When the invite came through from my regular contact at Hansgrohe, one of the key sponsors of the Hansgrohe Bora professional cycling team, the subject said “you might want to buy your wife some flowers”.
For the final day of the 2018 Tour de France, I was to be one of 160 customers, employees and other special guests that were invited to enjoy the race from a VIP spot opposite the finish line on the world famous Champs-Élysées. I couldn’t wait.
As the alarm went at 4.00am on the Saturday morning at my hotel near Heathrow, I was slowly coming round to the fact that in about five hours time I would be riding on a high end Specialized road bike whilst kitted out in a full blown Hansgrohe Bora cycling kit. Believe it or not, one of the things on my mind was whether I would actually fit in the kit as I had selected my sizes from a sizing chart and like all cycling kit you never know exactly how it transpires when you put it on.
I arrived at the Pullman Hotel in Paris to be greeted by a corporate green wash-out of Hansgrohe sponsorship flags, inflatables, pop-ups, posters and people. Literally, everywhere you looked someone was wearing a sponsored cap, polo shirt or cycling jersey and it was pretty manic. The main ride that took place was a 50km route around the key sites of Paris before extending out to the north of the city around the Sacre Coeur. I was sad to miss that, but grateful to Paul for staying behind to join me on the 20km shorter version instead.
As I entered the room full of Specialised bicycles I was presented with a beautiful orange Venge, complete with Ultegra groupset and full carbon aero cockpit. It was a stunning bike, definitely one I would buy if I could and it looked like it would ride beautifully.
Our French tour guide led us away from the hotel and on a slow and cobbled street route of the various Paris landmarks. We started with the Place des Vosges where I had previously dined at the end of a London to Paris bike ride (three times in fact) and via the Louvre and the Place de Concorde we ended up at the Arc Triumphe for yet another photo op.
After heading back to the hotel for a welcome buffet lunch it was time to get back to my room, catch up on some sleep and get ready to watch the penultimate stage of the race in the hope that Geraint Thomas would retain the leaders jersey and ultimately, win the Tour de France for the first time.
The Museum of Fairground Arts – Pavilions of Bercy
As evening dinners go, this was one of the weirdest and most wonderful experiences I have had for many years. As we strolled from the hotel towards a large nondescript warehouse I was wondering what on earth lay inside. Our only clue was a large BBQ outside with several huge steaks on the go.
Inside was a museum dedicated to the most traditional of fairground games, with not an LED light in site. With a glass of champagne in hand, I toured a labyrinth of colour and noise that immediately grabbed the attention of myself and the other guests, as we dived head first into the activities. My favourite was the horse racing game where you had to roll a ball over a series of holes in the hope it would drop down one before it trailed off into the gutter, returning to you for another go. For some reason I just clicked with it and was routinely scoring maximum points on a regular basis which caused my wooden horse to fly to first at the finish line. “And the winner is number 8 never sounded so good”.
The food was a buffet that no vegetarian would have enjoyed and I went into processed meat overload as I worked my way through at least 10 different types of ham, chorizo and other more local produce. Matched with a host of beautiful cheeses and home made bread I was sorted, even if my stomach wouldn’t be in the morning. Just when I thought I was full, I headed off to the other section of the buffet only to find the most delicious of juicy steak being served with potatoes. I have no idea what they seasoned this steak with, but I don’t remember it ever tasting so good. Probably why I went back for more.
Today was to start with a brunch on the river Seine at a private bar and restaurant reserved exclusively for guests of Hansgrohe Bora. As usual, everything was kitted out in the green of Hansgrohe and the black of Bora and today we were all asked to ensure we wore our branded polo shirts with matching caps. We looked like a bunch of school kids as we got off the coach and headed down the steps, but we didn’t mind as we were more excited.
After a lot of socialising and soaking up the sun we were invited to a talk by a Hansgrohe Directeur Sportive and former professional cyclist and countryman/friend of Peter Sagan Michael Kolar
After more drinks and an increasing buzz around the place, we were presented with our wrist bands and entry forms and headed off by foot across the Seine to the Champs-Élysées. Six check points later and a bag search, we found ourselves camped at the front of the hospitality tent with drinks coming out of our ears literally right next to the cobbled street that we had cycled yesterday, and that was now a race track. We just had some time to kill now, and that wasn’t going to be difficult.
You are always aware when you watch the Tour de France on the last day that it’s quite normal for the group to arrive in Paris as a peloton, only for a rider, usually motivated by retirement or the lust of the lime-light, to take to the front in a break away. This year it was none other than the legendary Sylvain Chavanel who I heard later had been cheered all around the circuit on his last ever tour.
As the peloton went past, the hunt was on through the blur for the yellow jersey of Gearing Thomas, which as usual was never further than a metre away from Chris Froome. It was odd watching him go past, as I am not used to seeing him in yellow and I wondered what was going through his mind with 40km to go to making history. My assumption was that his biggest fear was crashing or being behind a crash so with so much at steak I suspect it was going to be a long afternoon ahead for him on the cobbles.
The build up to the race had mostly based around who was going to win the sprint with as you can imagine, the Hansgrohe contingent firmly believing it would be their man Peter Sagan. I wasn’t so sure, he was fast yes, but he wasn’t the fastest on the flat despite the lack of other key sprinters in the race so it was going to be a tricky one for him. Especially as he was carrying some bad injuries from a crash earlier in the week.
