Le Tour de France 2011, and we couldn’t get out of Andorra quickly enough.
Before 08:00 we got the lift down from the 5th floor of the hotel, to be greeted by great plumes of cigarette smoke belching out of the breakfast area.
Last night’s determination to “make a fuss about the lack of advertised weefee” evaporated, as we just wanted to put distance between us and this horrid place as fast as possible.
Coming down off the mountain was made more interesting thanks to the low cloud cover / mist, which reduced visibility to less than 20 metres, but I just glided the hired Toyota carefully into the rain down in the valley, taking my time.
Once we got to Limoux we parked the car easily in the “Press Arriére” parking area, as we were going to take it easy and not burst ourselves – we have a heavy day planned tomorrow on the Rest Day with lots of interviews and press conferences, so once the race departed today and our photos, interviews and soundbites were all ‘in the can’, we planned to just potter our way down to Montpellier and get all the articles edited and submitted.
We started off in the Village Départ, with a Néstle Ricoré coffee and some cheese and bread, and pottered over to the Skoda tent to have a blether with one of cycling’s greats, Stephen Roche.
Stephen gave us a laugh with his assessment of Andy and Frank’s riding yesterday:
“If I was put in charge of the Tour next year, I’d only time the last 2km of each stage, and I’d install wing mirrors on the Leopard bikes so that they wouldn’t have to keep looking round for the other brother – oh, and I’d have masseurs ready at the finish to give their necks a rub, just in case the mirrors didn’t work!
“Voeckler has been brilliant, but he’s riding at 110% every day and the favourites are only attacking him at the end of the stages. I don’t think he can take yellow to Paris, but this race is impossible to analyse, no one knows what will happen. But what I would say is that if I was riding, I wouldn’t have my team riding on the front; I’d have them attacking, stirring things up!'”
Nearby was Yvon Sanquer, Contador’s manager in the Astana team last year, when he guided Bert to the win.
“It’s a different world for me now, as a Skoda rep, and there’s much less stress than driving the team car! Yes, I still keep in touch with Alberto, but also Frank Schleck – he rode for me in 2001 remember, when he first turned pro.
“I think it’s still possible for Alberto to win, it will be difficult with his deficit on Evans but you have to remember that Contador is very tough mentally – he’s a real competitor. I think he is recovering a little each day; if you look at him yesterday, he was quick to respond to the attacks by Schleck.
“It’s difficult to say if Voeckler can win, it’s incredible what he’s done: yesterday he was a match for the best and I think a podium is possible for him. Next week, in the Alps is another race, but today could be an important day, the wind and rain could have a big influence.”
We left the village and headed over to the team buses, where we spotted Brian Nygaard. We have a slight connection with the man because he spent some time at St. Andrew’s University. Brian admitted to not going into Dundee for a drink because of its reputation!
“The race is still open and undecided, we’re in a good spot but perhaps not as comfortable as we’d like – Cadel has a little time on us. There was only one place to attack yesterday, at the bottom of the Plateau de Beille, where it’s steepest – that’s why we drove hard in the valley.
“But the attacks were negated so there was no point in persisting because the gradient eases. I don’t think Voeckler can go all the way to Paris, I think he’ll have a bad day. The days of hard effort accumulate in the Tour; it’s been a very hard race from the start and he’s used up a lot of effort to defend the jersey.
“The other aspect of having the yellow jersey is the amount of time that’s taken up with presentations and interviews – it’s nice to get the attention but that adds up, too. All of that said, you have to give huge credit to Voeckler.”
Our pal Wessel, who normally sits amongst the riders on the back of an accredited photographer’s motorbike gave me some tips on how to get great action shots;
“My first Tour was ’84, I was Cor’s assistant, I’d do some stages but also transporting and developing the rolls of film. I’ve been on the motor bike at the Tour since 2000; I served my apprenticeship on the motor bike in smaller races in Holland – I used to race as an amateur so I understand the effect that the wind can have on a race and how a peloton moves.
“There are 60 to 70 motor bikes on the Tour, 16 of them for the photographers – but next year that goes down to 12. Any pro will tell you that the crashes never happen on the dangerous parts of the parcours, it’s always where you’d least expect it.
