The Tour de France’s organisers expected a lot from their visit to the Vosges region for this years race and that’s exactly what they got. What the peaks of the Vosges lack in outright height they made up for in drama as the peloton were taken over multiple climbs over the French holiday weekend. The weather that might have been expected in Yorkshire during the opening weekend was firmly entrenched and compounded the riders suffering. Racing for ten days straight including a stage over the Paris Roubaix cobbles had robbed this years edition of the Grand Boucle of two of it’s leading protagonists by the peloton’s first ‘day off’ and left Vicenzo Nibali in pole position.
The crash that led to Alberto Contador’s withdrawl during the Bastille Day’s stage 10 took place off camera, such was the fast moving nature of the day that saw the peloton ride into heavy rain as they began the days climbs. In the confusion it was initially suggested that Contador had suffered a catastrophic failure of his Tinkoff Saxo Specialized. The absence of pictures left viewers in the dark as to what had happened to the race favourite until the end of the stage where interviews provided some insight. In the information vacum that proceeded that everyone watching indulged in a little bout of conspiracy theory and speculation wondering if talk of not one, but two crashes was an attempt to paint the riders bike supplier in the best light. The facts, with the benefit of hindsight, are rather more prosaic but have the same tragic outcome for the rider. Contador slipped from the bars while riding downhill one handed with the result that he has suffered a likely season ending knee injury. It’s a testament to the rider and confirmation that road cycling is the worlds toughest sport that Contador actually road 20 kilometres with a fractured tibia before abandoning.
We’ll never know if different circumstances would have seen Contador take the fight to his GC rivals on stage 10. He had finished second on Saturday’s stage but was yet take much time back from Nibali. Nibali had relenquished the lead to Lotto’s Tony Gallopin on Sunday, seemingly relaxed enough that he would be able to take it back at will if the status quo was retained time wise with his key competitors. While the final climb (and first summit finish of the race) on Saturday wasn’t a long one, it was steep. Last years winner of Strade Bianche Blel Kadri took the stage and the essential French victory, the only member of the break to stay away. Contador looked the strongest of the GC taking second, but Nibali was with him wheel for wheel. Much as people are now touting Richie Porte as Nibali’s biggest competition in the aftermath of Contador’s exit, he still looks like he doesn’t have the legs. Ultimately if it is a battle between Porte and Nibali it may be decided by the relative strengths of their respective Sky and Astana teammates.
French riders resurgent
In addition to Kadri’s stage win France has strong representation in the top ten with Kadri’s AG2R teammates Roman Bardet & Jean Christophe Peraud, Gallopin and FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot. While Gallopin and Peraud aren’t exactly veterans it’s more heartening to see the strong showing from Bardet and Pinot. Whether Pinot has got over all of his descending fears should become clear when the race enters the Alpes, but Bardet is looking like a strong contender for the young riders prize if not a podium place at this point.
The presence of French riders doing well also points to the likelihood that the sport is getting cleaner. While there remain some noises off about riders seeming to come into form unexpectedly the undercurrent is the emergence of some very talented young riders in the peloton across all disciplines. There was speculation from some quarters that Tony Martin, who won stage 9 from a breakaway on Sunday, would have been a possible GC rider during the last decade when doping was rife in the professional ranks. This was less a remark about Martin himself, than his physiology. In some ways Martin was the rider of the weekend as he was responsible for much of the animation on stage 10 too. The way that the Omega Pharma Quick Step rider hit the wall towards the end of the stage demonstrated what should happen when a 85 kilo rider hits a double digit ramp. It feels a lot better to celebrate the way his stage ended than having to watch in disbelief as a muscle bound rider climbed without appearing to breathe with any difficulty.
The Tour now enters its second half. The first has served up enoough drama for a three week race already, but such has been the ebb and flow of riders fortunes so far in this race can it be possible that the next 11 stages won’t be just as exciting.
