Confessions of a roadside spectator…

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As we approach another edition of the Tour de France, we will be publishing some online features relating to the race. These are from regular contributors to RIDE Cycling Review as well as readers who have stories that they’d like to share about their experience(s) with the event. If you have any anecdotes you’d like to share, feel free to send your story to RIDE’s publisher.

The fifth installment comes from Matthew Boevink who attended the Tour de France for the first time last year. Here he offers some suggestions on how to watch the event live for those who are considering making the journey to France and are new to being a spectator at the world’s biggest bike race….

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Chasing the Tour –  why go and how to do it…

I first became interested in cycling watching channel 9′s Wide World of Sports weekend summary of the 1986 Tour de France where Greg LeMond stopped to wait for his team leader Benard Hinault, giving up his chance to win. I could not believe that such a thing would happen in sport. Not wanting to win for yourself? Of course I did not understand cycling, but so began an interest, and then obession with this amazing race, particularly when Hinault did not return the respect the following year. As one of six children it was only during SBS’s 6.00pm coverage of the Tour that I was allowed to eat dinner in front of the television, away from the rest of the family. Over time the gathering around the TV grew such that the Tour de France became, and continues to be a full family affair. Many were the days were I would try avoid the morning news before the days winner was announced.

After much thinking about going (it was always a when, not if – despite never actually making plans), 2011 became “the” year. My brother Adam was living in France for a year, our friend Christian who lives in Paris was to come with us for a few days and then lend us his car for two weeks and my work was telling, yes telling me, I had to reduce my leave balance. Finally, after so many years of “one day I’ll go”, I now actually was.

The "two second" tent...

Why go…?

In trying to explain “Why go?” the rush of reasons are formed in images, many displayed from above by helicopters against which cyclists are framed. You want to go for many reasons: the massive mountains with broad open valleys; spectacular countryside vistas; to see a châteaux on a hillside; to witness the colours of the peloton with the bright yellow sunflowers in the background; to experience standing on tree-lined avenues of straight road sheltering a break away that is trying to persevere and not be devoured in its fragile alliance tethering on the ruins of self interest by the all consuming, insatiable angry beast that is a peleton driven by sprinters teams – and, all too often, the few are devoured by the many with the finish line only a few hundred metres away…

The reasons to go includes the contrast of the jubilant cheering exultant passionate crowd urging for more against the pain clenched faces of the riders, a press so thick that it does not seem possible to ride through, yet which parts like the opening of a curtain at just the precise moment, with always the impending inadvertent downfall of a hero (twice, in my memory, has this occurred making the threat real). I visualise all this to the tones of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen.

Going means being a part of “it”, ie. the race itself, not merely a passive helicopter view observer of the television coverage. Going also means being able to join in a conversation on a group ride as some the mythical climbs are discussed between riders who moments ago were strangers, but now share a common bond, as my brother Chris did on one of our weekend rides. Going means savouring the delicious nectar of a fruit, not merely hearing how it tasted.

My experience at the Tour delivered all the above and more. What you do not see on television, which follows the exploits of the leaders, is the stately procession of the peleton riding in the massed groupings up the mountain passes. Nor do you see Mark Cavendish in the green jersey, trailing the main grupetto, surrounded by five team-mates shepherding him up the final climb, passing him a Coke for energy, all working to ensure he finishes within the required time.

Television can not describe the heighten awareness of excitement that occurs once you can hear the helicopters rotors after waiting on a mountain side, eating a baguette, cheese, salami and drinking wine purchased in a local village, as you wait many hours for the riders to arrive. During this waiting time, music is being played and we non-elite riders are being cheered by the crowd as we attempt to conquer a climb like Alpe d’Huez. And then the noise that comes with the leaders and pelotons arrival… followed by the vast silence that remains once they have passed you by. All this is followed by conversations on who you did or did not see, how the riders looked and the mad rush to grab a position by a campervan to see the end of the stage being telecast live.

In addition to all of the above, you get an appreciation for how far and high the cyclists ride. The distances are vast and then you have those mountains. The Tour is an expression of the potential of what we as humans can do, combined with a glorious environment. Being there is the only way you can really appreciate it.

What to do when you get there…

Chasing the Tour de France requires a lot of energy and patience. You can share the experience with over 200,000 others on a single day, with the whole crowd looking to leave at the same time on a single road down the mountain side. Here are a few logistical tips for any debutant spectators.

Motorised transport is a must

You cannot consistently get to where you need to go in the time required using trains or buses.

Self driving is easier than you would image, but your car must have the capacity to load bicycles within/on/behind it.

A bicycle should also be mandatory

Consider that the 200,000 people crowding on to a mountain route have no public transport available to move them, just how many cars are required. The line of parked cars can easily be 20km long.

Regardless of how early you get there, park your car 20+km away and ride to the base of the climb or sprint finish so you can avoid the traffic jam that always occurs. Face the car in the direction you want to travel at the end of the day!

Organise accommodation before you get there

This rule applies in most situations… but not necessarily if you are camping. French camp sites are excellent, the cost is about five euros per night… and you will get a hot shower!

If the designed sites are full you can camp almost anywhere.

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Clothes

Be prepared for everything. At 2,700m you can get snow in summer.

- an orange shirt is mandatory. On Alpe d’Huez wear a Dutch football jersey and join corner seven – ie. “Dutch Corner” for the most amazing street party you will ever experience. Orange also is the colour for the Basque supporters because of Euskaltel, the title sponsor of the team from ‘Paìs Vasco’.

What to do race day

You have less time than you think. Roads are closed well before the Tour arrives so you need to get through before the closures happen.

Get to your climb at least three hours before the Tour caravan is due to arrive. You can find out the anticipated arrival time of the caravan and riders in daily L’Equipe.

If police or gradient stops you riding the mountain, walk your bike. This enables you the option of riding down at the end of the stage – riding 10km or 20km is much faster than walking it!

Try to find a campervan with a television to watch the race itself.

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Paint

You need lots of it. Spray cans or a roller and tray are essential is you have a full Tour de France experience.

You will have lots of time to apply it (note above). Being able to tag the road in front of police is a great way to fill it.

Be creative!

It was particularly pleasing that Jens Voigt referenced some of our art work in his blog Hardly Serious stating … “The only thing that I remember about climbing up the finish on the Plateau de Beille was at one point, I saw my name written on the road in these huge letters in German national colors. And then this guy started running next to me yelling, ‘I did it for you Jens! I did it all for you!’ That was nice and definitely helped me in my moment of misery”.

Our proudest work, which became our signature, was a kangaroo hopping down the road. As well as along some of the climbs we also covered 25, 20 and 5km to banner points and along the inside bends of time trial into Grenoble, meaning every cyclist had to ride see them. We like to think it made a statement of who was going to win and that Cadel was talking about us when he wrote in his online diary “thanks for all the kangaroos”. A friend subsequently did the time trial route some months back and the kangaroos are still proudly there.

Enjoy it…!

At the very least you want to go so that when you watch subsequent coverage of the Tour (and Giro, Vuelta, Classics) everything will bring back that satisfied smile that you did it. And like a fine French wine, the memories will only improve with time.

Believe me when I say, you “need” to go!

By Matthew Boevink

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Author: rob@ride

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