there right next to us, shooting the breeze with Bernard Thevenet.
The two ex-champs are still in great shape. Later, Stephen will get all “Shucks, that’s my boy …” bashful when the congratulations fly his way as his son Nicolas hits the stage as leader of the Ag2r squad.
The crowd are getting restless and the slow handclap begins and thunders to a crescendo as the posh seats – the ones with faux fur rugs – fill up. The music thunders and it’s like an Aerosmith gig in Boston in their prime. The energy rips through the crowd as Daniel Mangeas, the Tour’s ringmaster, bounds on stage. This is it … the Tour starts here! Mangeas disappears briefly then fluffs his second grand entrance, missing the stairs at the base of the stage, but he takes it in good humor and waves like a pro. The crowd goes wild.
Spirits are high as the riders all take a ceremonial stroll round the stadium, snapping pictures for their Twitter feeds. Even Contador looked like he was having a good time. Arthur Vichot, on the right, would later dance a wee jig as his squad took to the stage to the strains of something akin to River dance.
Even Mark Cavendish is in on the act swishing his team issue HTC device around like a tourist. That’s kind of the magic about cycling; despite the problems, most of those guys are just regular people, still attached to our reality.
The mass procession over, it’s time for the teams (and sponsors) to get their own time in the spotlight. Thomas Voeckler and Europcar get a massive ovation on their home turf, arriving via chariot. I was so tickled with this, I confess I just laughed and watched, so no photographic evidence. Just take my word for it. The photographers go less politely nuts as 70% of the people in front of them immediately stand up!
Some blues and rock bands are derided for having just three chords. Katusha’s Vladimir Karpets is cycling’s aural equivalent, delivering his answers to interview in a fairly inaudible monotone – he’s cool though, and really conforms to bike rider stereotype, barely moving his legs for forward motion. The rather lovely nymphs guiding the riders to their allotted spots on the stage fragrantly waft their wrists and the lycra boys just follow their cues.
Time for a wee break from presentation stuff, and the horse troupe are on duty, thundering around the arena; there’s all sorts going on, pageantry and spectacle, which is the usual all-day gig for these performers. It’s a cool place, the Puy du Fou – fun and educational – and worth checking out if you ever come over here.
I’m most taken with the fire breather; I always wanted to try that, but I know it would end in more than tears. He doesn’t look like he’s actually enjoying it though. The teams stream through, one after another.
The platform has vanished and gradually reemerges from the bowels of the arena. It’s Garmin-Cervelo with Thor Hushovd gamely playing the part of … well, the god of Thunder, this being a medieval pageantry venue and all. He’s cheesily waving a weapon that looks a bit flimsy in his grasp, befitting his stature. His mates even more gamely provide the background to the tableau, and a whale of a time is had by all.
HTC-High Road look mean and moody with Cavendish leading them on, but the mood is lightened as Hushovd flicks a sort of ‘Top that!’ gesture at Cav as their mutual orbits intersect!
QuickStep take to the stage, lead by their new French national champion Sylvain Chavanel, whose kit goes very nicely with that of his team mates in their regular gear. It’s Sylvain’s birthday – 32 today, and he gets a lovely round of congrats from his adoring public.
Lampre arrive in style. Fittingly, for a team lead by the Little Prince Damiano Cunego, it’s a horse-drawn carriage, although the riders might not have been too keen at having to jump out just 48 hours before they start the hardest event on the calendar?
Depending on your point of view, Bradley Wiggin’s effort is either downright disrespectful or a stroke of hyperbole-puncturing comic genius. Comfortably containing his excitement, the Team Sky leader/stickman slopes on stage and answers one particularly lengthy enquiry with: “That’s right, yeah … you said it all there.” He then makes like Moses and parts the crowds of ‘peasants’ streaming in his direction as he exits.
There’s fairly sporadic outbreaks of co-ordinated mayhem including a Tour tribute bike ‘race’ which included a herd of sheep, a mock firefighting crew and a rustic dancing display.
As Leopard-Trek are on stage, with Andy Schleck receiving, I’d say, a roar on a par with Voeckler, Chavanel and David Moncoutie, SaxoBank-Sungard wait in the wings. Frank Schleck and Contador exchange friendly greetings as they pass each other. Contador is bigged up by the announcer. His reception is … mixed, if I’m being polite. He’s enthusiastically booed, whistled and cheered. About a 60/40 split.
Funnily enough, he gets a much better reception after he’s been in interviewed. He’s become used to it now, and I have to say he didn’t look like he gave too much of a toss about the noise.
Show’s over and it’s time to go, as the cast of thousands – a gladiator, dancers, jugglers, acrobats, horseriders – all take their bows. Rounded off by an unwise measure of that local brew, the edge taken off by some rather delicious, straight down the line home-cooked galettes sets things up nicely for tomorrow.
We’ll be back on the road then.
– Au demain,