Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by SWpix.com
There is no truer insight into the Tour de France – short of racing it yourself – than following a stage on the back of a motorbike.
It’s something I’ve done most years I’ve reported from the race but each time it really reminds me of what makes the Tour a truly unique sporting spectacle.
Hours after covering stage 19, which Matej Mohoric won, this way my ears are still ringing, making it really difficult to focus.
I understand now more than ever what riders mean when they say the sound of silence when they get home from the Tour is part of the recovery process.
For about five hours on Friday, it was like my finger was back on the pulse of the Tour and all the challenges of the third week melted away at up to 120km/h.
The last chapter of every Tour is always a bizarre one. For me, it’s like my body senses that Paris is close, and it almost starts to shut down. Everyone is so tired and borderline over it. The Tour is the one race where you will hear people say they just want to see their family at the end of it, such is the effort it takes and demands.
But then there is also this anxiety that creeps in. As much as you want it to be over, the thought of leaving the bubble also makes you feel kind of sad.
I’d met my driver, Gaetan Prime by his motorcycle just up from the start line of stage 19.
It was good fortune that Mr Prime was assigned to me because, as his surname may suggest and what I know from prior experience, he is an excellent bike handler and I for sure had the best seat in the house on this day. He is also very kind and speaks to me in English as much as possible, forgiving the fact that even in my ninth Tour, I’m ashamed to say, my French is still mediocre at best.
We ride out of Mourenx ahead of the peloton, taking in the crop and sunflower fields that border the roads as the race gets underway. From the start of the 207km transition stage, to the end, fans are at the roadside, cheering and waving at everyone involved in the race as they go past. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Cyril Gautier and especially Julian Alaphilippe, from the home-made signage and chalked roads, were local gods. Along the course there’s also a few supporters with replica cardboard posters of the one the spectator who caused that crash at the Grand Depart was brandishing.
But the men, women and children of all ages, who have taken a part of, if not their entire day to see the Tour roll past, aren’t there for a single rider or team. The way they clap, wave and, when the riders fly by, roar, is more in appreciation of the history and nature of the race, the sacrifice it demands, than any one individual.
A breakaway has formed and there is a few minutes between it and the peloton. So, Mr Prime begins to duck and dive between the two, following the pace of the race, and navigating the immense traffic around him – riders, other motorbikes, an onslaught of team cars, medical vehicles, commissaries.
The fields give way to the woods and planted pine trees as they race moves on.
There are six blue helicopters that fly overheard broadcasting the Tour.
They fly high and then low, peeling off, coming back, indicating where the breakaway and the peloton, which is suddenly right beside me, is.
The peloton is riding single file and moving in formation like birds on a migration route, right, then left until we are against the barriers but not in danger. The riders don’t necessarily recognise but seem to sense you are there.
Something catches my eye as we approach the ‘collection zone’. Empty gel wrappers discarded at the drop off point catch in the wind and tumble across the road, not of interest to spectators who receive bidons as if they’re nuggets of gold. Then there is a crash. Mr Prime says he doesn’t like the ‘collection zone’ and it doesn’t take a wizard to figure out why.
The hold-up clears as Luke Durbridge waits in the middle of the road for a mechanic, who is fixing his bike. Mark Cavendish and some of his Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates, Sonny Colbrelli and a select group of others use the convoy to chase back on to the main group.
Still amid the pine trees, I am so close to Dan Martin that our shoulders are virtually about to rub. I consider saying hello but then don’t. We’re travelling on the edge of the road, where dirt meets tarmac and there is a fine dust floating over the peloton.
A bit later, the world champion, Alaphilippe drifts back to his second team car on the road and I wonder why he didn’t go to the first. He comes back laden with bidons as others follow suit. Not even the rainbow jersey is above manual labour in this race.
We transition from open roads through fields and forest onto single, twisting lanes that lead into stone villages rammed with people. Mr Prime knows the rhythm, the language of the race and as the horns of team cars trying to push forward into impossible gaps sound, as the sirens of gendarmes warn, as the sound of race radio instructs sports directors on who needs what and where, he moves as focused, effortlessly and fearlessly as the riders do.
I take a second to appreciate what Mr Prime, the sports directors and everyone else who drives in the convoy does. Normal road rules don’t apply. It’s an ongoing stop, start, accelerate, shout, repeat ensemble. The concentration you need to stay present, stay alert and not focus on how your butt hurts from being in the same spot for five plus hours, or what you want for dinner, or why you were in a shit mood earlier is immense.
We pull over and Mr Prime asks me what I would like to do. The peloton, he says, is 11 minutes behind the break that has changed and evolved over the course of the day.
The forest gives way to vineyards as we approach the finish behind the breakaway. I stand up on the bike to see the lead group move and counter move before we pull off with 150m to go.
I give Mr Prime a hug as he drops me at the mixed zone, where journalists interview riders past the finish line. I will never be able to tell the infinite number of stories of every person from every stage of the Tour but being in a position to see it is magic. Once your ears stop ringing.