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Cheerleading the Tour de France

I arrived in Caen by train from Cherbourg. For me, it was similar to your typical U.K city; Grey, dirty, busy, but naturally relieved by a large river.

It was now about 8am, the riders were scheduled to arrive in Caen at about 4pm. I had a long day ahead of me. Despite the large void between now and then, I still felt a sense of urgency; I felt the strong pull of wanting to be inside the glossy, TV-like Tour de France world.

The anxiety was immediately relieved as I turned my first corner from the station. In front of me was a network of roads parallel to, and crossing the wide river that runs through central Caen. Large red trucks were parked up along side the roads and men in matching red t-shirts were offloading metal barriers and lining the route to the finish line. In fact this created even more anxiety; I just had to get to the finish line as soon as possible.                  

Despite being so close to a massive sporting event, and witnessing the ‘behind the scenes’ of the event unfold before me, I didn’t really feel a part of ‘anything’ as I walked the streets as a mere tourist. The French locals didn’t look as though they were particularly bothered about the race; they were just getting on with their daily chores. It’s very different to turning up at a European football game, incredibly more subdued and modest, almost to the point where you start to question your own motivations for being there. Ironically; I find it cringe worthy to be around thousands of people at football games, all with their shared sense of identity. But at the same time, in Caen, I did feel that need to relate to people, to be a part of something.

But I think what makes cycling more special is the rare and often unexpected connections with people. For example, last year I made my first trip to the tour (Pau in the Pyrenees to be precise.) The most memorable experience was when I was sitting in the dark in the campsite on my own, when I was invited to have supper with a Texan couple outside their campervan. As we munched on our pasta, we were firstly joined by a young Female documentary producer who was also from Texas, and then by a couple from Brighton, and finally by 2 Canadian girls.

But that was then.

Eventually, I found the finish line, which was about 3 miles away from the train station. I had reached the carnival of cycling. Even at 9:30 in the morning, the scene is hectic. Food vans are dishing out baguettes, Camera crews are always trying to solve problems with wires, and the finish line is literally being painted onto the road. But there were still relatively few, what I would call ‘fans’ about. You know what I mean, people making the effort purely for the cycling.

I personally, needed the toilet. Whilst I praise the organisers of the race for providing toilets, I just wish it wasn’t one, single, portaloo. Getting in was difficult, like boarding a train with a large bag. I caught the doorway with my roll mat, which almost tipped me      and the toilet to the ground. The other challenge of portaloos is avoiding the publics’ very clear realisation of what you’ve just done, and consequently not looking like you’ve been in there, as you leave. I suppose I could have just locked the door for 5 hours and listened to the cyclists come in over the finish line, but instead I clambered back out of the toilet and gave passers by a sort of ‘you’re imagining things’ look.

From the toilet I attempted to find the ideal spot to watch the cyclists come in over the line. Other than the ‘really’ eager fans who had found a position right on the finish line, I was pretty spoilt for choice. At last I could put my bag on the floor, propped against a barrier.

Standing around in the morning sun, I grew a little frustrated with myself. After being at the tour only last year, I should have remembered some valuable lessons, as I will explain. Firstly, the waiting around at the tour is epically boring if you’re on your own. I can compare it to a job I had at a crisp-bread factory where I had to stack the boxes onto crates for 8 hours a day. This was made worse due to the time being printed on each and every box, to the very second. Have you ever tried staring at a clock for 8 hours?

Then of course if you’re on your own, you can’t leave your prized viewing spot very easily. You get hungry, thirsty, you need the toilet again, you just want to go somewhere else and lie down, even if it has to be in a skip full of tomato ketchup and awkward-edged diamonds. Then, as the day builds; gradually more and more people line the barriers. Naïve to the point of being very, very, very naïve; in the morning I’d created the illusion that the busiest it would get would be a single row of people dotted about alongside the barriers, either side of the road. We would all have a bit of manoeuvrable space in which to comfortably enjoy the race, right? Guys? 

On the contrary, initially a fat kid and his fat mum parked up next to me. For the next couple of hours I leaned over the barrier, looking downwards to the kid sitting crossed legged on the pavement, making patterns in the loose gravel with his hands. I can’t say he was massively creative; it was the thoughtless circly-twirly motion that in a school, armed with a pencil, would indicate a chronically bored child. He looked like he perhaps needed to eat a clock, or perhaps more appropriately some crisp-bread, or maybe even throw some tennis balls about.

It got busier, the sun was getting stronger, and I was getting tired. There was no relief from shade, unlike the other side of the road, where large trees outnumbered lampposts. The crowd was increasing to 3 or 4 rows behind me, parents encouraged their kids to squeeze in between other adults, including in front of me. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice my viewing spot for anyone.

Staring, still staring at the ground 4 hours later, the waiting game…somewhat got harder to bare. Around the corner came the carnival/sponsor floats that accompany every day, of every finish line of the Tour de France. I had totally forgotten about this ordeal from last year. I gritted my teeth and spat out a quiet

‘Oh for fuck sake.’

