The Tour de France is one of those iconic sporting events that has the power to thrill and captivate millions of people around the world. I have avidly followed the tour since 1989 when I first watched Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon to win the Tour on the Champs-Élysées. Living on the other side of the world, we could only imagine what it would be like to be part of this event. To say that we were excited to be following a stage of the Tour is an understatement.
The Sunday of stage 1 does eventually come, and on arrival at the Village Départ we are met by Simon Barker from Skoda and the Newsport SAS representative, Natacha, who introduces us to our driver for the day, Gildas. The village is like a little part of France sitting in the middle of London, with stalls providing espresso, croissants, crepes, muffins and entertainment. The most amazing bit about it is that once we have left it will all be packed up and shipped off to the remaining 19 stages.
When the time comes to leave we are introduced to Rich Land from LeTourGuide.com, who is joining us in the car. He is equally excited about the whole experience and can’t believe his luck in being asked to cover stage 1.
The walk to the cars through the Admiralty Arch is a surreal experience with crowds five or six deep watching us walk in the middle of it all. It must be something else for the cyclists to experience this kind of support.
London has certainly turned it on, the sun is streaming down and the people have turned out in their thousands as we make our way along a tourist trail route through central London; Big Ben, London Bridge, St Paul’s, what a spectacle for the billions of people watching around the world. Gildas has shown Rich a new toy in the form of a klaxon and he takes great delight in making lots of noise to get the crowds waving and cheering. We are slowly getting used to this VIP thing and hang out the windows waving and taking photos as we pass.
We had expected the crowds to have died off by the outskirts of London. If we thought London was massive then this is unbelievable with millions of people lining the route to Canterbury. What a great endorsement for cycling.
Millar has got the right idea – he has gone out on a breakaway. We are able to follow the break on the radio and are able to pick out the time gaps from the French commentary. Given the support for him today he must be loving it.
Nearing lunchtime, Gildas spots a pull-off area and we stop for a stretch and an amazing four course lunch with champagne. We never thought when we left New Zealand that we would be sitting in the English countryside with a Frenchman sipping champagne whilst watching the Tour de France. We could definitely get used to this.
It’s not long before we have to gulp down the wine and jump back in the car to race back up to the caravan. Gildas tells us he has another surprise for us in the form of a helicopter ride. At the 130km mark we pull off again and wait for the helicopters to arrive. It’s like something out of MASH as five helicopters in convoy fly over us before landing in a field next to the road.
Rich and I manage a quick glimpse of the leaders before racing over the fields to the helicopter. This is our first time in a helicopter and as we take off over the hedgerows I say to myself I have got to get one of these. It doesn’t take long to spot the peloton snaking through the small villages of Kent. What a way to watch the tour – this is truly something special.
The flight is over all too quickly and we are back in the Skoda and racing through the crowds into Canterbury. It sounds like the breakaway is going to be caught and with it a British win looks slim. Hopefully Julian Dean, New Zealand’s lone representative could do the unthinkable and get amongst it in the sprint.
We pull off the road within sight of the finish and once again we are amazed by the sheer size of this event and the planning and organising that must go into making it all run smooth. The car park area is surrounded by TV trucks with satellite dishes and their maze of cables. Is all this really for a bike race with only 189 riders in it?
Gildas shows us into the hospitality area just in time, as the breakaway has been caught and the teams are shunting for position to lead out their sprinters. We follow the final stages of the race on the big screen; the crescendo builds to a roar as the riders hit the finishing straight. This is incredible. As we lean over the fence the race hits us literally millimetres from where we are standing. The exhilaration of watching that finish will be the lasting memory of this day. It is a cliché but it is truly was a once in a lifetime moment.
Many thanks to Simon from Skoda and LeTourGuide.com for this brilliant day!
Paul Clarkson and Tamara Tait.