WHAT GOES ON TOUR...
As the incidentpacked 2018 Tour de France ended with yet another British Team Sky winner, Cycling Plus dove into the final week with race tour operator Mummu Cycling to witness the action roadside
We joined tour operator, Mummu Cycling, to witness the behind the scenes action and meet the spectators lining the roads at this year’s Tour de France.
The Tour de France has, like every other sporting event, big or small, taking place in World Cup years, a difficult relationship with football’s showpiece tournament. The Grand Départ gets bumped a week, so to not go head-tohead with world sport’s behemoth for longer than necessary, but this doesn’t entirely compensate for keeping eyes on the cycling. Many fans come up for air at the end of the tournament, with normal life being largely on pause for a month, having had their fill of sport for the summer.
Sports also vying for attention at this time, like cycling, are casualties. Particularly in France, who ended up winning the World Cup. Up to and including the Alps stages, French TV audiences were down 14 per cent on 2017 figures, and there was a general belief that roadside crowds were also down.
Though World Cup fatigue was seen as a major factor in explaining why, there were other problematic issues in play, related to Team Sky’s stranglehold on the race, and its star rider Chris Froome’s now scratched salbutamol case, or indeed the persistent cynicism that suffocates professional cycling as a whole. DRESSED TO IMPRESS It’s not all bad news, and there are hundreds of examples every day of why people still love this race. Take William Rolling, and his 20-strong crew from Bordeaux, who’d pitched up on the Pyrenean climb of the Col d’Azet to watch stage 17. Dressed variously as the Lord of the Rings’ wizard Gandalf (complete with his ‘You shall not pass!’ staff), Slash from Guns N’ Roses and what was largely viewed in the office as a bloke in a condom, the friends were emptying the large kegs of beer they’d hauled up the mountain, some four or five hours before the race was due to flash by. This prime position on the second of the stage’s three climbs can be attributed to the motorhome-dwelling older couple they’d paid to come here a full two weeks earlier and bagsy the spot.
While the tradition of spectators in fancy dress is almost as long as the race itself, fans gained attention and notoriety for more unsavoury reasons this year, with Team Sky largely on the receiving end. Boos, taunts, questionable cups of liquid, spitting, grabbing and, in the case of Froome on Alpe d’Huez, a haymaker to the back, all came Sky’s way, in one of the most badly-behaved
“It’s something you don’t always realise or acknowledge when you’re on the inside, riding for a team, just how far people go to get here”
races, from the crowd perspective, in memory. It was a flurry of incidents that left Geraint Thomas, in the Alps, calling for “a bit of decency”. BahrainMerida boss Brent Copeland warned his riders to stay away from Froome, in case they got caught in the crossfire.
Fans even had to be cordoned off on the Alpe’s most famous section, Dutch Corner, the overly exuberant, if good spirited, area of the climb, due to safety fears. The unpleasantness appeared to reach its peak in the Alps, and as the race went on and moved into the Pyrenees this atmosphere appeared to subside, perhaps because there was a new, many would say more likeable, man in yellow in Geraint Thomas, even though his race could have been wrecked by the imbecilic spectator in AG2R kit who stuck out an arm, in what looked like an effort to knock him off.
For William Rolling – and it must be said for the vast majority of roadside fans – they weren’t here to cause trouble: “No, we’re not Sky fans – for me their level is too high and it’s not good for the race. We won’t be cheering them, but we won’t be booing them either. We respect the riders and the race – we’re just here to have fun.”
Respect and cheering of riders is something you see a lot of at the team buses the morning before a stage, and so it was the day before in Carcassonne, as the Pyrenees loomed. Perhaps it’s because the road cloaks dissenters in anonymity, as the race flashes past, but it would take a lot more backbone for someone to cause a commotion outside a stationary bus as riders warm up – and backbone is something a lot of these clowns lack. Most people, too, head to the team bus they support: despite their blacked-out windows, the wall of yellow from Colombian fans out to catch sight of their hero, Nairo Quintana, would have been hard for Movistar to miss. WELSHGOLD For the Welsh, Sky’s bus was the only place to be, given the team was, at that moment, no less than 29 per cent Cardiffian, in the shape of the team’s road captain Luke Rowe and race leader Geraint Thomas.
Thomas glided around this area to rapturous acclaim, looking every inch the rock star. Squint and he could have been Arctic Monkeys’ singer Alex Turner, clad in Lycra. He moved glacially, as is a Tour rider’s wont, and, deliberate or not, appeared to have a mouth that was welded shut, perhaps, given his body’s beaten state in the third week of a grand tour, in an effort to avoid picking up illness from the sickly masses. But he stopped and smiled for selfies – the new currency of autograph – for as many people as he could before being called to the start, including with Welsh fans Jason, Nicola and Morgan Ball, who’d come to Carcassonne from their home in Barcelona for a glimpse of the maillot jaune.
The guests of Mummu Cycling, the tour operator we’d joined for a couple of days, had the huge bonus of being guided around the paddock by Stuart O’Grady, the Australian 17-time Tour de France rider, who was working with Mummu across the whole three weeks. He appears
to be a popular ex-rider with the French public: when Gandalf had done his ‘you shall not pass’ thing earlier and stopped me and Marcel Berger, Mummu’s owner and manager, in our tracks on the Azet, upon realising Marcel is Australian, one of their crew simply bellowed ‘Stuart O’Grady!’
