Thank you Belgium, it’s been fun. Another Grand Départ of the Tour de France has come and gone. Now that the peloton is racing in France, it’s time to reflect and consider the impact of the Big Start… Brussels was good, a five-star experience in fact. But how did it compare to previous years?

Rob Arnold offers his perspective…

 

Okay, it’s time to pack the bags and leave. Goodbye Brussels. Thanks for the memories Belgium, but we’re going back to the Tour’s original home. Five nights in one hotel? That equals my record length of stay, the longest in one spot during the course of covering 22 Tours de France.

The Grand Départ– The Big Start’ – allows that. You arrive slightly confused: jet-lagged, a new city (or, on some occasions, a small town), and take a while to adjust. But, with a few days to settle in and a couple of stages of racing, you leave knowing a little more about the place and its people.

And so, as I prepare to drive back to France, I thought I’d offer a quick appraisal of 10 of the the 21 other places I’ve been for a Grand Départof the Tour and offer a rating for each. Influencing the scoring are several elements, including:

  • Hospitality of the region
  • Impact on the actual race
  • Touristic appeal
  • Suitability for cycling
  • The vibe… yeah, the vibe

Of course, it’s a personal perspective and you’re welcome to disagree. It’s probably also worth noting that I started writing this piece when I woke a 4.00am after getting just three hours sleep… for the fifth night in a row! (Insomnia, I can assure you, is actually quite exhausting. Forgive me if I seem delirious. I probably am. It’s hard for me to be the judge.)

 

Okay, here we go, starting from the latest Grand Départ

Brussels provided a fine setting for the worship of a famous Belgian cyclist…

 

2019: Brussels, Belgium – 5 stars 

The crowds! The buzz. The beer. There were lots of each, everywhere you looked. They say Belgium is the centre of the cycling universe and it seems that ‘they’ are right. And Eddy is the undisputed King. You see him here, you see him there. His picture was, quite simply, everywhere! And the man himself was seen often, wandering amongst dignitaries and on the podium… and, pretty much all over the city for several days.

Even 50 years after Merckx’s first win in the Tour, you can clearly tell that Belgians will never forget his impact.

The need for a huge increase in security in modern times changes the dynamic of the Tour entirely but people accept it and get on with enjoying the atmosphere.

Brussels put on a great show. Belgium turned on the air-conditioning and cooled the place down after a brutal canicule struck Europe only days before the race came to town. And the party began.

What did we see (beyond Eddy)? Good racing. Huge crowds. A city usually filled with traffic largely emptied of cars (in some places) all for the sake of a bike race. And when the action began, we had an introduction to a ‘new’ name. Did you know Teunissen before the weekend? Now you do!

 

2018: Noirmoutier, France – 2 stars

The Vendée has hosted more Tour starts than anywhere in the time I’ve been attending the race: the Grand Départ has been there five times between 1999 and 2019. It’s a cycling mad region. The people are friendly. The seafood is good (and, to me, this is a key factor in judging a good Tour route) and there has been some interesting racing.

Would I go to La Roche-sur-Yon for a holiday? No. But it is friendly enough. Still, of all the regions to host starts of the last 21 Tours, this is the one with the least atmosphere. People eventually emerge to have a look but, in 2018, the interest wasn’t nearly as high as in 1999, 2000, 2005 or 2011.

Is cycling in decline in popularity in France? Judging on the Vendée Big Starts: yes. A shame? Yes again. Can it be revived? Maybe… but shopping mall culture and the death of main street in French towns has become obvious to me after over two decades of visiting for a month each year. And this Grand Départ highlighted that.

 

2017: Düsseldorf, Germany – 3 stars

Geraint would give it five stars, Alejandro none.

Again, as is always the case for all foreign starts, massive crowds emerged in Germany. Unfortunately, the weather kind of destroyed what could have been even bigger. Pouring rain for the TT spoiled the racing, soaked the crowd, and eliminated several star riders… but on that day, we also saw the emergence of a future champion. Geraint in first place and into the yellow jersey for the first time at the Tour a year before he’d win the title.

General vibe? Good. It took about 25 minutes to get to know the place and it was easy to meet people and, curiously, although the tone of Deutsche seems harsh when you first arrive, I found myself nodding along to the news bulletins on the radio as though I knew everything they were saying after about two days in Germany. ‘Le Tour de France’ is the same in any language.

