During my recent trip to France, I was lucky enough to be able to spend a day embedded in the Tour de France. By “embedded”, I mean, actually inside one of the Commissar’s cars which is on the road during the race with all of the riders. To say the least, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life!
A couple of things really strike you about the race when you are this close to it. First of all, they go fast. Seriously fast. Even when heading up HC climbs, the cyclists never seem to go much below about 20 km/h. And when they go down hills, the speed is just ridiculous. On most occasions, the bikes are able to go significantly faster than the car because the riders are better able to manoeuvre. We were routinely doing speeds of 70 or 80 km/h in the car, and the cyclists just pull away as if we were standing still.
The second thing is the utter chaos of the moment-to-moment action. Because the race is so intimate with spectators, official cars, team cars, motorcycles and cyclists are all swerving in and out, often coming within millimetres of each other. It is a miracle that we did not hit anything - or anyone - for the 5 hours or so that we spent on the road. Our driver - Serge Bodin - was the French 1998 Amateur Road Champion. And it showed. He had a sympathy for the cyclists and the road that could only have come from direct personal experience. His driving skills were quite remarkable.
Finally, the behind the scenes organisation is just phenomenal. There is - quite literally - a cast of thousands of people, some of whom work for the Tour full time throughout the year, others who are employed for each stage, many team support staff, and a whole swathe of VIPs, hangers on, media and other incidentals. The Village Depart is like a small town that is assembled each night prior to the start, and then disassembled and moved onto the next stage. The same applies to the finish line. And this happens every day for the 21 stages of the race.
I managed to take about 500 photos over the course of the day, but as I am a complete numpt when it comes to photography, I think that only 10 or so are worth sharing. To be honest, I was completely petrified in the car for the most of the trip because at many points all I could do was hold on and hope that Serge maintained control of the car.
This is what the stage looked like in profile:
This is from the helicopter ride from Pau Airport up to the Depart Village:
I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the Europcar team car. I have a Colnago Ace, which is from the same stable as these bikes, but a somewhat different pedigree:
A small sense of the chaos at the start:
Froome leaving from the Sky team bus:
And Cadell, who sadly didn’t have a great day on Stage 17. He was with the lead group right up until the very last climb when he was dropped.
In the car with Serge driving:
For some reason, I imagined Mark Cavendish would be a really huge guy - he’s not. All of that spring power is really packed into a very modest package:
The gearing on these bikes is nothing short of amazing. The largest chain ring here looks about as big as the smallest one on my bike!
We went over the finish line just behind Cadell:
And he looked absolutely spent at the end of it:
Overall, it was an amazing day and a highlight of the trip. It’s not only something that I’ll never forgot, it’s given me a new found respect for these amazing athletes. I will certainly be back yelling for Cadell in 2013, but next year it will be from the comfort of my lounge room, and not in the back of the Commissar’s car!