Among the many noteworthy decorations honoring The Tour scattered throughout the Grand Départ city of La Roche-sur-Yon were a pair of JR-esque photographic murals (akin to his work in the Oscar-nominated Agnes Varda documentary “Faces, Places” from last year) on the walls of buildings facing the stage in Parc Napoléon where the Presentation of the Teams took place. Each honored a French icon and multiple winner of The Race, Bernard Hinault and Bernard Thévenet, but they equally honored the fans, who define this monumental sporting event as much of the racers.
The one dedicated to Thevenet particularly emphasized this point, just showing his passionate fans. Hinault’s fans may be in the background, but they almost overshadow him, as grimly determined as he is on the bike with their ardent enthusiasm. Those supporting Thevenet are wearing hats with his name and holding up a sign urging him on using his nickname, Nanard, a variation on Bernard, an anomaly among French nicknames, which are most commonly a staccato repetition of a monosyllable from their name such as Pou-Pou or Ja-Ja or Wa-Wa. This could have been reduced to Na-Na and upheld the tradition, but no one ever accused the French of being consistent or sensible regarding their language.
Both murals were on the promenade route of several miles the racers rode through the downtown of the city after their introductions allowing the thousands of fans a close look at the generally smiling helmetless riders.
It took nearly an hour-and-a-half to introduce the twenty-two eight man teams, after years of being nine. Each team rolled up onto the stage after biking several blocks through a gauntlet of fans and then rode past an even longer gauntlet back to their team buses. The announcer interviewed each team leader and sometimes a teammate or two. He let Peter Sagan, a ham of a sort, introduce all his teammates. Sagan, as were almost half the team leaders (including Froome, Porte, Cavendish, Yates, Uran, Martin, Mollema) were interviewed in English.
Usually the team of the defending champion is the last to be introduced, which would have been Sky and Chris Froome. There was minimal applause for Froome when he took the stage, and absolutely none when he rode past where I stood. A few lightly booed him around me, not pleased with the recent dropping of drug charges that had been hanging over him for ten months since last year’s Vuelta. It will be a shame if that remains the tenor through The Tour as he contends for his fifth win, joining the exclusive club of Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain. It could encourage some very bad behavior, such as urine being tossed on him as happened a couple of Tours ago.
For better or worse, the proceedings didn’t end with Sky, but rather Direct Energie, the team of the local region, Vendée, riding for the first time in fifteen years without the hometown favorite Tomas Voekler, who retired after last year’s Tour. The introduction of teams was preceded with a fifteen-minute interview with Voekler, who looked as tan and fit as any of the riders, maybe even more so. The riders are all so skeleton, trying to be as light as possible, they don’t look fit at all. Standing near them when they are off their bikes, as I had the opportunity to several times during the day, they look like such waifs, I feared sneezing, or even coughing hard, would blow them over.
Two of the teams, Katusha and Lotto, were sharing a hotel across the street from the Fan Park, a fenced in area of Tour sponsors promoting their products giving away stuff. Skippy and I wandered past when the Lotto riders were returning from their morning ride. I had met Skippy less than an hour before as he was searching for the Hotel de Ville to meet the mayor. Skippy and I hadn’t made any arrangements of when and where to meet, knowing that it would happen on its own as it has year after year. Skippy is a Tour fixture, known as well as The Devil by the official Tour entourage.
This will be his twenty-first campaign of following The Tour on his bike, six more than me. Skippy also has multiple Giros and Dauphinés and other races on his palmares. He likes hanging out with the mechanics and team staff and riding with the riders on their rest days. When he introduced himself to someone wear team gear that we passed on the street, the guy said, “Yes, I know who you are.” I pretty much keep my distance, only falling within their orbit when I’m with Skippy. Plus I’m handicapped with carrying a tent and sleeping bag and much much more gear than Skippy. He travels exceedingly light, just s pack on his back and another strapped to his tribars, staying at hostels and such, allowing him to ride much faster than I can, so he has spare time to linger around the team compounds at the start and the finish of a stage. With his light carbon bike and minimal gear he’s also able to cadge rides when need be.
Skippy is known for his causes. Initially it was supporting handicapped riders. Now it is making an issue of drivers giving cyclists a wide berth when they pass, preferably one-and-a-half meters. He wears a jersey of an Irish organization promoting it and tells whoever he can about its Facebook page—stayin’aliveat1.5.
He also carries around a sign that says “Stop Killing Cyclists.” Whenever he sees someone with a big camera who looks official he pounces on them and tries to get them to take his picture and have them spread the word.
He hit a goldmine in the Fan Park, as one of the sponsors is pushing the same issue and had a French version of his one-and-a-half-meter jersey. They were delighted to give Skippy one with the promise he would wear it during The Tour. They also gave us a handful of reflective bands, something they will be tossing to the hoards along The Tour route. They have a deluxe version with a battery that lights up that they also gave us.
Skippy also seeks out gendarmes to endorse his cause.
Besides the reflective bands we also nabbed a few yellow wrist bands from a couple of vendors as well as from the city hall. The city hall facing the
Park de Napoléon was also tossing refrigerator magnets to the crowd out front and children-sized t-shirts. We also got a few key chains and balloons with The Tour de France emblem. It was a good foretaste of the caravan offerings to come.
Before the evening program Skippy and I retreated to his accommodations for a hearty lunch. Rather than staying at a hostel, Skippy searches out temporary housing offered to students in larger towns that have a college such as La Roche-sur-Yon with 53,000 inhabitants. Though it’s not promoted, the dorm-like buildings will rent out rooms when they have a vacancy. Rooms have their own bathroom and shower and refrigerator with a shared kitchen. While I got my first shower in a few days Skippy cooked up a feast of chicken, frites and zucchini. Our great mutual friend Vincent, who has shared three Tours with us and is a professional cook, would have applauded Skippy’s culinary skills. I certainly did. His only miscue was mistaking a communal jar of salt for sugar, which ruined his coffee. But no loss as there was free coffee at the Fan Park.
Skippy is booked into his dorm room for five days through Sunday. It will be just happenstance when we connect in the coming three weeks, as it is impossible to coordinate our schedules with so many variables to contend with, but it will happen a couple of times and will be a great occasion with plenty of tales of our escapades to share.