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89th Tour de France - Grand Tour
France, July 6-28, 2002
Moto Madness at Le Tour
A journalist's story of being in the thick of the action all day long
Want to know how it feels to ride on the back of one of the official TdF media motocade? Cyclingnews' European Editor Tim Maloney was one of the chosen few to hitch a ride aboard the "Moto Presse Ecrit" on Stage 7 of the Tour from Bagnoles De l'Orne to Avranches - and got the ride of his life.
My day began with a massive bagarre - not a baguette, but a big bike brawl on the little roads of Normandy. Once again this year at the Tour De France, I was fortunate enough to be chosen to be aboard "Moto Presse Ecrit" - the special media-only motorcycle that is allowed to follow each stage to give us scribblers and keyboard tappers a chance to get up close and personal with the Tour De France.
First off, I don't enjoy riding motorcycles. I keep seeing myself hurtling off into the bushes like a well padded stick figure. But that's irrelevant, as the chance to see the race of races from 10 feet away is simply unparalled. So you just go for it. Plus maxi-motard Thierry Bouton is a great driver and so I just relaxed and went along for the ride. Sort of. It was Stage 7 from the psuedo-fancy Frenchy spa burg of Bagnoles de l'Orne to Avranches. 176 km of "mangia-beve" [eat-drink] as my friend Davide Cassani of RAI-TV calls this type of up and down stage. Plus it was just a gorgeous summer day; sunny and cool and picture-postcard perfect.
From the start, John Lelangue was announcing one attack after another on Radio Tour. Was he pulling our legs? Not at all. When I turned around on the moto, I could see the peloton 50 yards behind. There were constant moves from rider after rider. It was after the break got away after 2O something kilometers, over in TDF car #1 the big red Alfa Romeo 166 sedan, that Jean Marie Leblanc was pouring champagne for his guests. Nice move, dude. But there was no bubbly for us on the bike and I was content to make cryptic hand motions to my friend Wilfy Peeters, driving the Domo-Farm Frites team car beside me.
Radio Tour was filled with time splits and service calls and road info. As we approached the two hour mark of racing, we dropped back to check out the ONCE-led peloton. The camaraderie among the race caravan car and moto drivers is amazing. It all seems to work like some kind of chaotic, motorized-ballet.
There were plenty of signs and displays all along the parcours. Merci Le Tour, Allez Richard, Allez Jaja, Free Jose' Bove', No To Windmills Too Close To Our Houses, Allez Jaja and Richard. Just past the tiny halfway hamlet of Landes s/Drome, where they were sporting a "center of the stage" sign, we entered the Departement du Manche. The Manche, aka English Channel was only 20km away and it made itself know by the cool, fresh sea breezes blowing across our starboard fo'csle. Huge Saturday crowds lined the parcours. It was a holiday weekend and most of the publique was in an especially good mood. More signs now, Marche' mardi, allez Chavanel.
Moto man Thierry Bouton has his own fan club, more or less. A couple and their kid who live in his town north of Paris have been following the stages across the north of France. Bouton owns a bar there, but since he is part of the "equipe Kawa", he travels all over France to provide motor support for all the Societe de Tour De France races. We saw his fans and their hand lettered cardboard sign and dove to the side of the road. Bouton blasted a Marlboro and had a requisite round of hadshakes and "ca va's" all-round - then we hit the road again.
After the feed zone, we tagged along behind the peloton. It was really interesting to see what was happening, like when Miguel Martinez didn't grab his musette bag and his Mapei team-mate Gerhard Trampusch had to go back to the car and get his lunch. All this happened at perhaps the worst possible time, as the peloton was going through a village with twisty, hilly roads and up front, everyone finally started to chase. Martinez finally got his lunch after five desperate kilometers but the waiter Trampusch was not happy at having to serve on his break.
On our way back up to the break, we passed the peloton. It was kind of weird. We were so close that I could have just reached out and touched the riders. You could see their race faces close up but I didn't dare say anything to anybody like "yo Floyd", as the concentration and focus of all 185 guys was incredible. Lance was on the other side of the group, on Floyd's wheel. Eki and George were up front like two guard dogs, watching for any possible break to go so they could join in the fun.
At the front of the race, in front of the peloton and at the back of the peloton are the three "controlleurs"; the TDF traffic cops in red jackets with their circular red paddles who manage the ebb and flow of motorcycle and car traffic back and forth. It's a crazy, thankless job but also one of the most powerful ones in the race, especially for the moto photographers. If the controlleurs close things down due to mega traffic mess or narrow roads, the anxious shutterbugs can get sadly shut out of that special shot.
With 65km to race, the break had 4 minutes lead and were beginning to tire, while the pink ONCE jerseys were pumping away up front of the peloton. We were deep in Calvados now; apple country with orchards lining the narrow roads behind the crowds. Perhaps some were quaffing pommeau, the local boisson of choice. Mix apple cider (the alcoholic kind) with some apple brandy (Calvados) and you get a sweet hybrid apertif that goes real good with a Saturday afternoon out at Le Tour. Ugh.
As the stage got closer to Avranches, the sprinters moved closer to the back. Luca Pagliarini and Jimmy Casper were just hangin' on for dear life with a few bozos from Jean Delator and Bonjour. Luckily for the suffering sprinters, there was a mass stop a few klicks later for a "besoin naturelle", or a pipi break.
Nearing the stages end, we traversed Villadieu-les-Poeles, famous the world over for copper cookware. The front trio was now getting cooked, especially the Credit Agricole guy [Anthony] Morin, who was noticeably suffering as the race headed out of town up the long hill past tidy, well-kept housing projects. With 15km to go and the peloton closing fast on the fading break, Thierry punched it to 140km and we flew into Avranches with yours truly clinging to the back of his Kawasaki 1200cc. ZZR something or other bike. Thierry proudly told me that the bike would do 300km/hr, but I didn't want to find out! Half speed was way fast enough for me. We streaked past a kilometer long ribbon of red on both sides of the road; hundreds of people from the nearby Coeur de Lion cheese factory wearing solid red T-shirts.
Then it was over the whoopdedoos of a bumpy tiny little shit road which would later claim Didier Rous (broken collarbone) and Oscar Friere (bruised butt) as victims. Down onto the main road and up the wide swooping climb to Avranches, Thierry turned right into the caravan deviation, past the Patton Monument obelisk, then down the twisty streets to dump me in front of the press room, where the TV revealed that the break was only 50" in front of the hard charging peloton. After four hours in the eye of the storm, it was hard to focus on the two dimensional race on the screen. Moto Press Ecrit au Tour De France - now that's what I call the ride of your life.