Mid-July, Southern France, late 80’s-early 90’s. Bright blue sky. Burning heat. The shades would remain closed during the day to keep a bit of cold air inside. In the dark, the TV was blasting in the living room where my great grand father would religiously follow the Tour de France, every year. It was his way of traveling, watching all the regions of France being shot from the sky and listening to the familiar voice of Robert Chapatte commenting the Tour on French TV. Later, I remember catching interviews of spectators on the news: some would show up the night before with their campers, stay the all day being stuck anyway as all nearby roads would be closed, and stand in the sun to see a glimpse of the racers. I didn’t really get it. I had never seen a stage of the Tour spending all of my summers in France during my childhood. Right after I move to the Netherlands, the Tour starts from the nearby city of Utrecht. The irony amuses me and I feel somewhat drawn to it.
July, 4th 2015, Utrecht, the Netherlands. Le grand départ. 34°C. Bright blue skies with a few clouds. A huge crowd of about half a million Dutch people in Utrecht along the 18000 barriers tracing a 13-km track through the city. Thousands of bikes parked! Foldable tables and chairs, colorful T-shirts, bright tablecloth for picnics,… Some clapping and screams. A few seconds later, a colorful car with a huge Nijntje on its roof approaches: it is the popular caravan and its procession of brands throwing goodies at spectators to the sound of loud music and comments in English with a strong French accent: “Le Gaulois, ze best chicken in ze world”,… Playfully, people to try catch key chains, coffee samples, candies, caps,… There is still a bit of time before the first athlete starts at 2PM: enough for a French pick-nick: dry sausage, cheese and wine! And then, it starts: two powerful motorbikes, one of the Dutch police and one of the French gendarmerie open the way for every racer who is followed by its colorful team’s car matching their outfits. With their aerodynamic helmets, highly technical bikes giving them the best possible ratio of weight, rigidity and aerodynamics, these cyclists complete the loop at an average pace of 55km/h! There are the very famous ones: Cavendish, Contador,… Sometimes, the cheering coming from upstream is even louder: a Dutch racer is on the way! And every single one of them is supported by the crowd also following the whole loop on big screens. For this 102nd edition, the first African black athlete, the Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot racing for the South African MTN – Qhubeka team that was invited to the tour is competing.
While we complete our own stage of the day biking back home for a total of 60km, hence about 4 times the length of this daily stage of the Tour (it is not everyday that one can say that!!), I reflect back. I think I get it now. The playful and popular atmosphere in which all ages, social backgrounds, and colors gather around the values of sports does convey a special feeling. Tomorrow, while we are finishing the last details before our 6-week trip to Japan, I’ll switch on TV and watch the stage to see the racers arrive in Zealand, and I’ll think about my great grand father… They have 3331km more to go before arriving on the Champs Élysées!