When you watch the Tour de France live, you’re in the thick of the action. Cheering, watching the riders whizz by, waving at the helicopters circling above. However, you have absolutely no idea what’s going on. After manning our little patch of footpath on part of the stage two course at Les Essarts for six hours, it’s only now, after looking on the Internet, that I have any idea what happened today.
As I discussed in my last post, viewing a Tour de France stage in person can be tricky. Some stages are certainly easier to see than others. If you don’t have access to a vehicle, stages that start, finish or pass through a town are usually a good bet. If you can get there on public transport, you shouldn’t have too far to walk for some action.
Stage 2 of the 2011 Tour de France had that going for it – the team time trial (back for the first time in three years) would be held in the town of Les Essarts. After waiting around for hours yesterda to see seconds of racing, the staggered starts of the time trial offered a more activity, even if it was, again, for only seconds at a time.
[box type=”info”]The Tour de France course route and surrounding roads can be blocked hours ahead of the event so be prepared for detours and perhaps a long walk from the designated parking area.[/box]
Les Essarts is an hours’ drive from Fontenay-le-Comte. Traffic was stopped about 1km from the town, with the cars directed to park in paddocks. From there everyone walked into town. The day’s course was 23km, taking up a fair chunk of roads in and around the town. We found the route and then just looked for space – ending up 500m from the start line.
Despite the thousands of people in Les Essarts for the event, we secured a good area just in time for the caravan. The publicity caravan is what turns Le Tour into the carnival it’s become. About an hour before the riders come through, a huge parade of publicity vehicles and floats travles along the course. It can take up to 45 minutes to pass. Le Tour sponsors throw out all sorts of freebies to the crowd: T-Shirts, bags, chocolates, key rings, hats, drink bottles…anything they can stick a logo on.
Aussie flag around my shoulders, yellow Tour umbrella in one hand and my other ready to catch anything thrown in my direction, I prepared for battle. Today’s haul was a little more impressive than yesterday’s. First score was a T-shirt (thanks Skoda), which became my outfit for the day.
[box type=”info”]Even in a town stage food and drink amenities can be difficult to reach – and you risk missing some cycling. Take enough food and water for a day in the sun in case there’s nothing else.[/box]
The first team wasn’t due to start until 2.30pm so we had a few hours to wait – making sandwiches on the footpath for lunch. While there were no barriers at the area we were standing, they lined the course a few hundred metres up the road making crossing difficult. A walk to find a toilet took ages, partly because I’d often have to walk a long way in the wrong direction just to find a gap in the barriers.
The teams competed in reverse order, so the three Australians we wanted to cheer for (Matt Goss, Stuart O’Grady and Cadel Evans) were in the top four teams therefore the last to come around. We couldn’t quite see the start line, but we could usually pick when a team was about to start because a chopper would take its place in the sky. At one point there were seven flying around. We’d hear the crowd cheer, then police motorbikes come round the corner, followed by the riders. We’d cheer, the team cars would follow and we’d sit down and wait seven minutes to do it all again. A woman in the house across the road was watching the race on TV and would come running out yelling something that we took to mean “they’re coming”, although she gave up that after the first few. We made a slight variation to our routine when it was time for the Aussie’s to come round: we’d do a special “Go Aussie” cheer for them.
We left at 6pm and were back in Fotenay-le-comte by 7pm and straight onto the Internet to find out what on earth happened today. For those playing at home, Garmin-Cervelo won the day, putting Thor Hushovd in the yellow. Cadel is in third. His team, BMC, came second, which was a bit of a surprise Team Sky, one of the favourites for today, finished third.