We’re feeling just ever-so-slightly famous today in our little bit of the French countryside. The Tour de France passed through less than 3km from our front door. In fact, on one stretch it would have been possible to see the peloton from our house. Admittedly, with some very strong binoculars and some spectacularly precise timing and we didn’t make it back in time….but still!
All those men in lycra gets the heart rate going before the thought of riding a bicycle is even mentioned, although I’m not generally into cycling unless it involves a coffee and a croissant at the end of the journey. Where we live has gently undulating hills but not really gentle enough for lazy pedalling while admiring the views all around and chatting as we go.
But this year, the world’s toughest cycling race has been intriguing – and near – enough for closer inspection on who the likes of current leader, Julian Alaphilippe is and to check out the exact route for today’s 11th stage.
The Tour has some pretty mind-boggling facts and stats: the first race was in 1903; it has 21 stages to cover over 23 days and the race always ends in Paris. This year’s race is 3,460 km, with today’s stage from Albi to Toulouse being 167 km. There are 22 teams with 8 riders in each team and if they all finish the entire route, they’ll each burn off 118,000 calories!
Each day, the rider who has the fastest overall time from the very first stage of the race wears the yellow jersey or maillot jaune. I accidentally called it the gilet jaune at an evening out with friends last night – I was confusing world-class cyclists with world-class political protestors for a moment there! Apparently this year, there are 20 different yellow jerseys for each of the different stages, each one depicting something different for that particular stage such as the geography, history or a famous local person.
The sartorial side to cycling doesn’t stop there: the rider who tackles the mountain stages the most quickly gets to wear the polka dot jersey and the green jersey is given to the fastest sprinter. The youngest rider with the best times, wears the white jersey. To be honest, trying to spot these jerseys as the riders whizz by is almost impossible but I did manage to get a flukey shot of Peter Sagan is his green get-up – he’s one of the favourites apparently.
As a starter to the main race, there is the tour caravan which is a bit slower, a bit less serious and there are loads of freebies chucked into the crowd. It passes by about two hours before the riders. La Caravane du Tour is almost as popular as the race itself and is a giant parade made up of hundreds of different vehicles. Some of these are crazy floats with giant cyclists or the likes of cartoon character Asterix sitting on top of them, there were a dozen or so old 2CVs, an orange Lambourghini, and a whole mash-mash of other cars mixed up with police outriders and a LOT of advertising slogans on jazzed up Skodas, all pootling along to some questionable Euro pop. The freebies were an exciting mix of Haribos, keyrings, a headband and the one item I was allowed by my children to keep – a sachet of washing powder!
The idea behind the caravan was to try and raise money to help fund the race. And it’s a pretty good event to advertise – with the estimated 15 million spectators who are expected to line the route his year.
So stage 11 started from Albi, where the riders had had one of their 2 rest days yesterday. The city centre of Albi, which is the capital of the Tarn, was unrecognisable with all the lorries and bike paraphernalia – it rocked! From Albi, the route moved north towards the medieval town of Cordes-sur-Ciel and then across stunning countryside to Bruniquel and Puycelci before heading back south to Gaillac via Castelnau de Montmiral where we watched the race, then Lavaur and on to Toulouse.
We found our spot at around three o’clock along with a group of friends, half an hour before the riders were expected – and loved soaking up the anticipation and excitement. We’d positioned ourselves at the side of the road with two massive Union Jacks. This was partly to support Welsh rider Geraint Thomas, defending his title from last year. But partly so that my mother-in-law stood a chance of picking us out on the TV while she followed the race back in England.
The atmosphere had started to build and as a neighbour who was with us pointed out, the tour really pulls the crowds. Many seemed to be hardcore fans following the entire route in their camper vans which are decorated with flags and banners. Others had made a day of it, bringing full picnic kit and parasols to wait in comfort by claiming prime position early on.
We soon clocked the six press helicopters flying above the peloton in the distance and knew they were almost upon us! The first to arrive were a group of four riders – not sure if they were the pacemakers or possible winners but there was a longish gap between them and the main group behind. And then they came in what I can only describe as a giant swarm. For twenty seconds, cyclists upon cyclists in tight formation came heading towards us – 150 odd men speeding by seemingly without all that much effort.
You could feel the collective energy as they whooshed past. That is what makes live sport so special I guess, as opposed to watching it on the television – you FEEL it. But also at such close quarters, hear rubber on tarmac, feel the hum of the group passing by and wondering how the hell those men can cycle that fast in the 34 degree heat for five hours. We were also amazed how they didn’t bump into each other! They ride so close together!
And then they were gone! Pounding the pedals to Toulouse and onwards…..eventually back up north towards Paris, a few thousand kilometres later.
It was a real thrill to see it in the flesh and to spend a short hours with a few neighbours, congratulating ourselves at having chosen to live in a place so special that the Tour de France route planner puts our little corner of France on the schedule most years.
The eventual winner of this eleventh stage was the Australian rider, Caleb Ewan, although the overall leader is still the homegrown Julian Alaphilippe. This crazy passion they have! Competing in the Tour de France is most definitely a labour of love: for the thousands of miles cycled over the 23 days, the prizes by way of a dollop of cash are relatively small compared to other major sports. The winner this year will receive €500,000 but tradition dictates that it is shared out among the team – millionaires aren’t made quickly in this sport! The prize money for others making the leader board quickly whittles down to €1,000 for managing twentieth place – not much at all when you consider that a good racing bikes cost upwards of €5,000. Additional money can be made up by winning stages and sprints – but the hourly rate still isn’t that great!
As I talk about this personal memory of the Tour, those guys will still be riding and riding and riding – for another 11 days. Who will the man in yellow be as they cross the finish line?