It wasn’t, but the commanding officer signed a document stating that the Germans would reimburse the owner of the day for any costs. And they did. The sun began to shine on the old place again.
Bright sunshine lit our way to Le Mans and the shadow of the MM Sports Arena where the Tour had set up its own camp. The car parking sequences work well if everyone adheres to the rules. Not once, not twice but three separate occasions we saw the same old guy arguing the toss with the Gendarmes. No idea how he got as close as he did as he wasn’t a race follower, and the police usually weed them out tout suite.
Before too long, the heavens darkened and then emptied themselves of pent-up precipitation. Giant dollops of rain battering off the tarmac sending everyone scurrying. The Bel Air Line trio abandoned their tunes in favor of battening a massive canvas over their gear.
Once the thrashing deluge had lessened we swung by the Rabobank bus for a look on the way to our car. The mechanics were busy with industrial-sized quantities of grease for the chains, swabbing it on like it was going out of fashion. Must have done the trick as Robert Gesink took over the white jersey tonight.
I’m still at a loss to explain why one soigneur dutifully dried the tops of all the bidons – they’d have been covered in crud again by the time the riders reached the start line. We hadn’t really intended to drive the whole route today, but as it was a whole 72kms shorter than the alternate, off-course itinerary, we went for it.
A very surreal experience it was, too. The first half of the course we covered in grey, and in rain. People were busy packing up picnics and putting on coats as we made our way south through Le Grand Lucй and Trфo. Old folks drove or rolled their cars forward a couple of feet, from the door to the gate to see the road. Viewing stations were abandoned in the wind and rain.
The countryside here, crossing from the Sarthe into Loir-et-Cher, Indre-et-Loir and
Indre is open and exposed. In the shelter of the forests, not a breath of wind; across the fields the washing is blown horizontal on the lines. Still, the sunflowers did make an appearance and stood still long enough to get a decent picture or two.
Most stretches of road had someone in view, but the fans have long since sussed out than corners and hills are better. They were three or four deep on most tight bends, less bothered about straights.
Out here, it makes sense to utilise whatever raw materials come to hand for your Tour-celebrating structural engineering. While some folk had pilfered hay bales for their art works, there were fleets of massive combines frenetically criss-crossing the massive fields across the road.
Eventually, the sun won out against the rain and by the time we got to Buzanзais there was such weirdness going on that we kept the windows firmly rolled up as we could see ‘stuff’ getting lobbed into the cars in front of us in the convoy.
There may be a global recession on, but we’ve rolled along miles of new tarmac, none of it more impressive than the rolling but perfectly smooth section between about 14 and 4kms to the finish. The deep black glistened like a vein under pale skin as we swept along towards Saint Maur.
Finish line: Finally, after over five hours driving, not far off the riders’ racing time for the day, we’re parked up and our stuff has been deposited in the press room. It’s off to the finish line to see the riders come in. Cavendish does the business again, but it’s closer this time – we see him on screen hit the line and wheel round to see him blur past the press tent.
It’s pandemonium as usual. Cav marches down the road to the podium swarmed by cameras. It all gets a bit too much for some of the TV crews and a scuffle breaks out much to the amusement of a couple of weather-beaten Ag2r riders.
Jeremy Roy of Francaise des Jeux has upended his steed and is fiddling with the chain as the kerfuffle goes on just behind him. He’s more concerned with all the oil and muck he’s got on his fingers and mitts.
The podium presentation gets under way and Cav takes the stage winner’s bouquet looking well pleased with his day’s work. Below him, the Gendarmes are frantically whistling as the stragglers roll over the line.
A bleeding Chris Horner is last, holding his hand to the right side of his face. Why did Popvych and Paulinho not wait to help him out a little considering they finished in no-man’s land, six minutes ahead but still in 182nd and 183rd?
Hushovd bestrides the podium, thigh muscles threatening to rip his lycra to shreds. The guy is a seriously impressive specimen, and should take great pride in what will probably be his last day in yellow in this year’s Tour tomorrow.
He made quite an impression on the lady in the podium party, handing her his celebratory bouquet and leaving the woman all a-quiver.
Jose Joaquin Rojas didn’t even crack a smile as he took to the podium. Maybe he just assumed the results would get rejigged like the other day and he’d be back in civvies in the morning.
Bernard Hinault might have won the Tour five times but he’s got a damn important job nowadays, zipping the day’s heroes into their jerseys. Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil got the benefit of those nimble Breton fingers this afternoon.
There’s another prize awaiting a lucky few – some quality time with the doping controllers. The called numbers today included John Gadret and Hoogerland himself, pasted up right beside the press tent.
Duty done, Hoogerland rolled away to the team buses, to the starstruck amazement of the fans who couldn’t believe they got that close to one of the day-glo heroes.
Down at the buses, Erik Zabel is high-fiving his guys as the HTC-Highroad squad put on another ace sprinting display. Lars Bak did some awesome turns on the front.
DS Allan Pieper was thrilled to see another stage win on the board after Cav, Eisel, Martin and co., burned up that new tarmac motorway: “You don’t get to see that very often in a lifetime in cycling, the whole team drilling along like that in a line. Cav finishing it all off was the icing on the cake. It was a little bit like the stage to Grand Motte a couple of years ago.”
After driving the course today, seeing the fans sitting and waiting through rain, wind and finally blazing sun, it never ceases to put a smile on my face when the outcome at the end of the day is a happy one. Watching this little guy clutch the bottle he was handed by Andre Greipel is one of the special memories I’ll take back home when I finish up my shift at the Tour this coming Sunday.
Thanks for reading.