In the first of their on-the-road blogs following the 2019 Tour de France, Jamie and Gary report back on their travel adventure #ChasingTheTour with tales of meeting their favourite riders, the publicity caravan and all those free bidons!
Today is the day I’ve been looking forward to the most since Sunday 29 July 2018. Stage One of the 2019 TdF is happening today!
Gary, Lorraine, Gary’s wife who was over for the weekend too, and I went for a leisurely 40km spin this morning. It was lovely to see Flanders in the sunshine, as opposed to the cold and damp that I usually get in April.
We stopped by a random main road to see the caravan pass. The stuff they chuck is crap, but it is free crap and my five-year-old daughter loves it (I think).
We decided to see the race go up the Muur so we arrived around 1 hour before the race. I bumped into Stuart O’Grady and has my first selfie of 2019. There will be a lot more!
The race flew by, a flat stage is always a fleeting visit to see the riders pass. There will be better opportunities later in the race to see the tactical stuff. Today is all about being here and enjoying the Tour as a celebration of cycling.
Another early 45km spin before heading back to the hotel for a shower and to check out. From here, it was an hour’s drive to Brussels to see the TTT.
I parked around 6km from the course which meant I cycled to course in normal clothes and trainers. We were at 14km to go on a sweeping bend in a wonderful park which reminded me of the 2007 Tour when the Prologue went through Hyde Park.
Team Ineos was the first past us and the speed they travelled was nothing short of incredible. You could hear the whole crowd gasp. And that was the benchmark. You could sense when a team wasn’t as fast or as drilled. Unfortunately, the stage seemed to be all over quite quickly.
From the TTT is was a 2.5hr drive to the hotel in Reims. It is a Campanile, standard TDF hotel accommodation, glamour it ain’t. If you have air-con you are in a 5-star version.
We had a few beers and dinner of horse steak, fried egg and frites during which we discuss plans for the next day, agree on a plan and then bed.
Not just a long day for the pros. I woke up at 0730 for breakfast and then road 15km into central Reims to meet Barney and his son Charlie. Dame Sarah, Barney’s wife, was riding Tuesday’s TDF stage with the InternationElles, (I will touch more on them later in the race when I hope to meet them in Pau), was off and out before we arrived.
It was lovely to see Barney. He’s a wealth of cycling knowledge (and the first MBE I spoke to on this day) and someone I raced with when we were both still in school.
Gary and I then went back to the hotel, bikes in cars, drove to around 20km outside of Epernay to ride the final 45km of today’s stage taking in the final 3 climbs.
OMG, the first one we did, Côte d’Hautvillers, was an absolute nightmare of a climb. only a third category but ever so steep. The next climb, Côte de Champillon, reminded me of Box Hill.
Going into Epernay, nothing beats riding up a closed road with all the LCL boarding out for kicks. The final 250 meters was steep. It is very much an Ardennes strong man's stage.
Having recce’d the course, we went back up to the penultimate climb, Côte de Champillon, where we met our friend, and second MBE of the day, Paul Sinton Hewitt of ParkRun Fame.
Tim Wellens rode past first, his face a world of agony, then the leaders' group. We knew they’d be gaps but some of the gaps between leaders and riders who’d been dropped were significant.
Once the race had gone by we rode the 4km back to our strategically parked vehicles. Then the 2.5-hour drive to Nancy.
Arranged to meet Gary in the hotel for breakfast at 0900, but one of the advantages of a Campanile, being close to the motorway, is also a disadvantage when it comes to doing what you’re there to do - sleep. I was right next to the A22 motorway, literally, so didn’t sleep well. We were both up by 0730 and decided to leave the hotel ASAP and stock up on water and sun cream at the local supermarket.
We then drove to the foot of the final fourth category climb, Cote de Maron, and rode the final 20km into Nancy. Two things, one; riding straight up a climb, even a 4th cat, with no warm-up is unpleasant - despite all the support from the fans roadside who had been there from early doors. And two; the Tour was not using Nancy’s nicer parts to show off. Once we reached the finish we had a scoot around, coffee, and rode back to the cars. A simple 45km riding.
Then it was a quick change of clothes, grabbed a couple of baguettes filled with the local sausage, not sure what meat it was as there was enough salt inside to give the Salt Police a heart attack, and a walk back up the climb.
We stopped to chat with two local gendarmes who we ‘guarding’ a roadblock. They seemed to be enjoying their day with their second bottle of Vin Rouge. The locals were out in force too eating and drinking by the roadside. We made our spot around 2km up the hill.
After 4 hours of sitting, chatting with other fans and drinking lots of free water the race breezed past. Today was one of those stages where it was more about soaking up what the tour means to the people whose villages it goes through than any tactical or ‘must-see’ action for us. Spectators also have transition days and this was today.
