After spoiling ourselves last year with two weeks in France and four stages the assumption was that this years live and direct interaction with the Grand Boucle would feel like something of an anti-climax. This year has also been a bit of let down in terms of miles on the bike for various reasons, but a recent window of opportunity meant that VCSE would be joining some regular riding buddies and heading out to catch a glimpse of Monday’s stage from Cambridge to London.
Your correspondent had been minded to pour a fair amount of cold water on the expectations when plans were being laid to go and see the peloton as it rode through Essex. The parcour was (relatively speaking) pan flat, the riders would flash past in a blur and it might feel like something of a let down for those that were used to 360 degree television coverage. Then we bemoaned the health and safety culture of the UK that would mean that roads would be closed at 6.00am, far earlier than in France.
Even after seeing the huge turnout in Yorkshire for the Grand Depart VCSE was sceptical that there would be that many stood at the side of the road save for the very local population and die-hard cyclsts and fans. Of course we didn’t need to leave before 9.00 to get a good spot. VCSE’s biggest fear was would there be any food served at the pub near where we were due to watch the race.
Threading our way through the back lanes from Southend to the outskirts of Chelmsford we encountered other riders, sometimes singularly or in pairs or bigger groups. The only indication that something was happening as we reached the road the stage would pass over was a few cars parked on the raised verge and then (suddenly) there was the Road Closed sign and the inevitable flourescent tabard wearing stewards. Just as suddenly it was clear that the Tour was capturing the imagination in Essex as much as it had in Yorkshire at the weekend. In either direction both sides of the road was sown with spectators. In the time-honoured tradition of stoically waiting for something to happen (otherwise known as queuing) were small groups of fans with picnics and fold up chairs. The occupants of one house had brought the furniture from the conservatory to the roadside to watch proceedings in comfort.
Ahead of the race VCSE had spoken to people who were booked up for some homespun hospitality experience in pubs that enjoyed a position alongside the route. The pub near our chosen vantage point had a mixture of corporate guests whose VIP experience may have been slightly marred by the fact that they were on the direct route to the gents toilet and had to endure a steady precession of MAMIL’s walking in and out. There was a three deep crush at the bar and a roaring trade in bacon rolls for those of us who were managing with more prosaic catering. By the time we were fed, watered and were done with interrupting the corporate guests the pavements had filled further with more and more walk and ride ups. Overheard conversations revealed that this wasn’t an exclusively Essex crowd, just as last years stage finish in Montpellier had been leavened with a fair few Brits who had made their way inland from the beaches of the south of France. There were a couple of Danish fans and a surprising number from Australia. On the opposite side of the road was a group entirely decked out on orange polo shirts who had obviously been there for a while based on the car that was yielding a steady supply of food and drink. Belkin fans? Apparently no, according to the disappointed Dutchman who had wandered down to engage them in conversation.
Conversation turned to where the race had reached so far, before we realised that it hadn’t even left Cambridge yet. There had been a reasonably steady flow of official cars coming through and in an increase in volume signified the arrival of the promo caravan. After our experience last year VCSE anticipated the possibility of adding to our collection of hats and key rings, although this was leavened with the likelihood that the caravan would be moving a bit quicker on Essex A roads than the 300 metre mark on a stage finish. This was confirmed as the caravan started to come past; the four point safety harnesses that the ‘Tat Chuckers’ wear looked absolutely essential as the cars weaved around at 50 mph. For all the marketing advantages of a float shaped like an oversized Fruit Shoot bottle these things are not designed to corner. As the drivers kept their palms permanently on the horn we were ‘treated’ to the odd trinket thrown to us. French betting chain PMU (sponsors of the points competition) clearly felt that there was zero benefit from promoting their brand in England and the caravan felt a bit threadbare and Anglicised as a result. Oven chip purveyors McCain’s got a big cheer (this was the case in Yorkshire too apparently) as they climbed towards us. What looked like a matchbook turned out to be herb seeds and VCSE supposes there wasn’t much point in tossing us potato seeds if you want us to buy more frozen chips. The scarcity of freebies had everyone that cared scrabbling for the few crumbs that were thrown, but anyone who had expected a typical Tour de France tat fest would have felt a little disappointed.
And so we waited for the main event. Tour Tracker gave up just past Saffron Walden so we were reduced to speculation on the arrival of the peloton that ranged from the well-informed (“..about 2.13pm”) to the ‘haven’t a clue’ (“Wiggins is in the lead and just outside Chelmsford”). The VCSE predictions of stage 3 being the least supported stage had been thoroughly rubbished as fans began to spill off the kerbs and into the road. As the Tour outriders began to come through pint clutching spectators casually leaned back a bit to allow them to pass. Everything was good natured though, the British Police motorcyclists were too busy high fiving anyone that stuck a hand out to have one. The Gendarmes took a somewhat different view, perhaps with a sense that it wasn’t a case of if an accident with a spectator would happen but when.
The arrival overhead of the helicopters heralded the approach of the break. The two riders who had been away from pretty much kilometre one (and weren’t all that far from the end of the stage when the ‘catch’ took place) must have felt a bit nonplussed to be riding through crowds on a stage that (if held in some boggo department in France) would attract the occasional glance from a farmer in his field. Not so much your ’15 minutes of fame’, but your 150km’s perhaps?
That the peloton came through our vantage point in a little more than two minutes if you include the team cars probably isn’t the point. We had got a taste of what it feels like to be part of something that happens rarely, if not once in a lifetime with the Olympics in 2012. There was a sense that all of us would be able to remember when the 2014 Tour de France came through Essex on its way to London and say “I was there”. Some of us will no doubt get our next taste of fan participation somewhere in France next time, but that was planned. Maybe a few more, now that they have had a taste, will be inspired to join us over there. The unscientific vox pop that took place in the immediate aftermath hinted that those who had experienced a bike race up close and personal for the first time wanted to do it again and it does look like the success of this years Grand Depart will lead to a swifter return to these shores than the eight years that preceded this UK visit. This could also see more towns and regions seeking involvement in the Tour of Britain and while we bathe in the afterglow of the Yorkshire Grand Depart it’s possible to imagine the ToB extending to ten days or maybe even two weeks. Those of us that follow the sport week in week out were disappointed that there were less Brit riders starting this Tour than in 1968 and casual fans alike rue the non-appearance of Bradley Wiggins and the early exit of Mark Cavendish. And yet the spectacle hasn’t suffered, because in so many ways the spectacle has been the crowds. Whatever the outcome in the race itself it felt good to be a (very small) part of it yesterday.