You never know what you're going to encounter at the Tour start village. These gentlemen provided entertainment in Villers-Cotterets and then, I think, went on a foxhunt. But first, they waited along with me to get up close and personal with Team CSC.
Working the start, for a journalist, is usually a lot of effort balanced against very little face time. The traffic getting in is insane. The exit is insane. If you do what I did today and park in "presse avant,'' meaning I drove the course ahead of the race, you have to jump when the Tour rings a series of bells, get in your car and vroom off (think checkered flag) or you'll be blocked for hours.
In the little bit of time when you're meandering through the team bus area, grabbing a rider here or there for a quick interview, you risk being elbowed out of position by a) a kid wielding an item he/she wants autographed, b) an adult fan wielding an item he/she wants autographed and a digital camera or cell phone, or c) a TV cameraman who doesn't care if he gives you a concussion by whacking you with the non-business end of his equipment. I get testy on these occasions and swear in two languages. (This tends not to happen when I work in MLB clubhouses or NBA locker rooms). The foxhunt crew was most civilized and didn't clock anyone with their French horns.
Then I drove the entire 193-kilometer course because I wanted to see what the crowds were like. It took me five hours. The first two or three were enjoyable. I saw about 14,000 people I wanted to talk to and things I wanted to photograph, but I held off, just wanting to get an overall impression. There's a feature story every five feet. There are big family groups having elaborate picnics -- the kind you might see at an upscale outdoor concert venue like Ravinia in Chicago, or Tanglewood in western Mass. There are workers on their lunch break perched on tractors or uplifted steam shovels. There are screeching day camp groups and senior citizens with faces for the ages, watching the circus go by with rather nonplussed expressions.
What I didn't see were a lot of banners touting specific riders, which made me wonder.
I also wondered during my many solo hours in the car whether it's the right thing this year to write, as I sometimes do, offbeat stories about the characters and atmosphere of the Tour after the deluge of sobering revelations about doping in the last 12 months.
More on that later in the race.
The end of my trip was less fabulous. I have a blue sticker on my Tour car, which in the hierarchy of things means I can drive the course but can't pass the publicity caravan. This is a prudent rule change made a few years ago to cut down the number of cars slaloming through the caravan and lessen the chance of accidents, but it's a pain in the bumper when you run into the butt end of the caravan and have to slow to a crawl.
The guys in the caravan caboose reminded me of the rule, and asked me to turn my headlights on. We crept along for a while, and then they decided to take a bathroom break. They pulled over. I pulled over. They stopped. I stopped. They emerged from the car and with a furtive backwards glance at me, ran up the embankment and took a leak. I busied myself with Tour literature and didn't join them. They got back in the car and got back on the road and so did I. Such is life when you're low on the Tour car totem pole.
About 30 kilometers from the end of the stage, I saw Devil Man. Everyone who has driven the Tour is familiar with Devil Man and his getup. Usually DM cheers me slightly because it means I'm getting close to the finish. Today, in a sign of my mentality at this Tour, I thought, "Cycling has its demons, and he's not one of them.''
Matthieu Desplats, the efficient and irreverent guy who has run the Tour press room for the last many years, once told me he knew I'd get along fine at the Tour, with all its weird bureaucracy and sublime to ridiculous sideshows. "Tu connais la musique,'' he said. You know the music. It was a compliment. You have to deal with the genre changes at this event, which range from classical to John Cage to marching band and everything in between.