The race was due to come straight by our hotel on the outskirts of the little seaside town of Sables D’Or Les Pins but as it was a very fast, straight stretch of highway, it didn’t seem the best viewing point – even though the laughingly-called “solarium” on the roof (do they ever get proper sunshine in Brittany?) would have been a good vantage point.
We got on the bikes and rode part of the actual Tour de France stage through the seaside town with the placards advertising fast food and barbe du papa and the place where you can hire the four wheeled seaside bikes, past the banners high on every lamp post announcing the Tour arrival at Frehel.
The long stretch of golden sand was virtually deserted as we started the descent that wound its way up through the pines on to Cap Frehel. The finish came before the actual rocky outcrop which supports a big old granite lighthouse and communities of thousands of nesting birds restless and squawking and streaking the cliffs white.
Six hours before the race and the roads were very busy with vehicles, bicycles and walkers. The early camper vans had staked their claim to the roadside – those vehicles, while I abhor their bulk, are probably the perfect base from which to follow and watch the Tour – assuming you can afford the petrol.
People were walking up from the town, some were cycling. Racing types danced past me out of the saddle in a big gear as though I was standing still, which was mildly annoying. I’m still not much cop on hills but at least I didn’t have to get off and push as some did with bikes that were more laden.
Back to Frehel where the road winds up through the pines, takes a bit of a dip and then up again and becomes a steady incline before flattening after the flamme rouge of the 1k mark. Fortunately it was far too early for the observers just claiming their places to cheer passing cyclists but it was nevertheless a huge thrill to be riding part of the stage, passing the 4k, 3k, 2k where later, the world’s finest road racers would be battling it out.
The Tour “village” started at about 1k with stalls and food places and shops before the vast fenced off, security pass only, area of the Tour village proper. We had no passes so we locked up the bikes to the convenient wire fence 500k from the finish which separated us from the corporate guests. We explored the perimeter fence for signs of weakness. There were none. There were quite a lot of security guards where there were openings for access.
The corporate seating was either side of the finish – high and vast – the press booths were lined up like tall glossy boxes either side of the finish, behind them a mass of lorries and units of all shapes and sizes housing press, TV, sponsors and the entire Tour panoply. Out on its own pitched on some rough grass, was a little white gazebo with just a roof canopy which bore the logo “ITV 4.” Hilarious to think the legend Phil Liggett might arrive with his camping chair any minute and sit in it. When we passed by about half an hour later, it had gone, which was just as well as it didn’t look good against the glossy white tower of TV France, or the open air interview suite of some French radio station with two blokes chatting on air in French but maintaining the over-familiar faux-smiley style of radio broadcasters everywhere.
The public bit included a Village of Merchandising which seemed chiefly concerned with publicising the immediate area, not taking into account the fact that, er, we were already there. Of limited use, I thought but hey you can’t blame them for taking advantage and there were at least a score of English people, one Welsh person (me) four Germans and a handful of Belgians that we’d seen.
The finishing line was visible only if you squashed in like sardines packed six against the fence and six behind (limited views unless they got gradually taller), The line is a magical thing – so technologically advanced that everyone involved in setting up stepped over it gingerly and with care, as though it might deliver a 500k volt electric shock. The gendarmarie watched it carefully. One foot on the finish line and you’d definitely be on your way to the Foreign Legion.
After a thorough reccie, it was clear that the best viewing spot was at 180m within sight of our bikes and just in front of the nice Belgians who had excellent English and quality rip-off team strips but someone didn’t stock any Team Sky gear.
Oldies and people with small children, had already staked claims to all the prime spots next to the barriers. We were second row forwards. Capt Sensible isn’t good at standing up for lengthy periods so he wandered off while I plonked my ruck-sack and waterproofs beside me to keep his place. I settled in to wait. Five hours? Piece of madeleine. I once queued for eight hours to see the holography exhibition at the Royal Academy with my little brother. Anyway, there was a man giving out free cups of shandy, I’d struck up a kind of conversation with the French woman in front, based on admiring the making of a Far Breton tart in a poele which was being shown on the huge TV screen (this was way before the stage had even begun, remember) and across the road, I had a view of les pins und les sables. What could be worse? Being the Banette woman, giving out slices of “artisan” bread while dressed as a baguette, that’s what.
The stage started and my French friend and her husband were taking an avid interest in the group which had broken from the front of the peleton. She explained that the French guy in the break was their son in law, Sebastien Turgot. I’d missed him winning the intermediate sprint but he was still going strong, staying away from the peloton. They were there for him because his wife had stayed at home with their bebe. Amazing. So we had someone else to cheer for besides the Brad and Geraint and the entire Sky team.
