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Tour de PEZ: Gord’s Look Back
Roadside round-up: It was a weird Tour in a lot of ways, odder even than the full-on sensory overload of my first assignment there in 2008. There was so much going on in France that the biggest race in cycling, a national obsession, was temporarily replaced by those other media darlings: a Royal wedding and a football team.

Here are just a few of the snaps we elected not to use in our daily coverage and a couple of little insights into how our Tour de Pez went down this year. It wasn’t all about the race – real life actually permeated the ‘Bubble’ once or twice.

The two kidnapped French journalists being freed from Afghanistan took centre stage on the teams’ presentation day, before the full force of the nation’s press switched back to blanket speculation about whether Prince Albert of Monaco’s prospective bride would show up at the altar so that the late Princess Grace’s only son would get married.

She did, they did. Les Blues womens’ soccer team were going well in the World Cup, and even a Tour start in darling Thomas Voeckler’s home patch was down the pecking order. That would be so different by the time we were in the plane heading home!

The teams’ presentation day was noteworthy for the mixed reception for Alberto Contador and the love of Voeckler, but also for the wincingly awkward Team Radioshack metaphor – an elderly party of guys on bikes made a grand entrance and screamed round the faux-Roman amphitheatre before almost all of them fell off.

No wonder Cadel Evans went on to win the Tour … while others had to walk onto centre stage, the Aussie got a free ride in a truck. Big George Hincapie, Marcus Burghardt and the rest performed the same role for three weeks, leaving Cadel to hit the accelerator when he needed. Classy.

There were other metaphors for us, too – if you’re in Brittany it’s only polite to get tanked up (a little) on the local brew. Long-term Tour survival is built on saving energy for the riders and everyone else, so enjoy in moderation!

Press conference day was marked by the feeding frenzy around the younger Schleck brother and whether he could go to the top step this year. He believed it, so did his brother and team, but there was always the doubt about that last long time trial. Maybe Andy cut loose just a little late this year – but it was a hell of a ride.

The Photoshop crew had been out in force with a very prescient paste-up job in the journalists’ feed zone. Voeckler didn’t trounce Cav in a sprint, but he damn near trounced everyone else with a two-week show of defiance. A definite highlight.

Stage one to Mont des Alouettes was a first finish at any sort of altitude in a quirky and pleasing Tour route. Gilbert handled the pressure, the way these grand old structures handled their daily tasks over the centuries – sure and steady.

Cav was up there close at hand on day one with a statement of intent; his team made their feelings known, too. When you’ve got a Milan-San Remo winner who’ll bleed for his capo you know you’re onto a winner.

The team time trial on stage two in Les Essarts was another fascinating day – the atmosphere around the BMC bus was one of quiet confidence, not quite matching the hoopla over at Saxo Bank and Leopard-Trek. Cadel was in the middle, surrounded by his own red guard.

Rabobank set a fair time that day, and Laurens ten Dam, one of the hairiest men in the peloton raised a grin by warming up under a very appropriate sign.

We took a leisurely trip to the feedzone on stage three. We’re not going to name names, but Valerie pointed out that one or two teams might want to carry some antibacterial gel with them at all times. It doesn’t inspire confidence to see soigneurs going for a leak in the corner of a field then walking back to the car to start working on their riders’ feed bags and bottles … without washing their hands!

In the fields, life went on as normal for the dairy and beef herds. We saw as many cows as Europcar fans on this trip – a lot, everywhere.

The Mur de Bretagne was a fantastic finish on stage four that had everything. Nutty Germans; drunk Belgians; flag waving Bretons; rain; sun; art installations.

There were over thirty amazing paintings around the town centre of Tour greats – Fausto Coppi was a little lost in an upstairs restaurant window and Lance Armstrong had gone to seed on the sliding doors of a bank, but Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor (the olden day Andy Schleck?) were neatly framed on a Tabac shutter.

Brittany is still proudly bike country, and is still very proudly it’s own country. The number of black-and-white flags was extraordinary, and even the youngest kids waved them with meaning.

Brittany is also very much cidre country which makes me happy.

Stage five was a tribute to Bernard Hinault, one of the most famous Bretons of them all, whose spirit was represented with the sort of authority-baiting independence you don’t find many places these days.

We’d stopped to take some pretty pictures when this battered old Renault skewed to a halt at a junction. The old fella who looked to be about 100 hopped out for a chat with his pal on the other side of the road, leaving the engine idling. No hurry. Anyone else wanting past can just go around. I’ve got stories to tell, and then fish to catch.

The publicity caravan partied through Hinault’s old patch and the Europcar girls were on a high. Their boy Cyril Gauthier was about to come by and spirits were soaring.

If I’m being honest, stage six starting in Dinan was a bit of a disaster, only saved by a wander round town once the race had packed up and gone. We were late and the pre-race parking arrangements were labyrinthine.

A private collector had put his collection on display to celebrate the Tour’s arrival. Double-winner Fausto Coppi’s stunning celeste machine was standing right in front of us when we walked up the stairs to the display room.

An incredible experience to be so close to real Tour history, a bike that carried one of the sport’s most celebrated characters to glory. Tucked alongside, signed shirts from Thevenet and Hinault, Kubler and Ullrich. An object lesson in less-is-more graphic design from the late 1930s was Valerie’s favorite.

And to make up for the poor start to a day that got better and better, our hotel wasn’t bad either!

The rain lashed down on Friday’s seventh stage to Chateauroux and once we’d driven the route we knew there was only one outcome possible. Cav was going to win. IT was closer than we thought – maybe that’s why the Manx Missile gave us one of his most determined glares as he marched to the victory podium.

Out the bottom of the finishing zone, a very happy Thor Hushovd had rescued his Tour, his season and the value of his next contract with another day in yellow – and he looked pretty damn pleased about it.

Our second Saturday on the race and we were destined for the first summit finish at Super Besse Sancy. Not before some more sight-seeing had taken us off the beaten track.

Into Aubusson, the home of tapestry and the bizarre tableau of tourists and locals gave the place a very odd feeling indeed. There was an air of despondency about the place. Pretty though it was, it was a nicer feeling to be back in the car and heading uphill.

Not necessarily the same emotion for the riders though – week one coming to a close and while some could clown for the lens, others were looking decidedly wrecked already.

The physical and emotional scars were very visible, not least on Ivan Basso, a reformed poster boy whose pre-Tour training crash left him off top form for the Tour.

We waved goodbye to the Tour for another year in Issoire at the start of stage nine, another damp day. It seemed a quieter Tour than last year, but our pal Laura at the Skoda tent had another take. Going by the freebie giveaway count, they were at least as busy. 1500 hats per day in the village; 600,000 for the Tour as a whole. They were bang on schedule to give the all away.

Cadel Evans was never out of the top placings this year, and looked super confident as he signed in for a day that would leave Johnny Hoogerland with nightmares. It isn’t just hindsight – I’d have marked him down as winner on the proviso that he stayed upright, and he did in 2011.

It’s still the greatest race in the world, and this summer we got to see a great edition. Thanks for following it with us.



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