Fun. Wet. And surely memorable… but that final point is largely because I met Ron and Dave, two of the most amazing cycling fans on earth. One day I’ll write a book about these two. Hysterical! (And, although they live in England and I live in Australia, I reckon we’ll all be mates for life!)

 

2016: Mont-Saint-Michel, France – 3 stars

Yep, the abbey is impressive. It’s imposing and beautiful and one glance at it is all you need to understand why so many tourists flock there to look at a church on an island. Haven’t been? Do try and go! It’s amazing.

On a personal level, the visit to Utah Beach for the finish of stage one was an even bigger highlight. I had been to Mont-Saint-Michel before (remember the time trial in 2013?) but during the Grand Départ of 2016, I visited this beach in Normandy for the first time. It may be a patch of sand with significant tidal effect but it’s oh-so much more than that. The ghosts of the past haunt you as you invariably come to gobsmacked stand-still and consider what happened there during WWII. Just thinking of it raises goosebumps three years later…

Cavendish won (again) and took the yellow jersey. That was cool.

There was, however, no real centre with enough accommodation for the huge Tour entourage and so people were scattered all over the place, killing the atmosphere in the lead-up to the actual racing. Another memory is about all the driving required to get to and from the press room each day.

There were some genuine highlights but also average weather, long days… and so, after a few days, it was nice to get rolling again.

 

2015: Utrecht, Netherlands – 5 stars

I think I heard someone say the day of the TT was the second hottest in the history of recorded temperatures in Holland. Is that real or just the heat-stroke affecting my brain? Either way, it was hot! Really hot.

Sorry Christian, I know you quite like starting the Tour with road races but a time trial is, in my appraisal a better option for day one. It allows the race to settle into a rhythm and establish a pecking order. And as an Aussie compatriot blasted around the course to set the fastest ever average speed in a Tour TT, it was a little more enjoyable for me.

And Utrecht itself… wow! Want to see what cycling can do for a city? Go to Utrecht. The bike rules and the car is frowned on.

This Grand Départ was oh-so Dutch… highly organised, huge crowds, a team presentation spoken in English (not the local language) and I collected plenty of fond memories before, during and after stage one. Stage two, however… ah… Well, that was strange. After the beauty of Utrecht we were sent to a press room that seemed like a gulag on the dykes of Zeeland. The Tour was quite forgettable, that day.

 

2014: Yorkshire, Great Britain – 5 stars

Seriously, how big were the crowds?! This was a massive Grand Départ, one of my favourites. But in Harrogate, before the Cav smack-down and the Kittel salute in front of royalty, there was a moment when I was surrounded by so many people, in such close proximity that I admit to having a sense of genuine panic. It was packed! It was hot. And it was a great vibe. But I couldn’t move and it started to become frightening.

The Tour brings cycling to the people. And Yorkshire brought people to the cycling.

It was the furthest north the race has ever been and it was a fantastic experience. Leeds? Hmm, interesting. Paying to watch the team presentation? Hey, that’s not how you do things. (Is it a first? Maybe.)

Sheffield for the finish of stage two? Great win Vincenzo, set the scene nicely. Otherwise pretty forgettable.

London? They closed down London… for a bike race. London! A bike race. Yeah, the Tour has amazing powers. Then the peloton came, they sprinted and the party started again. Yeah there was racing in England but really it was the vibe that made it a five-star experience!

 

2013: Porto Vecchio, France – 5 stars

The furthest south Le Tour has ever been and The Best Location Ever for a Grand Départ.

Never been to Corsica? Make plans. Go! Race headquarters was on the Mega Smeralda, a ferry (or is it a boat? Or a ship? I’m not sure how to categorise it – but if you know, let me know). Either way, it was a buzz.

I stayed on ‘Smeralda’, in a tiny, dark cabin. Worked lots. Slept a little. Celebrated my birthday by watching fireworks crackle over the bay from the deck of the ferry/boat/ship and it was great fun.

The talking point, of course, was that this kicked off the 100th edition of the Tour and the setting was a fitting one. At times it seemed tropical, other times particularly French… but really it was just Corsica itself that made it special. We caught the Smeralda there from Toulon, put our car in the parking lot near the harbour, rented a scooter to ferry us from one team hotel to another (and maybe, just maybe, off to Palombaggia beach for an afternoon…). No driving = good Grand Départ.

It helped that there was heaps to report on. The stuck bus, the Bakelants surprise, then Gerro’s big win for GreenEdge ahead of Sagan.

