Tour de Pez: Gord Looks Back
Roadside Wrap: My second big adventure on the Tour, my second year behind the scenes riding the maddest, scariest, most thrilling rollercoaster in the sports world. With a brief to go and speak to the people beside, inside and chasing the race, to hunt out the weird and the wonderful, here are a few of the things that struck me along the way…
Monaco Press Conferences
The contrast between Monaco in 2009 and Brittany in 2008 is marked. This is a tax-haven, not a rural heartland of cycling. It’s the land of the super-privileged, the land where a fairytale princess killed herself in a car crash in 1982 and the place seems like it never got over it. Most of the streets seem to be named for members of the Monegasque royal family, the Grimaldis, and so is the Forum where the Press Center is situated.
The trip from Nice, on a painfully hot day, is made easier by the air-conditioned sanctuary of the press room. When we venture out again for the team presentation, we pick out Rinaldo Nocentini … little did we suspect how much we’d be seeing of him in the days ahead.
One of our pals on the Tour described Monaco as “… slightly disgusting. It’s just excess.” Pretty much on the money, you could say. I go to the sales at New Year and buy a T-shirt that’s $10 cheaper than it used to be, is maybe a little too big, and then leave it in the cupboard. People here do the same only it’s yachts worth millions of dollars that they leave languishing in the harbour.
Anyone thinking of buying out Cav’s contract will probably need a few million spare Euros to have any hope of raking in the publicity he gave to Columbia-HTC this year. By Christmas, most of us will have forgotten the feud with Hushovd but we’ll remember the on-message, brand-friendly victory salute from stage three. Funny that.
Stage One, Monaco Vice
Everyone is beautiful in Monaco … I try to keep my mind on the job debating the merits of reportage photography as impossibly, gorgeously slender women with gaggles of cute children by their Louis Vuitton-encased heels totter by. I guess that’s the benefit of hard cash, good doctors and great hospitals – you don’t need to push, and you don’t need to work too hard to get back into shape.
The Monaco water cops are keen to show off their own hairy-chested, sun-tanned physiques. Probably just as well that the British cops don’t look like this … they wouldn’t last five minutes in a rundown housing estate!
And there aren’t many places where you would have seen a billboard like this in Brittany last year. Only in Monaco!
The scuff marks on the curbs on the Avenue de Monte Carlo remind you that the big sport here is F1. Now there’s a lot to criticize in cycling, but F1 … I don’t think it’s the curbs alone that have black marks on them in that world.
Stage Two, On The Promenade
It’s Sunday morning in Nice. The air temperature is 30°C, the water temperature is 25°C – if we had stats like that back home in Scotland we’d guess two things. There’s been a nuclear accident and/or the world is about to end!! It’s not a day for running around so we settle in to see the caravan chug and the race thunder along the Promenade des Anglais. It was worth braving the sun to catch the freebies handed out by the fragrant Festina girls.
Stage Three, The French Connection
Overnight, we stay in Allauch at the Eden Roc. Formerly a private home, then an emergency school during WWII, it’s now a hotel owned by the friendly, charming and perfectly-named Catharine France. Breakfast under the trees in the grounds … lovely.
Into Marseille, and the start village is always good for a picture in the early stages of the race. The weather is great, the riders aren’t too shattered yet. Spirits are high. Vladimir Efimkin gets distracted …
… so does the QuickStep guy!
…and Pippo Pozzato gets the kisses without even coming remotely close to troubling the podium. The life of a pro …it’s not all hard miles and broken collarbones.
Once the race had gone, we had a mooch around the port city that gave ‘Popeye’ Doyle’s connection its name. The benefit of the Tour is that there are all these cool places to see, that you probably wouldn’t otherwise bother with, not unless you were planning the daftest road trip you could think of
Stage Four, Melting In Montpellier
It’s impossible to forget that the Tour is a giant advertising event. The publicity caravan is a colossal deal as it trundles and sometimes wheezes its way around the ‘Hexagon’. Everyone’s busy, everyone’s rusing around … except this guy who had probably the best job on the race.
He got to spend the whole gig lying down, no tramping about in the heat for him. Still, probably wasn’t much fun in the pouring rain the day Haussler won, but I guess you can put up with one bad day?
As for the Yeti, probably the hardest gig in town. Hours and hours inside that costume, day after day, in the blazing Mediterranean sun … what do you mean, it’s a real Yeti?
Just in case nobody knew, the Dutch were here to point the way to next year’s Grand Depart, a little bit north of Monaco.
