Issoire’s Hotel de Ville, built 1896, has been decked out in Tour bunting and looks very impressive, very imposing in the gloomy grey of the morning.
It probably seemed like a good idea to have the Tour village in a grassy, little park just of Place de Verdun when it was dry and sunny. Unfortunately, the guests are squelching and slipping around, and huddled under umbrellas. A bit of rain won’t stop us having a look around, though.
The comedians are doing their best to entertain the crowds with a backing music from the Bel Air Line trio, but I’m still not sure about the Arnie-like mask matching with the polka dots. The hot food stalls are being cleaned out of food faster than they can produce it. It’s not the sunny Tour the TV hopes for … yet.
The team buses are rolling down Avenue John Fitzgerald Kennedy and into the Place du Forail so it’s time to go and take a look before we bid adieu to the Tour for another year. The publicity caravan has been and gone and the kids are done up in Carrefour gear, but their real attention lies behind the tape, in the team buses. A pair of feet dangle in view on the Astana bus as the team talk goes on.
The very natty and very popular young French rider Arthur Vichot lolls about at the crowd barrier, shooting the breeze, and brandishing a hat covered in good wishes from fellow riders and fans. I could clearly see Arnold Jeannesson’s autograph on there.
It’s probably not the best idea to have a set of steep metal steps, slick enough when dry, for the sport’s elite athletes to climb as they sign on for their day’s work. Europcar took things very carefully on the way down.
Leopard-Trek arrive en masse to be presented with … something. Andy Schleck gets handed a plaque with a yellow number and doesn’t look too sure what to make of it. SaxoBank’s Brian Vandborg is equally intrigued and asks to see it as he leaves the sign-on.
Big brother Frank does know what the signing-on stage is for, giving the fans a big wave ahead of today’s feast of short, nasty hills.
A quick chat with the Sky team’s doctor, Richard Freeman, reveals that the guys are doing fine, but, like everyone else, are looking forward to the rest day tomorrow. They went from the high of Boasson Hagen (TDF) and Ian Stannard (Tour of Austria) winning stages on the same day to losing Wiggins inside 24 hours. “It was devastation. But he’s OK, he’s having his operation tomorrow. It was such a shame as he was in the form of his life.”
We also had a brief chat about Juan Antonio Flecha who is in storming form and was aiming to do something today. It was all looking good until a France 2 TV car took both him and Hoogerland out, so more work for the doctor tonight, unfortunately.
Johan Mathis Somby and Mathias Pamer Somby (surname pronounced as in “the living dead”) have come all the way from Bergen to cheer on Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen. They told us that when EBH won his stage the other day and Thor was third, the Norwegian TV commentators were screaming: “We own cycling!” The guys, from CK Sotra (cycling club) are heading on holiday to Alicante, and their passion was rewarded with some bidons from a Team Sky mechanic.
I grabbed a quick word with Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Marcel Sieberg. Is today about looking after Jurgen Van Den Broeck or will Gilbert try something? “We hope both, but today is such a hard day to control, the stage is quite hard.”
His eminently photographable colleague Andre Greipel signs an autograph just down the barriers. “I’ll be working for both those guys (JVDB, Gilbert), but also for Andre, for sure. We’ll try to win a stage with him. The last big sprint he was very close, he was really strong that day and he’s in good shape.”
Handily enough, trawling through our pictures in the afternoon, we had Gilbert who started and finished with the green jersey, and Voeckler who took yellow on a very happy day for the French, at the podium together.
Today might be Thor Hushovd’s last day in yellow with a stack of climbs to come but he’s done a great stint as porteur de maillot jaune. When he comes to sign on, there is much whispering and giggling with Cadel Evans – like a pair of schoolboys!
Jim Ochowicz has seen and done this all before, many times, and is back again helping to guide Cadel Evan’s efforts to finally take the yellow jersey. “I love it. I love the atmosphere of the Tour and being around this sport. In prior years, the ’80s and ’90s, it was still the Tour but it was a different world back then. No internet, no mobile phones!”
As his team’s leader relaxes with the morning dailies down by the sign-on, how are BMC feeling about the race now?
“Well, I wouldn’t say we are either confident or wary, somewhere in between. When you get too far in either direction, that’s when you start to have difficulties. Phase 1 of the Tour is over today, but it’s still a long way to Paris. This is a good team for Cadel, and all the guys love the job they are doing.”
When you’ve got a team that includes the Tour experience that these legs have, you can probably afford yourself the belief that out on the road George Hincapie has things pretty well under control.
Mark Cavendish is tucked in, half-hidden by the curtain at the bottom of the HTC-Highroad team’s bus, shooting the breeze with leadout man Mark Renshaw and another very familiar face.
When he turns to look at me, it’s instant confirmation of my hunch. Leading British fashion designer Jeff Banks, like his friend Sir Paul Smith, a massive cycling nut, is visiting the race.
“I’ve been coming to the Tour for about ten years now. Six years ago, a bunch of us rode ten stages of the Tour … we set out and rode the full itinerary for the stages four days ahead of the race. I’ve ridden in the Alps and the Pyrenees, climbed the Galibier and the Telegraphe, and Mont Ventoux, so I have sympathy for what these riders are going through!”
Over at the SaxoBank bus, I interrupt Bjarne Riis as he’s halfway through eating a banana. He looks long and hard at my press credentials; I hear a very small pin drop in a soundproof box, in a soundproof basement in a soundproof room … far, far away. Bjarne finally nods an OK for my questions. “It’s a difficult stage but I don’t think we’ll see much from the big favourites.”
Does Wiggins’ absence alter the dynamic of the race in any way? “Not really for us, but for the sport and for the Tour it’s a pity that he is out. He was in good form.”
Just behind him, there’s a roar. Saxo are more or less the last team to leave for the start and suddenly Contador emerges from the bus to a huge cheer – no booing this time. “Allez, Alberto!”
The Spaniard looked pretty serene at the sign-in and shared a chat with the day’s stage winner Luis Leon Sanchez at the back of the massing peloton, as he waited for his helmet roadie to bring him a new lid before the off
Down at Place Saint-Paul, there’s a guy ahead of me, carrying his son’s (he insisted!) home-made autograph book – boxes drawn for each rider, teams in alphabetical order, and color-co-ordinated index tabs. He’d pretty much filled up the Europcar team page already so he’d obviously had a good day!
Lars Boom is busy stuffing his pockets from the Powerbar stall when we arrive, but Alexandr Kolobnev only has eyes for what a Team Sky soigneur is carrying to his car! He only had eyes for a very attractive blonde when he rolled towards the start-line, lingering for a good luck cuddle.
The stunning Saint Austremoine abbey is the perfect backdrop to the start of stage nine. The belltower is fifteenth century and has fantastic views across the city – apparently, as we didn’t get into it unfortunately.
The fans with the best views were busy pointing out who to photograph to their pals with long lens.
Swiss superstar Fabian Cancellara was being detained by the TV crews as his colleagues were being called forward to the line, but he was in no particular hurry to get going. I guess you’d always be confident of catching up if you were Cancellara!
And then they were gone. The flag dropped, the riders clicked in and pushed off, another stage begins. Another journey around France for us ends.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the words and pictures, and maybe saw a side of the Tour experience that you might not have known about before.
Ed Hood arrives on the rest day, so you can look forward to further adventures in the finest Pez tradition as he takes us through the mountains and all the way to Paris.