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92nd Tour de France - July 2-24, 2005
A day on a Tour motorbike
By Hedwig Kröner in Gérardmer
"Do I want to see a Tour de France stage on a motorbike? Amongst the racing action? Where do I sign?" was my evident reaction when an ASO press officer offered me a seat on one of these red Kawasakis you see around the race leaders on television.
Although my fellow journalists warned me that they had barely survived the fright of their lives when they had agreed to it, I was sure to be up to the challenge, having a motorbike license myself - and loving it.
Stage eight, which had four minor climbs at the very beginning and a Cat 2 ascension near the finish was the scene for my 'greatest ride ever', and it didn't disappoint. In the 'village', the VIP start area, I met my driver ("driver? I'm a pilot!") Thierry - a bear of a man from Northern France, but good as gold. He explained the plan for the day: drive on the front of the race until a break stays clear for more than a minute, which would allow us to stop by the side of the road and wait for the riders. Of course, the race radio installed on the motorcycle informed us about what was happening instantly.
After I made friends with the chalk board man, an overwhelmingly warm and funny Burkinabč whose job it is to get the latest time gaps to the riders, I was given a helmet and hopped on the bike. The riders had lined up, the start was about to be given, so it was time for us to take off, too, parading through Karlsruhe at a very moderate pace. The German crowd was huge; waving, clapping, cheering us on as we drove through the fenced-in boulevards out of town, and the peloton behind us must have had one great moment. The German Tour frenzy is almost legendary.
Finally, we drove across the start blocks, and Thierry hit the gas. Two minutes later, we heard through race radio that the first attack immediately took off as Jean-Marie Leblanc gave the signal that the race was open: German rider Jörg Ludewig (Domina Vacanze) looked for a home run, but didn't get too far. He was caught after 11 kilometres.
The crowds were still huge, and as we approached the first of the four Cat 4 climbs along the way to Gérardmer, more and more frenetic fans lined the Tour route, waving at us. Of course, I waved back until Thierry told me that idea wasn't as brilliant as I thought. "The other day, I had a Japanese person, who continued to wave for five hours," he told me. " In the end, his shoulder was very sore." Right. I hadn't thought of that.
Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) was on the attack to score points for his Mountains jersey, and as Kashechkin, Hincapie, Voigt and Casar caught up with him around kilometre 31, the gap with the bunch was big enough, so we waited by the roadside. What a feeling to drive right behind them; just behind the race director's car! And the speed! Although I was comfortably sitting on a motorised vehicle, I began to realise the strength and speed of these bike riders. It's one thing to know that they're flying up a climb at 40 km/h, and another to actually see it and be there.
The gap was reduced under the one-minute mark, and we had to get out of there. Looking forward to the little picnic Thierry had brought in the motorbike cases, we needed to get a good gap ourselves, so we motored to about 120 km/h on the flat part of the parcours. Of course, the "picnic" turned out to be a seven-minute pit stop, which basically involved stuffing half a sandwich down our throats... and off we went again!
The final climb of the day approached, and as we crossed the border back to France another lead group emerged: Sörensen, Flecha, Jalabert, Vasseur, Scholz, Weening and Commesso. We rode beside the team directors' cars, and I had plenty of time to watch the mobile journalists' crews interviewing them for their respective live coverage. Another VIP person in an official race car was quietly sipping some champagne beside us, as I began to wonder how many different viewpoints of this race there could possibly be. The riders in front, however, called for water more so than champagne, which the blue Aquarel motorbike provided if they didn't explicitly ask for their team cars instead.
We hit the climb and things got hot. The sheer volume of spectators was overwhelming, and the level of adrenaline in my body reached a new high. As several collisions within the race caravan had been prevented by only a hair, my head was spinning already - but that rush on the Col de la Schlucht wasn't to be topped. Spectators were just parting as we drove through the crowd at a leisurely speed. I couldn't help reminding myself that Thierry did this every day...
Finally, we got over the hilltop, still with 15 kilometres to go. I have never had so much space when flying down a mountainside! With close to no spectators around, Thierry took the line and we went down the Col, arriving in Gérardmer just in time to watch Andreas Klöden get outsprinted by a bare seven millimetres - apparently, 'very close' was the motto of the day.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by Hedwig Kroner/Cyclingnews.com