Stage Five, Cops And Reporters
Last year, we had rain, wind and cool temperatures through the first week. This year, it’s roasting heat all the way, and tempers around the barriers are starting to fray. The cops got pushy in the finishing area and started shoving people around in Perpignan.
But the riders mostly kept their good humour, as Levi and George larked around at the finish. For everyone, concentration spans are tested. The car drivers aren’t looking behind them too much and even after 196kms from Le Cap d’Agde to Perpignan, the riders can’t switch off until they’re sitting on the bus. Riding the Tour is truly a 24/7 experience.
It wouldn’t do to knock out a few hundred thousand Euros worth of talent when you’re on a freebie to visit the race in a flashy motor would it?
Stage Six, Andorra Or Vegas?
You drive through miles and miles of beautiful hill country, passing a little village here, a house or two there. Then, when you least expect it, Las Vegas looms into view. It was one of the weirdest sights of this year’s Tour, dropping into the five-star capital of Andorra-La-Vella, after our abortive attempt to reach Arcalis.
A glossy, freshly minted, tax-free shopping mall with a thyroid condition, clawing it’s way up the hillsides. It’s not that I’m complaining, it was pretty. And the shopping was a bonus.
The hotel was great – Eurosport showing the Tour with English commentary was blaring in the bar when we arrived – except that trying to park the car in the underground garage was, I’m going out on a limb with my guess here, a little like trying to get a new-born baby to go back where it came from … if you get my meaning.
Our little Toyota survived the trauma unscathed, but judging by the marks scraped and gouged in the walls and pillars, anything bigger than a matchbox would have needed a miracle to get in there.
Stage Seven, Uphill Battle
Yeah, it was broiling on Arcalis, and some of the fans weren’t really doing much to cover up and heed Lance’s cancer message.
It was a long day and a long wait, to ruminate and ponder exactly who was going to light the touch paper. It was all still together when the top guns gave us a fly-by with 4kms to go …
… little did we know we were seeing the podium getters together when they chased Brice Feillu to the summit, or that Alberto was about to dispel the doubts as to who was the best in show.
For the sprinters, it was a bit of a day off. While we raced back into the press center to get to work, Thor Hushovd and company had pretty much downed tools.
Stage Eight, Cops And Dance Routines
Behind the scenes, as the riders are still sipping coffee in the start village or snoozing on the bus, the kids are anxiously awaiting their arrival. Parents don’t have too much to do to keep them occupied as there are freebies galore to be snaffled.
There’s nothing about the Tour that’s dull, even if it’s corporate. Anything new, anything big is an eye-catcher. It made me remember why I started to love the Tour from a distance myself all those years ago.
We waited for the riders for a long while in Saint-Girons. Mikel Astarloza was in the break, and on his way to a good final overall finish. But he’s one of the unsung riders: strong, diligent, but more or less anonymous. It’s good to remember the guys ho do the dirty work before the cameras start rolling as well as the guys who get the bouquets.
Once the protocols are done and dusted, and the riders are on the bus, it’s time for the evacuation. This is where the cops really earn their money keeping errant traffic and happy (sometimes very drunk) fans in check. However, this guy would probably earn more in a Village People tribute band. Check out the arm action.
Stage Nine, Heading Home
There are cool people to meet everywhere, and this guy is one of the coolest. Clement sorts out the press parking around the stage start in the mornings. He’s saved my navigational bacon on a more or less daily basis for the last two Tours.
I could only manage to give him a pair of Pez socks last year as a thank you. The day before we left, he said he’d wear them for the camera … and he kept his word in an ace gesture of solidarity! Super guy. Thanks for your help, Clement!
Out on the road for the last time on the 2009 Tour and it’s clear that all the villages have made an effort. All is color, everywhere. This is the Tour – the people by the road who love it come what may. We’ve got some problems to sort out in cycling, for sure, and the folks who spend their time putting their towns on show deserve all our best efforts to clean things up.
It’s time to say farewell to the guys who made the news before the Tour started …
… and the guy who generated more column inches than anyone else put together.
He’s a one-man industry, who generates a lot of cash wherever he goes … who keeps people in jobs … who winds people up … who fascinates sponsors … who generate more cash … who talk about him to the press … and so the cycle goes. He’ll be back next year, and so will Pez.
I hope you enjoyed the ride and our look behind the scenes. Thanks to Valerie for being my co-pilot on the trip, and thanks to you guys for reading.