My French is not brilliant, but if I printed what she was spitting, screaming and blaspheming, in the shadow of a beautiful church, there would only be asterisks and a few consonants on the page. Short-haired, blond, slim, feisty. She stalked off making hand gestures only Continentals can.
Loverboy vanished from the window, struggling with a pair of shorts, and the problem swished in and out of view, dark-haired, olive-skinned … and hauling on clothes. Next door was at the window, too, for a good eyeful of the proceedings. Sleepy, near-midnight Port Saint Perй probably doesn’t see many Sundays like that.
We’d arrived very late for dinner and the lady in charge of the Saint George bar gave us a beyond closing-time table for two while her husband rustled up some gallettes. It was at that point that we met Bruno, pronounced Bwwwwwwwuuno, who kindly stood us a boule of the local cidre. He claimed to have been an ace French darts champion, so I quizzed him.
Did he know of the legendary, vodka-swilling ex-world champion Jocky Wilson, shaped like a miniaturised mammoth, the sort of chronically unhealthy sports icon only Scotland could produce? Of course. “He is a fat old man!” Good guess. It’s also possible that Bruno may have been a member of a French band called Les Darts, but that claim requires further validation, too.
The plan this morning is: program the Sat-Nav to take us onto the parcours just south of our hotel; see the feed zone; take off. We get to the final junction and it’s controlled mayhem. The Gendarmerie are mob-handed trying to deal with a badly-timed car crash blocking the race route. You can see them all thinking: “Not now, not on our patch.” Our heads are in our hands.
Finally, we’re on the course, and a few meandering turns take us to a neat garden, decorated for Le Tour’s arrival. A chubby kid, like you’d imagine playing the joker in a movie like Stand by me, blows elaborate two-handed kisses when he sees our press sticker.
The route might well be barrйe for cars, but the velo can go places and a steady stream of fans swish through closed junctions and towards the feedzone in Saint Mars-de-Coutais.
We park up in a stubbled cornfield. Every step is like a Disney film, as a splash of crickets leap in front of us. We bump into Freddy Gousset, a proud Breton who tells us he was a premier category amateur racer for many years. A sprinter, he still had the squat, powerful build of a Cavendish or a McEwen, and when he flexed his leg muscles to prove it, we thought we were seeing Popeye come alive before our eyes.
The caravan explodes into our world. The sensory overload is too much for some, as the freebies rain from on high. This little guy was too mesmerised to see the Skoda cap hurtling in his direction.
Swivel 180є and his contemporary is in awe and his elders have to do the waving for him. Eventually, the commercial break is over and it’s time to await the racers.
What I love about the feedzone on a big race is the accessibility of everything. Nothing is hidden away. Everyone can stand and watch the soigneurs at work, filling bottles and crumpling ever-growing mountains of plastic bottles into bags. The musettes are hung neatly from car roof racks.
Society is cross-sectioned and opened up and everyone’s the same. Wealth and privilege don’t mean that coveted bidon is going to bounce across the road and into your hands any more than if you haven’t a cent to your name.
That doesn’t mean that sitting for hours as the road closes to unofficial traffic is necessarily how to misspend your youth, but if you’re going to learn patience, then the Tour roadside is as good a place as any to do it.
Vacansoleil have pitched up just across the road and I spot a guy we photographed yesterday getting TT bikes checked out. It’s Sander van Iersel, one of four mechanics with the team.
Sander did two years at Cervelo and then came over with Jean-Paul van Poppel when that team merged with Garmin.
“In the first week I do the feedzone, we have two guys in the first and second team cars and one mechanic at the hotel. Next week, we’ll try to swap around and I’ll go in the second car.
We have nine bags, one for each rider, and then we have some bags for the cars to fill up the boxes at the back with all the bottles. For sure, we have enough bottles in the car. Normally, the riders will throw some away so there will be souvenirs for the fans.”
All for your sprinters at Vacansoleil this Tour?
“Feillu had a good chance at the first stage but he crashed with ten ks to go, and Bozic also had a crash. We’ll try to see what we can do.”
Listening back to the tape of Sander’s conversation, a button accordion is lilting away in the background, kids are laughing. There was an extended family in the field opposite. They’d come fully prepared, with not one but two tractors to climb onto for the views.
It’s a special day for all Americans, especially for Tyler Farrar, I’d guess, but it’s always a special day for a French bike race so the current national champion was not short on fans wanting to cheer him on.
If Europcar were wondering about how their last-minute sponsorship deal of the old Bouyges Telecom squad is working out, the answer is … very nicely indeed, judging by the fact that French roadsides are awash with dark green even if the fields are parched yellow-brown,
Regional identity is incredibly strong in these parts, and the link between Europcar and their home region means we’ve seen thousands of these flag/poster combos in recent days.
Three o’clock isn’t far off. The sun is burning down and the tarmac is starting to bubble up as the official vehicles stream through and suddenly the break is here. Five guys up front; an Ag2r and a Movistar rider are first through, I think it’s Gutierrez but the excitement gets the better of me.
Fans decide it’s safe to risk the road again. It’s all quiet, save for the distant clang of church bells. No helicopters overhead. But it’s not long to wait before the field appears, with Rabobank and Leopard-Trek sharing the pace. Cav is tucked behind Bernie Eisel for HTC-Highroad; Marcel Sieberg is checking over his shoulder for Gilbert and Greipel.
The venerable gent behind me rescues my hat, whipped off by the whoosh of the passing peloton, and the lord above repays him with a Euskaltel bottle which careens across the road and misses my camera by inches.
It’s a quickfire endeavour for the soigneurs. Get visible and hand over the goods with minimal fuss and then prepare for the dash to the finish or the hotel.
As soon as the riders were gone, Omega Pharma-Lotto were sorting out the riders’ bags and restocking both team cars. Then, clouds of dust, wagons roll.
The bounce of the bidon decides that today it’s Euskaltel who have cornered the septuagenarian demographic, as these two characters share a private joke. Our car is now hemmed in and the road is closed, of course. The gendarmes try to intercept a very elderly lady driver, but she’s having none of it. She’s going left. She’s not deliberately defiant, she’s deaf, or blind, maybe both. They ask her to do a u-turn. She sort of does, into the car next to us. Crunch.
By the time we get out of traffic and stop for cakes, the bells are silent. But the frenzy will begin again tomorrow. Thanks for reading.