As we were getting pally, I told her I was Welsh not English, although thinking about it, it was obvious when I got my giant flag out and wore it sarong style with the dragons head strategically placed at the front. But they seemed genuinely delighted to hear it as they had been to Wales themselves, visiting someone in Tredegar. I told them it used to be on my dad’s bus route when he was a l’autobus driver. Franglais worked very well and soon she was giving me her own recipe for Far Breton – a prune and custard tart – while I wrote it down.
The father and son to my left were wearing hats with ‘Philippe Gilbert Fan Club’ embroidered on them so it wasn’t hard to figure who they’d be cheering for. There was a grandson sitting on grandad’s shoulders aged about three who profited handsomely from the freebies as everyone around him donated to him the various bits of stuff – sweets, biscuits, hats, shakers, that they caught. The cycling mother-in-law fortunately stopped me in the nick of time from handing him a lanyard with some card on the end of it. It was some kind of gambling voucher. How was I to know it’s illegal for three-year-old’s to place bets in France? Honestly.
I’d read in one of the freebie news sheets that a cannon had been constructed on one of the floats to fire madeleines at the crowd. I couldn’t wait to be covered in delicious buttery crumbs but sadly, it wasn’t working and the madeleine promo girls just lobbed packets instead. (Yes, obviously I caught one. I wasn’t going to let the kid get those. Fair’s fair. He’d had all my Haribos).
It rained a bit, so the waterproofs went on and the umbrellas came out but it was soon replaced by the sort of sunshine that burns you to a crisp in five minutes. Thats the trouble with Brittany, you need waterproofing as well as sunscreen.
The race was exciting, the escape group was caught after about 140k but Sebastien was still up with the action, so they were hugely excited. They packed up their chairs to stand and get a better view of the action. Then the Miracle of Frehel occurred. Mother-in-law patted the rail between her and her husband indicating that I should join them! Quelle joi de vive and bonne idee! Un mille des merci beaucoups! She was firm about me not waving my three foot long green pmu hand so I made do with purple sparkly shaker thing sponsored by TV France.
All eyes were on the screen now. So exciting watching the big screen recognising the road outside our hotel and knowing it was all just four minutes or so away, three, two, and counting. The cars were speeding ahead of the action, the noise of the crowd down the road accelerated towards us and suddenly riders filled the road.
Capt Sensible had the camera on sports setting, snapping off pics. I saw Cav come blasting by us but it was only when I saw the photos later I realised that Geraint Thomas had been just ahead. Cav using him as his lead-out man! They passed as though jet-propelled and it was only the last quarter of the pack, slower, that I got a good look at. These guys really do make horse racing look slow.
So fabulous that Cav nailed the sprint finish, especially as I’d announced to the near neighbours that I thought it was his day, annoying the Gilbert Fan Club. And Sebastien Turgot did extremely well to finish 36th I think or maybe that was his GC position. Anyway, it had been an excellent stage for him because he shot 20 places up the GC.
Everyone was moving off, so there was nothing to do but nip around the back of the Interdit area to see if we could spot some riders and lo, on yonder podium there was a presentation and I saw that it was Geraint, wearing his white Young Rider jersey holding up a white teddy bear and some flowers and looking extremely happy. I was still wearing my Welsh flag and cheered so loudly it alarmed everyone around me. So I just pointed to the flag. Galloise.
He was interviewed by Ned Boulting, which was frustrating because the TV camera was in the opposite direction to where I was standing and then he moved off and someone gave him his bike and he was walking away! The whole problem about the Tour is that it’s virtually impossible for fans to congratulate their heroes after the event. It would be a shame, I thought, if he wasn’t aware of some home-grown support right there, all excited, like. There was nothing for it but to give him a shout.
“GERRAAAAAAAINT!!!!” The emphasis was held on the second syllable, rather in the manner that his mum must have used when he was still out playing at the bottom of the road and was half an hour late for his tea. It was, I have to admit, a bit fish-wifey but it did the trick. He turned, slightly puzzledlooked round, slightly puzzled as though some aunt had probably thought I was his Aunty Bronwen.
He looked and smiled broadly as I babbled congratulations and well done and good luck. That was it, really. Not much but it made me feel better. Everyone around me was again wondering what the hell was going on, so I just pointed at the flag again “”Galloise!” which caused much amusement. You might have divined that by now, I was on a total endorphin high which ensured I wasn’t embarrassed by anything.
Wearing the Welsh flag and a yellow Tour peaked hat, carrying two huge green hands plus a purple sparkly thing and a rucksack, I realised no-one in the world was going to take me seriously.
The stage results:
1 Mark Cavendish (GBr) HTC-Highroad 3:38:32
2 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
3 Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Spa) Movistar Team
4 Tony Gallopin (Fra) Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne
5 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Sky Procycling
6 André Greipel (Ger) Omega Pharma-Lotto
7 Sébastien Hinault (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
8 William Bonnet (Fra) FDJ
9 Daniel Oss (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale
10 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Team Garmin-Cervelo
Just signed to Team Sky for another three years.