As soon as the route of the 100th Tour de France was announced in October we began thinking about where to locate ourselves to take in some stages. We will cover the ‘bike friendly’ accomodation we used en route and our experiences riding around the Auvergne and Languedoc regions in another post, but hope to give you a flavour of what it’s like to watch the worlds greatest bike race here.
To try and squeeze the maximum amount of spectating in we decided to pick up the race where there was a stage finishing and starting in the same place the following day. In week one this would be Montpellier with stage 6 promising a bunch sprint and the following day’s transitional stage passing within a few kilometres of VCSE’s base for the week. The latter had proved to be a happy coincidence as we didn’t see the detailed route until after we had arranged the trip.
As we have spectated at races before we knew that our ‘view’ of the race would be over all too briefly but this trip would allow us to see first hand the other elements for which the Tour is famous, or in the case of the publicity caravan perhaps infamous.
Stage 6 sprint finish in Montpellier
Unlike the following days finish that took the peloton through the centre of historic Albi, Thursday’s finish line was on one side of the dual carriageway that forms the ring road in Montpellier. The actual finish line was situated outside the football ground and although the roads the race would pass over would have been closed for several hours beforehand in the areas immediately after the finish it was only a short walk before ‘normality’ resumed and traffic was moving freely, in ignorance of the imminent arrival of nearly 200 professional bike racers.
It’s easy to make comparisons with how an event of a similar stature would be handled in the UK but outside of the areas where accreditation was required everything seemed pretty relaxed. It’s hard to imagine that Tesco would allow their car park to be taken over by spectators looking for somewhere to leave the car gratis, unlike the Carrefour just past the finish line. It was a little surprising that there weren’t more trade stands and merchandising at the event. In comparison to (say) the Tour of Britain, there were no magazines flogging subscriptions or an opportunity to buy that Festina watch you always promised yourself. We had woken that morning to the swirling breezes of the mistral, but Montpellier seemed to have been bypassed and the temperatures at the finish were hitting 30 degrees in the shade. Surely the perfect opportunity for some Tdf related drinks marketing? Perhaps not, anyone seeking ‘official’ refreshment had the wide choice of a hot jambon et fromage baguette washed down with a coffee. Fortunately, the finish passed a small parade of shops on one side and a petrol station on the other; each outlet no doubt experiencing it’s best days trade of the year, if not ever. VCSE was reminded of Sam Abt’s chapter in the Cycling Anthology describing how the previous organisers on the Tour had been somewhat slow on the commercial opportunities surrounding the worlds greatest cycle race. An American (of course) understands this, VCSE’s observation is less about the need to provide a trackside McDonald’s, more so on wishing we had packed our bidons that morning.
The areas around the finish line at the Tour are definitely for the ‘haves’ and in our case the ‘have nots’. With the all important TdF lanyard access to the hospitality areas adjacent to the commentary boxes and podium was granted. On the opposite sides there were a number of small grandstands, but for most of us getting trackside involved a less than graceful negotiation of two sections of waist high armco barriers and a strip of privet hedge that ordinarily comprised the ring roads central reservation. Having found a spot 350m out from the line we settled in to wait for the arrival of the race, but first the procession of the Tour publicity caravan. There are always marketing opportunities to be had before its arrival however and the smart Tour affiliates know that the best way to achieve free advertising through association on a hot day at the Tour is by giving away a free hat. There are three on offer this year; a peaked cap from yellow jersey sponsors LCL and two others from Skoda and deli product producers Cochonou. The latter two sported a floppy brim, but VCSE can report that the Cochonou version in red and white gingham check offered the preferred combination of shade and fit.
