The Tour de France is only ever a short hop across the English Channel but, with this year’s Grand Depart in Liege, Belgium, the 2012 race provided as good an opportunity as any to take in the world’s greatest free sporting event. Here are some of my pictures from behind the barriers…
Many bike manufacturers choose to launch new machines around the Tour and I was in Liege a day early to check out the LOOK 675. Liege may be Belgium’s third biggest city but it’s far from its finest, in decline since the large-scale closure of its steel industry. A little over 24 hours before the start of the Tour and there were few signs of the carnival that would setup shop the following day.
Cycling is Belgium’s national sport and the names of the country’s heroes were splashed across the road, with this tribute to Jurgen Van den Broeck painted on the finishing straight of the prologue course alongside artwork dedicated to Philippe Gilbert and Maxime Monfort.
Belgium is a divided country and last year set the record for the most amount of time without a government after parties from the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking failed for 541 days to form a coalition. Liege lies in Wallonia, the French-speaking half of the country, and the Belgian, French and Wallonian flags were proudly draped over the balconies of apartment blocks overlooking the course.
Race day arrived and the city’s streets were transformed, with thousands of fans disembarking packed trains at Liege’s train station and making the short walk to the centre. Queues stretched out of the doors of local boulangeries where spectators stocked up with a baguette or two to see them through the day, while makeshift stools sold cycling memorabilia.
Team Sky fans waited patiently for a glimpse of Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and co outside the team bus.
The Tour de France is a relentlessly commercial operation – it started in 1903 as a means to sell newspapers, after all – and that tradition lives on today, not least with the Tour caravane, which travels along the course ahead of the peloton, with vehicles – outrageous in their size and decoration – promoting the companies which sponsor the race.
Adults and children alike scrap on the pavement for the souvenirs thrown from the caravane, fighting for a memento – a cap, flag or keyring - from their day at the Tour de France. A small packet of Haribo sweets landed at my feet for a convenient mid-morning snack.
Cycling fans in Belgium wear cotton caps like football fans in Great Britain where football shirts. Take your pick…
Bjarne Riis, winner of the race in 1996, is on Tour de France duty as boss of the SaxoBank-Tinkoff Bank team but was happy to sign copies of his new autobiography, Stages of Light and Dark.
The prologue may have marked the start of the 2012 Tour de France, but Vacansoleil-DCM rider Johnny Hoogerland is still bearing the scars of last year’s race when, on stage nine, Hoogerland was forced off the road and into a barbed wire fence by a television car. The Dutchman was part of a breakaway and managed to finish the stage, regaining the lead in the King of the Mountains classification before receiving 33 stitches.
The riders head out on the course ahead of the start of the stage to recce the 6.4km route. Here the world champion Mark Cavendish, who would later swap his rainbow jersey for a Team Sky-issue skin suit, shares a joke with another rider (out of shot).
David Millar’s Tour participation was in doubt after he was struck down by illness in the week leading up to the race, but the Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda veteran recovered sufficiently to start and finished an impressive 15th in the prologue. Here he’s pictured talking to the media after his ride.
Richie Porte, who won the Giro d’Italia’s best young rider classification in 2010, could lead a team in his own right but signed for Team Sky ahead of the 2012 season and is one of Bradley Wiggins’ key domestiques.
National hero Philippe Gilbert received the best reception from a partisan home crown. Roared on by thousands of fans, the Belgian national time trial champion produced an aggressive ride to finish ninth, 13 seconds off the pace.
Fabian Cancellara specialises over short, sharp prologue courses and the four-time world time trial champion produced a blistering performance to top the standings by seven seconds to secure his fifth prologue victory at the Tour de France.