The Tour de France has come and gone………

Apologies that I’ve been somewhat missing in action over the past week but I was just one of a large band of volunteers from the city of Nice entrusted with ensuring the Tour de France went ahead safely.

Two months late, the Tour de France has managed to do what the summer Olympics, and countless other sporting events couldn’t, largely thanks to the determination of Nice’s mayor Christian Estrosi who worked tirelessly with ASO, the Tour’s organiser.

Despite taking place under strict sanitary conditions, with heavy controls on spectators and press pack numbers, it should still bring in much needed funds to the  beleaguered French economy and the Tour’s broadcasters, advertisers, hoteliers and caterers.

To be honest, this could be one of the biggest ever tours, since the maiden one won by Maurice Garin in 1903, for a number of reasons, not all of them economic.

The race is broadcast in over 190 countries and will showcase France, the most-visited country on the planet, after months of lockdown, to around 3.5 billion people. This isn’t insignificant as it will remind the 10-12 million tourists, largely absent this year,  who usually line the route to cheer on the riders, what they are missing and where they should be looking to book their next holiday. Indeed, if we are to believe Eurosport, over 47% of those who watch the Tour do so to enjoy its truly magnificent scenery and its wealth of historical monuments.

So, what did I get up to and what did I see?

Funnily enough the answer to both those questions is not a lot. Let me clarify.

Tuesday evening we collected our instructions and missions for the Tour. Sadly, the promised Rapha t-shirts didn’t materialise and we were issued with a bright custard-yellow t-shirt, most certainly *not* one of my colours, with a black and yellow cap, plus a cheap and cheerful rucksack containing all manner of goodies! After the presentation, food and drinks had been laid on. I know only too well that an army of volunteers marches on its stomach.

Early on day one, bouyed with excitement, five of us set out for the Acropolis, home to Tour organisers ASO (and the press room) until Sunday. There was plenty going on as its logistics team was getting everything set up. The chap looking after us said I’d be able to put my language skills to good use pointing any foreign journalists in the right direction.

I hated to burst his bubble but the press couldn’t retrieve their accreditations until after 14:00 and my shift was due to finish at 13:30. In the six hours we were there, we answered just one query from the general public, which had absolutely nothing to do with the Tour.

I was sitting on the wall, in the shade, (rules one and two of volunteering) in front of the Acropolis when someone said that even with my cap and mask, they knew it was me. I should have worn my sunglasses too! This was a common refrain throughout the morning as I chatted with the long-standing ASO staffers that I know.

Later that day as I wandered around Nice, I did get asked lots of questions about the Tour by both visitors and locals alike. So not an entirely wasted day!

I’d chosen to stay in Nice and meet up with my beloved who, with his cycling club teammates, was taking part in the rehearsal of Thursday’s Team Presentation. Masqerading as former Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet of Team CCC, he rode up onto the stage several times with his teammates. This all took much longer than planned, so we had a quick bite to eat before heading back home. It was gratifying to see that Nice was busy with locals and holidaymakers alike

Less good were the numbers not wearing masks. During the rehearsals I was standing next to a policeman who must’ve asked at least 20 people to wear their masks in the space of 10 minutes. I said to him that he must do that a thousand times a day. More like 5,000 was his reply!

Yet another exciting day in prospect on day two and I was at one of the main tram terminii. This would’ve been where the VIPs parked their cars to get the tram into the centre of Nice. These VIPs would’ve been invited to the team presentation in Place Massena, starting at 18:30.

We were there from 11:30 until 18:00 with nary a sighting of anyone, much less a VIP. Luckily I had drinks, snacks and a book to hand (rules three, four and five of volunteering) and found myself a seat, in the shade, within sight of the pedestrian exit from the car park – just in case!

Of course, post-Covid and with Alpes Maritimes being classified “rouge”, VIP numbers were considerably reduced to just a handful of locals, including my hubby and a number of our ex-professional cycling friends, all of whom are familiar with how the local transport system functions.

Saturday, despite its very early start, seemed to hold more promise. A team of 16 of us were in the small bit of Place Massena not blocked off for the start of the first stage. We shared the space with eight French ambulance staff, eight firemen, eight armed gendarmes, plus a handful of well-armed soldiers who were constantly scanning the area for potential threats.

