Whatever anybody says, the Tour de France IS about the bikes too – and the wheels, tyres, bars, and gears – because the world's greatest bike race is also the test bed and launch pad for the very sharpest bits of cycling technolgy's cutting edge. Ironically though the best time to see all this stuff is before the race starts. Behind the scenes as the teams cluster together ahead of the the Grand Depart for some last minute fettling, tweaking and cleaning of the arsenal of kit they've assembled for the race ahead. So, that's where we went: me, Mat, and our trusty(ish) satnav, a road.cc road trip. Read on and we'll take you there too for a sniff rount the Tour's pits… as it were.
You've probably seen our Tour tech reports on some of the things we saw (you have, haven't you?) Vino's Project Black Specialized SR4, Tyler Farrar's new Cervelo S5, Frank and Andy Schleck's Trek Madone's plus Fabian Cancellara's TT bike, now for the bits in between, a flavour of the people and places that make a trip to the Tour so magical. We've got a shed load of pictures too - check 'em out using the gallery lightbox functionality - now with added captions with bonus info, just click on one of the the thumbnails to open it up.
In an ideal world the screen would go all shimmery now and we'd be transported back… back… in time - sadly though the digital medium hasn't really mastered that sort of thing just yet, so you'll just have to scroll down a bit and our journey can begin…
Weds June 30, 12.30 outskirts of Cherbourg
Our Tour de France adventure has begun but Mr Darcy isn't up for it at all, he's a very English chap and the insistent tone of his voice suggests he doesn't trust Jonny Foreigner ONE INCH (he doesn't do metric), especially Frenchie. No, it's back to Centre Ville for him and from there take ship to Blighty at the earliest possible opportunity. Mat and I ignore his ever louder demandds to "Turn around!" and press on. Mr Darcy is our satnav,
Weds June 30, 8pm outskirts of Nantes
"Route recalculation" is the Darcy's phrase du jour – the roads have changed a bit since his day (he's a very old satnav), he also has trouble counting the right number of exits on roundabouts – which we put down to the shortcomings of an English public school eduction. Luckily France is a well signposted country. Fair dos the old boy does come in handy in actually getting us from the autoroute to our hotel. Now though we have another problem, Mat needs to eat, he's a big, fit, semi-permanently hungry boy and he's also a veggie – that does not compute in these parts.
Google suggests there is one restaurant within about 30km of where we are staying that will meet his non meat based needs (that's pretty hard to believe but as everything else seems to be shut, full or with a menu featuring foie gras in unfeasibly varied ways, that's where we head. We're joined by some of the guys from the Specialized tech team at the Tour, including Chris D'Aluisio, the man who designed the Tarmac SL4 and indeed the whole Tarmac range of bikes… going right back, he looks bloody fit and obviously spends a lot of time riding his creations. We are all very hungry – the Spesh guys are fresh from a 60km detour courtesy of their satnav & road works… when they were a handful of kilometres from meeting us.
The hotel is full of people there for the Tour, Dutch, German, and French TV guys, journalists, sponsors. We are fully 60km away from the start. For no discernible reason the restaurant has a jungle 'n' dolphin-based theme, they're everywhere; big and small carved wooden dolphins all in frankly quite un-natural poses… un-natural for a dolphin anyway. Nic from Specialized tells us that on the Spec tech morning ride today they stopped so he could ride a fibreglass dog at a roundabout - roundabout art is big in this part of France. Nic shows us a pic of him riding the dog. At Le Tour you take your entertainment where you can find it.
We talk Tour contenders, dark horses - Vand den Broeck and Geraint Thomas are both riders to watch, interesting bikes - which for these guys is mainly the new SL4, and where technology will go next - a constant theme for all the tech guys we talk to.
Thurs July 1, 8.40am - Astana Team hotel
We're inside the Tour bubble. Turns out the Astana team hotel is a location known to no digital device, obviously Mr Darcy didn't know where it was, but neither did the Spesh boys' satnav either - "even my iPhone said it didn't exist" one of them tells us with a note of incredulity – yep that's how hidden it is. Luckily although the Chateau Astana are staying in is well set back from the main road down its own private track – the Astana team bus is big and bright enough to be spotted from a very, very long way of indeed.
The Astana team cars are parked on the lawn in front of the hotel and two mechanics trucks are right by the entrance. Astana mechanics are prepping the bikes and we have to hurry because any minute now the team are going to emerge and ride off on them… including Vino on the bike we've come to see. We have a very little time to film and shoot the bike, as we finish the trip-trapping of lots of cleats over marble floors tells us that the riders are here and ready to go.
