Thursday, 18 August 2016

Tour de France 2016- lessons from the Champs Elysees

My stretch of the Elysian Fields...

Let's be honest- when I worked out a few years ago that my 40th birthday would exactly coincide with the final stage of the 2016 Tour de France then there was only really one place I was going to be on that day. Of course it would mean my wife and me breaking our rule not to go on holiday during the summer months, but it would also act as an effective distraction from the inevitable sad reflections that come with such landmark birthdays.

L'Equipe, the Arc de Triomphe, TdF hat and lots and lots of high factor suncream...

However there were a few things I needed to sort before the big day- I wanted to see as much of the action as possible, including La Course, so trying to work out what time to be at the Champs Elysees to get a good position meant also figuring out how to ward of the potential for sunstroke and dehydration. Further complicating matters was the fact I was going to be on my own and would be unable to go to the toilet or go seek water or food without losing my spot on the barriers. This was going to take some planning...

La Course passes by on one of thirteen laps

Despite being the biggest, annual sporting event in the world, info on how to get the best out of watching the TdF is hard to come by. Obviously different types of stages will have different considerations eg big grimpeur stages will mean spending a week parked on the side of a mountain, while those set up for the sprinters will mean hours in one place for a few seconds of colours flashing past (mostly black, blues and yellows taking this year's predominant peloton colour scheme into account). At least the publicity caravan provides some compensation in the latter case (and in fact it is not unknown for people to leave after they have got their freebies and before the race arrives). But for atmosphere and value for your time, it is hard to beat the final stage into Paris, since the circuits mean you will get plenty of chances to have your view blocked by a CRS officer or some gabshite sticking a tablet or camera in front of your face each time the riders pass.

Having only been in Paris once, almost 9 years ago, my memory of the Champs Elysees was quite foggy and Google Street View helped a bit in deciding where to stand. But nothing beats on the ground planned reconnaissance, so on the Saturday  I worked out the best metro stations and locations. Well I say nothing beats planned recon, but actually I went for a wander later on Saturday evening and turned a corner to suddenly see that the Arc de Triomphe was actually in walking distance from my hotel, avoiding two metro changes in a very hot and crowded underground.

Moniek Tenniglo and Marianne Vos

So time wise- La Course was to start at 12:30 and the TdF wasn't due to hit the cobbles until after 7pm, as ASO continue the quite unpopular decision to ensure it finishes at dusk.  I decided to head towards the Arc de Triomphe at 10:30am, stopping for a croissant and orange juice before getting near the Champs Elysees . At around 10:45 I made my way to claim my spot, stopping only to pick up a copy of L'Équipe and a hat, and made my way to a spot just a few hundred metres from the Arc. I settled in for a long stand, and it was only a bit later that I realised I couldn't see a big screen anywhere, so was going to be reliant on my dodgy French to try and understand how the races were progressing from the speaker just above my head.

I had chosen a water drinking schedule that, while not advisable, meant I was able to stay put until 9:30pm that evening without having to find a pissoir. Gradual sips just when I needed them kept me on the right side of hydrated, and every half hour an application of factor 30. However just before La Course started I realised the sun had moved and I was no longer sheltered by the trees, and so spent most of the day getting par boiled.

As well as my official programme, my copy of L'Équipe and Alasdair Fotheringham's "The End of the Road: The Festina Affair and the Tour that Almost Wrecked Cycling" on Kindle meant that the time actually went by quite quickly. A few corporate bike rides went up and around (and more than a couple of sportive-type riders seemed to have underestimated how steep the Champs Elysees actually is- it must not be a nice feeling to be dropped and suffer in front of so many people!). Then some of the women's teams did recces in dribs and drabs before La Course got under way. 13 laps later (and 13 chances to take good photos, most of which I fluffed!) Chloe Hosking crossed the line first although I never saw it and had to rely on the commentary and Twitter to confirm. While the crowds were not as big as they would be later on, the atmosphere as many of the cyclists whose exploits I have followed for so long went past (minus Lizzie Armitstead for reasons we would find out much later) was something to be part of.

The first break in La Course.

After the excitement, it settled down again and I resumed my reading, with just the odd wary look at individuals who seemed to be eyeing up my spot, or at least trying to manoeuvre themselves in beside me. Despite being an internationalist, I suddenly found myself in possession of a "what I have, I hold!" defensive attitude to these late-coming interlopers! Eventually my Tour Tracker app told me that the men had left Chantilly, though since the first part of stage 21 resembles the world's most exclusive Sunday leisure ride, I knew my waiting wouldn't be over soon.