We were all standing adjacent to the entrance of the much reduced Village du Depart for the VIPs. Frankly, it was a wonder that there was any room for Joe Public to come and ask us any questions.

We had a frisson of excitement when HRH Prince Albert of Monaco and the Secretary of State for Sport turned up in their cavalcade of cars, flanked by gendarmes on motorbikes, lights flashing. Both stayed until the presentation of the jerseys.

Two very attractive German girls had unfortunately left their car for several days in the wrong car park, one they couldn’t exit until well after the stage concluded. As they were planning on driving back to northern Germany, this wasn’t exactly good news. Fearing an international incident, as the only German speaker, I intervened and duly asked ASO, the gendarmes and local police on their behalf. The answer was the same from all but at least I’d tried.

This time I was asked plenty of questions. Here’s the top 5, in reverse order.

5. Where’s the best place to watch the riders depart?

4. Where can I buy a ticket to get in there (VIP Area)?

3. How can I get across to the Old Town with all the roads blocked off?

2. How can I get to the beach with all the roads blocked off?

1. Where can I get some freebies?

Sunday I was back at yet another tram terminus, this time in Nice Nord. I was asked once if I had any change for the ticket machine. Slim pickins’ for another six hour shift. This time numbers had been reduced to four but there were also two people from the Metropole answering questions when people drove into the car park. Their presence rendered us rather surplus to requirements.

I later discovered that the volunteers’ roles had been fixed with ASO prior to Covid so we’ll never really know how busy we might’ve been. The team from Nice’s Sports department who managed the volunteers organised things well, and communication was excellent. It’s just that I hate not being busy. Remind me never to volunteer again!

Le Grand Depart 2020

In an earlier post I bemoaned the paucity of my trips to Nice but I’ve recently been there on three consecutive days. These trips were courtesy of the last two stages of the Paris-Nice cycle race, and the presentation of Le Grand Depart of the 2020 Tour de France. The latter took place last Monday in the magnificent surroundings of the Nice Opera House, one of my favourite buildings in Nice.

In the presence of a handful of ex and current riders, mayors of local towns, a small press pack and the great and good of Nice, the Mayor of Nice Metropole, Christian Estrosi –  himself a keen cyclist –  kicked off proceedings with a short film showcasing the splendours of the region to the converted. He handed over to Christian Prudhomme, the chap in charge of the Tour de France, who recalled Nice’s (limited) role in the history of the Tour.

He also reminded everyone that there’s an exhibition celebrating “100 years of the Yellow Jersey” at Musee de Sport, Allianz Riviera until 29 September.

The route of the two opening stages was left to Thierry Gouvenou, the race’s technical director, to explain and what a reveal!

The 2020 Tour de France will start with a bang. Its organisers ASO have opted for two tough opening stages in and around Nice on roads I know well, love and regularly ride. The first will be a spectator-friendly 170km route suited to the sprinters and puncheurs, starting and finishing in Nice. Though it won’t be an easy route, with four tough climbs scattered along the way and a fast finishing circuit to conclude.

Stage two will be a major departure from traditional Tour de France openers as it heads into the mountains and reaches the highest point ever seen since 1979 (won by Bernard Hinault). The 190km route goes over four cols (3,700 metres/6500 ft), firstly the Col de la Colmiane and the Col de Turini, before cresting the smaller Col d’Eze then the final test of the day, the Col de Quatre Chemins, followed by the downhill run to the line on the Promenade des Anglais.

This stage, which again starts and finishes in Nice, is a mash-up of the last two stages of this year’s Paris-Nice, and will be a test for the climbers. It’ll also ensure that two different riders will wear the maillot jaune. Nothing was said about where stage three will start but I guess it won’t be too far from Nice.

There’s always a chance that such an early test will take riders out of contention for the general classification while the race is still young. A traditional grand tour aims to build tension throughout its three weeks, culminating in a crescendo of final mountain stages, as the opportunities dwindle and contenders feel increasingly desperate to gain time on rivals. This rarely happens in the Tour de France.

Throwing mountains up front isn’t usual for the Tour. Last year, the first uphill test didn’t come until stage 6, on the short Mur de Bretagne. Realistically, the stage is unlikely to do any real damage. The major climbs are far from the finish; the final two are short. Legs will be fresh. Teams will be strong. Sure, a few contenders will fail, but that always happens!