The Grand Tour

198 competitors, 3,430 kilometres and 15 million spectators, The Tour de France is one of the world’s most awesome sporting spectacles. Fergus Bisset packed his tent and his road map and travelled across the channel to follow the action.

Tommy Voeckler tears up the Col de Prat de Bouc

Words: Fergus Bisset

The first Tour de France I watched on TV as a kid was 1989. I was only nine but I remember it as one of the most enthralling and captivating sporting contests I’ve ever engrossed myself in.

Home favourite Laurent Fignon and American Greg LeMond traded the leader’s “Yellow Jersey” through the event and it came down to the final time trial to the Champs Elysees in Paris. Fignon led by 50 seconds but Lemond blitzed the stage and ended up winning by just eight seconds.

I cried because I’d wanted the charismatic, bespectacled, Frenchman to win and the sight of him sitting on the pavement with his head in his hands was too much to bear.

End of 1989 TourLaurent Fignon 1989

Ever since I’ve been hooked on “Le Tour,” the romance of it, the passion, the steely determination of the riders to give absolutely everything through one of the most ludicrously demanding sporting endurance challenges on the planet.

So when my old friends Tom, Steve and Tommy announced they were planning a road trip to follow this year’s Tour de France, I jumped at the chance to join them.

Tom was to drive his trusty old VW Golf from Edinburgh to Dover where we’d catch the ferry to Calais then head south to meet the Tour somewhere in the Auvergne. We would take bikes to get in amongst the action and tents so we could stay wherever we liked. Other than that, plans were limited. It was, above all, to be an adventure.

The Tour is like some sort of mythical beast that winds its way through the sprawling French countryside. It’s such a compelling sight that, each year, 15 million people go out of their way just to try and catch a glimpse of it thundering past.

I should point out that, in terms of effort expended for length of viewing experience, road cycling is not the greatest live spectator sport. You can spend an entire day, negotiating the roads surrounding the route, “the piste,” then walk miles to find the perfect viewing point, only for the main group of riders, or “peloton” to hurtle past in a matter of seconds.

But, as we’d learn, those seconds and the growing anticipation as those seconds approach deliver a concentrated shot of pure excitement and it’s rather addictive.

When we were driving south on the motorway from Bourges towards the Massif Central to see our first stage, the 9th of the Tour from Issoire to Saint Flour, we knew we would overtake the riders some time around 1pm. Steve studied the official magazine (an essential tool for Tour hunters) to calculate from the map and the estimated timings where they were likely to be.

“They should be about here,” he eventually said, lifting his head to the right.

Tom slowed the car and I peered past the mountain of tents, water bottles and helmets wedged in beside me, I scoured the wooded valley then further up the gentle slope at its far side. Then, emerging on to a visible section of road came the peloton.

“There it is, there it is,” I screeched with the excitement of a child seeing snow for the first time. There followed scenes of celebration that were totally disproportionate to the achievement. From about 1km away we’d very briefly seen an indistinguishable throng of cyclists, but we were grinning inanely and shaking hands as if we’d just discovered a new species.

We caught up with the Tour properly for the first time on the climb of the Col de Prat de Bouc in the Cantal region of the Auvergne. We hiked up the beautiful wooded hillside from the village of Albepierre-Bredons until we reached the road. Almost immediately after striking tarmac, a float carrying a huge effigy of a yellow-jerseyed cyclist came hurtling past. This was the first vehicle of the Tour’s “caravan.” For almost an hour, cars and floats representing the main sponsors trundled past throwing out caps, sweets, bottle-openers and assorted other useless trinkets. At one point I caught a disposable ashtray. I know, only in France.

After this huge litter-making monster had finally passed, there was a lull before the whirring of a helicopter hinted at the arrival of the cyclists. This sound sent a shudder of excitement through the hordes of people lining the road. As the first police outriders roared by, people began jockeying for position.

Then, around the corner they came. For me, it was an amazing moment. I’ve watched this event for years on the TV and to finally see it live made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

Heading the leading, breakaway, group was French favourite Thomas Voeckler. With his tongue hanging out and rolling around like a dinghy on a choppy sea, it was thrilling to see just how much he was giving to power up this ascent. The main bunch came through just behind and the whole field had passed us within 15 minutes. As I said, actual viewing time is pretty short.

Voeckler’s efforts on the stage were enough to earn him the leader’s “Yellow Jersey” and he would keep it for nine days before eventually finishing a gutsy fourth.

At the end of the day we felt rather pleased with our first effort at Tour hunting. We’d found a great vantage point and had seen the first significant move of the race. Hats off to Monsieur Voeckler, or “Chapeau” as the French cycling fans would have said.

Albepierre-Bredons in the Auvergne

Getting back in the car, we decided the best way to avoid the huge cavalcade of traffic that accompanies the Tour on the main roads was to get off the beaten track. As we had a highly detailed road map, it was agreed that, where possible, we’d take the path less travelled. This was the best decision of the trip.

Crawling down pot-holed, single-track roads through the most rustic villages, we saw the real rural France. Not the rural France that books will guide you to, but the slightly grubby, agricultural France where the locals come out to greet a car full of Brits who’ve stopped in their village square as if they’re welcoming visitors from another planet.

