Observations From The Opening Stanza
As the peloton enjoys a break, so too does some of the entourage of the race… if only for a few hours before we start to do it all again. Rob Arnold reports in from his hotel in Albi, the hometown of Jean-François Galaup de Laperouse, and offers a few observations from the first few days of the 2011 Tour de France.
Did I say that it was lacking a little hype? From memory there was a comment along those lines in the first ‘blog’ I’ve done for this site. That was on the Thursday prior to the Tour and was more a reflection of what it was like in Les Herbiers when we arrived there the day before. The reality is that the Tour de France is alive in 2011.
The fans are out in huge numbers every day. The start in the Vendée helped, and the visit to Bretagne ensured bigger crowds. This is cycling’s heartland in France. It’s where young and old relish what’s happening when the Tour comes to town. It’s a total contrast to two years ago in Monaco when few locals even bothered to leave their apartments or come out of the casino long enough to see why there were hundreds of thousands of visitors in ‘their’ town/tax haven.
Okay, the race HQ in Les Herbiers was far from glamorous. And the café by the gare where I had my first lunch after arriving in France at the end of June wasn’t visited again. For it was bland. But the rest of my stay in the Vendée was wonderful. Dinner on day one was by the sea. Oysters, fish, muscadet, and friends.
Every Grand Départ is different but one thing is always repeated: the feeling offered by the annual reunion gives me energy and fills me with optimism. There’s hope of a good show that’s yet to come, curiosity about who has done the best work before the race, ambiguity about the approach of some, and appreciation of the fact that – finally – the show is about to get started.
For the six months leading to the Tour, it’s all about previewing what could happen. That’s fun for a while but by the end of June everyone seems to have the same opinion: Let’s Get Started!
The first stage was plagued with technical problems in the office of LeTour.fr. My first statement for the live coverage was “Okay let’s begin…”
But then we stumbled.
The ‘depeche’ – newsflashes – on the official site simply didn’t function properly and we spend a few hours playing catch-up while the stage was on. This is not fun and it’s a stress I loathe, particularly when I know there are literally millions of visitors to the site – some of them believing that the delay in offering information is a deliberate thing… Of course it’s not!
What we strive to do is bring as much information from the race as possible on to computer screens around the world. We want people to understand the race, the history, the atmosphere, the regions, the riders, the tactics, the joy, the agony, the anxiety… the vibe.
And the vibe has been great since the Tour started.
The team time trial is not normally an enjoyable stage to ‘call’. It is complex and beautiful but it’s difficult to relay information from the action into words when you’re not actually in the race or even the following team cars. There’s so much to consider but it’s rarely reflected in the footage. But this year it was great fun to work on.
We remedied the technical problems and had a great stage.
Many of the team leaders – ie. the ones who did the most work at the front of their respective pacelines – were in special jerseys for the TTT: Fabian in the world champion’s colours, Cadel in the green jersey, Thor in the polka-dot jersey, Philippe in the yellow jersey… etc. And it was possible from the perspective I have (with access to images from about nine separate cameras that are used for the broadcast) to put a timer on the leaders as they did their turn at the front. The guys mentioned above all did 45 seconds, to one-minute turns while their team-mates were swapping off after just 15 seconds.
Leadership was on display and it was impressive to see.
When Garmin-Cervélo took the win, the interviews with Jonathan Vaughters and David Millar were amongst the most enjoyable I’ve ever done on Tour. They were animated and excited. They offered insight and spoke with passion and conviction.
Their time was now and they were loving it.
So they should! This sport is too hard to be complacent when success finally comes.
One week and a day later, I took time out from the race. That’s why I’ve found the time to write. It’s the rest day. There are now two in each edition of the Tour de France but when I started covering it as part of the entourage in my role as ‘redacteur’ of the English content of LeTour.fr during the race it was just one. In 1998 the ‘repos’ served only to get the laundry done and catch up on sleep.
This year Tour’s has been a treat to cover.
