Postcard from Brussels: Le Grand Depart

Last week-end we were ostensibly in Brussels for Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France. However, I did have a hidden agenda. Brussels is another town that I haven’t visited in over 20 years! On our one and only visit all those years ago I was totally charmed by all the Art Nouveau wrought ironwork which I later discovered was largely the work of architect Victor Horta – more of which much later. This time I’m back for a closer look, but first, Le Grand Depart!

We generally arrive in time to attend the team presentation and most of the team press conferences, but not this year as my beloved had only just managed to shoe horn this trip in-between business trips to Italy and London. Also, because of our forthcoming trip to Australia, we won’t be dropping in on any further Tour stages. Mind you, we’ll probably make up for it next year when Le Grand Depart is in Nice.

I’d timed my arrival on Friday afternoon to coincide with the BORA-hansgrohe team press conference where I’d hoped to snatch 10-15 minutes with Peter Sagan’s wingman, Daniel Oss. Sadly, our Sleazyjet flight was delayed and I arrived way too late to nab anyone. You might wonder why I didn’t target potential 7-times green jersey wearer, Sagan. I’ve already interviewed him and he paid me an immense compliment by saying that I posed him questions no one else had ever asked!

For those of you who aren’t cycling fans. The Tour de France is big, really big. It’s the biggest annual sporting event in the world. That’s the first thing that hits you. There are 4,500 people working on it, and only 176 of those are riding. There is no other annual event, not even other bike races, that comes close to this scale. Yes, there are two other Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, yet they are family affairs in comparison rather than this State-like occasion.

Everytime I visit the Tour, I’m always impressed with the level of its organisation, it’s superb. I’m beginning to suspect that ASO’s secret is a very low level of staff turnover. Even the volunteers return year after year. Though, much as I enjoy the Tour, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to spend my summer holidays working at it every year.

I’ve been fortunate to attend a number of Grand Departs. My first was in London in 2007, followed by Monaco in 2009 where, working as a volunteer, I scored a great gig. I looked after HRH Prince Albert’s VIP guests. Next up was 2014 in Yorkshire where the crowds had to be seen to be believed. In 2015, we sweltered in the heat in Utrecht. 2016 saw us dodging rain in Normandy, and again the following year in Duesseldorf, Germany. Last year the weather was glorious in Brittany, and again this year in Brussels. Next year, Nice will most likely be my Tour swan song.

The staging of this Grand Depart paid tribute to the maiden Tour victory, 50 years ago in July 1969, of the Belgian legend Eddy Merckx who was omnipresent in the first few stages, particularly the first stage which passed through WoluweSaint-Pierre, where the five-times Tour winner grew up.

On Saturday, the peloton rode round the city’s narrow cobbled streets before heading out through Molenbeek and then Anderlecht, in the direction of the Mur de Grammont (which was also part of Eddy Merckx’s first Tour route). Riders then raced towards Charleroi, crossing a section of cobbles before heading back towards Brussels. They rode past the base of the Lion’s Mound, the battlefield where the defeat of Napoleon’s troops was set in motion. The last stretch of the route paid hommage again to Merckx as riders traversed the streets where Eddy first learned to ride a bike… as well as where he earned his first maillot jaune. Coincidentally, it’s also the 100th birthday of the yellow race leader’s jersey.

We watched the race start which filed past our hotel after we’d been to the Brussels Expo on the train to collect my press accreditation.

profil-general-etape-01

Sunday we met with some of our many friends from the world of cycling and scored a VIP pass for my beloved so that he could join us in the Village du Depart – much upgraded and enlarged this year – and the Bus Paddock. This enabled us to briefly catch up with some of the riders and team staff we’ve gotten to know over the years.

The organiser typically likes to see the leader’s yellow jersey changing hands during the early stages. And, after the first stage was won by the poisson-pilote (lead out man) of one of the more fancied sprinters, someone who didn’t feature on anyone’s radar, it was (wrongly) assumed that the team time-trial would produce a new race leader. But, the previous day’s winner was in one of the more highly ranked time-trial teams who’d recently recruited a four-time world time-trial champion. Not for nothing is German Tony Martin nicknamed the Panzerwagen. This marginal gain helped Jumbo-Visma to pip all the other teams to the post.

