The editorial mobile rang on prologue day: ‘Would you be able to take a photographer on the back of your bike for stage one of the Tour de France? You will have a green sticker.’ The decision to say yes took about a nanosecond. These babies are as rare as the proverbial hens’ teeth; the number of photographers on bikes at pro bike races in general is strictly controlled, and even more so on the Tour, where racing is faster and media interest more intense than anywhere else in the sport. The coveted green sticker allows its owner to ride in with and overtake the peloton, with the bike referee’s permission of course.
‘Pilote’ is the best job in racing; just go where the photographer says, listen out for instructions via race radio and enjoy the best experience in racing outside the peloton itself, without having to turn a pedal. I had once ridden ‘pilote’ for lensman Phil O’Connor on the Dauphine Libere, so the niceties of the job were mostly familiar. However, I had planned to ride out to Goudhurst to watch the race, and had arranged to meet up with a couple of companions for the ride out. The only way to inform them of my change of plan was to ride to the arranged meeting point on the Sunday morning and then carry on to the stage start, which I reached with about 90 minutes to spare.
Here I met fellow pilote Luke Evans, who was riding as usual for Graham Watson and who had in his possession my sticker, the little matching rear number plate and a photographer’s numbered bib and pocketed waistcoat. I stuffed the waistcoat in my top box, we stickered up the bike front and rear and we set off to find Christophe, who worked for the Tour organisation. He in turn found my lensman, who turned out instead to be a scribbler from the Guardian. He had neither a helmet nor a jacket of any description; luckily, the weather was warm and dry. We set off to find a lid and race radio, without which there is no possibility of riding with the peloton; without one, the referee is unable to make his instructions known. After casting around the hundreds of parked Skodas I found the radio man, and returned to Sean, the writer, just in time to be told that I was no longer needed, as there was a spare motorcyclist on the race convoy. ‘However,’ said Christophe, ‘since you already ‘ave the sticker, you can ride the course ahead of the peloton. Enjoy the stage.’
At this moment I experienced something of a rush of blood to the head, and decided to ride home, get out my pushie, get changed and drive part way to Goudhurst so I could ride to the pub in time for the Tour and a pint. By the time I arrived chez Hallett, this idea looked a lot less attractive than simply doing as Christophe suggested. One advantage of a motorbike is the way it compresses southern England into a small area, and within 40 minutes I was turning off the A21 at the Pembury exit, squeezing between cones to get on to the slip road. At the top, the roundabout itself was barriered off and guarded by the kind of person who likes to guard a barrier. ‘What are you, a marshall or something?’ he said, eyeing my green sticker with the distaste of one who suspected he was powerless to stop me doing what I was about to do. ‘ Press, mate. I want to get on the course.’ With a grunt of irritation, he moved a barrier aside; I was on the race route.
There were, to put it mildly, a lot of people lining the side of the road. Impressively, the non-cycling-educated British public seemed to have grasped the idea that a downhill stretch of road is not the best place to view the race, and most descents were devoid of spectators. Every climb, on the other hand, no matter how short or insignificant, was lined with people of all ages, who cheered wildly every vehicle that passed. Although it was only midday, many, especially those sat in front of their own homes, had clearly decided to make a big day of it and had laid out tables groaning with jugs of Pimms to help them while away the hours before the arrival of the Tour.
Keeping a wary eye on the mirrors for reckless convoy vehicles, I trundled along until I reached the foot of the Cote de Goudhurst. Right from the foot of the climb, crowds lined the road several deep. At the top, as the road turned sharp left, the crowd was so dense that movement except at the front was clearly impossible. I rounded the bend and parked up a few hundred metres further on, next to a police car.
‘Having fun?’ I asked its occupant. ‘We were a bit worried earlier about the size of the crowd, but everyone is having a good time so we are just sitting here.’ I walked back to the top of the climb for a picture. The atmosphere was extraordinary, the air filled with the constant but barely audible murmur of thousands of people talking quietly. The expectation was palpable, the sensation entirely benign. As I clicked away, I heard a voice from the crowd call out. I had been spotted by my sister, which was just as well. Picking someone out in that crowd was near impossible.
Leaving Goudhurst, the scene repeated itself endlessly along the route. Occasionally I’d see a lone figure seated on a log at the bottom of some shady dip, but most spectators were in party mood. Toots of the bike horn were greeted with cheery waves, while riding through each town centre was an exercise in being observed. At the RCUK tent at the end of Tenterden High Street, David Arthur and companions viewed my sticker and bike with something approaching envy. Given that they had been there since 8am, I was not surprised.
Eventually I arrived at the summit of the Cote de Farthing Common and parked up. The Tour was till an hour away, so I walked back along the road for some pics. ‘You can’t walk there!’ barked a Dayglo-clad constable. He advanced while flapping his arms, thumbs tucked into his jacket, like some kind of giant, er, Chicken. I retreated, press sticker notwithstanding, and set off on the last few kilometres into Canterbury more or less as Mark Cavendish was struggling to get back into the race after his crash.
The five K to the finish were incredible, with an unbroken mass of humanity packed against the barriers. Riding the motorcycle at race speed between them gave a great impression of how the pros would see the sprint, which proved both fast and relatively safe. I was directed left down the deviation towards the press parking, and hefted the Beemer onto its stand next to a Tour bike. Removing my lid, I opened my top box to put it inside and there it was, surely the best blagged freebie of the Tour; that photographers’ pocketed waistcoat. Unless, of course, the green sticker counts as a freebie.