In the Tour de France caravan with Le Coq Sportif
Road.cc sends its best keyring-thrower for a day in the Tour de France caravan
Ever wanted to feel like a God, and have grown wo/men (delete as appropriate) prostrate themselves before you? Then jump on a float in the Tour de France publicity caravan, the gaudy commercial parade that hypes the crowd along the route in the hours before the riders zip past.
road.cc was lucky enough to enjoy that feeling, as we hopped aboard the Le Coq Sportif Hy Van (think old corrugated-iron Citroën, strings of onions, berets, etc) and helped in the distribution of keyrings and nick-nacks, to unbroken lines of people almost 200 kilometres long, all screaming for madeleines like they'd never seen the little boat-shaped cakes before in their lives.
Le Coq Sportif is sponsoring the Tour's jerseys again, having done so for decades since 1951; their contribution to the caravan was a procession of sporty roosters, carried aloft on Minis, decked out in yellow, green, polka-dot and white. Theirs was not the most outlandish contribution; one poor driver will be covering the Tour's 3,500 kilometres in a giant rubber ring mounted on a quad bike. What he was advertising was not immediately clear. More precarious, though, were the Courtepaille (think Little Chef) Smart Cars, each one entombed in a large, cuboid thatched-cottage costume. And the Bannette girls, balanced aloft a huge pile of bread. Descending the Tourmalet is a tricky business at the best of times; for their sake (and everyone in the largely open-topped caravan), you can only hope it doesn't rain.
The caravan rolled through Stage Three's start in Orchies at around 9:30 to begin its slow journey to Boulogne. Directly behind was the menacing procession of team buses which parked up in the street, disgorging mechanics who took bicycles out for a final fettle. Rabobank and Cofidis's riders came out to chat (this being home ground for the French team); elsewhere, press and pundits had to make do with Robbie McEwen, the Team Sky Pinarellos (including Chris Froome's frankly monstrous Q-Ring and the motivational messages inscribed on the top tube), or just the sight of the Garmin-Sharp bus, freshly painted in the new team livery.
Then on to the closed roads, ahead of the peloton in a Renault Espace, with driver and Tour ambassador Denis Roux. The Frenchman started his Tour career as Fignon's top climbing domestique at Renault-Elf, then went to Système U, Z-Peugeot and Toshiba - all the coolest '80s teams in other words. With a highest GC finish of 10th, and 12 years DS-ing the likes of Chris Boardman and Bradley Wiggins at Gan and Crédit Agricole, he knows his stuff. Wiggo? "He always had talent, though we didn't guess then he had this special talent... He has a good motor, as we say in French." The stage win for Sagan, however, surprised even Roux - but we let him off, since he's only just got back from four years travelling around the world with his family. And in 2008, how old was Sagan? 12?
We're still passing through the strung-out caravan when it perceptibly speeds up: the peloton is riding fast today, and officials have judged the floats need to get a bit more lively to stay ahead. Everything about the organisation is precise, regulated, so the racing can unfold in all its unpredictable glory. But there are still the fans. We transfer to the Le Coq Hy van, harness up, and are suddenly climbing for the first KOM points of the day. We round a small hairpin, the crowds press in, cheering, the driver's constantly on his horn and, even on this third-category lump, you get a taste of what it will be like in the mountains.
At the end, we find a spot at the 100m-to-go mark, watch Chavanel bash off the front on a screen, be caught, and then suddenly Sagan is there on the road in front of us, a few lengths ahead of the chasers, climbing the steep finish at an incredible speed. He has time to look over his shoulder, sit up. That little dance. Rain starts gently falling, and they're still straggling in when he's on the podium, accepting the green jersey.