Much of the cynicism I have built-up about the commercialism and rampant ‘janitor-mentality’ of many of the officials on Le Tour de France 2006 evaporated on Friday as we drove the full race route from Lisieux to Vitré.
There’s still innocence and magic about the race — in these parts anyway — four and five hours before the race was due through there were thousands of people roadside. Every age group was represented, although it seems to be the old and the young who embrace the race most warmly.
Early in the day it began to rain, there was no suggestion of not watching the race — brollies simply appeared and still the big smiles and waves as we passed.
The thing about the Tour is that it comes to you, no entry charge, just find the nearest section of roadside it passes, get out the folding chairs, unload the picnic hamper and wait. It’s not just the sporting aspect, there’s the whole atmosphere of relaxation, warmth and anticipation — magical.
It was wet when we left Lisieux after a coffee and a bap at a café in old Lisieux with its quaint, half-timbered old houses. More by luck than good judgement we ended-up on the course. There’s an alternative road to the finish mapped-out for support staff, but it’s usually designed to induce terminal boredom.
We had decided to give the start a miss and go straight to the press room so we could get the previous days work sorted out. We thought three hours would get us there but it was nearer five because of the number of stops we made.
The first KOM (King of the Mountains) came early in the day — it was a stinker, narrow and twisty; there would have been a few chasing hard to get back-on after this one.
The crowd was already gathering and we stopped at the top so as Rebecca could do a ‘piece to camera’ at the top with the Champion banners in the background.
There were Gendarmes on every junction, however small, but it was still around five hours until race time.
There were posters for right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen on back of many of the road signs; we talked to a union group who were protesting about hospital closure and yet another group were protesting about nuclear waste. Nobody was protesting so much as to upset the race however.
Closer to the finish we stopped so that Rebecca could interview ‘The Devil’. In all the whole 180 plus kilometres was a joy. Less joyful was finding the press room – it was four kilometres from the finish but cool with plenty of room and good catering.
Unusually there were no glitches, I got my piece on the top ten velos away, plus the 50 pictures to go with it and I also fired-off the pics I took on the drive.
Next up was driving Saturday’s 52 kilometre time trial course from the Rennes suburb of Saint Gregoire via a rural loop back into the city of Rennes.
The rain was chucking it down when we arrived at St. Gregoire and it took us a wee while to orientate, but once on the route there were plenty of direction arrows and – without exaggeration — maybe a thousand camper vans on the route, remember the race wasn’t until the next day.
It was a typical Tour test, a bit of everything, but not too technical. If you had to categorise it, it’s a ‘strong man’s course’ with lots of long, tough drags where it would be easy to lose chunks of time.
Some of the sections in the villages were tricky with cobbles, road furniture, speed-bumps and mini-roundabouts; if it rains it will need care. The test finishes with a five mile blast around the dual carriageways of the inner ring road in Rennes, long straights and long drags on leafy boulevards.
It takes a wee while to do a preview because you have to stop and take pictures as you go. I jot notes as I drive, maybe I’ll get am MP3 recorder for the job.
After our preview it was time to play ‘find the hotel’. It was in the town of Bruz, south of Rennes, but when we arrived we discovered we had been moved and were actually back up in Rennes. The driving is absolutely the worst part of the Tour and it was another hour before we reached our Campanile.
I wanted the time trial preview posted on Friday so, even given that they are eight hours behind us in Canada, I had to get to work on my write-up as soon as I sat down.
James and Rebecca went to eat whilst I tried to make sense of my notes and double checked them back against the race map and profile.
Fortunately, the wi-fi in the room was perfect and I had no bother with internet access; it costs — but that’s life. The pictures I took weren’t the best because the light was so bad, but I organised captions and fired them off anyway. It was 10.30 pm by the time I had finished and I it’s not often I say it, but I was a tired boy when I slid into bed around 11.00 pm.
I dragged myself up at 06.00 am Saturday to write this and I’m sitting in the reception so as not to disturb James. It’s wet outside – maybe it will clear for the later starters.
First down the ramp is at 10.00 with the big guns not going-off until the afternoon. Game plan is to get up to the start, grab some food (I’m starving), take pictures of the time trial bikes for a photo feature which is my piece for the day, run Rebecca to the airport (she’s off home today), return to the race, maybe follow a rider round the course then back to the press room and start tapping.
Now let’s see if I can get logged-on to this wi-fi…