Tour de Pez: Leaving Liиge!
Roadside St.1: Clang, clang, crash, bang. It’s too early. The alarm still hasn’t stirred itself into life, but I’m wide awake in Liиge. The double glazing on the front of the room generally muffles the noise from the TGV station but it can’t do squat when the Tour is in town. I learn the hard way exactly where the bonus crowd control barriers live … just outside my bedroom window!
Still that’s no problem, as there’s a stage start to see. Today is the first normal road stage for this Tour, and I fancy a cursory stroll through the start zone before settling back to watch the drama unfold on TV in the afternoon.
Liиge Guillemins Station is a one of the key locations on the European high speed rail network, connecting the city with capitals including London, Paris and Brussels as well as Germany. It was designed by Santiago Calatrava, and it’s a bit of a beauty. It’s raised the image of the Guillemins district from being a bit shabby to something shinier, more 21st century. You’ll need to take my word for it as it’s hidden for the moment, obliterated by a massive banner of a cycling priest … which is an obtuse and fitting nod to the visiting Tour.
It’s a nice morning. A cooling breeze and the clouds zipping past. The sun plays hide-and-seek. I’m cosy, the riders will be in armwarmers. We take the scenic route to the start today, past the launderette and the (seemingly) dozens of property agencies.
This morning, the signs are pretty irrelevant. In the near distance, we can hear the Tour before we see it. The high-speed patter of Daniel Mangeas rattles out facts and figures about the stage, the riders, the town.
I still can’t get used to seeing Philippe Gilbert in a regular team BMC jersey. The Belgian champion’s tricolor suited him and just looks a cool kit even if the nation’s constitution says the colour order is red, yellow and black rather than the other way around. He’s the grimacing face of the Tour in the Wallonie region, the local boy made good.
An amble up the Avenue Rogier leads to the funnel of barriers channeling the riders and press to the sign-on. It’s what Valerie calls the Walk of One Thousand Aftershaves as a lot of the Continentals really, really love to splash it on. It’s an olfactory assault-and-battery.
Time to look for likely characters for the day’s break and stage win. A popular choice might be Sandy Casar, a guy with form on this type of course. When he won the stage into Angoulкme in 2007, the route was peppered with 4th-category climbs.
The first overall contender I see brave the skiddy metal path to the podium is Robert Gesink. The lanky Tour of California winner looks a little like a skyscraper scheduled for demolition as he sways around on the top step. If he’s feeling good, Gesink should be firing up the final Cфte de Seraing this afternoon. It’s short, with a 5% gradient not unlike an Amstel Gold Race berg, and should make the Dutchman feel at home.
One guy who’ll be struggling is my new favorite German sprinter, although that title changes from week to week. Marcel Kittel is a big fella and a big star to boot already, but that finishing haul will be too much for him today.
Every year it’s the same … it doesn’t matter how many bike racks the organisers put out. They’ll be over capacity when two teams turn up at once, and there’s a tetchily careful stacking of machines as the riders mark their names in the register.
Nothing like as tetchy as the arm-waving between a Movistar and a Europcar during yesterday’s prologue warm-up: a fat pedestrian made the Europcar (who I’ll not name) swerve into the path of a suddenly very angry Movistar (who I’ll not name). I thought they were going to exchange knuckle sandwiches as one point before it cooled down.
The maillot jaune has got his signing obligations out of the way early and zooms back to the bus and relative safety. But there were a lot of camera crews waiting for him. But when you’ve won five opening time trials in the last nine editions, you probably get used to that.
The world champion is a very popular guy, and gets a huge welcome from Androni’s self-styled royalty, Gianni Savio. The Italian team manager might be, maybe, scouting new signings, and was in very animated conversation with a Cofidis rider. He probably won’t get Cav though.
In the hierarchy of cycling, Cav is right at the top. A guaranteed winner, a quote machine, a sponsor’s dream. But that alone won’t get you respect within the peloton. There has to be more than just getting to the line first. You have to know who helps you get there, and remember who you’re working with.
When you ask people who’ve known Cavendish for a while what he’s really like, the answer is always the same. Loyal, funny, a stand-up guy. This year, he seems … different. Maybe fatherhood, and happiness? He hardly seems to be without a smile on his face when he’s going about his Tour business.
Ryder Hesjedal’s fanclub was out in force, with those on-trend ‘Ryder: Weight of a nation’ Giro commemorative shirts. The Giro champ was calmly chatting with a handful of friends, untroubled by any cameras or microphones. He deserved a bit of peace and quiet, so no hassling him for a quote today.
Further along the road, the Movistar bus looms. So does Vladimir Karpets, as the giant Russian rolls by. Alejandro Valverde looks very happy: as he sorts his shoes out, his wife fixes his shirt collar and gives him a general once-over before he sets off. He might have an interesting past, but the autograph hunters still want him to sign.
Matt Lloyd is very happy to be back at the top level and, despite lacking racing, the Aussie hasn’t entirely discounted the King of the Mountains competition as a goal. He gave a fellow journalist a very detailed breakdown of how he saw the polka dots contest playing out. Oh, and he’s getting stronger with every day of racing.
Time for the roll-out, taking in a loop of yesterday’s prologue course before zooming south-east in the direction of Spa, Stavelot and Luxembourg. If in doubt, follow the fans. I take up station on an overpass to wait for the riders to go by. The motorcycle outriders fly through and the peloton is back.
A cameraman from Liиge TV comes over and stands in my pocket … I take a deep breath, count to two-and-a-half and shove my elbows out as far as possible for space. Keep shooting …
It’s always the same … even on the most remote, God-forsaken pinnacle in the mountains you’ll set up your spot and some lunkhead will see you: “Yeah, that looks like the ideal place to watch from.” Below, Cavendish is a central presence shaking hands with an Orica-GreenEdge.
The bulk of the peloton goes through in a tight huddle, riders shooting the breeze before the race exits the neutral zone on the outskirts of the city. Then, it thins out and those who been chatting to their team cars, or fiddling with radios, trundle through.
The yellow jersey is temporarily off the back, totally unconcerned. The fans applaud and shout. “Fabian! FABIAN!!”
Then they’re gone, Cancellara almost the last to vanish into the gloom. In five hours or so, we’ll see them reach Seraing …
… we might have a new yellow jersey by then. We’ll definitely be seeing the first maillot a pois take the podium. Will it be an old hand or a new kid on the block?
Keep it Pez to find out.