I was lucky enough to be in position to see the start and finale of Stage 8 of the 2015 Tour de France, which took in 181.5km from Rennes to Mûr-de-Bretagne.
I’m staying with my in-laws very close to the 50km mark at Saint-Méen-Le-Grand and had an ambitious plan to watch here as well as at the start and finish. Unsurprisingly this idea was a bit too much to ask, due to various factors.
Having enjoyed mooching about the start area in 2011 at Dinan I wanted to do this again, and wasn’t disappointed, getting close to team buses, managers, journalists doing their work and a few riders. It is much more interesting for me that the tacky publicity caravan, which wears pretty thin after having seen it once or twice.
As I waded through crowds and headed towards the paddock, a guy wearing a Festina cap caught my eye. The scandal of 1998 must be forgiven, I thought. I tried wearing a retro Festina jersey back home once and the slagging and banter became tedious – even 15 years on, the name is synonymous with heavy-duty endemic doping.
Closer to the village depart, I realised that this cap was one of thousands being distributed by the ‘official timekeeper of the tour de France’. It may take a few years and millions of free caps to erase the association with dopage, or perhaps the French are more forgiving that us English speakers?
I’ve covered the start experience in a separate piece for Veloveritas, but I’d recommend it to anybody, especially if your interest is in the sport, teams and athletes rather than grabbing for sponsor trinkets.
I fancied doing some Periscope broadcasts and tweeting, so bought a local pay-as-you-go SIM but unfortunately it didn’t work and returned to the shop for help, or a refund. The idea that French people are rude is a xenophobic generalisation but cliches can be based in truth, and the sales guy who had cheerfully helped me two hours before was now much more interested in going for his lunch – ‘it’s not our fault if your phone is defective’, he patronisingly barked at me as he marched out.
Skipping the viewpoint at St-Meen, I embarked on the next challenge – getting as close to the finish as I could, working around road closures and traffic. It’s worth downloading the route map and time schedules from the official Tour de France website if you are doing this. I jumped on the hors-course, which is the designated off-race route for team buses, cars and other vehicles. I got to within about 8km before I came up against a road closure. A GPS and a local map are essential, as I was able to use a few farm lanes to get about another 5km closer.
I stopped in a place called St-Guen to find the local commune had laid on free parking in their municipal football pitch and complementary buses from the village to the race route. A world away from the £10 parking fee in a Yorkshire farmer’s field last year.
I got as far as the left-hand dog-leg that was situated a couple of km from the final climb. The decision here is whether to walk to the finale or stay where I am – I decide to stay, as it’s not too crowded and I might see more action, and get better photos, as the speed will be lower on this corner.
A line of team cars arrive on the hors-course route, so I go and have a look – there’s a black and yellow team car – “will you keep the polka dots today?” I ask, “we don’t have it”, comes the reply – oops, it’s Lotto NL-Jumbo not MTN Qhubeka.
After my local SIM disaster, I have no internet access, so go over to the Sporza van to see what the race situation is. “You’ll have a tv and know what’s going on” I say, but the young guy laughs – “that’s a common misconception!”. No TV reception for them either.
I’ll usually say hello to anyone wearing British club jerseys by the side of the road and today I have a good chat about the cycling boom to the Manningtree Wheelers from Essex.
Then the race is upon us. The three remaining breakaway riders have been caught and what’s left of the peloton are driving hard for the stage win. I place myself on the inside of the corner, thinking that I can catch the riders both on the approach and then after the corner, but it’s a mistake. They take the bend at full pelt and swing out wide, to the opposite side of the road, and the surge of fans on my side means that I get the first angle but not the second.
BMC were driving and Froome is well-placed in yellow, but I miss getting the shot from the sharp end of the race. Sometimes it’s best to pull away from the lens and enjoy the race with your own two eyes.
After the lead group flies past, the domestiques who have done their job, or the ones who are hurting and have been dropped, roll through to cheers and applause.
It’s disappointing to have missed my shots of the lead group – I feel like I’ve made a mistake at the crucial moment, a bit like Dan Martin who was boxed in on the climb at Mur-de-Bretagne, missing his chance for stage victory.
There’s always tomorrow with the team time trial from Vannes to Plumelec, where the the photo opportunities are more predictable and plentiful.