It goes on for hours; cars with supermarket names written on them, people on stilts, young girls on rollerblades handing out sweets and stickers. Float, after tacky float. I understand that the race is largely financed by sponsorship, but nonetheless it remains a soul destroying experience. Fair enough children are entertained by large amounts of colourful stuff, and by the concept of ‘free,’ and by large cuddly animals, but I did have to hang my head in disappointment when the French adults were as tack-stupid as the kids. A man on rollerblades with a mobile phone logo on his t-shirt, hiding behind sunglasses and reluctantly waving to the crowd, received camera attention, cheers, and for all I know spontaneous marriage proposals.

I was quite surprised that the crowd didn’t get down onto their knees when the DUSTY-RED GIANT MOTORISED APPLE blasting out DISTORTED MUSIC rolled by.

It’s not that I was uncomfortable with looking silly, it was a case of feeling depressed at how easily people are amused, how easily a mobile phone company can say ‘look here, this is fun, you like it, you’re not sure why, but hey, everyone else does, and if we keep doing this, you’ll get so confused that you’ll begin to question whether life, death or birth comes first, and that’s when we sting you, another sticker? Wallet please…’

My cynicism was intensified by the greed of the crowd around me. By now I was getting squashed. I had to hold onto the barrier to prevent myself from being etched sideways, my feet had to remain at uncomfortable inward angles, and I couldn’t bend down to get my camera out of my bag. I was stuck. Pressure from people at all angles was caused by sweets and things being thrown into the crowd.

The Sun was now so strong, and the heat combined with the pressure of everyone leaning on the metal barriers caused the barrier legs/poles to sink a few inches into the melting concrete.

Elbows and cameras continued to knock me on the head as people reached desperately for that precious scratch card, or that antique of a yellow paper hat. Fair enough, I grabbed the odd free bottle of water (extra-sip size) if it made contact with my politely outreached hand, but unlike two unacquainted local men, I didn’t grab something, hold on to it with all my strength, wrestle it from the other person’s hands, look at it to see what the fight was for, and then put it in my pocket for future bin disposal. I was surrounded by morons, I felt so lonely in that crowd, and it was genuinely quite scary that I appeared to be the only person not absorbed by meaningless nothing. The Western/developed/civilised world’s version of a third-world frenzy for handouts peaked, for me, when the girls on rollerblades handed out hot coffee in paper cups over peoples heads… do I need to say anything, ever again?

Across the road, behind the opposite barriers, was the V.I.P section. It was like a typical prisoner of war film; they were toying with our minds as they sat spaciously on tables and chairs. They would get up to stretch their legs, pick up a glass of wine and meander over to the barrier and indulge themselves in the suffering of me, just me…

If there was any relief from the fear of being eaten by zombies, it was that one particular man in the V.I.P section acknowledged that I wasn’t behaving like everyone else. He saw that I politely, yet with absolutely no facial expression, rejected yet another free paper hat. He started pointing and laughing and highlighting me to his friends. I’d like to think he was on the same wavelength as me, but in that situation, I could only struggle to find the slightest bit of optimism. The Tour de France experience requires deep patience, unless of course you enjoy bright colours that smile and move and whatever.

So, as you can imagine, a part of me was beginning to regret leaving my house in England. I had to go through this torture the next day, and the next. But the waiting is worth it, just.

At 4pm, and hours of dehydration later, I perched over the barrier and looked down the street; thousands of people were now lining the road as opposed to a few stragglers earlier in the morning.

The last carnival float thankfully fucked off out of sight.

The road was now clear, for all to see. It was the moment I had played over and over in my mind. Despite the thousands of people, there was a tense and relatively quiet atmosphere. The commentator who was positioned somewhere on the finish line was getting excited. I couldn’t understand his French, for all I know he was probably telling everyone;

‘You see the miserable looking English chap, after the riders have finished, don’t let him go, bring him to me, I want to give him a paper hat, HE’S NOT WEARING ONE!’

The pace and volume of his voice heard through the speakers was heightened, the riders were very close by.

Rejected litter blew across the newly converted race track. Either side of the road was a mass of yellow heads. I could see 400 metres down the road before it took a gradual bend out of sight.

Large rumbling motorbikes stormed past the crowd carrying tanned, rugged, unshaven photographers. They looked like they’d come from a battle, a long way a way, which in essence, and in romance, they had. They wore nervous and tired faces, like they’d seen something we hadn’t, and they were anxiously trying to get out of the way of it.

Very close by was the real deal; the guys who had cycled at race pace from a town 100 miles away.

Then, without warning, a surge of coloured jerseys tore itself across the horizontal width of the road, the first of them appearing on the outside bend. 120 madmen on bikes, as fast as they could, pushing in front of each other, they got closer, and closer, their teeth gritted, other mouths wide open gasping for air, eyes bursting, climbing out of their saddles, the desperate clicking and clanking of gears and pedals and the whizzing of wheels.

Did I mention that throughout all of this, I was stood near a large speaker repeating the same 4 French pop songs all day?

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