The race entourage commuted around the island after each stage: goodbye Porto Vecchio, hello Bastia, Ajaccio, Calvi…! It was so nice to have an excuse to see these places. I look forward to going back again one day.

Of the myriad places I’ve been to because of the Tour, this is the highlight, the most obvious choice when people now ask: “Where would you go in France for a holiday?”

 

2012: Liège, Belgium – 4 stars

Had it not been for that Cancellara bloke beating Wiggo in the prologue, then the ‘Future-Sir’ would have been the only rider to wear the yellow jersey this year. You know that.

But the Grand Départ – what was it like? Pretty good, but not exceptional. An extra star is added to what would have been three because of an encounter with some Flemish fans who’d made the trek to Wallonie for the sake of the race.

Thwish ish,” slurred one of the men, clearly after spending more than a few hours at the bar celebrating, “zhe besht fing I’ve everrrr dun un mah life!”

Cycling had weaved its magic. He approached our table in Le Carré and duly sat himself down, pulling another beer out of his pocket. It was already open and the bottle half empty. “Faaahbihan, ish my fah-foreet shyclist!”

He was from Oostende, we’d learn. He was 50 the next week. He’d never seen the Tour before. But he made the effort, “Voor mine birf-dae.”

Oostende is 200km away from Liège. He explained the sequence that delivered him to the east of his country and was proud of the effort. I told him I’d come from Sydney. He was very impressed. He bought our table two rounds of drinks, then said goodbye.

The next day, Sagan became the first rider born in the 1990s to win a Tour stage. He beat Cancellara – the first rider born in the 1980s to win a stage – and took the green jersey in Seraing… and never relinquished it. Whenever the Tour visits Belgium, it’s a big deal.

 

2011: The Vendée, France – 1.5 star

Ooh, a low ranking. Why? The racing was great! Over the Passage du Gois for the start, up the Mont des Alouettes for the finish of stage one. Phil Gil first. ‘Our’ Cadel second. Thor third. Onward to the TTT the next day, when Slipstream won and the world champion swapped rainbow stripes for a yellow jersey.

All that’s quite memorable. But the vibe in the Vendée? Average. Actually, turning up at the permanence on day one was bizarre: an empty car park with a bar that struggled to even serve frites for lunch… and bugger all else. We drank a beer, collected our accreditation, slept in a miserable Campanile hotel, and just wanted to get on the road and onward… to anywhere else.

One highlight of the Grand Départ of the 98th Tour? The team presso, at Puy de Fou when Thor arrived on centre stage wearing his rainbow jersey, a Viking wig and wielding a giant Mjolnir. Finally, a little humour issued by a rider on the eve of The Big Race. Oh how we laughed.

 

2010: Rotterdam, Netherlands – 4 stars

Another Tour start that coincided with a football World Cup. Yeah, that year. Cast your mind back and you can probably still hear the sting of the vuvuzela buzzing in your ears. A few fans even turned up in Holland with those bloody things. The prologue was good. Fabian won – of course he did. He tended to do that a lot.

After the stage, Brian Nygaard, the manager of Cancellara’s Leopard team, called out to me in the zone technique. “Rob,” he said, “you’re a resourceful bloke. I need your help. I need a beer.” It was almost two hours after the TT, I’d just filed my stories so I replied with the obvious: “Me too!”

No, not for me. For Fabian. He’s been in doping control for over an hour and he can’t piss. Can you find him a beer? “Okay.”

And so, I can honestly say that I helped the first leader of the 2010 Tour take a piss.

The next day we went to Brussels. Petacchi won. And… yes, we had a beer.

 

* * * * *

The Grand Départ next year? Nice. Nice.

 

All that brings us back to where this story began. In the capital of Belgium. It’s where I’ve have just spent five days watching the worship of Eddy, seen a bit of bike racing, spoken to loads of people associated with cycling, and caught the buzz of the Tour de France.

Next stop, France. Champagne. Épernay.

After casting my mind back over those 10 Big Starts, it reminds me of how much of the world I’ve seen because of a bike race. It’d be possible to provide a similar commentary for the Grand Départs of 11 more editions… but this story is already long enough. I’ll hit ‘Publish’ and get back to watching the peloton roll towards it’s first stage finish in France for 2019 and start consider what’s next: 2020, Nice! Nice.

 

And soon, the drive to another hotel at the end of another stage and, hopefully, a good night’s sleep!

Thanks for reading.

 

– By Rob Arnold

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