This story could have been so different. Had the Stage 1 early break never occurred, or been different riders, then the day could have provided a very different outcome indeed...
The no.2 team car in the Tour de France plays a waiting game. It sits behind the first tranche of vehicles just biding its time, waiting for a rider to attack and stay away in a break, and apart from providing cover whilst the no.1 car stops for a comfort break it keeps its position in the rear. Waiting.
My seat for the day
The Grande Depart of the 2014 Tour de France saw me sitting in the shotgun seat of Team Europcar’s no.2 car, monumentally thrilled to be able to witness the start of 2014’s most exciting sporting event. My driver for the day was Director Sportif Andy Flickinger, a retired ex-pro with a soft spot for Kate Middleton and an unnerving ability to squeeze his Renault into unfeasibly tight spots at pant-wettingly fast speeds.
As we joined the starting procession to Harewood house it was clear that the crowds were enormous, with every patch of pavement and balcony in use to get a glimpse of the Tour as it went past, the noise was phenomenal. Despite my new-found Gaelic friend’s continental aloofness, it was evident that he was impressed!
Rider spotting at the start
After the roll-out and obligatory send-off by the Red Arrows the race started in earnest, and with the stage featuring a few bumps then a gentle ending, it was clear that unless a breakaway could get established and stay out then it was a stage for the sprinters. As good fortune would have it, I was in the breakaway car for the team which featured a certain Monsieur Thomas Voeckler, and if anyone was going to grab some early headlines with a suicide attack then surely it was going to be him!
Oh. Except it was that other guy who likes to commit to attacks who decided to go first: Jens Voigt.
Most of the day's viewing looked a bit like this
I soon discovered that this decision meant my view of stage 1 was going to be firmly confined to the rear of the field. Rather than give you tales of derring-do, panache, and athletic heroism as befits a Grand Depart, I only saw seven riders on the road the whole day – seriously: seven.
Two early mechanicals (within 10 minutes) and then a few riders who had been dropped on the hills, including three from Lampre-Merida – which, we all agreed, wasn’t a great omen for their Tour – that was the total amount of rider sightings I had. Despite all that, driving alongside the pros is way cool, and they are fast. Even the ones that had been shelled out the back.
So, instead of epic riding, and extreme close-ups of the action as it happened, I give you 10 things I learnt at The Tour that I didn’t know before...
1. Hydration is important. It seems that the Directeurs Sportif take hydration very importantly, so much so in fact that every few minutes we would pass at least one car parked on the verge with its crew outside availing themselves of the bushes. This was a game that continued for the entire length of the race!
2. Closed roads are awesome. No, seriously: get in a high-performance car driven by a ex-pro rider on a mission, and you will alternate between grinning and grimacing, how they get through the gaps I do not know, but get through they do and at insanely high speeds. On a serious note - don’t drive like this on a normal day, you’ll die. Quickly.
3. Proximity sensors on cars are for children, I’m sure the Tour drivers use them as navigation aids. They get close enough to the car in front to set off the alarm and then they overtake…
4. The no.2 car gets most of its race info from ITV4. When it can’t pick up ITV4 it’s effectively blind, as race-radio isn’t as vocal as you might imagine. For a while we were watching ITV4 +1, it was only when the math’s didn’t seem right that we twigged and switched over...
5. The French love the Royal Family. Well, certainly the Duchess of Cambridge, and it seems they even think Prince Harry is pretty cool.
6. Going in a team car is great. There’s no denying it: even being a nobody in the car, with the crowds on either side cheering and shouting it's quite intoxicating, it’s clear why so many Pros move into management.
7. Rules? We don’t need no steenking rules! Even post-race there’s a certain level of flouting the laws of the road, it’s an interesting experience to say the least. Maybe it's hard to adjust to being on closed roads...
8. And speaking of rules, rules bedamned! The roadside crowds featured full team-kits, world champ jerseys, a plethora of national champ jerseys, team flags, kids in supporters tops, lycra that was way too small, white shorts, mismatching tops and bottoms, bikes that were placed down on their drive-sides, baseball caps, high-viz, helmets, no helmets and smiles. SO MANY SMILES. Nobody cared about what people were wearing or riding, just smiles and cheering! 190km of a happy cycling fraternity.
Even the sheep were dressed for the Tour
9. Yorkshire is awesome. From a team-car, from a roadside, and from the helicopters, what a way to showcase this beautiful county. What crowds!. Just brilliant to witness, and for 5 hours we saw immense support. That’s one of the key memories I will take away from the day, the support wasn’t isolated patches, it was the full length of the route. A fantastic show of enthusiasm for the race.
10. A split second can cahnge your whole day. All the plans in the world, finely-honed, practiced and perfected, come to naught if you are not in the breakaway when it goes. Stage 1 belonged to Voigt, and as I watched the highlights on Sunday night I saw that Europcar got into the early break and gave Andy and his travelling companion a much more exciting day. C'est la vie.
As Saturday evening drew to a close, the mechanics were hard at work cleaning bikes when we got back to the hotel, riders gingerly walked back to their rooms with Soigneurs opening doors for them, and the roads were filled with cyclists making their way back to their campsites and festivals to share stories of panache, derring-do, and athletic heroism. What a brilliant day and a fantastic start to le Tour.
Thanks to Team EuropCar, Evans Cycles and Louis Garneau for the invite, and my wife for permission to attend!