The windmills are still things of beauty after all these years, harnessing the breezes, being brought to life. They might not grind peasant grain to make bread anymore, but they oversaw the crushing of some Tour hopes just below them.
There used to be seven windmills atop Mont des Alouettes; now there are only three, with just one in working order. If you’re looking for a metaphor for what happened to the contenders in today’s mayhemic opening salvo on the Tour’s roads, there’s one in there. I bet Contador would have settled for a straightforward prologue.
There was at least one happy bunny today, as Quiki the Nesquik mascot bounced his way up the finishing slope. Having walked up parallel to the road it’s not massively dissimilar to the conclusion of Liege-Bastogne-Liege; wide and sloping steadily. A good finish for a guy like … Gilbert.
As the Passage du Gois was just ceremonial, we decided to skip that and go to the finish – where the chaos was to ensue out on the road. Early afternoon, though, and the press tent is a relaxed place to be. TV crews sit and watch the breakaway frying in the sun.
Today’s finish is a jarring collision of old and new, with the corporate glitz of the Tour machine hemming the mills in on the summit, just like an advancing army might. The TV trucks have enough cable to ring this hill a thousand times over, to bring it to its knees.
The marshalling on the way in is a bit happy-go-lucky and we’re directed to a public car park just shy of the top. It’s a blessing in disguise as extricating a vehicle from up there would have been tricky at the close of play.
When we take the summit, it’s clear that today is a chance for families to get out and about, and to catch up on the news of the Tour.
A couple of old fellas who might just remember when all the mills worked have a chinwag in the shade as the Celsius heads up.
The TV presenters run through some practice pieces to camera as the fans behind the barriers wait and wonder.
Votive candles flicker in the chapel just behind the finish line, and a few fans wander in. I never saw any of them light an offering for their riders, but I did see a couple eating their sandwiches.
There are bikes everywhere, lying in ditches, stacked up against any vertical surface, even jammed into some once-coppiced trees and security-locked – just in case.
The caravan thunders into our consciousness, and one lucky driver gets a very enthusiastic welcome to Mont des Alouettes.
It’s been a sleepy scene, but the race is approaching. The TVs in the press tent, which gets ever more jammed, count down the kilometres. The commentary becomes more excitable. The anticipation starts to rise. We head down beyond the finish line, beyond the soigneurs, the TV and radio crews, the UCI chaperones, and wait.
Suddenly they’re here. The noise rumbles up the hill, the helicopters thwack-thwack overhead, the volume peaks with a tumultuous roar as Gilbert takes the stage and the traffic light set of jerseys – yellow, green, red (and white).
Rein Taaramae has had a good day going top ten. The ex-Estonian champion has long been tipped as a future Tour star. Maybe this is the breakthrough year?
Fabian Cancellara gave it his best, but, sans prologue, wasn’t able to keep Gilbert down. Neither was Damiano Cunego, who scrambled over the line next to him.
Cunego has had a good spring, and hopefully the Tour will be good to him. He takes a fine photo anyway!
Leonardo Duque looked fed up as he made it to the summit in the relative safety of the front group.
Hushovd was close, third but showing good form. Maybe the stage to the Mur de Bretagne next week will be more suitable?
By the time Robert Gesink was looking for sanctuary at his team bus, the floodgates were open and a sea of humanity was swamping all shores. The Dutch hope and his Spanish team-mate Juanma Garate just had to push their way through to safety.
Mark Cavendish probably didn’t expect to win on a finish like today but was safely shepherded in by Lars Bak and Bernie Eisel
He looked like he’d had a long day when he hit the line and vanished into the bus, but peeped out later to see how Bernie was dealing with the press.
Matt Goss was one of the fallers today, and the wounds were obvious as he manouvered past Tony Martin onto the HTC-Highroad bus.
As Andy Schleck was no doubt being grilled about Contador’s misfortunes, Stuey O’Grady was free and clear of hassle.
Jens Voigt is always good for a quote and the veteran German was in demand once again as Leopard-Trek reflected on a good day’s work.
For Team Sky, it was a decent outing, too. Wiggins lost nothing to his GC rivals and wheeled his way to the bus.
Christian Knees lost a couple of minutes and needed his fluids – he’ll have work to do tomorrow in the TTT.
Xabier Zandio didn’t seem too downbeat when telling his soigneur about some bike damage sustained in that massive pile-up on the run-in to the finish.
Geraint Thomas looked very sharp in his pristine white best young rider’s jersey. He should be safely wearing that tomorrow, too, after the TTT. Not even dropping the stuffed toy Skoda yeti on the podium could dent his cool.
Perrig Quemeneur was pretty overawed by being called to the podium for his Combativitiй award. First Tour, first day, first break, first podium.
The young guy didn’t even know he was supposed to shake hands with the folks named on the protocol sheet. He was all for wandering off once he’d got his flowers from those pretty girls.
Today, just like the simple beauty of the windmill, still turning after all it’s seen, the prizes were a reward for a man for whom bike racing has always been a simple business. Do it right. Attack, try, fail; attack, try, succeed. Philippe Gilbert simply ripped away from everyone else to take the stage, and gets to pack the Belgian champion’s kit away for at least a day.
By the time, he’d got comfy with the podium party, he had picked up the big three jerseys. A fantastic haul in an already glorious season.
Yesterday, we snapped the graphic that said Fast Phil on that lovely Canyon bike of Gilbert’s. As the man himself was the darling of the media, his trusty steed came home laden with flowers. Sure was a prophetic picture, no?
– Au demain,