The 99th Tour de France began on Saturday with a 6.4km time trial through the streets of Liège. While the overwhelming favorite for the event, Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara, took victory as expected, we will remember in particular the amazing atmosphere that prevailed throughout the day in the city.
As soon as I arrived in Liège on Saturday morning, I was able to see how much the Tour de France meant to our Belgian neighbors. As the sun came up, the most ardent fans of the Tour began to gather around the start area with their folding chairs and sunscreen to find a good spot along the guardrails to see the opening moments of the prologue, a time trial through the streets of Liège, beginning at 2pm. Some were from the city, others had come from further afield, such as an Australian couple who had come to follow the Tour from start to finish (!), but everyone was there for the love of cycling and for the great party that is the Tour de France.
In the city, French and Belgian flags adorned the buildings and the lucky few to live around the start area stood on their balconies with their families, enjoying a drink while waiting for the action to begin. After picking up my pass that gives me access to the Technical Zones throughout the whole day, I headed to the Village to sample the atmosphere less than two hours before the race started.
Set up in a wonderful little park just a stone’s throw from the start area, the Village is a hive of activity: a jazz orchestra playing live music from the 20s, a magician on stilts pulling off the most amazing magic tricks, a giant screen showing the greatest moments in the history of the Tour and a multitude of stalls inviting the public to come and try out their food.
At 2pm, the first riders set off at one-minute intervals. With the more well-known riders and favorites for the Tour setting off towards the end, I was invited to follow a guide for a tour around the Technical Zone, but it wasn’t just anyone: Charly Mottet himself! I must confess that I didn’t know this former rider, the best young rider at the Giro d’Italia in 1984 and winner of the Giro di Lombardia in 1988, but it was a pleasure to spend the afternoon in his company. I was also able to see for myself how popular he remains, with team managers stopping their cars to shake the hand of the man they used to call “Little Charly” in the peloton.
In the Technical Zone, the team buses and trucks are parked up in the shade, where the riders can quietly warm up before being called to the start. On board these warhorses is everything that you could need for three weeks on the road: bikes and all the spare parts that go with them, massage tables and even washing machines!
At this time, the competitors are all in their own little bubbles, with each of them preparing themselves in their own way: while some choose to listen to music, others answer questions from journalists, who roam around in packs looking for a few words from the riders before they head to the start line. That also sums up the Tour de France: the notion of participants in the world’s biggest bike race rubbing shoulders with outsiders, be they members of the public or the press.
Curious bystanders flock around the training areas to see the champions up close, as do the media with cameras on shoulders and dictaphones in hand. With its impressive team line-up (Tony Martin, Bradley Wiggins, Juan Antonio Flecha) and its status as favorite, Team Sky is the main attraction in the Technical Zone. But Astana, the team of the infamous Alexander Vinokourov, also has its fair share of ardent supporters…
Charly then takes us to the finish area, where we can watch the last 250 meters of the race from the side of the road. Travelling at close to 60 km/h, the riders fly past us so fast that we have trouble in telling them apart. Having stood at the top of the leaderboard for a long time, Sylvain Chavanel ultimately finishes in 3rd place, behind Britain’s Bradley Wiggins and stage winner Fabian Cancellara. The local star, Philippe Gilbert, also creates a stir among the public as he crosses the finish line and the journalists descend on him, but the Belgian should be pleased with 9th place, 13 seconds behind the leader.
It is 5pm and it is already time to head home. Just like these riders for whom the worst is still to come, the day flew by too quickly. Before going our separate ways, I ask Charly who he thinks will win the Tour de France this year. He thinks for a moment before answering, “Bradley Wiggins”. We’ll see if his prediction is right in just under three weeks’ time, on the Champs-Élysées…