Just as my Kindle indicated I had read 75% of my book, the relative peace was disturbed as the publicity caravan thundered into sight. Crazy floats and electric cars manned by really, really enthusiastic individuals as well as police, firefighters and the Tour's logistics crews drove past the crowds with a mixture of internationally known brands (such as Haribo and Vittel ) being advertised alongside products that wouldn't be really known that well outside of France.  Among the vehicles were lorries that played a role in getting the hardware of the TdF around, although their weaving from side to side couldn't help but bring to mind the images of the lorry mowing down those innocent people only 10 days before in Nice, so perhaps that could have been thought out better.

Quintana (right) and Tommy V's tongue...

Eventually a helicopter appeared in the horizon, and those more used to watching bike races around me stirred- it meant they were close! This was followed by the same people swinging around to look at the Arc de Triomphe, and like clockwork the Patrouille de France air display team came screaming along the Champs Elysees, emitting red, white and blue smoke just as the peloton arrived. It is no coincidence that they have been used each year since Wiggins won, and are part of a ring of steel to prevent Lesley Garrett being able to get onto the podium to sing the British national anthem.

Michael Matthews

Then suddenly a phalanx of police officers on motorbikes, closely followed by other vehicles then the red lead car swept by and then over 170 of the world's top cyclists were literally inches away from me. Suddenly it became surreal and real at the same time. Just like La Course, my brain struggled to process the fact that I was seeing these people in the flesh rather than on a 32" TV or 10" laptop screen.

One of the things that always strikes me when watching aerial shots of the last stage on television is the many people wandering the streets or around the funfairs while the Tour is happening literally feet away and they don't seem interested. This was magnified even more on the Champs Elysees as, out of the corner of my eye I could sense people ambling past without so much as a glance at the show in front of them- there are "too-cool-for-school" types all over the world!

Reinardt Janse van Rensburg has a wheel change

Eventually Andre Greipel's name came over the PA system and I knew the 103rd edition of the Tour was over (ironically, and just like when stage 2 of the Giro finished in front of Belfast City Hall and I was at the 75m mark, I was one of the last to actually see the finish, having to wait until the highlights were shown on TV later). I then made a mistake- I knew that the teams would cycle up the Champs Elysees and stood waiting for a bit. Then it gradually dawned that they wouldn't come as far up as the Arc de Triomphe- the photos normally published don't really reveal how foreshortened the background is. Eventually I made my way down and did see Lampre, a couple of BMC (including Greg Van Avermaet) and John Degenkolb cycle by on the way to their hotels but had missed everyone else.

So at 9:30pm my Tour de France also came to an end.

Tommy Voeckler

So what did I learn? What lessons can I pass on to anyone wanting to make the journey in the future?

Be early and make sure you see La Course. As well as providing an opportunity to see the world's best, the more who come out to watch it, the more the pressure to televise more women's racing.

Ensure you can see a big screen from where you are standing- if I had to do it again, the corner behind the Arc de Triomphe would be ideal- the riders slow down enough if you want to take decent snapshots, and you can see the big screen. Otherwise I would walk further down, closer to the finishing line- while the extortionately priced grandstands have the prime spots you will still get closer to the action as well as having more options in relation to stalls and services.

Don't get fixated on taking the perfect photo- maybe shoot a few frames on a couple of laps. It can be too easy to suffer tunnel vision while trying to snap the action each time. Take the chance to look at the riders without a screen between you and them.

GVA after the stage

Cycling fans speak an international language without words- Just as I arrived, I was joined by an older Spanish couple. Despite not exchanging a single word all day, we were somehow communicating ensuring all of us saw the race and did not inconvenience the other. As they left at the end of the day they even shared a cheery "bye!".

So after 11 hours in the sun, trying to stay good humoured as Johnny-Come-Lately's decided to try and squeeze into spots others had waited for, CRS officers standing right in front as the peloton flies past, and the almost impossible task of trying to ID riders in the bunch- was it worth it? Well yes, of course- it is the Tour! I would do a few things differently including choosing somewhere else to stand,but if you can just forget about trying to capture images yourself, and just simply glory in the close presence of so many of the most talented athletes on the planet then the problems really seem diminutive.

John Degenkolb (right) in civvies making his way home!

Froome at the midway point.

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