There’s been a slightly disappointing lack of village decoration for the Tour so far this year, but the pretty hilltop town of Mыr de Bretagne has put things right. The Bretons can easily match, or better, the Flemish when it comes to bike nuttiness. There are Belgians in town today. I can’t see them but I sure as hell can hear sporadic outbreaks of wild cheering; the report back is that a very well-endowed, enthusiastically patriotic young lady is bouncing up-and-down waving a Breton flag and the Belgians are loving every second!
In the morning: We departed Bruz, just outside Rennes, in bright sunshine. With time in hand, we took the back roads to the Mыr de Bretagne instead of motorways. Land must be cheap to rent and buy in the west and north-west of France because there are massive signs for logistical or industrial sites by the bigger traffic arteries.
The cottages are much prettier, but there are a few clay-brick buildings that are rapidly heading back to the earth. Judging by the number of cars with UK registration plates, this is second-home heaven and all the renovations, I’d bet, are by monied folk from the other side of La Manche.
We’re in good growing country. The dairy herds are on the best pasturelands, and there are hectares of ripening crops in view in all directions. The plums are coloring up nicely, the hazel nuts have a hint of brown.
One year you get a glut, another year you get little. Every year, you give thanks for what you have and what you hope for. The murals in the chapel of Saint Lambert, tucked in beside the old road running between Medrignac and Moncontour, had a mud floor hardened by the tread of thousands of worshippers.
In the afternoon: It’s another day to give thanks for the Tour. We parked up just shy of the three kilometres to go barrier. Rain poured from the heavens as we made our way down towards the steepest part of the climb which twists and ratchets up through the centre ville.
This little town, with its wall of a hill, has done the business in preparing for the Tour. Maillots hang from the sides of houses, barns and sheds have been raided for any old bikes which are now attached to railings and balconies. Best of all is that an artist has been commissioned to paint the great champions of cycling around the village.
Glowering out from under the canopy of the Garage Lacroix-Helaouet is the ten-foot tall Andrй Leducq, double vainquer du Tour de France back in the 1930s. It’s a stunning piece of work and as we’ve got a few hours to kill we check the shop fronts for more.
An insurance agency worker fends of the furious rushing presence of four-time green jersey champion Sean Kelly. She watches the world go by, shoots the breeze with a pretty young woman with a yellow flower garland.
The fans are trooping up and down the Mыr looking for the best vantage point, trying to duck out of the intermittent showers. The sun can’t make up its mind, it comes and goes. A nutter manning an colossal woodburning barbecue rig, absent-mindedly batters out a rhythm on a huge drum. The poor instrument sounds like it has percussive Tourette’s.
With 198 starters, 22 teams, and an astonishing number of permutations for the breakaway, the stage winner, the jersey holders, etc., there’s much to catch up on in the hours before the riders reach this climb. At just over 10% at it’s steepest, it’s not the Mur du Huy, or even the Muur du Grammont, but it’ll still hurt. That fatigue will accumulate over the three weeks of the Tour.
A little patisserie has closed up to watch the race go by, but the evidence in the window proves how much time and effort has been put in to welcome the Tour. The lady owner is busy unlocking for business again as we troop uphill in the wake of the race with an impressive queue forming.
From a hundred yards away the painting of Luis Herrera is instantly recognisable, his face filling one large shop display. The first Colombian to win the King of the Mountains at the Tour might have found the fight for position on a day like this unpalatable but he came alive when the gradient hit double digits.
I’m trying to frame up a cracking Jacques Anquetil/Raymond Poulidor painting created on some shop shutters when I’m asked to help out with a little interview feature for ABC News in Australia. Nice to meet you, James Bennett, on a working holiday with his dad, Mark.
Also on a busman’s holiday is Garmin-Cervelo’s Dan Lloyd, here to check out the race with his wife and kids. Dan was strolling in his civvies and in holiday mode so I didn’t pester him for photos or quotes, but he was looking very trim.
The waiting goes on, in good humour. Nobody seems to get agitated. The race will come in good time. Friends catch up just where the steepest section ramps up for a left-hander. Andy Schleck might be in with a shout today.
Older guys have a quick smoke, set up their chairs, mull over current affairs. Plenty time to get the world in order before the real business of the day comes barrelling up the road.
Some race viewers on the route today looked like they’d seen a Tour or two pass by. This family had taken their matriarch’s chair precisely five yards – from front room to front door to front row. She’s unimpressed by the caravan other than the float with the PMU horses.
The guys in weird shaped trucks and cars still whip the crowd up even if it’s wet. The kids are ecstatic; some of the adults forget all dignity and scrabble in the floral beds for escaped Carrefour casquettes or sachets of Xtra washing powder.
Everyone’s looking south, towards where the sun should be, when it isn’t hiding behind the scudding clouds and misty rain. Just waiting. The road empties once the caravan has passed and there’s a lull in the procession of official vehicles. We all crane or necks down the road. No riders. We look up. No helicopters. Yet.
The helicopters arrive, the first guests for dinner. The fans don’t care … we all wave and clap.
Then it’s here. The peloton with George Hincapie towing it into view flies round the corner with 3.5kms to race at fantastic pace. The veteran American is still doing his job as well as anyone else in the pro peloton, hammering out the tempo, keeping Cadel Evans out of trouble.
The fans, some have been here since morning, welcome them with open arms. It’s a vindication of their faith in the wait. The riders don’t disappoint, getting out of the saddle, turning the speed up.
All the heads and favorites are there in the front ranks: Evans, the Schlecks, Contador, Gesink, Wiggins, Basso, Vinokourov, Hushovd, Gilbert. There are TVs and radios scattered in car boots, in bedroom windows, in open shop fronts. The different signals bounce the commentary around … it’s a bit dislocated, but you try to follow it. Contador attacks. They hesitate. Evans goes. Evans wins? We think.
Yoann Gene winds his way up with the worst still to come, but it flattens out just inside three to go so the suffering is almost over
The workers are getting up as best they can. Not wasting energy, but not dawdling either, the backs of their maillots catch the watery sun. It’s not quite the famous shot of Fleche Wallone’s Mur du Huy or of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but it’s beautiful all the same.
Some of the fans think it’s done and dusted and pack up to go home. Vincent Jerome of Europcar comes through dead last, but still gets a terrific ovation.
The canoodling couple who’ve been standing just behind me finally decide to get a room as flags get folded and packed away, souvenirs are stuffed in pockets.
The Tour has come home to Brittany and it was definitely worth the wait. No-one does the Tour like the Bretons.