When the race is on, it’s frantic writing the live. Immediately after the finish, it’s a rush to complete the ‘Film de l’Etape’, and – as it says in my column on the back page of the Official Tour Guide – then there’s the chance to talk to the winners and jersey wearers.
There are many highlights each July. And even when there’s no racing, Life on Tour is rarely dull. When we had a chance to rest, we rode.
Hiring bikes from the hotel near the gare in Albi, we set off to explore the capital of the Tarn department. It’s here that I spent 10 days with my family after the Tour in 2007, and for Australians this place has several significant links.
It was in Albi in 2007 that Cadel Evans won his first stage of the Tour. A week ago he won his second, only this time he also visited the podium to collect the trophy in front of the crowd who saw him win. On the Mûr-de-Bretagne he won again. Last Monday, the defending champion – and winner of the race in 2007, 2009 and 2010 – saluted a victory that he didn’t achieve.
When Alberto beat Cadel by 23 seconds in July 2007, there wasn’t much distance between them. In cumulative time, after three weeks of racing 23 seconds amounts to a tiny gap. And that’s what separate the pair in stage three 2011.
This time, Cadel was in front.
In stage three, we saw an amazing surge by the GC guys. But Thor Hushovd hung on as he did right up until the stage to Saint-Flour a week after his team’s victory in the TTT.
Evans isn’t an overnight success. At 34 he’s become the best bike rider in the world. He is a force on the climbs. He’s won in time trials before. He’s ridden into yellow on mountains in France – and, before that pink in Italy, as well as gold in Spain – and he’s worn a rainbow.
All these achievements and more are rewards for physical talent and a strong work ethic. He has been close to flying, so he says, before. Now he’s ready for lift-off. The worst he’s been placed on GC is third. The best to date is second.
But we didn’t speak this week.
We shared a hotel in Olonne-sur-Yon near the start and I recorded his voice while standing beside him after his victory in Bretagne and again in Calvados when he took the polka-dot jersey, and thus became the first Australian to lead the climbing classification at the Tour.
These are memories that last, but is one better than another. In three weeks, there’s events that become hard to archive in the mind because some happen so quickly that they don’t even register at the moment it takes place. But on Planet Tour a lot is replayed. It’s possible to relive the drama. Much of it is caught on camera, in stills or in motion. Every quote that’s possible to take is relayed in myriad mediums – sometimes live, often with seconds of it being spoken, and the better ones almost ad nauseam… and sometimes you almost wish they weren’t.
The first stanza of the 2011 Tour de France ended for me with a highlight of my career. I’ve been following cycling for a living for 20 years. I’ve experience a lot of emotions because of this sport. But Johnny Hoogerland’s reaction to the mayhem that slapped him on to a barbed wire fence and sliced his legs while his body knocked a support post clean out of the ground will remain with me forever.
I have been taught how to forgive.
Johnny Hoogerland – 10 July 2011
“We can still be happy that we’re alive. It’s horrible. I can blame everyone but I don’t think anyone does this sort of thing on purpose. I think the people in the car will have a very big guilty feeling and they will surely apologise to me and Flecha.
“Juan Antonio came to me an he apologised.
“It should not happen but it’s always possible that this sort of thing happens.
“Nobody can be blamed for this. It’s a horrible accident and I was in it. But I said to Flecha, ‘We’re still alive and Wouter Weylandt died in a crash.
“Cycling is getting more and more hectic which is also nice because more and more people are watching but, for sure, some people will say that it may be like this because… well, I can’t explain it – but I think most people feel very, very bad about this sort of thing.
“I have three cuts that are about seven centimeters long and quite deep too. I’ll go to the hospital now and I think I’ll need about 30 stitches at least…
“I did what felt like a few somersaults. I don’t know where the car came from. Before I knew it, Flecha was on the ground and there was nothing I could do. I landed on the fence and I looked at my legs and thought, ‘Is this what cycling is about?’ I have the polka-dot jersey but I’m going to spend the rest day in a lot of pain.”