Pros that they are at the sight of our camera they all automatically line up for a pic, so we take one. Then they break away and ride off over the lawn. It's early in the morning but it's already hot… one of the Astana guys has full bib longs, long sleeved jersey, and a jacket on - no wonder he's thin.
As the riders depart we move up to where the mechanics are working on the spare bikes. One of them points to the blood on the chainstays of Rémy Di Gregorio's bike. "The froggie crashed during the national championships" he tells us good humouredly, Gregorio came off worse than the bike which is in the process of being cleaned up and re-cabled - luckily he was okay, but it strikes me the mechanic wanted us to see that this isn't all about shiny bikes and glory. We'll get a more poignant reminder of that fact soon enough at the Leopard Trek team hotel. Astana themselves will be made painfully aware of that fact too when the culmination of a crash strewn first week sees team leader Vino and his new bike crash out of the Kazak's final Tour. Vinokourov sustains what must be a potential career ending broken femur – cycle racing can be a cruel sport indeed.
Thursday July 1, after 11am, Hotel Aloe, Les Herbiers
While the Astana hotel is about 50km from Les Herbiers where the Tour is basing itself so that the Astana boys can stay in the same place for the first five stages the Hotel Aloe is slap bang in the middle of Tour Central a fact underlined by the "Route Barre" sign on the road about a kilometre from the hotel and the large gendarme whose job it is to say "Non" when we explain we've got an appointment up there. No matter, there's plenty of parking in Les Herbiers today - so long as you're not driving a mobile home - all those spots have gone. We dump the wheels and lug our kit up to the Aloe… Darcy can look after the car.
As we walk up to the hotel the Vacances Soleil team glide by in formation on their new Ridley Noah's a slightly over-weight local puffing in their wake, well we assume he's a local.
The Specialized tech guys have made it here before us, despite leaving after, but we had Darcy as our guide… and Mat needed feeding.
Last year we dropped in to the hotel on the out Rotterdam that was hosting Radioshack, Saxo Bank, AG2R and Katusha - that was a big, flash business establishment, this place is very different a typically French family bucket and spader – with something of a cycling theme, there are old bikes stuck decorating the walls (that's the outside walls). This time it's Leopard Trek, Saxo Bank Sun Gard, Ag2R, and Francais des Jeux, interestingly pretty much the same manufacturer mix as last year subbing in FdJ and their Lapierre's for Katusha and their Colnagos.
As last year there seems to be a definite hierarchy in Rotterdam Saxo Bank and Radioshack were the top dogs in the prime positions and with the most equipment. This time it's Saxo Bank and Leopard Trek, with if anything the Luxembourg outfit being first amongst equals. They've got the best spot in the car park with Saxo Bank just down from them, AG2R opposite and FdJ right down the other end of the car park by the gate.
Ben, Trek's team liaison for Leopard Trek, greets us – none of the bikes are off limits he says, we make for Fabian Cancellara's TT machine… well you would. Spartacus's bike is still sporting the same Prologo saddle we saw on his Saxo Bank Shiv last year "we couldn't get ours here in time so he's going with this one again" Ben tells us without a flicker. Wouldn't want to play him at poker. The Schleck's TT bikes also seem to be sporting ProLogo saddles too oddly enough.
When most of Team Saxo Bank jumped ship for Leopard Trek last year they took their mechanics with them too – the same guy that made the metal decals on the bike we looked at last year has done the same job on the Trek Speed Concept Spartacus is now riding. One of the interesting things last year about the Saxo Bank bikes was that while they all looked pretty much the same from a distance up close there were little personal touches on most of them - even down to the paint jobs. The same applies at Leopard Trek many of the rider's bikes have the "108 WW" on their top tubes in memory of their team mate Walter Weylandt killed in a crash on stage 4 of the Giro - his name still adorns the team bus at the family's request.
We mosey over to see the AG2R bikes and their new Reynolds 81 deep section wheels – no the mechanic informs us slightly wearily they won't be riding them over the Passage du Gois on Saturday… well, you gotta ask just in case someone actually is. They'll be on a 32 - 46 combo he says - given that it's quite windy in the Vendee and they'll be riding across what is effectively a wet beach even a 46 seems quite deep to me. As we muse on this the Ag2R boys arrive back from their training ride… man alive some of them are in full longs with long sleeved tops too. Maybe it's too avoid sunburn, I'm burning.
