When the Tour comes to town and is gone in the blink of an eye

PHOTO: GARETH JONES

You have to be there to understand what The Tour really means to the French. For despite the cameras’ diligent tracking of each stage, with those marvellous shots of gruelling, lung-bursting climbs and accompanying cutaways of breathtaking, picturesque scenery, it can’t be truly and fully experienced by watching the otherwise excellent live television coverage. No, the Tour de France is best viewed on the ground, and I don’t mean at a bustling stage-start or a frantic, finish-line sprint, but outside the cafés and on the pavements of the small towns and villages the race passes through each day.

The television cameras rarely linger here since it’s the racing that viewers want to see, but these communities are where the heart of the Tour really dwells. Even though riders come and go in little more than a minute, the tension, excitement and activity builds all day and continues long after the last of the stragglers has disappeared.

I’ve witnessed the Tour in this way on three occasions, and it never disappoints as a sporting spectacular. My first Tour was in 2012 when Bradley Wiggins became the first UK cyclist to win the world’s premier and most demanding road race. I watched Bradley, wearing the leader’s famous yellow jersey, pass by just a couple of metres from where I was standing. “Go on, Bradley!” I shouted – and ever since I’ve been telling everyone how he gave me a nod and an acknowledging wave.

But after years of reflection I have to ’fess up that this story was probably apocryphal all along. I mean… Bradley Wiggins, leading the Tour de France and totally focused on the way ahead, takes time to nod and wave at me? Nahhh, it just couldn’t happen.

My second Tour – it tends to revisit the same area every four or five years – was in 2016, when another Brit, Chris Froome, won the race, the third of his four Tour victories. On that occasion I didn’t pick out the yellow jersey, so didn’t get the chance to wave or shout, but I certainly would have had I glimpsed the brilliant Froome in his pomp. And my third Tour was this year, when I got to see Mark Cavendish in the Sprint King’s green jersey as he powered by. More about majestic Mark later.

Tour day is a magical day, especially if the peloton passes through around two in the afternoon, as it does in our village. By early morning the main street has been cleared of vehicles, safety barriers have been erected and tension is mounting. Residents place chairs and tables on the pavements so they can wait in comfort, having already decorated their house facades with flags, banners and bunting. Serious-faced gendarmes and police officers (there is a difference) begin passing through in cars, vans and powerful motorcycles from around 10am.

This year, many sat astride impressive-looking new models with two wheels at the front and one at the back. The almost continual procession of law enforcement officers must make it easy for local burglars to go about their business, since all the cops in the area are busy policing the Tour.

There’s a gradual build-up of vehicles advertising one Tour sponsor or another, each accompanied by yet more police or gendarmes, until around midday the official Caravan arrives. This is like no caravan you have ever seen; it’s a bit like an old-fashioned, small-town carnival procession, but on a massive, commercial scale.

And rather than the boy scouts and drum majorettes of my youth, with a smiling carnival queen and her attendants waving modestly from the back of an ancient lorry, we have the Caravan hurtling through at breakneck speed, accompanied by an ear-bashing cacophony of blaring music. Cars, vans, trucks and lorries, vividly decorated in the sponsor’s colours and logos, flash by. Some include monumental, moulded figures, huge inflatable animals or cartoon characters, often with no apparent relevance to the sponsors.

The larger vehicles carry mini-skirted dancers prancing and gyrating on a platform at the back, some strapped on for safety. And all these trucks have logo-clothed young people aboard, hurling out free samples of the company’s wares and items, similarly branded with names and logos.

Hats, T-shirts, plastic shopping bags, washing powder, assorted creams and potions, numerous varieties of sweets, bags of mini saucissons – guaranteed 100 per cent pork, mind – come hurtling towards you as they pass. The chucker-outers are meant to aim for the ground so the items hit the street, but some get carried away and this time I managed to pluck something out of the air with one hand, deploying long-forgotten skills from my school cricket team days. I think my catch was a plastic purse but didn’t have time to check as I threw it with lightning speed into the collective goodie bag provided by a neighbour, before turning to grab the next item spinning towards me.

It sounds horrendously commercial, I know, and it is, but a hypnotic fascination takes hold when you see a sleepy French village street turn into a mini Disneyland. As excited children scramble for sweets, you wonder what mobile monstrosity will round the corner next, in a bid to outdo what’s gone before.

The procession continues for nearly half an hour and when it finally clears, villagers disappear indoors clutching their bulging shopping bags, or heading straight for sunny terraces to enjoy a typically long French luncheon, accompanied by a glass or two of the local vintage.

An hour and a half later we’re back on the street for the main event, excitedly waiting for the race itself to arrive. Even more police and gendarmes lead the way, instructing us to get ready through blaring loudspeakers, while a van with a neon display gives the latest updates.

PHOTO: GARETH JONES

Anticipation rises to fever pitch as cars and motorbikes bearing cameras and commentators slide into view. Suddenly (despite all the fanfare it’s still a surprise), the first rider – or riders if there’s a breakaway group – bursts round the corner and races towards us. Applause and cheers break out just as the peloton, the main body of riders, arrives.

While Tour experts recognise individuals, I look out for the colours: the yellow jersey of the leader, the green jersey worn by the points classification leader (it’s also known as the “sprinter’s jersey”), the polka-dot jersey worn by the King of the Mountains, and the white jersey worn by the leading rider under the age of 26. In fact, I missed all but one this year, but luckily that one sighting was the rider I most wanted to see: the green jersey, in the heart of the peloton, his face a mask of concentration – the magnificent Manxman, Mark Cavendish.