As the drama unfolded, the race took an unexpected turn when on the last lap after the break had been reeled in, another one set-off. This seemed to confuse the peloton who didn’t react in time and it left them almost looking at each other with no sense of order about who would be bringing in the break, or not as it seemed. Eventually, with not much to go the sprint came down to a group of four or five and the Norwegian Aleander Kristoff edged it.
It was very clear as we watched Geratin Thomas and the rest of the Sky riders roll across the line that we were now the wrong end of the road for the action and that if were to get to see any more activity it would require us to jump over the security barrier so that we could head down past the finish line to see how far we could get towards the podium. As it turns out, this was the best decision we made all day. After getting a few photos under the finish line with the usual gormless grin and the sun in my eyes, I wondered along the road a bit further. Just as I turned around, I saw Sir David Brailsford cycling towards me with the Welsh flag in his hand and a massive grin on his face. Without getting a chance to think about it I held my hands out in front of me with my fists clenched and simply shouted “fucking brilliant Dave”. His smile could not be any wider and he grabbed my hand to shake it awkwardly as he went past. It made me laugh.
I then looked back over my shoulder to see where he was heading and noticed that he stopped to speak to Sir Chris Hoy. What were the chances of two cycling Knights? I only needed Bradley for the hat-trick. I skipped over to where they were chatting, took a few photos and then just as Chris left barged in for a selfie that Sir Dave was more than happy to oblige with. My face was a picture of excitement!
About this time we looked up and Cadel Evans was marching towards us with his unmistakable jaw line. The guy I was with Steve asked him for a selfie and he just calmly replied “no mate” as he carried on walking. That made me laugh too.
Eventually I found myself not able to progress any further, but I was now only 30-40 feet away from the podium and in front of me was my favourite cyclist, wrapped in the Welsh flag, arms aloft as a silhouette in front of the Arc D’Triumphe. It was never going to be a great photo, but I took it anyway if only to prove that I was there. Magic moments.
After he left I turned around and decided to hang around that area, as it was clear that the non podium riders that had been awarded other special prizes were now starting to appear. This included Dan Martin and Manu Quintana. Quite a collection I was building up I thought. About ten minutes later, as I stood on my own with my hands on my hips wondering what to do next, I looked to my left and Tom Dumoulin was coming up towards me on his bike looking straight at me. “Great race Tom” I said sincerely. “Thank you” he said smiling politely before riding off. It felt quite surreal and he rapidly become another favourite rider.
Five minutes after that the World Champion Peter Sagan went past, but this time it was less conspicuous as he had pretty much everyone and anyone surrounding him. I had worked out that when you get so far down the barrier created lane that they were in that they veer off into the centre of the Avenue to avoid the finish line that was now being taken down. So I walked over to that area, calmly waited and sure enough he skips through the gap, straight past me and lined up perfectly for a burst of photos.
So the day couldn’t get any better and it was now clear that everyone had gone home. No sign of Chris Froome and I guessed that he and Geraint would have gone back to their private area discreetly. In order to get one more photo of the former mayhem that was the podium area, I weaved through the busy Gendarmes to a small white marquee that I figured was where the interviews would have taken place earlier as it was all sealed off with barriers and Vittel water sponsor folk.
Literally, just at that moment with my phone in hand Geraint Thomas walked out, accompanied by his wife Sarah and he was by now only 10-15 feet away, heading towards me. At the top of my voice I was shouting “G”, “G” but he was being ushered away. His then turned suddenly and headed straight back towards where I was standing, and it was now clear they had been going the wrong way. What luck! As I stood filming him he was so close that I was now stood next to Sarah and amongst the white polo shirted Vitel sponsors that flanked them, I clearly stood out in my green Peter Sagan T shirt. “Tell G well done won’t you Sarah”. “Yes of course, thank you I will” she politely said, as if I had bumped into her whilst in Waitrose. You couldn’t make it up.
The After Party
The after party was back at the same place we had brunch and by now the mood was well and truly evening and the mojitos were presented to us one after the other on arrival. The bar area under the arches inside was now a lively nightclub with high tempo music and lights flashing all over the place. Such a cool place! Just then I looked up onto the large screen in the room to find it was displaying a selection of the professional images taken by the corporate sponsor Evie. Sure enough, there I was, arms aloft, stood in the middle of the Champs Eylsee celebrating like a football fan on the pitch after a promotion. I thought how funny Charlie would find that seeing that was exactly what we did at Southampton several years ago.
As the evening went on, the Hansgrohe Bora team arrived and were presented onto the stage one by one so that they could be interviewed in front of the crowd. The second biggest cheer of the night went to the German Marcus Burghardt, who after 10 tours, was clearly a favourite with this very German team and sponsor. But needless to say, the biggest cheer of the night went for the introduction of Peter Sagan, who marched past me like a 16 year old being called to the stage to collect a merit award he didn’t really want. I managed to get a photo of him and with my free hand patted him on the back as if it that action alone would validate my meeting of him. I was now officially a Fan Boy!
Now fully signed up to the Embarrassment Club, I decided to take it a stage further and climb onto the stage. Fortunately, by now Peter Sagan was surrounded by people wanting his autograph and with his big black Sharpie in hand I realised I had nothing for him to sign. So I turned my back, pulled my T shirt tight, and as he scrawled away I was hoping that it was indelible ink as I was already soaked through in sweat!
Pinch Yourself – A Wonderful Weekend In Paris
As experiences go this could not have been improved. Short of actually riding in the race, every little detail had been thought through and as someone who likes cycling this was a dream event to go to. My photos will long remind me of the fun I had and hopefully the volume of these words will help me reflect many years later on this wonderful weekend in Paris.