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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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There can be few sports to rival skiing when it comes to people putting their necks on the line and risking huge embarrassment. But it’s not only nervous beginners capable of making total fools of themselves. Skiers of all abilities endeavour to get into positions where a red face can be the only outcome. Here below are some of the classic cases:

1 – The Barnes Wallace

The first morning of the holiday and you’ve an aura of confidence. With last year’s lessons in the bank, you’ve achieved the breakthrough. This over exuberance can be costly. Carrying too much speed in towards a busy chair lift queue you lose control. With a last ditch effort to stop, you throw yourself to the ground. Resembling a famous scene from The Dambusters, you plough headfirst, straight into a group of 10 Swedish ski team members. Sticks and goggles go flying and the sound of clothing ripping and metal crashing reverberates through the valley. Lying in a tangle of Salomons, Gore-Tex and blonde hair, you vow to go back to lessons that afternoon.

2 – The Leap of Faith

Skiing past the snow park you boast to your companions that, “By the end of the week I’ll be going off those jumps.” A bold proclamation, made only more so by the gaggle of 50 talented skiers and boarders permanently congregated at the top of the park. They ooh, ahh and applaud their friends while laughing callously at any inexperienced soul who is foolhardy enough to give it a go.

Friday afternoon arrives and you pull into the park. You stand out fairly obviously in a bright green Rodeo suit circa 1987 while your rear-entry boots and 190cm slalom skis look a touch out of place. Ignoring the giggles and at least one friendly warning you throw yourself towards the main kicker.

Feeling poised it’s not until about 15 feet before the lip you remember you have no idea how to jump. Leaning back you fly straight into the air, legs apart and arms waving like a windmill. With too much vertical and not enough horizontal progress, you’re destined to land on the plateau. Thudding down on your back, you lie looking skyward with the wind knocked out of you. To add to the embarrassment you now have to scrabble about trying to reclaim your antiquated gear as jeers from above urge you to, “get out of the way, you stupid English!”

3 – The Axeman Cometh

A novice skier is easy to spot by their total inability to manage their equipment when not on the slopes. We all aim to look like the suave local instructor as he saunters through the main street carrying four sets of skis and a bag of baguettes.

Unfortunately the majority of us look more like we’re re-enacting a scene from the Chuckle Brothers as we clumsily stumble along the pavement. This is fine as people can gauge your ineptitude and grant you a wide berth.

The most dangerous time though is the intermediate stage when you think you’ve grasped it. On a busy road at 4.30pm you swing your skis onto your shoulder, just as you’ve seen the instructors do. With a confident swagger you enthusiastically regale your companion about the day’s triumphs. Whilst describing a particularly well carved turn you gesticulate wildly, forgetting the 6 foot planks on your shoulder. Swinging them round you clobber the top dog from the ski patrol on the side of the head. Monsieur is in no mood to accept apologies and now you’re less high-spirited as your lift pass has been confiscated. You suffer the ignominy of spending the last days of the holiday sledging and looking at ice sculptures.

4 – The Chairlift Coward

When starting out, ski lifts can be just as terrifying as the runs themselves. The Poma is treacherous, the T-Bar a trial, but maybe the most dangerous of all is the chairlift. For the experienced skier these are a relaxing way up the mountain granting a welcome break for the legs. But, for the complete novice they are terrifying and confusing beasts.

Luckily when you board at the bottom there’s a friendly looking chap with a leathered face to help you on. But, as you approach the summit nerves begin to set in. The guy beside you throws open the protective barrier exposing you to the sheer drop. Losing the plot you cling onto the side. Unfortunately the lift op hasn’t spotted your plight as he’s carving a Mickey Mouse in the snow beside his little hut. Staying rigid in your seat, you swing round the end and start to head back down. After some shouting the lifty spots the predicament and stops the mechanism just as you’re above the protective net at the edge of the lift station. 45 minutes later you’ve been winched down and the lift can finally re-open.

5 – The Child Catcher

On a busy slope you’re feeling pretty positive about your ability. As you cruise down the edge of the piste you scoff at the snow-ploughers struggling in the centre. Gaining self-belief you pick up a touch more speed.

But, at the very moment the slope begins to narrow, a tribe of twenty, bibbed and helmeted 5-year-olds are winding along behind a wizened instructor. At first you’re confident that you’ll squeeze past so you keep up the quick pace. But disaster looms as you realise the first of the little tykes just isn’t going to turn where you expected. You’re on an unavoidable collision course. Little Thierry piles into you as you frantically try and stop. He tumbles to the ground with a shrill “Sacre bleu!” You also fall, rag-dolling down to where the old instructor has halted to survey what has occurred.

As you look up you witness the end of the carnage. Rather than changing direction every single one of the nippers has piled straight on into the fallen Thierry. The happy little troop has transformed into a giant, bawling haystack of pre-schoolers. The instructor takes his hands from his eyes and turns to deal with you. After being scolded like a toddler for five minutes you timidly skulk away.

Fergus Bisset