Once the convoy had passed we trotted back through the town and passed jovial locals all watching the race on various TV sets placed precariously on window sills.
Not for Gary and I. We had a two-hour-plus drive to Mulhouse, pronounced Moolhoose.
A lazy start for us today with our first car-free day of the Tour.
We had breakfast and then went to the B&Q-style shop across the road to purchase some paint spray for use on tomorrows stage.
After that, we had a 45km ride to Colmar, the town for today’s stage finish. It was a direct route - so direct the road ran parallel to the motorway - breath in all those fumes.
On arrival in Colmar, we scouted the finish line area, had lunch in an Alsace-cuisine restaurant and then made our way to the 4km to go banner. We got our timings a lot better today and the road was quite sparse, with not too long a wait for the caravan and a good haul of goods to add to my already impressive supply.
The race came past with Rui Costa dangling off the front of the bunch and then various groups of riders, we knew there would be time gaps, but, again like stage 3, we didn’t think they would be as big as they were. Resting legs for tomorrows stage no doubt.
The 45km ride back to the hotel took 1hr 10 mins - thanks to a fantastic tailwind. At the hotel, we saw the Ineos and CCC mechanics working away. We stopped for a chat with George Solomon, one of Ineos’s Comms people. George kindly gifted us a couple of bidons and some gels - obviously looking at us with pity having heard our tales of riding back from Colmar. George told us tomorrow would be a busy day for the team and he’s arranging all the interview slots for the morning with riders.
We then went for a chat with a pair of the CCC mechanics, between them they have covered over 35 tours. They were changing the chainrings from 39 to 36 on all the bikes. GvA’s bike was absolutely pristine, not a speck of dirt on it. The mechanics were good for banter and happy to share their knowledge. CCC used discs brakes for stage 1 only and won’t use them again at the tour and the TT bikes went back to the service course in Belgium, after the TTT, but will be driven down to Pau for the individual TT - the team worker who got that gig drew the short straw!
Then it was dinner and bed. It is a beaucoup day for the riders tomorrow and us - legs are getting sore, eyelids are getting heavier and we’ve not even done a whole week yet!
Leave early as at the mountain stages you don’t want to get caught short with where you are wanting to watch the race being full up & closed to more spectators.
We also did not want to find that there was no spare space on the road to spray paint on and we want to ride as far up as possible, (at mountain stage finishes you cannot get closer than 1-2km when riding, you have to walk the rest, it is about 200-300 meters on flat stages).
We drove to Belfort from Mulhouse where we would park the van. A nice surprise was seeing Laurent Jalabert, working for French TV, using the same car park.
We then rode to the Planche Des Belles Fille from Belfort. Nothing too hard on the ride to the Planche, the nastiness was waiting for us there. My god the first KM is steep, then it levels out and rises again at the end. It was noteworthy that there were zero camper vans on the side of the road - the only way to watch this stage on the Planche was to ride up or walk up.
Once at the top we had a £10 burger, no bun, and saltless fries. The can of coke was £3 too. We ate and descended, found a clear spot of tarmac and relatively fan-free too, always a bonus when the caravan passes.
I had decided before I left the UK that the rider I would lend my personal support to throughout the race was going to be Alex Dowsett - I sprayed Alex Dowsett in the road as many times as the can of paint would allow.
The best thing about the mountain stage is the gradual crescendo of noise that builds up to a wild bang when the riders pass. First the razzmatazz of the caravan, then the gentle interlude of motorbikes whizzing past, the helicopter getting louder and louder until it is on top of you and then the famous red lead car, horn blasting, followed by the racers themselves. Pure magic and adrenalin. Nothing in the world can beat that sensation when you first spot the riders racing towards you with all the noise that accompanies it.
The leaders went by, the peloton went by and we craned our necks to spot Alex in the various groups of riders coming by. Some were almost casual as they went by chatting, drinking and thanking various members of the crowd for their support.
Then I spotted Alex and told him to “look at the road”. He looked down, smiled and rode over towards Gary and me with his fist out. We both got a fist pump of our man, you don’t get that in the middle of any other world-class sporting event by one of the competitors. Chapeau Alex.
Once the broom wagon past we descended….with the pro riders whose team buses were at the bottom of the climb. I hung around the coaches for 20 mins soaking up the atmosphere of the first main GC stage shake up and then Gary and I headed back to the van.
I managed to get a photo with Erik Zabel, Rui Costa and Johan Van Summeren. We drove back to Mulhouse for dinner and bed. Tomorrow we leave for Chalon.
Hope you enjoyed our first week's update, next week's update will get published around the same time, so catch up soon.
The La Vie Claire retro jersey was our best-selling cycling jersey of an unforgettable 2020. For the first time ever, the Mondrian inspired jersey came out ahead of the three-time winner the San Pellegrino jersey with the consistent Molteni Arcore jersey in third.