It’s not often I’ve been on an aeroplane that only had seven other passengers on it, although I came close once on an out of season flight in Thailand in 1996. On this occasion, as I looked around the cabin at the excited faces playing with their reclining leather seats and taking selfies, I knew this was very very different to the Koh Samui destined tin can experience. This was a Gulf Stream and for today and today only it was our Gulf Stream. It’s destination was Dusseldorf for the Grand Depart of the 2017 Tour de France.
With Stage 1 of the tour being a short 15km time trial it meant unlike most stages, we were in a position to see all the riders for most of the day as they warmed up and prepared their bikes ready for their moment of glory. The paddock was a mile long and one we would get to know pretty well at the end of the 23,000 steps I was to undertake that day. The VIP pass meant we were provided with total clearance to the reception area for free refreshments and if we wanted it, an ogle at Prince Albert of Monaco, who other than me, was the main guest of the occasion. I noted to myself that this would be the only time I was ever to want a photograph of a Prince Albert.
As we entered the paddock it was clear that everyone was pretty relaxed about where you went and what you did, as long as you didn’t encroach the ribbon barriers that ‘protected’ the team buses and mechanic support vehicles from people like me. What it did mean though, is that by definition you could see pretty much everything that was going on, with the obvious exception of the private stuff that they chose to deal with inside the buses themselves. It will be showing off to name the riders that I had the chance to get up-close and personal with, but I am a show-off so I will. First up was Andrei Greipel who rode so close to me that I had to lean in about half a second after he whistled at me to do so. Then, just as I was turning my camera on to clean the lens ready for a snap I looked up and Peter Sagan was riding past me in his infamous rainbow World Champion cycle jersey that somehow he always wore that bit better than it’s previous owners.
As we made our way to the MovieStar trailer at the end of the paddock there was a huge amount of noise as a large number of Columbians dressed like football fans in their bright yellow and cheered at every opportunity they had to entice their idol Nairo Quintana to stick a head or a hand out of the bus for a quick hello. It must be pretty amazing for a professional cyclist to know that several thousand miles away from home that you can command this level of support and I wondered how that must feel as he climbs up a mountain somewhere in the depths of France. Geraint Thomas always said he feels and sees every Welsh flag along the 3,000km course and I believe him.
The irony being, that approximately 2 hours later it was Quintana’s time to complete his warm-up and attempt his time trial. Not his best discipline, there was a lot riding on this and I would imagine having just seen his main support rider Valverde crash-out in the rain this would have been a difficult time. I can forgive him therefore for teasing the Columbian fans by having his mechanic place his warm-up bike at the end of the trailer near the fans as if to give off the impression he was going to come out that end. Only to then sneak out the door the other end onto another bike and slip through a barrier where no-one was watching. Fortunately I saw it coming as I saw the other bike being placed at the bottom of the stairs and was able to photograph him as he shot off. In that short moment I was able to see first hand just why he is one of the fastest mountain climbers on the planet: his frame was tiny and at least 20kg less than mine, but his legs looked like they made up 90% of his body weight; such was the size of his muscles which were contoured with veins and shining with sweat from the work-out.
At the Dimension Data area we waited patiently for Mark Cavendish to come out as it was clear from the clean towel just placed on his handle bars that he was just about to start his warm-up. Sure enough, out he emerged and in a moment of spontaneity I gave him a “good luck Mark” in a not so quiet voice. The look her gave me was one of shock I think, probably wondering who on earth it was, but to be fair he soon smiled and acknowledged the support with a thanks. Just before starting the warm-up he gave a hug to a close friend that was stood near us and my fellow VIP Jamie asked for a photo with him. He walked off pretty sharpish and apologetically stated he had to do his warm-up – which was fair enough. Mark Cavendish’s ten minute warm-up looks like my 45 minute turbo session, certainly in terms of total output. He was literally steaming as he rested on the TT bars listening to whatever was blasting in his ear through his pretty cool Oakley glasses with in-built ear-phones.
As a cycling nerd, and acknowledging I was in the presence of one of Cycling’s greatest ever Tour de France cyclists, I was content to stand in the rain just watching him do his work – just fifteen feet in front of me. What I didn’t expect, and I should add, with great regret, was that the moment he finished he jumped off his bike, marched over and said “be quick the guys as I’ve got to go” and leant over for a photo selfie. It’s moments like these you wish you had a camera where you could operate the wet screen with wet fingers to get the photo. What a nob, as I fumbled with the screen to slide over the lock to get to the camera Jamie grabbed his phone, got his selfie and Cav was gone. You have to laugh, but 10/10 to Manx Missile for the acknowledgement.
And just when the day couldn’t get any better, who did I bump into but the Rainmaker himself, Mr Ray Maker. You have to laugh, but his distinctive looks and voice that have taken me through microscopic detail on every sports gadget I own from my Garmin to my Go-Pro have all been bought off the recommendation of this chap and his web page DC Rainmaker. He even took one of me! Ha!
Day Two – Stage Two
The next day promised to be even better as all the riders would be getting ready and preparing to start Stage 2, a long 203km ride to Liegge, Belgium. This being the first proper start with all the riders provided the famous TDF carnival with it’s first opportunity to create some atmosphere with the thousands that lined the street. That was great news for this small group of VIP’s, as it meant we got to spend two hours in the paddock with all the teams and the riders, who were freely riding around and chatting as they prepared themselves, said hello to loved ones, and rode off to sign-in for the race.
Whilst outside the Sky bus I managed to find a moment to talk to Rod Ellingworth who is recognised as being one of the most influential men in British Cycling and someone who has personally over-seen the development of all the now house-hold names of the GB team. I asked him how Geraint was feeling after his win, what mood Chris was in at the moment about the whole race and whether he was happy overall with the previous days results, which he really should have been given the team’s performance. I’m sure he wondered who the hell I was, but to be fair he gave me his time gracefully and answered all of my questions well and never once made an excuse to walk-off. I did though feel a bit embarrassed at coming across like a Sky fan boy and thanked him for his time and wished him well. An odd moment that only cyclists will appreciate I am sure.
At the Hansgrohe bus it was clear that everyone and everything was focused around Peter Sagan. Press, fans and family all waited for a glimpse of the cycling superstar and they weren’t disappointed, despite a bit of a wait. Right on queue, and after a little tip from the team Press Officer, I stood opposite the Hansgrohe Bora bus, camera ready just as he emerged with a klaxon in either hand like a gun-slinging cowboy. The noise and excitement lifted the crowd and by definition elevated the Slovakian to a level above anyone we had seen in the pit crew over the two days. If ever there is someone who doesn’t look like they have their mind on a bike race it was Peter Sagan, but if ever there was someone who knows how to win one it is him.
After two days, many miles of walking and just about every type of VIP entertainment you could possibly think of: great hotel, constant supply of refreshments and professional cyclists surrounding you at every moment of the day it was time to grab a quick selfie with the presenter on Sky Sports News and head back to the jet for a quick return leg to Bristol.
A truly unique and wonderful experience and one that I have no doubt I will annoy my cycling buddies with for many more weekends to come.