The wide streets of Brussels had provided the ideal route for an impressive team effort, with few turns and a series of false flats, that truly tested riders’ technical skills, terminating at the Atomium, built for the Brussels World Fair in 1958. So the jersey stayed firmly put on the broad shoulders of Holland’s Mike Teunissen for another day.

The newspapers estimated that 500,000 people were in Brussels to watch Le Grand Depart and it was true! Not that I counted them but the place was jam-packed with tourists and fans. Brussels put on a good show, not dissimilar to that in Leeds in 2014, making me wonder whether Yorkshire’s Sir Gary Verity had been acting as a consultant. But no in the land of cycling and Eddy Merckx, there’s an excess of expertise even if they also called their volunteers « Tour Makers. »

Anticipation

Can you feel it? It’s almost here. I’m talking about the Tour de France, in many minds the high point of the cycling season. We’ve had months of anticipation, merely heightened since the end of the Giro d’Italia. We’re now eagerly awaiting the battle of the big six (Aru, Bardet, Contador, Froome, Porte and Quintana) who have plenty of pretenders young and old nipping at their heels. Speculation has been fevered, who will win what could be one of the most hotly contested and eagerly awaited Tours since………last year.

It’s true each Tour is eagerly awaited by its legion of fans while the riders are chomping at the bit, happy to see the back of the endless press conferences and presentations. I’ve witnessed countless riders patiently answer the same set of questions, some in a multitude of languages, time and time again. Pros to their cores, responding to each and every question with smiles on their faces.

Of course, I’m still a relative newcomer to the sport, my first Tour was 2004 ahead of our permanent move to France. I’ve been watching stages live since 2006 when I saw the same stage that had earlier been undertaken by my beloved on l’Etape du Tour. In truth my interest really ramped up when I was given a priviledged glimpse behind the scenes in 2012. I accompanied a friend who was reporting for Eurosport and witnessed the first British winner on the Champs Elysees. It was magnificent. But more than that it gave me an appreciation of the fantastic job done by ASO who make everything work like clockwork throughout the three-week juggernaut as it careers around France. I tried to find an analogy and the only thing I could come up with was organising 21 royal weddings in succession, but all in different locations.

This fantastic infographic, courtesy of ASO, explains why.


Dusseldorf will be my sixth Grand Depart after my first in London. Back in 2007, cycling was regarded somewhat quizzically by the British public. But it was free and everyone had been cooped up inside thanks to three weeks of rain, so why not? That was the start of Britain’s love affair with cycling which has since taken off into the stratosphere, particularly since 2012 and the Tour’s first British winner which, coincidentally, gave me bragging rites down at the cycle club.

In many ways, London set the pattern for my attendance at subsequent departs. I like to walk some or all of the prologue/opening time-trial route to understand where it would be best to watch the race. More importantly, I like to check out the facilities. Am I near to toilets, refreshments and a big screen? Yes, then that’s three big fat ticks. The greater my level of pre-race planning, the greater my enjoyment of the event on the day. In Dusseldorf, I note from the website, I will have the option of splashing out Euros 675.00 for a fully catered VIP view!

I was an insider in 2009 at le Grand Depart in Monaco where my range of linguistic skills got me a gig looking after Prince Albert’s guests, initially in his air conditioned pavilion with refreshments on tap, and then in the VIP Tribune, which afforded me a ringside view of the opening time-trial. That was special, particularly as Prince albert went round and personally thanked all of the volunteers. It isn’t every day a girl gets kissed on the cheeks by a Prince!

In 2014 I was blown away by the crowds in Yorkshire and have to commend the organisers for the facilities laid on for the thousands of people who turned out to watch. That was a tough one for Utrecht to emulate in 2015 but I think it rose to the challenge and got bonus points for a free team presentation –  Yorkshire’s was ticketed. Utrecht, like Dusseldorf this year, made use of its excellent exhibition facilities.

Last year’s Le Grand Depart took place in Normandy and gave us the opportunity for a trip down memory lane, visiting an area in Brittany we hadn’t been to for 20 years. It also meant we were able to visit a few places on the way there and back, such as the Loire, which we’d not visited before. It turned out to be a wholly delightful and restful break. We’re always saying cycling takes us to places we might not otherwise visit.

