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Ben Atkins Tour diary, July 11, 2006

Bigger than one rider

Has Operacion Puerto caused the real owners of the Tour de France - the French public - to slam their doors on the race, or is the national festival bigger than a few doping stories? Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins is at the 2006 Tour riding some of the route and observing the public reaction to the event in the aftermath of the drugs scandal.

During the Festina Scandal of 1998 the French public came out firmly on the side of the riders, who were seen as victims of an unjust system that forced riders beyond their natural limits. More than that though, they seemed to be upset with the media, that was seen to be on a witch hunt against their heroes.

Huge crowds
Photo ©: Ben Atkins
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But would Operacion Puerto be one scandal too far? Would the revelation that their heroes - allegedly - had feet of clay turn the public against their race? How much more scandal could the Tour's fans take before they all started waving giant syringes at the peloton - or worse, stay away altogether?

I had the opportunity to ride most of the route of Stage five Beauvais to Caen route on the morning of the race, giving me the chance to really see the fans close up - assuming some turned up. I would read what they wrote on the road and ask them what they were doing there. Had they come to cheer or jeer and what did they think of the riders they were waiting to see?

'All Doped'.
Photo ©: Ben Atkins
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Only a few kilometres into the course it became obvious that there would be at least a few fans present as I was overtaken by several camper vans on their way to the better vantage points offered by the fourth cat climbs up the road.

Before too long, evidence of the area's civic pride began to appear in the form of decorated roundabouts and raffic islands. Oft-visited towns like Pau and Bordeaux can afford to be blasé about a visit from the Tour - they get one almost every year. But for an area like this, with no mountains to attract the race on a regular basis, the Tour passing through would be the biggest thing to happen to a small Norman village - it seems that this is still the case.

People still flocked
Photo ©: Ben Atkins
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At the top of the first climb I got to - the Côte de Buquet - I managed to squeeze a few words out some of the fans and road painters, as they enjoyed their mid-morning coffee. It seems that the vast majority of the locals were there just for the spectacle of the Tour - for the riders en masse - rather than one rider in particular and to enjoy the festival of colour as it flies by. The one exception seemed to be that the women were determined to get a good look at the current maillot jaune - Tom Boonen - "Parce qu'il est três beau!" Young and old, Tommeke attracts them all!

Later in the stage I happened upon a family group who were seated around a card table. I asked them what they thought of current events. I seemed to have hit upon a bit of a pet subject with them, causing them to get rather animated on the subject. Operacion Puerto, they said, was just part of the general malaise; the world is full of drugs and all sports have the same problems. The riders weren't the guilty ones, society was to blame... One positive to come out of all this for the French was that there was more chance for Christophe Moreau to finally take the win!

Bike racing
Photo ©: Ben Atkins
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I did see evidence of one dissenter. The words "TOUS DOPÉS" (All Doped) were painted crudely on the road along an image of a syringe and a joint, but this was the only negative road graffiti on show. Amongst the hundreds of 'Moreau's, 'Voekler's and 'Casar's, this negativity probably went unnoticed by the peloton, written as it was on a flat bit of road - they'd probably ride over it at about 50 kph.

One German camper van - presumably following the whole race so far - displayed evidence of the dangers of pinning all your hopes on one rider. On display were several German and T-Mobile flags, including some with written names. 'Klodi' was still very visible, but the space where 'Ulle' had been written was now covered with a small T-Mobile banner... It seems that nowadays it's safer to be a fan of cycling without identifying with one particular cyclist - you never know when you're going to get hurt...

As well as the decorated road furniture, all of the villages that the route passed through were en fête for the day, making the most of their day in the limelight to promote their local area and produce as the eyes of the world flashed by. In many places there were cycling events for the kids - evidence that despite another doping scandal, the French are happy encourage their children to get involved in the sport.

An AG2R rider
Photo ©: Ben Atkins
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At the stage finish in Caen the barriers along the finishing straight were filling up as I arrived - there were still several hours to go! By the time the race was imminent the crowd, whipped up into a frenzy by announcer Daniel Mangeas, was six or seven deep. I found myself squeezing into a group about seven or eight back from the barriers. It took me a few minutes to work out that the stage had been won by Oscar Freire! This was not evidence to me that the French were turning away from their national Summer festival.

A 'big' display
Photo ©: Ben Atkins
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The same was the case at the stage start in Lisieux the next day. Fans of the Tour turned out hours before the riders were due to arrive to stand around in the overcast weather, with threatening rain, to get a glimpse of the riders, all of the riders. No one that I asked cold care less about Operacion Puerto, or that so many of the race favourites had been excluded.

It seems that the Tour is bigger than any one rider, and no matter how many of the World's best are prevented from competing the show must go on, and the French public, and any number of visiting foreigners, are only too keen to watch. The Tour de France is still the biggest thing ever to hit these parts of Normandy and no alleged drug use scandal, no matter how high profile, is going to stop them from enjoying it.

Many thanks to Sports Tours International and Rapha Performance Roadwear for arranging - and footing the bill for - my visit to the Tour de France.

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