“Well, he’s literally 100m that way,” said Marcel, pointing down the road, to his incredulous audience.
O’Grady, 44, retired in 2013 but knows plenty of riders – and even more former riders turned staff – from his 19-year pro career. He was able to do the introduction, arrange the selfie or generally grease the wheels for anybody who wanted them greasing, adding a crucial layer of accessibility to the VIP wristband that got Mummu’s guests into the paddock area.
For O’Grady, it was his first time at the race where he was peering into the buses rather than out of them, and helping punters get close to their heroes has became his favourite part of the job. “It’s great seeing their satisfaction,” he says. “It’s something you don’t always realise or acknowledge when you’re on the inside, riding for a team, just how far people go to get here.” WORTHYWINNER You can’t say that of Geraint Thomas, who throughout his career has been the friendly, approachable face of a team that can appear aloof. His eventual win in Paris provided him not just with the yellow jersey but an acknowledgement from his peers that he’s one of the nicest blokes in the peloton.
“He says hello to everybody, he’s a friendly maillot jaune,” FortuneoVital Concept’s Kevin Ledanois told French daily newspaper Le Parisien. “Some can act like stars but he’s a very down-to-earth guy. He’s respected by everybody.”
Thomas winning the Tour ahead of teammate Froome, might have happened somewhat by accident, but it could be the best public relations result for Sky in years. The team gets a hammering in the press – and a deserving one too at times (see the DCMS report, salbutamol, jiffy bags, TUEs, ad infinitum) – but you get the sense the heat from fans appears more directed at Froome, and the results of the team while he’s leading it, as much as anything else.
The French crave a French winner for their home tour, something that hasn’t been done for 33 years, since Bernard Hinault in 1985. On the Col du Portet, we met some young French fans in Sky jerseys, but it turned out they knew team sports director Nicolas Portal. He’s talked about it before, but perhaps the best PR move Dave Brailsford could make, is to recruit a young French rider and turn him into a Tour winner.
Short of that, they’d settle for exciting racing, not dominated by one (non-French) man. As L’Equipe’s headline the day after stage 17, ‘La Nouveau Monde’, accompanied by an image of Thomas, Tom Dumoulin and Primoz Roglic suggested, it’s perhaps a case of ‘anyone but Froome’. Despite his polite public persona, there are those who will never accept Froome, whether it’s because of his sudden emergence in 2011, his style on the bike, the way he stares at his power meter’s headunit or, most of all, his consistency in winning their race. In the less robotic, more approachable Thomas, they have, if not a champion they want, one they can accept.
With Froome receiving the all-clear from his salbutamol case on the eve of the race, and the heightened terrorism threat in general across France, there was always going to be a fevered atmosphere this July. In the two days
“We met some young French fans in Sky jerseys, but it turned out they knew team sports director Nicolas Portal”
Cycling Plus was at the race, there was plenty going on. Just walking into and around the team bus area we passed through a phalanx of armed guards carrying the sort of automatic weaponry you can’t but keep a close eye on.
Shortly after the start in Carcassonne, while sitting in a café, we watched in shock a soundless TV screen as riders wiped pepper spray from their eyes in the farmer protest incident. Then there was Froome tackled from his bike by a policeman as he descended the Portet following stage 17’s finish.
Tensions were higher than usual, and reporters’ radars are sensitive to such events, but from within the Mummu bubble, it was a race to be savoured like any other year.
Marcel and his crew, which includes O’Grady, his elder brother Darren O’Grady, and former Wiggle-Honda pro Emily Collins, work themselves ragged to deliver their guests hopes’ for a holiday of a lifetime at the Tour. “It’s a different sort of tiredness to riding the Tour,” admits Stuart, in this, the race’s third week. “You get pulled in a million different directions.”
As well as the off-bike organisation – the driving, the mechanics – O’Grady is central to the daily bike rides that Mummu guests do. He doesn’t ride much these days, but when he’s got an event to train for he’s able to summon his old powers. All the tour operators have different degrees of focus on the race and riding: for Mummu, the priority is the race, in its view, it only happens once a year and you can ride anytime. Daily rides are still up to 50km, often tracing the Tour’s course. On stage 17, vans drove us to the bottom of the Azet ahead of the peloton, with that climb and Pla d’Adet on the agenda, before settling down in the Espace Izoard VIP bus at the foot of the Col du Portet. It was a race against time before race organisers booted us off the course ahead of the caravan (the publicity vehicles that dole out freebies, from Haribo sweets to Bic biros) and the peloton’s arrival. We drove the route with Marcel, and by the first hairpin we were wondering whether some come to see the racing or to satisfy their insatiable appetite for free tat. As we stopped to take photos, one old boy thought we were part of the caravan, shaking us down for a Mummu bidon, before sending a boy back for a second – the only one we had left – shortly afterwards. EXPERTADVICE “Enjoy the climbs, but take the descent easy – I’ve spent way too much time in hospitals around here, and the food is much better in hospitality,” warned O’Grady, in his
“…In the less robotic, more approachable Thomas, fans have, if not a champion they want, one they can accept”
Words Whitney John Photos HenryIddon, Getty
The majority of specators come to soak up the atmosphere and cheer on their teams
It’s all about getting a selfie these days
Gandalf and his fellowship hoping to see G smite the other GC contenders’ ruin