Fancy a ride?
Stunning Mont Blanc
Is the best view of the race from here?
As close to the action as possible
The finishing straight looks longer than you think
If you watched the Tour rolling through the Kentish countryside earlier this month, you’ll have seen more motor vehicles than bikes. It’s not just the publicity caravan with its freebies and waving French girls. There are 300 cars supplied by one of the Tour’s official partners, Skoda, including vehicles for nine of the Tour’s 20 teams.
Some of these cars are used to ferry race officials from place to place and keep tabs on each day’s stage. But a large proportion of the fleet is used to keep the sponsors happy and give the great and the good a chance to get close to the world’s greatest cycle race.
RoadcyclingUK was lucky enough to take a ride in one of these VIP cars for the challenging mountain stage from Le Grand Bornand to Tignes.
I expect our driver be to a Gauloise-toting Frenchman, but he turned out to be a Brit. Not just any Brit, but ex-pro Paul Watson, who rode the Tour in 1987 for the ANC team.
As soon as the publicity caravan has left the start village, we jump in Paul’s Skoda and set off in pursuit, passing a string of neutral service vehicles and team cars as we speed out of Le Grand Bornand. “The team cars will be heading off to the feed station to get ready for the riders,” Paul explains.
We’re a good half-hour ahead of the peloton, but the roadsides are already busy. It’s a warm, sunny Sunday and half the region seems to have turned out to cheer the riders on.
The competitors aren’t the only ones who can expect vocal encouragement. I never realised the sight of a black Skoda Superb could cause some much excitement. The car is fitted with an extra-loud klaxon as well as a regular horn and Paul gives a quick blast every time the crowds begin to thicken.
We’re soon over the first couple of climbs, gentle warm-ups before the three first category climbs to come. Paul pulls over so we can watch the race pass before a 20-minute helicopter flight over the race route. Yes, today we really do find out how the other half lives.
From above, the peloton looks like a fast-moving string of coloured dots. It’s impossible to make out individual riders, but it’s certainly an impressive sight. And the views of Mont Blanc from the air are simply stunning.
Back on the ground we spot Raymond Poulidor, three-time Tour runner-up and French national hero. I try to say hello in my broken French but the great man is soon whisked away in yet another official car.
On the road again, we speed over the first of three first-category climbs, the Cormet de Roselend. “I’m actually feeling really good on this climb,” jokes Paul. “My form is definitely coming.”
Race radio gives a steady stream of updates on the day’s action. A breakaway has formed, and we catch a few of the names. Rasmussen, one of the favourites for the day’s stage, is among them.
We’re quickly over the top of the next climb, the 1639-metre Montée d’Hauteville, and following the publicity caravan to the day’s final and highest climb to Tignes, with the summit at 2068 metres.
The crowds have been impressive all day, but with each passing kilometre they’re getting thicker. And, frankly, madder.
Smiling French families and politely enthusiastic Germans have given way to groups of intense-looking Basques and well lubricated Dutchmen. The combination of sun, booze and lack of oxygen seems to have induced a kind of Tour madness, as they run alongside the car shouting, waving and throwing beer through the open car windows. If this is the reaction they give to a passing car, the riders are guaranteed quite a reception.
We arrive at the finish in time to watch the riders tackle the ascent to Tignes and watch Rasmussen claim the yellow jersey. We’ll be watching the next stage from the sofa at home, but it was great to spend a day as a Tour VIP.