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. »

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!

Reflecting on our trip to Pornichet

We had gone to the start of this year’s Tour de France because it wasn’t far from La Baule, a place both of us had visited as teenagers. I’d enjoyed a delightful last holiday with my parents and sisters while my beloved had less pleasant memories, something to do with the sanitary arrangements! I booked a spa hotel in Pornichet in the bay of La Baule primarily because it directly overlooked the beach. I was after a few day’s rest and relaxation, particularly for my beloved.

I was interested in the history behind the original building and learnt that it had been built of granite in 1868 by a Belgian Viscount, in the gothic style, and christened Chateau des Tourelles by the locals on account of its circular towers. It was subsequently acquired in 1882 by a French arms manufacturer for 40,000 Francs. On his death in 1904, his son Louis Flornoy inherited the property but was forced to sell it, due to mismanagement of his fortune, to M Legrand, a local newspaper owner.

In 1938 the mayor of the 12th arrondissement in Paris acquired it to provide holidays for disadvantaged children. In 1940, without so much as a by your leave, the German army occupied the building. Post-war, it once more welcomed holidaymakers from Paris for the three months of summer but in the 90s it fell into disuse and was closed. A family company, which already owned a couple of spa hotels, thankfully rescued it some 15 years later.

The new extension has been grafted onto the original historic building in a wrap around style which doesn’t swamp its beachside facade. Its bedrooms are spacious with large balconies, most of which have a sea view. The hotel’s main attraction is its thalassotherapy spa which proved beneficial for both my recently injured hamstring and my beloved’s still recuperating leg. We whiled away many an hour in its salty, warm waters.

Our four days passed far too quickly and we merely dipped a toe into the Tour as opposed to slavishly following every stage. We pottered along the seafront and around the small town of Pornichet but there was little need to leave our cocoon, our haven of tranquility. The beach in La Baule was pretty much as I remembered it, wide, golden and sandy, but nothing else in the town struck a chord with either of us.

We had lunched at the hotel on arrival. It had vegan options on the menu and the food was excellent. No need to stray too far for sustenance though we did try out a couple of the patisseries in town. Well, it would’ve been rude not to! As soon as we learnt the hotel did Sunday Brunch, we booked a table. This turned out to be a very fortunate move as Brunch was extremely popular, and not just with residents. As you’d expect, it included plenty of fresh seafood including oysters.

It’s a hotel we’d happily visit again, though next time I’d fly to Nantes and hire a car. It’s really too far to drive. The trip confirmed my happy memories and dispelled my beloved’s less than memorable ones.

Holiday photos: day 26

My beloved was due back from his business trip late on Saturday evening. I was just about  to go out, having wrapped up reviewing the day’s stage for VeloVoices, when my phone rang. It was my beloved who had missed his connecting flight from Madrid to San Sebastian due to the late arrival of his inbound flight from Heathrow. He’d be back around midday on Sunday.

While he’s been away I’ve been enjoying the jazz festival.  Mornings I head for my morning walk along the beach before going to my favourite breakfast spot, to order an americano y tostada con tomate, the latter comes with olive oil, salt and a raw tomato paste (header photo of my DIY version). It’s delish and has replaced my usual avocado on toast. I sit outside and listen to the band playing in the San Martin market. They don’t appear to be part of the Festival, I think they’ve just jumped on the bandwagon.

Breakfast over, I head to La Brexia market for fresh fruit, salad stuff and olives before wending my way back to the flat, again via the beach. And no, before you ask, the shins still haven’t tanned! Afternoons have been taken up with watching the Tour de France and the European Water Polo Championships.

Most evenings I’ve walked along  the seafront, sat on a bench in the park opposite the Town Hall and listened to whoever’s been playing on the stage there. Some evenings I’ve treated myself to a sorbet from my favourite ice cream shop, other times just some water from the Heineken stand – the Jazz Festival is sponsored by Heineken.

If the music hasn’t been to my taste, I’ve continued my pursuit of the best Aperol Spritz in town. When it comes to bars, I look carefully at its clientele. San Sebastián has loads of elderly – as in much older than me – chic ladies, probably widows. They tend to gather in groups in the evening to enjoy a chat and a cocktail or two with a pintxos or two. If there’s plenty of glamorous grannies, I’ll go inside or sit outside. I now have further contenders for the prize and will allow my beloved to have the casting vote, something he rarely enjoys.

 

Holiday photos: day 22

While the cat’s away, the mice will play. In my case this means while my beloved was back in the UK on a business trip, I could do exactly what I wanted. Unfortunately for him his absence coincided with the San Sebastian Jazz Festival,  where many of the events are free. I took full advantage and  it was very pleasant sitting in an adjacent bar, sipping something chilled while listening to some music. Or, as I later discovered, listening while lying in bed with the window open.

My beloved’s absence also coincided with the final exciting days of the Tour de France and the European Water Polo championships from Barcelona. What many of you won’t know is that my beloved is a former water polo player. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in chlorine-scented pools watching him play. I even qualified as a water polo referee, one of a few woment to do so at the time. Strutting round a pool blowing a whistle at will, where my word was law, rather brought out the worst in me!

It’s quite amusing to contrast the physiques of the athletes in the two sports. Typically, in weight terms, 1 water polo player = 2 – 3 cyclysts. Looking at the physiques of the former, I can’t help think it’s not just their mother’s cooking that has built those splendid rippling muscles.

