Confessions of the publisher… Back Page (Official Tour Guide 2011)

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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 third installment comes from Rob Arnold, the publisher of the Official Tour de France Guide (on sale 15 June). It’s the ‘Back Page’ of last year’s Guide and offers an observation about what he does in July each year… and has done since 1998 as part of the LeTour.fr team.

End of 'The Back Page' - Official Tour Guide (Australian Edition) 2011.

End of 'The Back Page' - Official Tour Guide (Australian Edition) 2011.

The Back Page: Official Tour Guide (Australian Edition) 2011…

The magnitude of the Tour de France means that every day produces thousands of stories full of bravado and courage, humility and grace. Every action of the riders is put under scrutiny but what about the rest of the entourage? Between perception and reality is a huge chasm…

By Rob Arnold

Oh yeah, I’ve heard them all. Rarely does a July come and go without someone offering to carry my bags, or drive the car, or do whatever they can to be part of the Tour de France. Thing is, those who make these offers would not actually become my bagagiste or chauffeur. It’s just an idle threat. I know because some have come to France. They now realise that my trips to the Tour are not just junkets that enable me to travel to the other side of the world to watch a bike race.

There’s also plenty of work to be done, but this isn’t meant to be a column of complaint. It’s the final snippet in [the 2011] Official Guide and the intention is to explain life on the Tour. How the days pass, what my part in the puzzle is, and when there’s a blink of time for sleep.

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The Tour is a highlight of my year. They say there are two options for anyone involved in the race. You can either do your first one, get it over and done with… and never return. Or you get hooked. The 2011 Tour was my 14th year doing the same job. . If it wasn’t a bit of fun, then why would anyone go?

“The Tour is a fête” Jean-Marie Leblanc said every year when he was the race director. “It’s a celebration – of cycling, of sport, of human endeavour… of course it’s popular.”

But it’s also so immense that there are times when even the seasoned campaigner queries how they get themselves into the many strange situations that happen during the course of three weeks on the road with a few thousand of your closest friends. Each edition fills us with anecdotes about the racing action and the drama that surrounds the competition but whenever such a large, transient population sets up their workplace, fulfils their daily requirements and moves on down the road again, there are many more stories which remain untold.

They are observations that, as they unfold, don’t seem in the least bit interesting. But upon analysis it’s possible to realise that the Tour gives those involved a unique take on the world. You see things differently when driving down a mountain pass at 130km/h on a road that commands a limit of 50km/h – but the gendarmerie is ahead of your car, blasting its sirens so the crowd disperses to allow another convoy an early escape. That’s when you luck out and finish work quickly enough to be part of the evacuations. Miss out and you’re in a traffic jam for another 10 hours. And all because someone you need to speak to is in doping control and can’t conjure a piss thanks to dehydration after a long day in the saddle.

It happens. Few on Tour ever boast about getting to sleep before midnight. That’s a rarity for all but the riders.

Yes, the cyclists have to ride up the mountain. It hurts their legs and makes their lungs burn and they sweat bullets and it’s their speed and ability that reminds us all that we’re mortals. But just once I’d like the riders to see it how the race staff does. And if I ever have that wish become a reality, then I want it to be for the day to the Col du Tourmalet in 2010. Our journey there was truly one I wish never happened but surviving to tell the story means it was memorable… as much as it was wet.

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This was at the END of the day... Much better than the start!

By the time of our arrival, soaked to the bone after spending 20 minutes on a four-seater chairlift in pouring rain – and a bit of sleet thrown in to remind us that it was actually below zero in the morning, we called the race from the tribune (click image below, or here for footage of the finale). My usual office couldn’t make it up the mountain. Instead we were put in the tribune along with all other commentators. With wet pants hung out to dry neither of us went very far. [Note: the photo above relates to the trip down, the way up was the horrible one.]

President Sarkozy came to watch and security was a nightmare.

We eventually thawed out and went about our work, later doing the usual podium protocols, and that was that.

Andy won, Alberto came second. We laughed about the trip up as we travelled back down on the chairlift that evening. It was another day for the bank of Tour memories.

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That’s not how it always is. Working for LeTour.fr provides its challenges but the savour the experience and remind ourselves of all the good times we’ve had. We write the live call on the official site, prepare the ‘Film de l’Etape’ – a review of the stage – which must be posted online and for media tribunes within minutes of the race being decided. After that, it’s out to conduct the interviews with the winner(s) and jersey wearers… and the transcription is then posted online. And it’s most satisfying.

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The perception is that you’re in a Škoda Superb with leather interior. While popping open another Louis Roederer, one winds down the window to check that the temperature is still perfect and the mountain air as fresh as it appears on television. Upon arrival at the zone technique one emerges from the car and saunters off for a few canapés before settling down into the commentary sofa to leisurely wallow away the hours talking about a bunch of guys with sore legs, burned lungs and sweat that could kill a man from 20 paces.

The belief is that, once the race is all done, we idle up next to a man in yellow and jot down his murmurings. Once these words magically appear on the screen, it’s back to the chauffeur and onward to five-star accommodation to dissect another day at the Tour de France with fellow professionals.

If that’s the case, why have I been doing it so differently to everyone else? And trust me, in the scheme of things, I’m on a positively luxurious wicket. I’ve got a car and a good mate who understands my take on the world. We go merrily to one Grand Départ after another in our Škoda Octavia and with very little bother. Louis Doucet and I work hard and have our rules – eg. never eat takeaway for dinner. It’s not necessary in France. We eat well and have stumbled upon some wonderful restaurants.

The one concession we agree on is that, inevitably, there is a night on Tour when a stop at an Autogrill might be required. Anyone who knows European highways knows these places: vast plastic complexes with a surprisingly decent roast in the bain-marie. It’s not gourmet, but it won’t kill you. This is generally reserved for that bastard of a transfer at the end: from Mont Ventoux to Paris (thanks for that Christian) or why not Bordeaux to Paris? That was 2009 and 2010…

Let’s ignore the traditional laments of a traveller in France and move past the general rigmarole which is covered by most travel writers. I’ve been doing this long enough to have blocked those sort of frustrations out of my mind. I almost like it now, because it reminds me I’m at the Tour… having fun.

Doing my job, following the race, seeing cycling, enjoying life, experiencing cultures, getting wet on a chairlift, carrying my own luggage and doing my own driving: that’s how life is on the Tour for me. I’ll be back in 2011.

By Rob Arnold

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Author: rob@ride

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