At one point in the small village of Thérondels, in the Aveyrons we took a wrong turn and ended up in a dusty farm courtyard. The farmer who was attaching a trailer to an extremely battered Peugeot van, looked up in surprise. Tom wound down the window and jokingly shouted, “Bonjour monsieur. Ou est Le Tour?” He laughed so hard he actually started coughing and had to steady himself against his van. After calming down he gave us some directions. We wouldn’t have understood even if we’d been listening.

After completing a 12-point turn, we left his premises. I looked round to see him waving and shaking his head.

A myth that was utterly dispelled for me on this trip was that of the French being unfriendly. It’s so untrue it’s not true. Just outside Bourges, we were outsmarted by a motorway toll. The machine wouldn’t take our ticket and nobody was answering on the intercom. After about five minutes there was quite a queue building and we were becoming a little concerned. The lady in the car behind us got out and so did the bus driver behind her. We braced ourselves to be lambasted as, “stupid English!” But both seemed genuinely concerned and just wanted to help. The bus driver headed off towards an office and came back with an attendant who made our ticket work. Amid much laughing and “bon voyage’s,” we drove away apologising.

It was certainly a great move to bring our bikes. Not just to avoid any further motorway toll embarrassments, but also in order to get in and about the Tour with speed and ease. Our technique was to drive to somewhere within cycling distance of the vantage point we’d selected for the day, then to cycle the last kilometres and avoid the bulk of the traffic.

The strategy first paid dividends when we went to Carmaux to catch the finish of stage 10.

The bible that was the Tour magazine, told us the estimated finishing time was 5.20pm so we knew what we were aiming for.

We arrived in the outskirts of Carmaux and parked up before riding in to the town centre and the stage finish. It was easy to find somewhere to lock up the bikes and we strolled to an excellent spot about 100 metres from the line.

We had a clear view as the leaders came flying round the corner like a swarm of angry bees. The Isle of Man’s Mark Cavendish, the Tour’s premier sprinter, was in front and we thought he’d won until the slow motion replay on the big screen across the road showed he’d been pipped at the line by Germany’s André Greipel.

We were surprised at how easy it had been to get a sight of the finishing straight and how much space we’d appeared to have. The number of spectators present, however, was very apparent as we tried to leave. We were caught in a huge rabble pressing its way towards the main exit point and it became so uncomfortable that we decided to try an alternative route. We followed a group of people up a dirt track and into the garden of a large and rather grand house where a woman was standing outside the back door shouting and gesticulating wildly that we were trespassing.

Rather than head back for the melee however, Steve decided to take the initiative. He hopped nimbly onto a wheely bin, then up a high wall before disappearing over the other side. We were left with no choice but to follow. With my camera swinging wildly around my neck, I felt like a teenage garden-hopper as I dropped down onto the street and jogged away.

It seems that using your initiative is one of the keys to successful Tour-watching and part of the fun is acting instinctively. We were camping for much of the trip but didn’t have any sites booked, so we just took our chances. Almost every town and village has a campsite of some description so you can basically take your pick. Leaving Albepierre-Bredons, I spotted a small sign with a picture of a tent on it. “Here we go,” I said. We turned down a narrow lane and emerged in an idyllic site, on the side of a bubbling stream with only two other tents pitched. There were hot running showers in a converted mill house, a tennis court and a nearby shop selling the essentials. This was top-grade camping and, upon leaving, we feared we might have to pay handsomely for the privilege. After giving the campsite owner more personal details than would be required to take out a bank loan, he asked us to hand over the princely sum of €8. Incredible stuff.

We camped free of charge when we went to watch stage 12 travel over the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees. But facilities were not so readily available. We pitched our tents at the base of a ski lift in the pouring rain, surrounded by mud and about 1,000 camper vans. We were, though, on the edge of the ski town of La Mongie and within striking distance of the cafés and bars there.

Those bars provided the best party of the trip. On the day of the stage it was estimated that half a million people lined the 17km of the climb and the roads were closed to traffic the day before. So, on the eve of the stage, we were surrounded by quite a number of people feeling quite a lot of excitement. We were up until 3am, dancing to a Basque brass band with French, Norwegians, Spaniards, Americans and Australians.

Hiking up the Col du Tourmalet from La Mongie

The Tour really is an international event and the results of this year’s competition reflected that. Cadel Evans’ victory was celebrated with calls for a national holiday in his native Australia. England’s Mark Cavendish who won five stages and the green jersey for leading the points classification must now be considered one of our country’s greatest athletes. On the continent he’s already a superstar and more people are starting to give him that sort of recognition at home. Perhaps more will make the journey south to support him and the other British riders in the 2012 Tour. If they do they’ll witness one of the world’s great sporting events and they’ll also see some stunningly beautiful parts of France they might not otherwise consider visiting.

Each year the Tour takes a different route but it always follows a basic loop through France. It’s striking on the TV but even more so when you see it for real, just how diverse and interesting the county is. In 2011, the Tour took the riders and spectators from the coast of the Vendée, through the agricultural heartland, across the mountain ranges of the Pyrenees and The Alps and on to finish, as always, in one of the world’s most cultural cities, Paris.

I was expecting the big mountains to be spectacular and for Paris to be as bustling and exciting as ever, but it was the lesser known stretches that surprised me most. The Auvergne, for example, is incredibly attractive with its dormant volcanoes, sprawling fields and forests and picture-perfect villages.

Going on a “Tour hunt” is an action-packed, adventuring holiday that delivers on so many levels. For those who love sport, an atmosphere of pure excitement and the thrill of exploring uncharted territory, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Vive Le Tour!

Fabian Cancellara

 

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