Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My little bit of Tour de France

I was lucky enough over the weekend to see two stages – the Prologue & Stage 1 – of the Tour de France. I had to be in London last week for work (not something that happens all that often) and it seemed churlish not to take a couple of days to see some real bike racing.

I arrived in Rotterdam on Friday night, about an hour after Holland had won their Wold Cup match and advanced to the next round, expecting the place to be going off it's head. I don't know if it's not a Rotterdam sort of thing, not a Dutch sort of thing, or I just couldn't find the right bars, but other than a few happy drunks in orange t-shirts the place was as busy as Geelong on a Sunday night in winter.

I was up early Saturday morning – mainly due to lack of alcohol the night before and the Northern European summer sun rising at about 4:30 – and headed out for a wander around the town. Rotterdam seems pleasant enough: a port city of about 550,000 and a nice enough mix of recent low rise residential and some interesting older buildings in the centre.

But this isn't an architecture blog, it's a bike riding blog and I was there for the Tour. So enough background and on with the action.

I'm not going to bother with a detailed report of the two stages, there are plenty of others out there who can do a much better jog of that then I can.

The day started out hot enough, but I ended up standing on the side of the course in Rotterdam for maybe 5 hours, in a mix of light rain, cold wind (it was bloody cold if you were only wearing a rain dampened t-shirt & shorts) and grey skies and watched lone bike riders whizz past every 60 seconds or so. You probably have to be a bit of a cycling tragic, but I had fun. Big fun.

I cheered every rider, but the Aussies – especially Cadel & Mick Rogers, along with Lance, Bert, and Spartacus all got an especially rousing cheer.

I wandered in and out of a few course-side bars for mid stage refreshments, and discovered Dutch outdoor toilets. Too hard to describe here, you've got to see one to appreciate it.

All in all, a great day.

Another early start on Sunday – for the same reasons as Saturday: I tried to find some trouble to get into, but drinking overpriced stout in a faux Irish pub wasn't really doing it for me – and off to the start village.

I've not been to the start village for a major cycling race before. I'm more used to blokes getting changed out the back of their cars in cold carparks than this. There was a fantastic start of first term atmosphere to the place; I hate to think what they're all going to look like in Paris 3 weeks from now.

I saw press everywhere. Fiddling with their equipment, getting ready and looking for someone to interview.

Rather than stand in the massive crowd around the start line and along the road leading to Paris, I hung out in what was just a huge crowd across the road (bloody barriers & lack of a laminated pass!) from Sky team bus & cars. All shiny & clean, and ready for the big adventure ahead.

About 20 minutes before sign-on time riders started to appear. First the domestiques, blokes who do the heavy lifting for their team captains & stars. I sort of know a few of the names, but I didn't recognise any of the faces. As the riders wandered off the bus and climbed onto their bikes, the very English crown around me erupted: “Wiggins!” “Bradley!” “Cummings!” (who rode over to say hello to someone just nearby) and me with a loud “Onya Gerro!”

I saw Basso. Jens. Bert. Spartacus. McEwan. O'Grady. Lance (who must have forgotten something – he rode back to the bus, and needed a bike police escort to get back to the start in time). Then they were gone, the race started and the busses and team cars started up and began the long chase.

A quick metro back to the hotel, grabbed my bags, local train to the central station, and the intercity to Brussels. It's a great novelty for me to travel from city to city by train. Love it. We have distance and population against us in Australia, but in Europe it's often the easiest and quickest way to get from place to place.

I dumped the bags in the Brussels hotel and headed off to the nearest metro station – the ticket office had very helpful strips of paper printed with directions to the stage finish.

To say there were a shitload of people at the finish is an understatement – 5 or 6 deep around the last few hundred metres, so I joined a smaller crowd near the team busses, just past where the barricades ended.

You've seen those massive crowds on mountain stages with the motorcycles opening a path for the racers to get though? The group I was in was like that – there was a handlebar width space for the exhausted riders to get through. I saw them all again, the same champions I'd seen that morning, just not as many smiling as there had been earlier.

The funny thing about the weekend? I had to look online for the race results both days.

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