This was the beginning of a week’s hols and we hadn’t really planned to launch straight into the Tour but hey, it was just after excellent croissants and tea courtesy of Brittany Ferries, the walled town of St Malo was looking beautiful in the early morning sun against clear blue skies so it seemed a good prospect to meander across Brittany for 60 or 70 miles.
I reckoned that, even with a couple of stops to admire sleepy little villages, we’d still be at Mur-de-Bretagne before they closed the roads for the Tour to go through. Not that I knew much about the Tour and road closures. Minimal homework. I thought we’d busk it. We had the bikes with us, after all. If we were barred from driving, we’d just ride in.
Mur was in the grey sky zone – which went on to envelope northern Brittany for the rest of the week – and the place was swarming with gendarmes who were already closing off streets with barriers. The motorcaravan crowd were all in place and the streets were filling with people even though there was six hours to go before the finish, We got a place by a barrier on a corner in town, three kilometres from the finish, put the chairs up in a very Daily Telegraph, middle-aged way, alongside everyone else, and waited.
There were bikes all over town – hitched up on the front of buildings, decorated with flowers and tinsel, painted in psychedelic colours. There was also a constant stream of people riding past – some of whom looked like they had ridden the stage and others like they had popped out to buy a baguette. They all got applauded with equal enthusiasm. The teeny cyclists – under ten years old – who pedalled furiously up the hill through town with concentrated serious expressions earned the biggest cheers from the party crowd. I wanted to take one home. A teeny cyclist, not a baguette.
Disappointingly typical that the English people sitting next to us were the least sociable of the lot. An elderly lady and her son, who was incredibly and tediously technical about his time trialling achievements. Mother did the time-keeping. Whatever club they were with was welcome to them. On my other side, I had an excitable French boy, about nine years old who was full of beans. His younger sister didn’t really understand it but was happy to be there waiting for she knew not what.
The boy kept fidgeting so the big plastic barrier would move away from the line painted on the road and he’d make a big deal of dragging it back into position. He was quite sweet though. When it suddenly tipped down with rain as forcefully as if someone was emptying buckets from the heavens, I loaned him my umbrella.
We had all kinds of weather except snow and hail. There was wind, showers, torrential downpours, sudden hot, burning sunshine, thick persistent drizzle. It was like February with flashes of what you’d expect from July. Umbrellas were up and down. Waterproofs on and off,. People experienced at spending half the day sitting motionless at the roadside had capes and picnics. We had golf umbrellas and les grands sandwiches avec jambon and fromage to keep us going.
Across the road a man with a small brown dog on a lead sheltered in the doorway of a motorcycle shop whose owner had shut for the day, deciding he was no competition for the nation’s favourite sport, With three hours to go the crowd thickened considerably and people were standing behind us right up to the wall in front of the gardens of the Town Hall. Two corpulent old ladies with saggy, ill-disciplined breasts waddled into a gap on the pavement across the road and set up two chairs. They had no view of the approaching cyclists and I thought it was all going to come as a bit of a shock when the riders streaked out of nowhere for a moment before disappearing on up the hill.
The first group of riders to appear were the local cycling club waving happily and proudly to the crowd. Then what must have been the junior section of the cycling club, who were even more warmly received.
The ladies over the road showed no particular reaction but kept each other company with a good natter. The Caravan appeared about an hour and thirty minutes before the riders – a kind of colourful carnival of commercialism with people lobbing small free items from variously peculiar shaped, amusingly fashioned vehicles to the baying crowd.
The boy next to me got loads of booty, mostly because he chanted the names of the products insistently and at ear-bleeding pitch.
“Cochonoooooooooooooooooo!!!!!” resulted in a hail of small packets of pork products.
I gave him the pack Haribo sweets which struck me forcibly on the cheek. He flashed me a toothy grin that indicated he’d need braces in a couple of years and the sweets shut him up for precisely five seconds. I didn’t mind at all. This wiry, ecstatic little kid, standing, yelling and cheering and drumming his hands against the front of the big red and white plastic barrier was the spirit of Le Tour present and future.
In between passing vehicles, I caught glimpses of the two old ladies over the road filling their carrier bags with their freebies – bread, sweets, drinks, fridge magnets, discount vouchers, newspapers… My last glimpse of the one on the right was of her squashing three free hats and a bag of crisps into the last available cubic millimetres in her carrier bag. The next time I looked, both of them had packed up their chairs and gone. For them, the caravan, not the race, was the main event.
Upstairs windows were opened and people were hanging out of them and sitting on windowsills now as the Tour cars continued to zoom through town with increasing sense of urgency. Then the sound of choppers approaching and there was a palpable thrill as the lead car went by doing a commentary in French. As the motorbikes and cameramen zoomed into view, one helicopter was directly overhead and George Hincapie in red came charging up the hill just ahead of the pack, which filled the street from side to side with colour and wheels and crouching riders and helmets. The crowd, as you might expect after a 5 – 6 hour wait, went wild as their heroes swept by.
“Allez Geraint!!!” I waved my biggest Welsh flag but I don’t think anyone was looking and my loudest yells melted as nothing into the general cacophony.
Oh. It was all a bit quick, to be honest. I looked for Geraint, for Bradley Wiggins, for the Schleck brothers but it was all too fast to pick out individuals among a solid phalanx of about 80 riders.
There were cars, there were a couple more riders, more cars, a bunch more riders and then more cars followed by a solitary rider in the red and white of some team I can’t remember who was well off the back. He didn’t look like he was going to try to rejoin with under 3k to go as the leaders powered on up through Mur, swept down the hill on the other side and then climbed like demons to the finish line.
That was the place to be, that day, the Mur. I spoke to a German guy who’d been there and seen the riders conquer the 1.7k Wall of Brittany. He’d seen nothing to compare in his cycling life. Cadel Evans, won it. It was a very tight finish with Alberto Contador putting his hands up, thinking he’d got it, but in fact he’d been nicely and satisfyingly pipped by the craggy Australian warhorse, who might well go on to win the whole thing. I watched a bit on the TV after joining a scrum of people spread out into the street straining to view the small television set in a bar which had been turned to face out into the street.
That was the one problem, the waiting in ignorance, not knowing what was happening on the rest of the stage. But it was Mur’s first time as a Tour town. Maybe next time they’ll have a big screen up in front of the Town Hall to keep everyone absorbed with the on-going action.
The crowds vanished quickly and by the time we’d had a saucisson galette and some Breton cidre from a temporary street cafe, people were removing the barriers and the roads were all open. Me, Capt Sensible and Mur had had our first experience of Le Tour.
For the record, the stage results:
- Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 4:11:39
- Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard
- Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Pro Team Astana
- Rigoberto Uran Uran (Col) Sky Procycling
- Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
- Thor Hushovd (Nor) Team Garmin-Cervelo
- Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek
- Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
- Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
- Andreas Klöden (Ger) Team RadioShack