Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Le Tour de France 2015 – Stage 8; Getting Close to the Race at the Buses


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Cycling has always been in Owen Philipson’s blood; growing up in Edinburgh on a BMX and then hitting the Pentland Hills in the 90’s when mountain biking came along. He’s now based in Stirling and after a bit of a cycling hiatus has been into road riding since 2008.

His interest in road racing started after several successive summer holidays to France, when he began to let l’Équipe’s coverage of the Tour seep into his brain as there was such a dearth of football news in July. He joined his local club and had a crack at road racing, finally getting to Cat 3 in 2013.

With two young kids in the family, that may be the peak of Owen’s road racing ‘career’, meanwhile volunteering at races and a new-found passion for cyclocross keeps him touch with the Scottish scene and he documents it all on his blog, “The Drum Up”.

This summer Owen was in France and near to the start of Le Tour’s Stage 8 so decided to pop along to the buses and see what he could see.

– Submitted by Owen Philipson

I am staying at my in-laws in Brittany, as I do every summer since I got married and every two or three years it is my base for watching the Tour on the ground. This year things couldn’t be better, with a stage start about 40 minutes east in the city of Rennes and the finish accessible about an hour to the west.

I have enjoyed looking at the team cars, buses at the start in previous years so my plan is to find the ‘paddock’ and see how close I can get. With journalists, soigneurs and directeur sportifs all around, the fan can feel part of the event.

Rennes is a historic city with many narrow cobbled streets and not much pavement space to work with. As I head down from the metro station to the village depart, the crowds get thicker the closer I get to the podium.

People are already mad for the publicity caravan, with Festina casquettes all over the place. I wonder whether opinions vary across the Channel, but after canvassing my French friends, I find that they are still strongly associated with scandal.

They’d rather be known as the official timekeeper of the Tour de France, though, and the deluge of promotional caps might move things another step towards achieving that.

Le Tour de France 2015 Stage 8
Festina Publicity Gimp. Photo©Owen Philipson

I walk past the podium and against the flow of pedestrian traffic, looking for the teams. I ask gruff Belgian merchandise seller where they’ll be and he barks at me – “right here, right in front of you, they’ll be going past!

I don’t want to see the ceremonial roll-out, though; I want to get in amongst it all. He was right though, because a few minutes later, Lotto-Jumbo roll in, with their bus, five team cars and two people carriers; followed by a steady stream of teams.

It takes me a few minutes to remember that you need to just jump the barriers and wander about. Us Brits like to queue and generally follow the rules; elsewhere in Europe people are much more relaxed.

Le Tour de France 2015 Stage 8
Team Sky fans stand behind the barriers while European fans crowd round the bus. Photo©Owen Philipson

“Look, it’s Peter Kennaugh!” says one fan from behind the barriers as the British champion squeezes through the mob to go down to sign on.  I can hear the voice in his head saying “it’s actually Peter Kennaugh, right there” and I can’t help thinking that if he’d ignored the barrier he could have got a bit closer to his heroes.

The contrast in atmosphere around different teams is marked: for the big favourites, Astana, Sky and Tinkoff in particular, there is a big crowd. For some of the French teams the crowd is even bigger: AG2R, Europcar and FDJ.

Le Tour de France 2015 Stage 8
I’m not really here to get a rubbish picture of Nibali. Photo©Owen Philipson

What I’m here for is to get close and to talk to people. As a writer and avid podcast listener, the journalists are of as much interest to me as the teams themselves.

Down by MTN Qhubeka, I spot Ned Boulting and say hi but as a TV personality, he is very recognisable and although polite, his guard is up. He has a job to do, and Brian Smith comes over to be interviewed.

I eavesdrop as he explains for the camera how he has inspired his wildcard troops to feel like they belong amongst the biggest race and riders in the world; “I’m from a small country – Scotland, and to make it in the peloton I had to be more confident than everybody else.

Le Tour de France 2015 Stage 8
Brian Smith tells Ned Boulting of ITV the secret of his success in the professional peloton. Photo©Owen Philipson

The mood of the fans around the MTN Qhubeka bus is joyous, with one guy chanting Daniel Teklehaimanot’s name and another African couple beaming as he comes out to sign their placard.

They have come across from Paris to support him.

Le Tour de France 2015 Stage 8
Daniel Teklehaimanot spends time with his fans. Photo©Owen Philipson

Sporza TV reporter Renaat Schotte is here and I collar him to thank him personally for providing an interview that was published in the race programme for the 2013 “Dig In At The Dock” cyclo-cross race in Scotland.

He has his copy at home and remembered the piece, and is interested to hear about his channel’s strong following in Scotland, albeit who tend to watch via pirate feeds.

Le Tour de France 2015 Stage 8
Renaat Schotte of Sporza. Photo©Owen Philipson

I eavesdrop an interview being held with Orica-Greenedge DS Matt White where he is at pains to stress the following day’s team time trial will be an exercise in survival after the team has already lost three riders, with Michael Matthews soldiering on despite broken ribs and contusions. “We came here to win it, and as we can’t, it’s impossible; we will just be riding round to survive.” (I paraphrase).

Le Tour de France Stage 8
Matt White. Photo©Owen Philipson

Further back the paddock, at teams like Bora, IAM, Cofidis and Katusha, the atmosphere is much quieter. Away from the home-country heroes and the ‘big four’ GC contenders, fans can get really close to their favourites.

As an avid podcast listener, I make a point of thanking journalists Lionel Birnie and Daniel Friebe for their work on The Cycling Podcast – and as less-recognisable print and audio personalities, they are more approachable than the TV guys and indulge me with a bit of banter for a couple of minutes before their interview targets become available.

Le Tour de France Stage 8
The Cycling Podcast’s Lionel Birnie. Photo©Owen Philipson

I’d recommend the stage start to everybody – not the publicity caravan or the podium announcements, but the ‘paddock’ area.

Use your ‘brass neck’ and wander in there – lots of other people do – and you’ll find yourself as close to the teams as you can get. Show the right balance of respect and familiarity and you can engage people in conversation and get a real taste of the race.

[NoteThe Stage start area is actually only accesible if you have a form of event accreditation (press, team, official, race organisation, UCI, etc) or if you are an invited guest (when you are given a colour-coded wristband). At some stage starts the security may be more lax than at others but if the police or ASO staff see you jump the barriers they’ll be on your case immediately and you’ll be ejected. Editor.]