Mark deserves special mention as this year he finally equalled the record of legendary Belgian rider, Eddy Merckx, with 34 stage wins. It’s an incredible achievement for a sportsman who, in the past couple of years, feared his career might be over after a run of poor form and serious illness. He didn’t even have a Tour ride until the very last minute when another rider pulled out and he was drafted into the Deceuninck Quick-Step team. How that decision has paid off! Congratulations, Mark, you’ve achieved the rank of sporting legend.

Back at the Tour, as the peloton disappears, team support vehicles follow hot on their spinning heels jostling for position just like the riders, then comes the obligatory clutch of police and gendarmes. We see the stragglers bringing up the rear, some slightly off the pace, others perhaps battling injury. But these last riders receive as many cheers and as much applause as the leaders. They deserve it. When the final cop car goes by, we realise it’s all over for another four or five years. A smile and a wave to the neighbours and we all disappear indoors for one more glass of rosé and a chat about who we did or didn’t see as we divvy up the spoils from the goodie bag.

But just before we do, one of the TV company motorbikes speeds by with none other than Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour winner, riding pillion and giving race commentary. My photographer mate reckons Bradley gave him a nod and a wave as he passed. But I don’t think it can be true. I mean, Bradley Wiggins…

England pay the penalty once again!

Huge commiserations to England’s footballers after they lost to Italy in the final of the much-delayed Euro 2020 tournament, a match dramatically played out all the way to a predictable and heartbreaking penalty shootout at a packed Wembley Stadium. And talking of “packed,” what exactly happened to those restricted crowd numbers and social distancing measures previously spelled out by the footballing authorities?

Gareth Southgate’s Euro penalty misery continues to haunt him. As a player in the 1996 competition, his semi-final shootout shot was saved, leaving Germany to claim victory with the next kick before going on to win the final. Now, as England manager, the nightmare was replayed for Southgate, this time in the final itself. Shootout specialists Italy held their collective nerve better than the young England players, with their 3-2 penalty win earning them the title and the trophy.

Southgate is well respected as a thoroughly decent, right-thinking man, both within football and in the wider world. He is admired and backed by his England players, who, we are told, accepted without complaint his difficult and sometimes controversial selection decisions. He led his talented young squad to a semi-final and then a final of the two most recent major international tournaments, so who’s to say he won’t go one step further and end England’s 55-year wait for a major trophy by winning the World Cup in Qatar next year?

But it’s hard not to conclude he got his tactics wrong in the match against Italy. Taking the lead after just two minutes with a brilliantly constructed and beautifully executed opening goal by Luke Shaw, England dominated most of the first period with exciting, free-flowing football. Disappointingly, just before the break, and throughout the second half, the home team fell back on the kind of defensive, widely-criticised style of play they’d deployed during the group stage, and it was little surprise when Italy equalised in the sixty-seventh minute.

Then, with just two minutes of extra time remaining and the upcoming shoot out in mind, Southgate introduced young players, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho. It was far too late to throw them into the turmoil of an unbelievably tense situation and they both failed with their penalties, as did nineteen-year-old, Bukayo Saka.

Aside from the moronic social media regulars who immediately pitched in to criticise them with blatant racism, the overwhelming public support for the crestfallen young players was instantaneous. It must continue into the new domestic season. They will learn from the experience, as will Southgate, and maybe, just maybe, next time around the team will bring that elusive trophy home.

If there was any consolation in defeat, it was the fact those two England-shirt-wearing “gesture supporters”, Boris Johnson (wearing the shirt ludicrously under his suit jacket) and Priti Patel, didn’t get to claim that a national triumph was actually down to Brexit and the current government. Indeed, the planned Downing Street reception for the England squad was cancelled, not by Number 10, but because the footballers refused to meet Boris Johnson and allow him yet another exploitative, flag-waving, fist-bumping photo opportunity. So football didn’t “come home,” it went to Rome; but even in sport some clouds do have that fabled silver lining.

Rigby’s Sports Shorts

Hydrogen bombers

Petrol-head motor racing fans love the throaty roar of Formula 1 engines, but may soon have to get used to a slightly different sound, as F1 managing director Ross Brawn reckons that hydrogen-powered cars may be the future of the sport. F1 has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030, and Brawn is amongst many who don’t fancy a fully electric-powered cars alternative, arguing that these would not only take away the noise, but the “buzz” too.

Rough going

American golfer, Bryson DeChambeau, was accused of “acting like an eight-year-old” by his equipment suppliers when he moaned that his driver “sucks”, following a wayward opening round at The Open. The remorseful world number six apologised the following day and tried to make up for his tantrum by throwing balls and gloves to young fans as he left the course. His golf gradually improved too, and a 5 under par final round left him tied in 33rd position, 13 strokes behind winner, Collin Morikawa.

Shorts rift

Norway’s women’s beach handball team was handed a €1,500 fine at the European Beach Handball Championships for wearing shorts rather than the regulation bikini bottoms in the bronze medal match against Spain at Varna, Bulgaria. The European Beach Handball Federation imposed the fine because of what it termed, “improper clothing”. Although Norway’s Handball Federation paid the fine, their spokesperson commented that they were “very proud of these girls” who “raised their voices and said enough is enough!”

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author and scriptwriter. His sport-themed fiction includes the novelisations of the “Goal!” movies and the four official London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics novels for children

 

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