These freebies were being distributed by enthusiastic teens who careered up and down the last 500 metres in golf buggies, scooping handfuls of their respective temporary employers wares and flinging them outwards in a practiced arc that suggested at least a weeks experience of doing so. As we waited in the heat the other buggy likely to get a reaction from the crowd was the one with Vittel branding that carried a girl wielding a pressure washer that provided a brief respite from the sun. Even the Vittel water girl had to admit that she garnered less of a frenzied response than the pair from Banette who proudly announced that they had 3,000 artisan bakeries on the route of the Tour. One of the Banette’s pedaled up and down handing out gifts to his partner, who was dressed in a full length foam baguette outfit, to distribute to whichever section of the crowd he felt were screaming loud enough. With such wonders on offer as wristbands, t shirts and entire loaves on offer, of course we screamed along with the rest of our companions on the crowded central reservation.
All of this was an aperitif before the arrival of the publicity caravan. This is an event in itself at the Tour with its own outriders and official vehicles, including an official Skoda for the start, middle and finish of the procession. Accompanied by the flashing lights of its Garde Republicanne escort the caravan made its way towards us. The standard format for the brands that choose to apportion part of their annual marketing spend on participating in the Tour publicity caravan looks something like this:
A central float (or floats) with a large model (or models) mounted on board that may or may not have some kind of cycling theme forms the centre piece. The float must be manned by a crew who will either fling freebies in the crowds direction of if the freebies have run out wave at the crowd while gyrating to whatever euro pop track the MC / DJ positioned on the front of the float is playing. The floats are escorted by small cars, a Fiat 500 or perhaps a Golf, either a convertible to allow for another freebie flinger to ride shotgun or a giant model of a flan or a wine bottle. In some cases you got a model and an open top providing the best of both worlds. Each crew member was held in place by a harness that gave them the appearance of a loadmaster on a military helicopter, although spreading Haribo’s and Saucission rather than machine gun rounds. A personal VCSE favourite was the Beetle convertibles with outsize representations of bottles of Fabric softener (sample free gift; a sample of fabric softener!). With the Tour visiting Corsica for the first time, the islands airline Air Corsica joined the caravan complete a pilot saluting from his perched atop a giant cartoon plane (think Thomas the Tank engine with wings). VCSE isn’t sure if he was a real pilot. It’s impossible to erase the image of a swoopy mid engined Renault two seater with a giant BBQ gas bottle bolted to its boot either. Green jersey sponsor PMU, took horsepower to it’s logical visual conclusion by managing to get three lifesize steeplechasers mounted onto the roof of a Peugeot. It was a shame that the Yorkshire Grand Depart 2014 section didn’t involve any giant black puddings or a 3 metre high statue of Geoff Boycott blocking a ball (not sure if most of the crowd would have understood cricket anyway) but at least the MC was representing the best local musical output by playing Pulp and Heaven 17 at full blast.
And then it was time for the race itself. Social media played its part and we were able to follow the race on Twitter thanks to the various feeds from Innrg, Sky and the official Tdf feed (note the publicity caravan has it’s own feed too, but it’s perhaps a bit of a niche follow). Race Radio on Twitter commented that “..for a transitional stage” the race was drawing big crowds and its an important point to make. The Tour doesn’t visit the same places each year and whether or not a particular stage is seen as worth watching on television means little to the fan at the roadside. For every negative story about professional road racing, being there at the event itself, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the atmosphere as the excitement builds.
At 350 metres Andre Griepel was already well placed in the sprint. The course had a slight incline to negotiate on the run in with a gentle curve that took the finish line from our view. Peter Sagan was ahead of Marcel Kittel with Mark Cavendish who had crashed on the route some way further back. Unlike the previous day where the Omega Pharma sprint train had looked so imperious it was clear from the number of his teammates that rolled in some way down on the bunch that things had gone wrong for the team in Montpellier. Later reports on Velonews suggested Cav was unhappy with his bike. He’s riding a matt black Specialized Venge with green pin-striping on this Tour, but from the VCSE vantage point the problem seemed to be a lack of lead out.
