The protocol at the end of a stage of the Tour de France is a familiar one. There is mayhem with the riders and team staff and media and fans. There are cars and bikes and trucks going in all directions. There is dust or mud, cables underfoot and workers darting everywhere doing their respective jobs.
There is life in the ‘zone de vie’ and, despite the pressure of an event such as this, it all functions relatively well. Smooth? Sometimes. Chaotic? That too.
You can get a glimpse at a vast range of professions in action. The riders are the focus but this year it’s impossible to ignore the changes that have been forced upon organisers: security is intense. And everyone understands why. It’s necessary.
The world is a different place to what it was not so long ago. And France in particular has been in mourning because of events that can’t be understood.
Terror cannot be normalised. And it cannot be ignored.
For the opening stanza of the 2016 Tour de France, you could already sense the presence of tension that never existed like this before at this summertime fête, but on the eve of stage 13 the mood around the race, the country – the world – changed again.
Forget about celebration or sport or ceremony or the ordinary. A truck on the Promenade changed things. Never mind the protocols we’re accustomed to. This was a different day on the Tour de France. And everyone was thinking of the victims of the horrendous incident in Nice.
The need to analyse the action is habitual but it seems incorrect on 15 July 2016.
We would watch the race, monitor the times, admire the efforts of the riders, and appreciate the battles everyone of them had against a tremendous wind and terrain that was challenging.
Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome would finish first and second, respectively, and they would go through some of the rigmarole of the post-stage protocols. But it was different in La Caverne du Pont d’Arc. Everyone had gathered because of sport but it was difficult to concentrate on that alone.
The Dutch stage winner referenced the sadness he felt as he walked from one broadcaster to the next: “It was a special moment,” he said of the podium ceremony which was amended. Instead of fanfare, it was a solemn occasion – a time to mourn, consider those affected, and reflect on why there are more important things to worry about than sport.
Dumoulin now has two Tour stage wins to his name: one in the mountains, one in a time trial, but when given the freedom to express himself, he spoke about the terror of the Promenade des Anglais rather than cycling.
“I am very sorry about what happened in Nice,” he repeated to one broadcaster, then the next. “It’s important that we pay respect to everyone involved.
“Cycling doesn’t seem very important compared to this. It’s a sad day.”
Eventually Dumoulin would talk about the race, his status as favourite for the Olympic time trial in Rio, and the influence of the wind on the 37.5km course from Bourg-Saint-Andéol in the Ardèche. And in time we’ll consider those statements. But today, less than 24 hours since the horrific actions of one man ruined the lives of so many, it seems odd to be talking about stage wins or coloured jerseys or time gains or watts…
The winner of the TT can be admired for what he achieved on a bike today but also for the composure he showed when he spoke, for the empathy that he displayed, and for the manner in which he put one of his biggest sporting accomplishments into perspective.
It is impressive but, really, it doesn’t matter.
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Next down the line of waiting journalists was Chris Froome. He lives nearby Nice. He has ridden down the Promenade des Anglais many times. Like everyone, he was deeply affected by what happened late last night in Nice.
When Froome arrived in the video conference van to discuss what happened in the race, one request was issued by his minders before he sat down.
“One question please – about sport.”
He surveyed the room and was greeted by vacant stares. We wanted to talk about sport. We wanted to ask about the race. We wanted to know what Chris felt in the 24 hours that followed his remarkable run up Mont Ventoux. We wanted to speak to him about many things but there was a defining silence.
Sport? Yes, sport. That’s right. That’s why we are here. But how do we talk about sport at a time like this?
Sadness prevails in France today. Everything else is superfluous, random, arbitrary… even the Tour is just a bike race after all. It would continue but it is far from normal.
The race leader sat at the front of the press conference room in his yellow jersey and with his Team Sky cap on.
Yes, we do. And it’s more than just a hashtag. But it doesn’t mean that this is all we speak about.
Like Dumoulin only a few minutes earlier, Froome stood on the podium wearing a black arm band and looking out at the crowd. The line of riders who have earned prize jerseys after 2,340km of racing in the 103rd Tour lined up alongside Jean-Etienne Amaury, Yann Le Moenner, Bernard Hinault, Bernard Thévenet and other dignitaries. And they were silent.
There were no salutes and there was no cheering. It’s too soon for that. It’s too sad for that.
The usual protocols will eventually return to the Tour but today it didn’t make sense.
Eventually Froome realised that it was awkward to talk about sport and he didn’t wait for a question. He took the microphone and expressed himself without the need for any prompting.
This is what he had to say:
“I think it’s pretty clear today that everyone’s thoughts are with those affected down in Nice.
“It’s difficult for us to even be here talking about the race when all that was happening yesterday evening down in Nice – somewhere, obviously, that’s pretty close to home for me.
“I do a lot of training on those roads and to see the Promenade the way it was yesterday evening – bodies all over the road – was just horrific.
“Really, my deepest sympathy, my deepest condolences, go out to those families who have lost loved ones yesterday evening in Nice.”
So ended the ‘protocols’ of the 13th stage.
Let’s hope things return to normal again some time soon.
– By Rob Arnold