Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sévignac, France: Tour de France, Stage 8

When it comes to sports, we tend to be participants of the non-competitive type, rather than spectators.  But we are at least aware of that big event, the Tour de France, and that it crosses the Pyrenees, goes through the Alps and ends in Paris.  A fellow bike tourist we met at one campground showed us a map of the route published in the local paper.  To our surprise we learned that the 2015 event would start in the Netherlands, cross Belgium, and traverse Normandy and Brittany in France before flying to the south for the mountain stages.  And with a slight modification to our route and a couple of extra days we could intercept it.  So it was decided to pause our own “Tour de France” and try and witness the other one.
Le Tour is coming to town!
We were closest to Stage 8, which would cross through Brittany from Rennes to Mur-de-Bretagne.  A bit of research online offered some pointers on how to watch the race, as well as detailed maps and arrival times at each of the towns along our chosen stage.  If you look at this chart, the arrival time of the cyclists is estimated based on speeds between 40 and 44 km/hr.  (For the record, our touring bikes never achieve that velocity for more than an instant.  Even going downhill.  A really big hill. With a tailwind.  Never.).We had to stall a couple of days, so we made a quick ricochet to the coast to visit St Malo, but on our way we traveled a portion of  the route to pick an optimal viewing spot. 
Bike art!

One too many croissants for this lady.
There was no question when we were on the route.  There were signs indicating when the road would be closed for the event.  And banners and fluorescent-painted bikes and signs and decorated hay bales.  The Tour de France spirit was elevated in the countryside.  And we found the perfect picnic table, under a shade tree just outside of the town of Sévignac, which we planned to claim on race day.  Sévignac is a typical quaint country village, located at the intersection of two roads, with a nice church, a school, a restaurant or two, and a couple of dozen homes, and surrounded by cornfields.  No doubt the Tour de France coming through was as exciting for them as it was for us.
The local school shows their spirit with this banner.
On race day we were in Sévignac by 10 am.  The picnic table was already taken by a contingency of fans, so we went a bit further and found a grassy patch in the shade with a clear view of slight s-curve where the riders would drop down a gentle hill into town.  We staked out our ground, each bike acting as a barricade on a 10-foot section of roadside, and sat down to do some reading and crossword puzzles as we waited.  People began to trickle in and line the streets with their lawn chairs and ice chests.  Not unlike my memories of getting a spot on the Rose Parade route when I was in high school.  A policeman was positioned at a side street to keep cars from entering onto the route.  The occupants of the house across the street were setting the table on the terrace with tablecloth and wine glasses.  The two couples next to us were playing games on a folding table.  It was a calm and patient waiting game, so characteristic of the French.
A fine day for a pannier piq-niq!
When the church bell struck noon there was a unanimous action.  Everyone brought out food and started eating.  The cork was popped off of wine bottles across the street.  We laid out our tablecloth and had a “pannier party” like we have do every day of our tour -- bread, cheese, fruit.  Our neighbors discreetly looked at what we were eating.  We did the same in their direction.
Some people come prepared...the cop is not amused, however.
The road was now officially closed, but there was a constant stream of official looking cars.  The riders were due to arrive about 3 pm.  About two hours ahead the caravan arrived.  The Tour de France has many official sponsors, and they have the privilege of  priming the crowd by tossing out freebies.  I have read that fans come out more for this than the race itself.  For about half an hour groups of vehicles sped into town, decorated like parade floats but made of plastic and traveling at 60 miles per hour.  The vehicles were driven by what looked like teenagers, some staring straight ahead like robots,oblivious to the fans on either side trying to get their attention.  Others were wired with headset microphones and were yelling out what I imagine were slogans in French.  And others would slow down, find a face in the crowd, and with a flick of the wrist throw out a trinket.  And the fan would jump on it like a half-starved dog after a bone.
The caravan is here, the caravan is here!

Gimme some stuff!
I moved up the road to try my luck along a less fan-dense stretch.  Maybe my bright-yellow bike jersey helped, but I found a swivel of the hips and raised arms with hands wiggling got some stuff tossed my way.  But most of the time the stuff directed at me landed at the feet of the kid and his father a few yards behind me.  I do admit, however, to crawling into a watery ditch to fish out a plastic-wrapped madeleine.  I looked down towards John, and he was in the spirit, waving and bending down, picking up merchandise.  He gave me a big thumbs up.  His mother, never one to pass up something free, would have been proud.
For thosse of you who are not sure what a madeleine looks like, here is a really big one.
Most of the stuff was standard marketing trinkets -- notepads, magnets, hats, tote bags.  Lots of packages with coupons, the best being ones for free bread.  How French.  We ended up saving only a couple of items, since we did not want to carry them for the next couple of months in our panniers, and giving the rest to our neighbors and the kid and his dad.
With the caravan excitement over, the crowd patiently waits for the main event.

The crowd settled down to wait the remaining hour and a half for the main event.  The party across the street brought out dessert.  I ducked into the cornfield to answer nature’s call.  I was not the only one, as evidenced by patches of damp earth found between the rows.  Official looking cars continued to drive by, some honking, some waving like they were royalty.  And then, just a few minutes before the cyclists were due to arrive, groups of support vehicles with racks of bikes and wheels went by.  At least three helicopters hovered and slowly moved closer to us.  I positioned myself, camera in hand, on a high point on the edge of the road.  They were on their way.
Waiting, waiting...

This race day, Stage 8, that we chose to watch was 192 kilometers total, and by the time the riders reached us they had traveled 79 kilometers.  The last half of the stage would have some hills for the riders to climb, but up to the point where we were was quite flat terrain.  So when they appeared at the top of that gentle hill they were in a single pack, moving like a single linear whirring object.  There were some lead vehicles, a pack of riders (we are still not sure if these were competitors or not), a big gap, some motorcycles, and then the pack of riders in their bright jerseys, filling the width of the roadway.  Not a chance of picking out the guys wearing the yellow or polka-dot jerseys.  From our roadside perspective it did not seem like they were moving that fast, although they were, or that they were working that hard, which they must.  I had time to squeeze off only a few photos of them coming, arriving, and going.  A few more chase vehicles with bikes went by, and within five minutes it was all over.
Here come the riders!

The pack buzzes by.

Gone in a flash!

The crowd  folded their tables and chairs and packed their ice chests and began to collapse into the street.  We sealed our panniers and prepared to ride a couple of hours to our next campground.  Curiosity overcame one of the gentleman next to us, and he came and asked if he could lift one of our bikes.  We had a nice laugh, John telling him in his best French where we have been so far on this tour, he asking how far we go each day, which is about a third of what those riders that just went by do in an afternoon.  We mounted our bikes and rolled down the street.  What only could be explained as an excess of fan energy, the few remaining spectators gave us a cheer equal to that bestowed on the Tour de France riders.  We raised our arms in victory.  We have become fans of the other Tour de France.

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Joe Blommer said...

Wonderful blow-by-blow commentary on the Tour de France! Take a victory lap!

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