Saturday, 16 July 2016

Tour de France 2016

The Peleton with Sky Team leading pass through Redessan on Stage 12
After watching the Tour de France grand depart in Yorkshire in 2014, I had wanted to see the race on French soil and this year it was passing close to where we were staying in the Ardeche. The stage from Montpellier to Mont Ventoux had me thinking we should make our way to Mont Ventoux and watch the agony and ecstasy of the climb to the summit. The mistral was blowing and the route was truncated to save the riders battling with 100kph winds in addition to the over excitable crowds. We decided to watch it cross the Bouches du Rhone at Remussen instead.

It was a good decision we managed to park 400 metres away from the route. There was a supermarket handy to buy some lunch after the caravan had passed through dispensing gifts from the sponsors. It takes the caravan a good 25 minutes to pass and provides a level of silliness that is almost British. The crowds had made a day of it with bands, fancy dress, picnics and noisy instruments. A party atmosphere built up as the anticipation of the cyclists arriving although it was not as infectious as it had been in Yorkshire but the weather was better.

The caravan consists of over a hundred vehicles blaring out music and travelling at a fair dash. They are accompanied by motor cycle outriders and gendarmes but the mood is one of friendship and theatre. There is about an hour and a half to wait before the riders arrive. In this case a leading group of a dozen or so riders were followed ten minutes later by the peleton that was being led by the Sky team with Chris Froome to the fore. There were numerous motor bikes and support vehicles as well as 6 helicopters filming the race.  The peleton of 150 riders flew past in less than 30 seconds and was followed by a procession of team cars loaded with spare bikes, mechanics, team managers, medical staff and a final sweep of gendarmes. For a supposedly green sport the carbon footprint of the tour is massive, it must consume a large proportion of the Qatari oil production.

The next day was the time trial running the length of the Ardeche gorge and finishing by the recently opened Chauvet Cave. The stage had almost been cancelled following the atrocities in Nice the night before and there was a subdued atmosphere compared to the previous day. President Hollande had promised a heavier police presence although the gendarmerie seemed fairly relaxed about the security and spectators were able to funnel the riders as they began the final 6 kilometres of climbing to the finish. I spent a couple of hours watching the lead riders come through and observing the vicarious activities of the spectators. I met a Danish girl who told me that her father and boyfriend had walked a return trip of 25 kilometres the previous day from their parking spot to reach the route up Mont Ventoux and had not returned until well after midnight. It made me feel a bit happier about opting out of doing the same.

Once again I was staggered by the support for each of the 180 or so riders. Each one proceeded by a motorbike and followed by a car and then a motley assembly of race officials, cameramen and gendarmes going through on motor bikes. There was the usual circus of hawkers and fast food outlets along the route as well as families with camping chairs and sizeable picnics. Chris Froome set the second fastest time and was clocked doing 110kph as he descended to the Ardeche gorge from the plateau. I have long believed that this form of cycling must be the toughest of all sports, particularly as the vast majority of riders are domestiques for their team leaders and have little hope of glory. The Sky team are not very popular in France owing to their tendency to control the race by their disciplined professionalism in following team orders. If only other British sports had managers as capable as Dave Brailsford.

Taking it easy before the climbs at the end of the day
And then the train of support vehicles
The caravan of silly things comes first
And spectators join in the fun
It was too hot for the penguins
Ardeche, Stage 13 time trial with a heavy police presence
Local hero watches from an adjacent field
Geraint Thomas on a charge
Fabio Aru beginning the climb at Vallon Pont d'Arc
Top French rider, Romain Bardet

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