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.
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. »