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

Cycling Plus - - CONTENTS -

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

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