 

 

Holiday photos: day 13

A veritable smoregasbord of sport on Sunday, but what to watch, when? Our dilemna was partly resolved when Rafa lost in the semi-final at Wimbledon. It was unlikely that the final would reach similar heights and we fully expected Djokovic to win his fourth title which he did.

We ate lunch at our hotel in Saint Jean de Luz before settling down to watch a mouth watering afternoon of sport starting with the German MotoGP from Sachsenring. Nine poles and nine victories for my chou chou Marc Marquez, who’s leading the World Championship. I was a happy bunny.

Next up the Tour de France’s cobbled stage finishing in Roubaix which started a bit earlier so as not to clash with the match. Sadly crashes and inopportune mechanicals either put paid to or severely dented the ambitions of a number of riders, but hey that’s cycling. You also had to feel for those nursing injuries from earlier stages, those cobbles must’ve been really painful. It was good to see former Paris-Roubaix winner John Degenkolb pick up his first win since recovering from a terrible accident.

Finally, the blue-riband event, the eagerly awaited World Cup final. The beach and streets emptied, as everyone tuned into the match. Finals are rarely great matches, although this one was exciting. Lady luck was wearing red, white and blue as pre-match favourites France showed flashes of both brilliance and stupidity to beat Croatia 4-2 and lift their second World Cup, twenty years after their last. I’ve become a huge fan of Kylian Mbappe who has enchanted everyone with his maturity and was rightly best young playet of the tournament.

Some of my favourite scenes were President Macron’s celebratory dance – don’t give up the day job! – and the mass huggging which followed the presentation of the trophy and medals. The hotel where we were staying broke out the bubbles to toast the team. It had been a great week-end for the French, though you had to feel for the Croats, and for anyone in France hoping for a good night’s sleep.

 

Holiday photos: day 7

Yesterday the Tour de France came to us with a stage start in La Baule, albeit at an out of town shopping centre. We arrived early to bag a car parking spot and watched the caravan go by. Was it my imagination, or was it really bigger than last year? Sadly Haribo weren’t distributing any of my favourite gummy bears though I did score a couple of shoppers – always handy.

The crowds were again a challenge as I fought my way into the Village for some water before picking my spot to photograph a few of the riders on their way to sign on. I found a much better spot than on Saturday, standing opposite a small group of boys who were clearly trying to collect as many rider autographs as possible, loudly hailing each of them by name as they rode past.

Obviously, on home turf, the crowd favours French riders but their biggest cheers were reserved for a certain Peter Sagan (pictured above) looking resplendent in the green points’ jersey. He happily signed plenty of autographs, including for the kids opposite, and posed for lots of selfies. Certain sections of the crowd were still booing Chris Froome but he too happily signed autographs.

I caught up with a few friends, including Rudy Molard who’d been felled at 60km/hr by a stray water bottle and had consequently cornered the market in bandages. I restrained myself from embracing him as he told me it hurt pretty much all over. However he was still smiling. Cyclists are a tough bunch.

All too soon the peloton was streaming out of town under a burning sky and I walked back to the car. Several days of rest and recuperation and my leg is feeling so much better. Time to head to our next destination, Bordeaux.

Holiday photos: day 6

It didn’t take either of us too long to relax enough to enjoy a spot of lotus eating. The hotel, and the beach, was much quieter on Monday and we had the Thalasso pool pretty much to ourselves. We spent the whole day pottering about, not doing too much, although we did tune into the Tour de France’s team time-trial from Cholet.

There were no big surprises and time lost on stage one by a handful of riders was largely recouped. The two previous race leaders found the going tough, or maybe they were just conserving their energies? Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, a member of stage winning squad BMC, now graces the yellow jersey.

Tuesday’s stage starts in our base of La Baule, albeit from an out of town shopping centre. Ah, the glamour of cycle racing!

As soon as the peloton heads out of town in a northerly direction, we’ll be pointing our car bonnet south and heading to Bordeaux. Our lotus eating will be put on hold while we investigate  Bordeaux’s splendours for five days.

Holiday photos: day 4

My beloved and I were in the Vendee for the start of the Tour de France. We had based ourselves just over the border in La Baule, well placed for the first four stages. Saturday’s opener kicked off in Noirmoutier-en-L’Ile which is attached to the mainland by the oft underwater, UNESCO protected, Passage du Gois. Luckily, there’s also a rather spectacular bridge which was used by both us and the peloton.

Proceedings got underway early so that everyone could watch THE match. Today’s photo is artwork from my dear friend Greig Leach who faithfully records the key moments of every stage. This is of the stage winner Colombian Fernando Gaviria who took the race lead, points’ jersey and that of best young rider on his maiden stage, in his debut Tour. I would’ve used one of my own photos from the stage start but the place was rammed and every photo contained bits of spectators. If only I were much taller!

12 days of Christmas: day 8

After watching Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France in wet and windy Duesseldorf, we spent a couple of nights in Maastricht in a hotel overlooking the Meuse river. We know the town well having spent a fair amount of time here watching the 2012 UCI Road World Championships, Amstel Gold Races plus visiting clients nearby. It has a lovely old town but inevitably one’s eye is drawn to the bustling river which bisects the town, separating old from new. I took this photo from our hotel bedroom.