But, as mentioned earlier, the key to attending any Grand Depart, is plenty of forward planning and preparation. For example, I always book my hotels well in advance, usually at least nine month’s ahead – early birds, worms and all that. I generally try to avoid hotels that might be used for accommodating teams, though am not always successful. This year we’ll be at the same hotel as Astana, Bahrain Merida and Dimension Data as we’ve elected to stay adjacent to the exhibition centre. Typically, we’ll stay midway between the first couple of stages so as not to have to change hotels too frequently.

My beloved often meets with clients in the days running up to Le Grand Depart where he’ll be primed and on duty with his camera ready to capture all the action at the start. We’ve learnt over the years that it’s easier just to go to the stage starts as it’s often well nigh impossible to get to both start and finish. Rather than stress too much, we opt for the start, locate somewhere for lunch after the peloton has departed and generally make it a fun day out. We watch the finish on the television in our hotel. I’ve oft thought in the past that it would be great to follow the Tour for the entire three weeks. With advancing age has come greater wisdom. It’s a punishing routine and it’s much better to dip in and out of the race route. that’s what we’ll be doing again this year.

 

 

 

Magnificent Monaco

I have been somewhat remiss in not commenting on Le Grand Depart, stage managed so brilliantly in the Principality. From the team presentation on

Le Grand Depart
Le Grand Depart

Thursday evening to the departure of Stage 1, everything ran to plan and like clockwork, thanks to meticulous planning and preparation on behalf of the organizing committee.

As a serial volunteer, I can honestly say that I have never, ever been better treated. Regular communications, clear reporting lines, clearly defined responsibilities, plenty of volunteers: it’s not rocket science, just good old-fashioned common sense. The feedback I got from spectators, whether they were Joe Public or VIPs was identical. They had all enjoyed the spectacle, soaked up the atmosphere and, if they weren’t before, were now cycling fans.

Of course, Monaco has plenty of experience of putting on premium events for top-notch prices but they applied the same criteria for all those non-paying cycling fans.

Yellow fever

My excitement is rising as the Tour de France is fast approaching. Having enjoyed its warm-up act, the Critérium du Dauphiné libéré, I’m now looking forward to the real thing. And I’m not the only one. Journalists seem to be taking a totally over-the-top approach to a couple of topics.

The key one, not unnaturally, features Lance. Will he be riding the Tour de France in Astana’s colours? If not, will he be riding for another sponsor? If so, which one? Will the Kazakh government agree to the UCI’s demands and pay up? Will Astana still have a UCI licence at the start of the Tour? Can Contador and Lance peacefully co-exist on the same team: will each be prepared to ride in service of the stronger rider.

When you look at the proposed list of starters, there are more chiefs than Indians: never a recipe for success. Will there indeed be any Kazakhs riding the Tour for the Kazakh sponsored team? The fevered speculation is filling endless column inches in the press and on the internet. Although, at least one thorny question has been answered in recent days: Vino won’t be able to resume his professional career until 24 July, 2009.

Then there are the riders who have suspicious values in their UCI biological passports. How many are there? Are there any big fish on the list? What action is the UCI going to take against them?

Another, equally interesting discussion involves another “will he, won’t he” situation. Namely, will Messrs Boonen and Valverde be riding the Tour this year? The UCI have given Boonen the green light (for the moment) while they have yet to opine on the case of Valverde. If they say yes, might he be arrested by the Italians when the Tour ventures onto foreign soil? If he does ride, will Contador be collecting his dues for support during the Dauphiné libéré? If he doesn’t ride, will the whole team be riding for Bert? The next hurdle for both of them is the ASO who will be more interested in serving its own commercial interests by ensuring that Lance rides than perhaps unduly worrying about these two.

All these issues will be coming to a head in the next 10 days or so. Of course, this fevered speculation allows the other genuine contenders to go about their Tour build ups outside of the cauldron.

My Tour, like that of the riders, kicks off on Wednesday 1 July, when I’ll be working as a volunteer. I have been much impressed with the professionalism of the Monaco organising committee which, in all aspects, is second to none and who will ensure that this is a truly memorable Grand Depart for everyone, particularly the spectators. I’m going to be deployed in the port area. Great gig as this is where the prologue starts and finishes and is the site of the team paddocks, a device “borrowed” from F1. I can hardly wait, but we’re all going to have to!