“Being a race photographer isn’t like doing portraiture, you don’t have time to think, it’s instinct, being in the right place at the right time. This Tour is unlike any I’ve ever seen, it’s so different, so dangerous. I can remember having time to stop for lunch when you did the start and finish of a stage; there would be no chance of that now, it’s just so much faster. It’s like amateur racing, the flag drops and the first attack goes.
“Voeckler should really have been out of yellow yesterday but the favourites are waiting for the Alps. Apart from the climbs in the Alps, the time trial will be a problem for him.”
We were keen to ask Sky top man Dave Brailsford about the wisdom of having Geraint wait along with the rest of the team when Bradley crashed last week, given how close G would have been to the top of the white jersey competition, but Dave gave us the rational behind the decision in a way that made perfect sense;
“I don’t think it was a mistake, no. The team for the Tour was built 100% around Brad and when they hear he’s down, they stop — they’re not robots. We were car eight or nine and the numbers of the crash victims trickle in over race radio, it’s not like you know immediately all the riders who are on the deck.
“As the pile of riders unravels it’s not until you get to the bottom that you realize that Brad is in there. When the guys hear that Brad is down they just stop instinctively — it’s not a controlled situation, its chaos. Then Brad gets up and it takes a little while to establish that he can’t continue.
“What if Brad is OK and gets up. but Geraint says ‘I’m going’ and Brad loses a minute or two because he doesn’t have full team support? And with the greatest of respect to Geraint it would have been difficult for him to retain the white jersey in the mountains. But he had his moment with that epic break over the Tourmalet.
“If Brad had still been in the race then Geraint would have been riding for him and there would have been no Tourmalet exploit. The objectives now with Rigoberto are twofold for the rest of the race — to develop his riding skills and to get him in to the top ten on GC.
“Of course well defend the white jersey now but we have to get through the Alps — he’s a good time trial rider, he was top 20 in the Dauphine time trial. One of the things we have to teach him is not to be too impulsive; young riders tend to react, go with every attack, but you can’t keep doing that. We told him to stick with Basso, he’s Mr. Consistency; he just rides across the gaps steadily. The fact that he’s resisting the urge to go with every move demonstrates that he’s gaining experience.
“I don’t know who’s going to win the Tour, but I’ll tell you who I’d like to win — Voeckler. His performance is the single best thing that’s happened to French cycling in a decade — allez Voeckler!”
Lieuwe Westra didn’t have a lot of time to chat before heading off on his bike to sign on, but did tell us that his injuries are getting better, despite all the blue taping on his knees which may make us think otherwise;
“I have a little knee pain due to the cold weather but I managed to avoid the crashes. The Pyrenean stages were very hard and I’m just glad there’s no rain today!
“My goal for the rest of the race is to do a good ride in the time trial at Grenoble.
My injured teammates? Thomas [De Gendt] and Johnny [Hoogerland] are both getting a little better every day; so that’s good for the team.”
Matt White ambled by, obviously relishing being back at the Tour, albeit not with an active team, but we suspected he was present in a GreenEdge capacity, to meet riders who are out of contract next year with a view to building the new Aussie team’s roster;
“Cadel’s looking good! The Schlecks will try to isolate him but I think his biggest ally will be Basso, they’re climbing styles are similar, one pace, albeit Cadel is a little more explosive. It’s been very cagey in the Pyrenees, Andy looks good but hasn’t really ‘thrown down’ yet.
“Voeckler’s time trialling ability will let him down, but he might just hang on ’til then. I think he’ll be top ten but it’s a really hard TT and he’s been riding with so much bravado.
“But what was he doing chasing down the attacks yesterday? He should let the big boys play! But that’s just the way he is, he can’t help himself and it’s one of the reasons he’s so popular.”
And with that, the riders began to line up for the start, and team staff ran to their vehicles, as the crowd noise volume increased – but not enough to drown out MC Daniel Mangeas, who was building the excitement in the way only he can.
For us, another quick Ricoré in the now-being- dismantled village with our new pal John, working for the Wall Street Journal, and then it was off on the three hour drive to Montpellier, and a nightmare search for our hotel amongst the one way road-worked narrow streets of the old town.