A few minutes later Leopard Trek roll in to the car park. They dismount and some hang about mingling with the crowd of journos, fans and team technicians for a few minutes, as you'd expect the Schlecks command attention, but it's Jens Voigt who hangs around longest. He suggests that the Tour should introduce a new dark green jersey for the over 40s in the race and then decides that maybe this is too widely drawn a category, "the over 40s, who are German… with a family to support". To Mat's disappointment their is no need at this point in his pre-race preparation to tell his legs to shut up. Shame.
No sooner has Jens departed for a massage and lunch than the FdJ guys ride in… a number of them stop by Cancellara's bike to make appreciative noises and to touch it, just like any other cycling fan would. I half expect one of them to pull a camera out and ask us to take his picture with it. Instead we go and take pictures of their Lapierre's which are cool too.
Then we go and take more pictures of Spartacus's bike and while snapping away an old chap on a bike rolls us and slowly tells us in halting English that they should ride proper bikes like in his day, "10 spd Campag". He obviously thinks we're French we start to chat - he must be really impressed with our accents cos he continues speaking in that way English people do when they want to be understood by foreigners. Turns out this isn't just any old timer "I rode with Anquetil" he tells us, "for the Ford Gitane team… I also rode with Colin Lewis." Could this be Vin Denson? He never tells us his name, and like dummies we never ask. On the way out of town we spot him again, being photographed and talking to a French radio reporter.
Thursday July 1, 15:10 Tiffauges
In a bit and up a bit from Les Herbiers is the smaller, sleepier town of Tiffauges - more of a village really. We've come to see the new Cervelo S5 in the flesh. We've long since missed the Garmin Cervelo team press conference in the local sports hall by now; and it turns out a random doping control means a chunk of the Garmin Cervelo team did too. A call to the ever helpful Marya, Garmin Cervelo's press officer, gets us access to our prey. "Just ask the mechanics, they'll get you whatever you need".
And so it proves.
We find the S5 armed only with the name of the hotel, and the name of the town – Mr Darcy is some help, we have by now learnt that at a certain point in your journey it is necessary to ignore what he's telling you. That point usually occurs when the signposts to where you want to go start pointing in the opposite direction to where he wants to take you.
First though we need to feed Mat it's been almost three hours since he ate and he's about to go critical. Disaster is temporarily averted by my secret emergency stash of SiS Go Bars. Mat eats the entire stash… I start to feel hungry.
Garmin Cervelo are cool, Tiffauges is quiet, quiet and hot. The only movement is provided by the local kids playing on their bikes in front of Garmin Cervelo HQ and a handful of mechanics fettling bikes in the team technical area or free-forming it outside – one guy is working on Thor Hushovd's S3 in World Champ livery shaded by the wall of the church. Garmin Cervelo team bibshorts flutter in the breeze drying on a line in front of their small but tres chic hotel - a mini chateau in the village centre. Some of the local kids bikes are leant against the crash barriers juxtaposed with the tens of thousands of pounds worth of bikes on the other side. Everybody is relaxed and getting on with it. This is why I love the Tour de France and it hasn't even started yet.
We explain our mission to the man in charge, "did Marya say it was okay?" he asks, we confirm that she did, moments later we're wheeling Tyler Farrar's practically priceless S5 out in to the square for some photo snapping action. Only three of the team will be running the new bike - the three the mechanic's tell us whose position and riding style have been judged most suited to getting the most out of it.
When we've photographed Farrar's bike from every conceivable angle we hand it back and head back to the car. Okay Mr Darcy, take us home! Two laps of Tiffauges later we're on our way.
Friday July 2, 8am road.cc HQ Bath
Was it all a dream? The sunburn on my neck and the memory card full of pictures says not. Mr Darcy lies disconnected on the desk in front of me, he's recalculated his last route on this trip. Mission accomplished.
Tony has been editing cycling magazines and websites since 1997 starting out as production editor and then deputy editor of Total Bike, acting editor of Total Mountain Bike and then seven years as editor of Cycling Plus. He launched his first cycling website - the Cycling Plus Forum at the turn of the century. In 2006 he left C+ to head up the launch team for Bike Radar which he edited until 2008, when he co-launched the multi-award winning road.cc - which he continues to edit today. His favourite ride is his ‘commute’ - which he does most days inc weekends and he’s been cycle-commuting since 1994. His favourite bikes are titanium and have disc brakes.