Track side: Le Tour in Paris

There are some events a sports fan just has to watch. They include, but are not limited to, the Melbourne Cup, tennis Grand Slam finals, the AFL Grand Final, the Boxing Day Test, any soccer or rugby world cup game Australia is competing in, and the last day of le Tour de France. Just watching the TV broadcast of events like these is pretty awesome and one for the memory banks. I remember where I was when Italy ended Australia’s soccer world cup campaign in 2006. And when Makybe Diva bagged her Melbourne Cup hat trick in 2005. There are some things you just don’t forget. But, ahhh, to be there….

Up until last year I would watch Tour de France fans lining the French roadsides jump and wave at the camera in the helicopter above them and lazily think that one day, maybe, it would be awesome to be there with them. That idea seemed as likely as a cycling event without a doping controversy.

But life has habit of happening.

Two weeks ago I landed in Paris for the fourth time in 13 months, which in itself is a bizarre thing to say when just 18 months ago I’d never been to Europe. To top it off, I was there for the final day of le Tour de France. The decision to fly to Paris for the event was prompted by some fellow Aussie Tour fans I met in Belgium. They were following the event to Paris and it didn’t take much to convince me I’d be crazy not to be there. After all, it was only a 90-minute flight.

Finding a vantage point

The Champs Elysees is the setting for the most famous finish in cycling, but that means it’s a mad house on the day. We’d been told to avoid it, which we considered in favour of a spot near the Concorde, but in the end we chose to be in the thick of it. Between the barriers for the course, team areas and VIP, getting around was difficult. We caught the metro to the Champs Elysees and used another metro station to slip under the road when we wanted to change sides. By the time the publicity caravan rolled through the crowd was about five deep from the railing and there wasn’t much room to move on the very wide footpath of the Champs Elysees.

The atmosphere

If I never see another Union Jack or a set of fake side burns it will be too soon. For those who don’t know much about the race, I’ll fill you in. Britain has never had a Tour de France winner and at the start of the last day Bradley Wiggins, a Brit, was in the first place. True to le Tour tradition, there was no challenge to his lead. It’s another quirk of this event. While the sprinters will contest the final sprint, the general classification (GC) riders won’t budge. As long as the Wiggins stayed on his bike and crossed the finish line, he was going to be the winner. So the Brits were out in force.

If an Australian couldn’t be in the yellow, I’m glad it was a Brit. The costumes and the cheering was great fun and the Britons are just as rowdy as Aussies. A French winner would also have been incredible, but a winner from any other country woudn’t have attracted the same support.

The race

The riders arrived a little after 4pm with 35km to go. They do eight laps around the city course, which includes the Champs Elysees. As expected there was a breakaway of sprinters and the GC riders were back in the peloton. We stood a few hundred metres up from the finish line so we saw them ride up in front of us then a little bit later, after whizzing around the Arc de Triomphe, they went back down the other side. After a couple of laps some Brits in front of me moved back and let me step in so I had a better vantage point three back from the railing. Unfortunately the people in front didn’t budge, except one girl who regularly squatted down to use her iPhone even when the riders were going by. Seriously??

The finish

We couldn’t see them by this stage so watched the final sprint on the large screen. If anyone wonders why I flew to Paris, it was for this moment: with Aussies on one side screaming for Matt Goss and Brits in the other ear cheering for Mark Cavendish I had goosebumps. I couldn’t see as well as I could have on a TV. I didn’t have a commentator telling me what was happening. But I was one of thousands and thousands of fans screaming, jumping and waving flags. It was electric.

Again?

If you only see one le Tour stage, Paris shouldn’t be it.  It is an incredible thing to be part of, but it isn’t the same as waiting for hours on top of a mountain or enjoying the publicity caravan in all its freebie-throwing glory. But in saying that, I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to be there again. Especially if an Aussie is in yellow.

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