Back in England after a delirious four weeks in the Brittany sun. Our house has a lovely garden with plum trees (not much this year), walnut trees (lots this year) and neighbours who bring us sacks of cherries (it’s been a very good year; I even tried my first bash at cherry jam). The lavender looks splendid, and attracts a range not just of bees, but also humming-bird hawk-moths, which are a spectacular sight.
And this year the 100th Tour De France came through Brittany. Brittany has a reputation for turning out great riders – including Bernard Hinault – but we were there to cheer on Chris Froome, who responded by winning for Britain. OK, OK, he’s a Kenyan who lives in Monaco, but when people win, they are British through and through. It was an interesting day for the non-cycling enthusiast.
We looked at the route in the local paper, and it seemed that the best place to watch was as it passed through the grounds of St-Cyr Coetquidan, the military academy (think Sandhurst or West Point) about twenty miles away. Motto: “Ils s’instruisent pour vaincre” = “training for victory”. The race course was marshalled by the cadets, dressed either in superb dress uniform with white plumed hats and golden epaulettes, or battle camouflage wear. You turn up about two hours early, partly to get a view, but mostly to see the “caravane” of sponsored cars and floats that zoom ahead of the race. It’s everything you might expect – cars sponsored by sport magazines or mobile phone companies; floats made up to look like soft drink bottle or crisp packets, with glamorous girls and boys tossing packs of sweets & snacks, plastic thumbs-up gloves or vouchers for mobile phones to the audience. There were some cars from Yorkshire (where the Tour will start next year), and from Luxembourg (where it won’t). The nationalised tote organisation threw out the big foam hands, Carrefour supermarket chucked the spectators lots of sun-hats, white with pink spots like the ‘King of the Mountains’ jersey. It goes on and on, and includes the most unlikely participants – such as Lutte Ouvrière, the equivalent of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Imagine a New Orleans parade at 30 mph.
Then they disappear and you wait. Policemen in flashy motor bikes zoom by. The announcer tells you that the breakaway leaders will arrive in five minutes, but they don’t. News helicopters hover overhead. Remember, this was mid-July, and the sun baked us all. Spectators set up their canvas beach chairs in the patches of shade that could be found. Having obviously conducted a risk assessment, a lad in combat fatigues surreptitiously delivered cold bottles of water to the cadets in their heavy serge uniforms, who surreptitiously placed them on the grass nearby. More cars zoom by, and more policemen. Despite the impressive display of state force, no-one seemed interested in keeping the spectators off the road: in later stages, spectators actually ran on to slap the back of riders.
Then the leaders came, about five of them including the local boy Julien Simon, who was racing through his grand-parents’ village, and then made a self-sacrificing but crowd pleasing break. The group seemed five minutes ahead of the peloton, and zoomed by in no time at all. It seemed to me – on the basis of other athletic events like 10,000m or marathons – that it was all a done job. They would win at a canter. However, in the end, of course, the peloton reeled the adventurous dashers back, and poor M. Simon paid for his boldness by ending up 120 places back. In the final dash into St Malo, the British sprinter Mark Cavendish charged into another competitor in the final sprint, which did not help his popularity (he had urine thrown over him the next day).
It all took maybe ten minutes, after which an impressive fleet of Skoda estate cars with spare wheels and frames for the various teams on their roof racks whizzed by. And then we walked back to the car park, through the woods and heaths of the military training grounds, past the assault courses and gun emplacements hidden amongst the ferns and birches. It wasn’t a drama, but we did it, and we are now another few centimetres into French culture. And with the Yorkshire start that is planned, the lads are coming to see us in Sheffield next year.