Article written by Alex Kay, guest blogger for the live Orange blog.
Each summer for the past nineteen years I have been glued to my television watching the Tour de France. I saw the likes of LeMond, Indurain and Armstrong come and go. I learned about the different competitions within the Tour, the etiquette among the peloton and the tactics employed to win stages. I wondered at the beautiful locations and the enthusiastic crowds, but I still discovered so much more when I finally joined the race for the last week of the 2012 Tour. Here are some of the aspects which really stood out:
The carnival that precedes the peloton
Travelling with Orange at the Tour meant that I was part of the publicity ‘caravan’. I had never realised that there was a huge convoy of vehicles preceding the peloton each day.
This armada of bizarrely-shaped vehicles representing many of the largest companies in France creates a carnival atmosphere as they drive along the route. Glamorous girls and guys sit inside motorised baguettes or on giant water bottles throwing free gifts to the cheering crowds.
The excitement and warmth shown towards the ‘caravan’ may have been due to the free gifts, but over and above this the crowds also appeared to be celebrating the Tour in general and the fact that its organisers had chosen to come through their town or village after a successful bid from the region.
This huge mass of vehicles also highlighted the incredible amount of organisational work that is needed to keep the Tour on the move. For example, a chunky ring binder containing all sorts of information, such as entry and escape routes from each town, is with the drivers at all times. All caravan vehicles also have a radio linked to the Tour Director’s car who tells the cars where they should be at all times as the stage develops.
The access to the riders
I have never been to a sporting event before where the fans have so much access to the athletes. At the start of the stage each rider ‘signs in’ after riding through the crowds. Then during the race there are barely any barriers along the route, so the fans can (and occasionally do) reach out and touch their heroes.
This proximity also allowed me to fully appreciate the awesome speeds the peloton reaches. I was astounded at how fast the riders crossed the mountain summit finish line after a day of punishing climbing in the Pyrenean stage from Bagnères- de-Luchon to Peryguades.
Coming so close to these world class sportsmen I also noticed their almost superhuman auras. While there are many athletic cycling enthusiasts dressed in lycra cycling kits at the race they can still be easily distinguished from the actual competitors. The Tour riders seem to almost glow with energy before a stage; their tiny upper bodies contrasting starkly with their bulging leg muscles, which seem almost comically underused when not pedalling.
The changing race conditions
Driving the course in front of the peloton I discovered that the riders face a myriad of different road surfaces. Smooth, freshly laid tarmac can give way to loose gravel roads pocked marked with potholes in seconds. The width of a road can change in moments too, while road furniture can appear out of nowhere as the race speeds along at 60kph.
These challenges can be augmented by the weather. It’s often dry and blazingly hot, but this can change from day to day or even within stages. On a mountain stage like the one I witnessed in the Pyrenees, the descents were made highly treacherous in cool and damp conditions with low visibility.
This combination of changing road and weather conditions presents a truly daunting challenge I never fully appreciated watching it on TV.
The global appeal
While the TV often picks out the foreign fans that have travelled to see the Tour it is only when you see the crowds all the way along the route that you realise what a cosmopolitan audience come to watch and celebrate the Tour.
Australians with inflatable Kangaroos were a frequent site on my journey, as were the Union Jacks of the British fans who cheered on their hero Bradley Wiggins and his dominant Sky Team.
I was fortunate enough to have access to the VIP sections at the stage starts and finishes and even here the international appeal of the race was clear. In Rambouillet, I met the American Olympic 100m champion Maurice Greene and moments later bumped into Norwegian football star Morten Gamst Pedersen. Both showed a keen interest in the event that has competitors from both of their nations riding high in the standings.
There was still only minor representation from Asia and Africa but after the success of Britain at this year’s Tour it shows how previously under-represented nations can flourish. As a result, I would predict that participation from these continents will go from strength to strength in the coming years as will the Tour in general.
Follow me on Twitter @alexkayuk