After fighting our way out of the crash barriers and hedge obstacles of the central reservation we wandered down to the finish line and caught the jersey presentations. We hadn’t been sure where the team buses were going to be parked and hoping to get a few autographs and photos we headed towards the section of ring road after the finish line that had been blocked off. It was pretty clear from the outset that none of the teams had warm downs planned for their riders. By the time we had fought our way past the media scrums around some of the teams, some buses were already leaving. There were plenty of English accents at the stage and unsurprisingly there was a pretty big crowd around the Team Sky Death Star. More surprising perhaps was that Edvald Boasson Hagen was stood outside quite happily posing for pictures while dealing with questions from the media. He’s had a return to form of late, after a dismal classics season and had freelanced some decent results in the bunch sprints*
With Mark Cavendish failing to win the sprint the media were camped outside the Omega Pharma bus, no doubt hoping to ask him what had gone wrong. VCSE spotted Cav’s major domo Rob Hayles, working as colour man for the BBC at the door of the bus, but of his friend / employer there was no sign. The management of Orica Green Edge were outside their bus and all smiles following Simon Gerrans day in yellow and the handover of the leadership to teammate Daryl Impey. The only other rider who was prepared to face the crowds was Astana’s Freddie Kessiakoff who had abandoned the Tour earlier on the stage. It was a shame that there weren’t that many photo ops as we meandered our way around buses and between team cars. It was easy enough to get up close and personal to the riders equipment and equipped with the knowledge of the number a rider was using we were able to snap some shots of some of the bikes used on the stage. It was interesting to see the amount of aero bikes used and not just by the sprinters.
Stage 7 catching the early part of the stage from the roadside in Roujan
Looking at the detailed route for the stage 7 we worked out that we wouldn’t need to journey back into Montpellier to catch the following days stage. The first categorised climb wasn’t until 80 kilometres into the stage, but there was a smaller climb around 60 km into the route at Faugeres that looked like it might make a good spot to watch the race from. Riding out to this point on Tuesday it quickly became clear that it was a bit of a non starter. Faugeres was a sleeply village in a small valley with the road climbing out of it. The approach involved an 8 mile uphill slog through scrubland alongside a railway and in the absence of anywhere obvious to grab some food or drink Faugeres felt like eight miles too far. The stage followed the course of the D13 from Pezanas and through Roujan and Gabian. Signs at the roadside indicated that the road would be closed from 10.00am and with the peloton not due to pass through Faugeres until 1.50pm at the earliest we decided to look for another spot.
We could get to the village of Roujan from our base without needing to use any of the stage and having decided that one exposure to the publicity caravan was enough headed out to find a decent viewpoint before the peloton rolled in. The atmosphere in Roujan was very relaxed with the Gendarmes happy to let everyone onto the road as we searched for the best spot to get a long view of the riders as they climbed up the gentle incline. There were quite a few English voices around here as well as a large Australian contingent who had taken over the roadside bar.
You know the Tour is coming as the helicopters begin to circle Apocalypse Now style over you, getting lower and lower, closer and closer. First through was the breakaway; the legendary Jens Voight of Radioshack and AG2R’s Blel Kadri who would take the King of the Mountains jersey at the end of the stage. The break had a five minute gap on the peloton who arrived pretty much in team groups. Anyone catching the stage on TV would have seen Cannondale on the front for most of the race and even at 60 km they were positioned on the front. From the head of the peloton to the last team car could be counted in minutes, but even though this part of the stage wasn’t seen as worthy of televising it has an appeal of it’s own. Being close to the worlds greatest bike race if only for a second is exciting and while we missed the freebies getting doled out on stage 7 we came away with something even better. As the Cannodale squad rolled through Roujan one of their riders (sadly not Sagan) tossed away a water bottle and delivered us the quintessential Tour souvenir.
VCSE will be picking up the Tour again for stages 12 & 13 with a finish and start the day after in the city of Tours in the Loire valley. These are transitional stages again and certainly stage 12 should end up with a bunch sprint. We will bring the fans eye view of the race with comment, pictures and video. There are more photos and video from Montpellier and Roujan on our Facebook page.