It takes hours of map reading and meticulous attention to detail to ensure a successful Tour de France, and that’s just the spectators. I had prepared and planned out a route that would land me close to the end of stage 11 of the Tour, a 164km trip for the cyclists from Saint Flour to Figeac.
But thousands of other people had the same idea so it was a slow crawl through the streets of Figeac, in the Lot, before I found myself about 7km from the end of the race. The village of Saint Jean Mirabel had come out in force with good luck messages and flags set up beside the route, and even a giant poster suspended between three tractors.
Then as the leader approached, with helicopters buzzing in the air, the cheers from the spectators began to grow. A small figure, hunched over his bicycle suddenly came into view at the top of the road, dwarfed by the police motorcycles, television cameras and official cars beside him.
And before my camera could focus he was gliding by in a bubble of complete concentration, his machine silently cutting through the wind. Then the crowd caught its breath, preparing for the arrival of the pursuing pack, or peloton. But before they arrived there was a battle for second and third place taking place as the two men shot past in a blur of orange, blue and white.
Five minutes later the peloton appeared at the top of the road with police sirens blaring and another helicopter hovering close by in the clear, blue sky. This was a much nosier affair with the fans screaming for their favourites and the rush of air like a passing truck, full of the sounds of gear changes and rubber on road. If the leading cyclists are like small fish, darting off through the rocks, the peloton is an all-consuming wave that crashes down on the leaders who falter.
And like a wave it is not always clear on whom it is going to fall as over 100 cyclists pour down the road you need to keep away from the edge as some briefly go astray. But as the pack heads off up the road, the crowds further on are hit by the wave with cheers and car horns echoing in the distance.
Then as the last few cyclists ride by, still working hard to stay in the race, the Tour comes to a close, but what of the beginning? The build-up to the passing of the Tour starts earlier in the day and takes place on the grass verges and in the fields that border the route.
Villages prepare fetes, amateur cyclists ride up and down the route to see what the pros will face and children get ready for the caravane. An hour before the race actually arrives the sponsors’ cavalcade drives past with their crazy cars, disco music and freebies. Here you see coffee pots, inflatable ducks and even a giant, furry lion parading past throwing sweets, magazines and toys at the feet of the children stood beside the road.
The fans scream and shout hoping to pick up some goodies as parents duck and dive out of the way of stray packets of coffee, which fly past their heads. Since the Tour started in 1903 it has become one of the world’s major sporting events and can lay claim to possessing the largest number of spectators.
And it is the fans that make the Tour such a spectacle, as they stretch out along more than 3,500km of tarmac, shouting and screaming encouragement as the wave passes by. But today the fishes out ran the wave and a breakaway by local rider, David Moncoutie proved strong enough to give the Frenchman his first-ever stage win.