Each year throughout the cycling world and beyond millions of fans tune in their televisions each afternoon to view live events at the Tour de France . On the continent sidewalk cafes fill with enthusiastic supporters every day . Some people even plan their annual holidays in order to watch it live on T.V .
In the shop we tune in our portable with the rabbits ears to TG4 and listen to Padraig Quinn and his gaelgoer buddy for a while . Then when eurosport live commentary goes on air we log on to the eurosport.com website and turn up Kelly and Mike Smith on the PC whilst watching the pictures on TG4 . The only downside is the time delay of about ten seconds which causes a little frustration when an attack occurs and the wine or cheese is still being discussed .
It is not the most productive time of year work-wise but a very enjoyable time nonetheless . For the opening week it is enough to see the final 5k run into the finish but by week two we are checking in on the progress of the early breaks especially in the mountains . Then in the final week at the business end of the race we are addicted and calculations are constantly being made as to the time gaps necessary for a gc shakeup and styles and anguished looking faces are closely monitored for any sign of weakness . Tour fever takes over and very few escape its’ clutches .
A few years ago , whilst experiencing a bout of Tour fever myself at the beginning of week three I began to contemplate heading over to see the final two stages . Ryanair flights seemed reasonable so two days later I found myself on the 6.30 out of Shannon heading for Beauvais 50k north of Paris . I booked a room in a small hotel near the Gare Saint Lazare just behind the Gallery Lafayette department store .
Early the next morning I boarded a TGV in the direction of Nantes and my own Tour began in earnest . Within two hours we had travelled halfway across northern France. I disembarked but immediately noticed how dark the sky overhead looked . The ‘arrive’ or finish line was only 500m from the train station so wasn’t too hard to find . It would be another two hours before the first rider was due to depart the start house so I had a wander around the centre of the town . An hour later when I headed down to find a good spot to watch the riders come in , it was as if a fire alarm had gone off throughout the town and the finish area of that days stage of the tour was the assembly point . It also felt as if the sprinkler system had gone into overdrive as rainfall began to descend by the bucket load .
The crowds were ten deep and this was still an hour before the first rider was due to arrive . I knew that it was time to put on my thinking cap and come up with a plan if I was going to see anything . I had a look around and noticed that a lot of the press cars and team vehicles were behind a six foot railing . I also noticed that some of the photographers were wearing rain gear which was similar to what I happened to be wearing . A light bulb lit up and I had a plan . I strolled up to the barrier at the end of the finishing straight and saw two security guys checking passes for entry . After watching them for a minute or two I noticed that the guy on the left was the more friendly of the two towards those passing through . I hurriedly walked up and nodded towards him as I tried to walk past . He stopped me in my tracks and asked me for ‘ le pass ‘ . In my pigeon french I said that I had left it in my car over there as I pointed towards where the press cars were parked and that I was on my way to get it . He looked me up and down and asked what organisation I was with . I said ‘ South Tipp Today in Ireland’ which probably wasn’t the most recognisable title I could have suggested and for a moment I thought that I was on my way back to the ten deep crowds . However he was a nice guy , it was raining and there was a line beginning to form behind me so he nodded and off I went into the press area .
I walked up and down the almost empty barrier on this side and found the perfect spot to watch the riders as they came up the finishing straight . The spot was so good that there were official photographers around me . That’s when I realised that I had no camera and this was a really rare opportunity to get some terrific shots . I also realised that I was going to be here for a few hours and had no food with me . There was nothing for it but to take my chances and try to find a shop outside the secure area and try to get back in again .
I didn’t have to go far before I found a small supermarche which had disposable cameras and ready made ham and cheese baguettes . Now it was time to try and get back in to where I had previously been . The crowds were now enormous with people climbing on top of telephone kiosks and bus shelters in order to get a glimpse of the riders as they came up the finishing straight . There was no let up in the rain but nobody seemed to mind as the atmosphere was electric with huge cheers and beating of the barriers each time a rider passed by .
I really wanted to get back inside so I wandered around the six foot railing as there was no point in trying my earlier route which now had an additional six security personnel . It didn’t take long before I found a gap in the fence where press people were going in and out to their cars which were parked outside the secure area . I passed through and there I was back inside again . I headed back over to my original spot just past the finish line and watched some of the riders finish . Then I wandered down a bit further and found the perfect spot . About 500 metres from the line the riders came down a straight before veering left at a vee whilst the team cars veered right . There were only two others in the apex of this vee which also happened to be just across form the giant screen TV showing live pictures of what was happening out on the course .The riders would come towards us at full speed and at the last moment veer left . I snapped a few pictures with the disposable camera but would have loved a digital camera on the day.
We saw Ullrich crash whilst going round a roundabout on the big screen and then twenty minutes later he passed us in person . The noise rose to the level of a jet engine as the crowd roared him on up the finish straight which seemed loud until Armstrong came into view and it became almost deafening .
Everybody was buzzing and when I saw a few photographers walking up the finish straight I joined in behind them and found myself just in front of the podium as Millar came out to take the glory for his stage win . I looked around and noticed that across the road behind the barriers the crowd seemed to resemble the view from the stage at a rock concert . They were all behind a barrier which was policed every six feet by the police . In front of the police was the tours’ own security staff . Then the photographers at the base of the podium . All of these photographers had their two foot Nikon lenses and huge cameras whilst I was in the middle of them with my disposable Kodak .
When the ceremonies were over I continued up along the finish straight in the direction of the train station and just as I was a approaching a US Postal Subaru out comes Armstrong from a Motor-home nearby and walks across with Sheryl Crowe and Robin Williams following on behind . They were only six feet away with a crowd of photographers crowding around . By the time I had the disposable wound on they were in the car and gone so another good photo was lost .
The next day in Paris was another fantastic spectacle , especially the parade of teams and riders when the stage is over . If I go back again there is one thing I would be sure to do . Bring a proper camera !