The Tour is unique as a sporting event in many ways but one of the most profound and effecting, for the spectators, is the venue that it plays out on. A thin ribbon of road hundreds of kilometres long with the possibility of only ever being able to come in contact with the race itself for a matter of maybe a hundred metres or less – depending on your chosen vantage point.
It is a testament to the passion of the fans that they will trek up hill and over dale to get to a spot where they feel they’ll apprehend a taste of the action that they can hold close as the drama plays out over many hundreds of kilometres and numerous weeks.
Even when it is the closing pinches of a tough climb, and even when the peleton has been stretched out by crosswinds and brutal days in the saddle – most fans will still only net a fleeting taste of the race itself. It will blur by in a matter of seconds with barely enough time to make positive ids of your heroes.
For hours before — and on the mountain sides, days — the fans gather. Families picnic and play cards. In some sections we happened upon today the promotional caravan was passing through and once gone, the crowds dispersed – knowing that on the flat the speed would render the chance of seeing anything distinct useless. It was, however, a perfect vantage point for getting the freebies.
They wait for hours – often in uncomfortable positions – and when those few seconds have passed they leave quickly, treking back to traffic jams and closed roads that will, no doubt, ensure a late return home. Too late to catch the final moments of the day’s race that they have invested so much in.
Yesterday we climbed over Port de Bayle, with vultures circling us hopefully, to catch the race as it headed up Col de Peyresourde – and today we chased it again over that same climb and then the Col d’Aspin to another small town caught in that sudden passing fervour at the base of the Tourmalet.
We had big plans to bring you an in-depth report of what it’s actually like to risk reputation and the respect of all around you by donning the red speedos of shame and a Tony Abbott mask and running beside the lead riders. Alas when we arrived the mask had been completely destroyed by my impressive sweat-generating capabilities and the two climbs of the day.
We could have tried but with the chance that it would look like an even creepier version of Phantom of the Opera, the point and motivation was lost. But let it be known the lengths we were prepared to go to for the love of the sport and a desire to experience it all – for your sake. Cycling is all about suffering and sacrifice, on the bike or off.
The cast of characters at any point on the Tour route is wide. Every age, seemingly every nationality, sports fans, cyclists, school children, mad men in costume – in many of the small villages of France it will represent the most significant event on the calendar.
We were interested to find out how the Tour passing through a small town impacts it. Across Europe, as unemployment rates move well into double figures (approaching 40% in some regions) many of these small towns are slowly dying as the younger population leave for the perceived greener pastures of larger cities.
Serge Chambert is the minister of agriculture for the Gers department and mayor of his commune. In his polka dot cap and Hawaiian shirt (see image above) he looked every part the cycling fan, less so a mayor.
With his friend Alison translating he told us how the Tour arriving or departing from a town can fundamentally alter it. Each town has to apply and bid for this honoured place, stating its case, being inspected by Tour officials and, if accepted, paying a fee for the privilege. A fee vastly out-weighed by the influx of income as the Tour passes through and the on-going benefits of the best publicity and marketing that they could ever hope to afford.
Next time you see those elaborate and creative follies built to cycling on the outskirts of a small town – glimpsed from the long lens of a helicopter – you may be seeing a small village fighting a desperate battle to survive. They know that for a fleeting moment the eyes of France and the world will see them – and that is valuable.
The Tour is a complex beast – a tangle of sport and passion and economics and marketing, a behemoth that dominates the landscape wherever it goes. There’s no doubt it brings huge benefits to those places lucky enough to host it. As Serge Chambert says, cycling is the most popular sport in France, the Tour is the biggest annual sporting event in the world.
And maybe this catches something significant. Every stage we’ve seen, every huge crowd waiting for hours with building anticipation for that bright crescendo as the peloton passes, has been controlled, polite, drawn together by the sense of spectacle. Many people are drinking, often for hours but there has been no animosity at all. In other countries, other cultures, other sports and this would seem an impossibility.
The reasons for this are a tapestry too rich to be unpicked here but the fans are as much part of the experience of being here as is the race itself.
More from Matt & Stefano
– Day 0: The Ultimate Job begins!
– Day 1: Conquering Alpe d’Huez
– Day 2: Having a moment on the Col du Glandon
– Day 3: An interview with pro photographer Mark Gunter
– Day 4: First contact with the race and climbing the Col d’Izoard
– Day 5: The madness of the publicity caravan
– Day 7: An interview with John Trevorrow: his career, the Tour de France and Australian cycling