From the pages of Velo: Trust in their fellow man

From the back of a press motorcycle, Chris Case sees the chaos and beauty of the Tour, and the flotilla that follows it

Editor’s note: As we ring out 2012, we look at 12 of our favorite stories of the year. Chris Case’s account of a day on a press motorcycle in the flotilla that surrounds the Tour de France first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Velo magazine.

If a Kawasaki motorbike is 36 inches wide, from mirror tip to mirror tip, then we were careening into a gap that was only 32. Our mirrors were forced to fold; by instinct, fearing the worst as the cars closed together, I left one big paw print on the window of the Mavic neutral support vehicle to our right. Like two ships gliding together and drifting apart as they crested waves, the narrowing canyon between the yellow Skoda and the silver Skoda, the voiture officielle of the Tour de France, just as quickly parted, and the whining Kawasaki, kicked into a lower gear by its pilot, Francois Meylan, sped away with not a hint of panic.

Welcome to the Tour: the peloton, the caravan, the dance.

There is a pool of motorcycles that will take journalists on course during their stage of choice; I chose to follow the peloton through the rolling Vosges, stage 7 of the 2012 Tour de France from Tomblaine to La Planche des Belles Filles.

When you’re cruising in front of the officials’ cars, the photographers’ motorcycles, the gendarme, the riders, the team cars, and the serpentine flock of support vehicles and motos, ahead of the race but along the closed course, your eyes fall on the details of the scenery: the fans along the roadside who wave at everything that skates past; the innumerable portraits of fans, young and old, framed in the windows and doorways of the rustic homes and stucco buildings that line so many miles of French country road; the occasional band-aided finger or bruised knee; the endless string of cathedrals, beacons of the long-forgotten faithful.

Once beyond the course’s neutral rollout through the village of Tomblaine, we were able to pause by the roadside and let the breakaway du jour scream by. Then, after letting the mobile service course of team cars and neutral support vehicles pass, we jumped in behind, looking to bridge the gap and snake through the entire convoy once again, just to have a look.

We then cruised the open road for 19 minutes (yes, I timed), using the power of the combustion engine to break away. Accelerating out of turns with ludicrous ease, shimmying on the chipseal in the snaking descents, and cresting the rolling countryside lumps without breaking a sweat, it seemed like we would soon be having a roadside picnic, fromage et jambon undoubtedly. We found another spot to dart off-course, but Francois failed to kill the engine. I looked back to see that the breakaway riders — the collective human-powered engine that could — were just over a minute behind (yes, I timed again). I was awestruck — human horsepower, churning over the contoured landscape of the French Haute Saône, relentless, even over the countless curvatures and bends.

But it wasn’t until we drifted all the way behind the peloton and its armada that the real dance began. Imagine 200 geese, with 22 Cessnas and a fleet of sundry other aircraft drifting behind them, flying through a tube no more than 20 feet in diameter.

The Tour never stops, it rarely slows down, but it always comes close to catastrophe. Or so it seems.

If I said the dance of the flotilla, of the 40 cars behind the race, was played out at 80km per hour, behind a flock of geese, on roads that Americans would find inconveniently thin, while motorcycles of all kinds, like annoying bees hovering around a moving honey pot, darted this way and that, with nary an inch to spare, you probably wouldn’t believe me. But then I’d just refer you back to that opening scene, the one where we were almost crushed at speed.

This thing, this frenetic mixture of metal and muscle, can dance.

And that’s what brings us to the glue that holds it all together: trust.

You don’t ride your bike in a group ride on the weekend without a certain amount of trust. Multiply that by 1,000, and that’s the amount of trust that goes into every aspect of this race. The peloton, careening down the road at 60kph, delicately balancing Sunday morning calm with the focus of a stalking cat, absorbing what they can see as much as what they can’t — the distance between your tire and the next, the skinned elbows beside you, closing and opening brake calipers, whispers, or shouts, in French, Italian, and Spanish, the roasted smell of carbon — they can only do this if they put great trust in their fellow man. There is no other way. And the trust must be complete.

Case in point: when that trust is interrupted — by a shift in the winds just when a sprinter is passing his shoe covers to his domestique and whose one-handed handling skills can’t keep him from running up the derailleur of the rider in front of him — you have the makings of a monumental crash. Such is the crumpling of a symbiotic beast: when one goes down, they all go down.

Though the real cause may never be known, rumor has it that this very scenario played out at the Tour’s stage 6 horror, the Massacre in Metz, that eliminated almost a half dozen riders by sunset, and another half dozen before the next stage’s first nature break.

Without trust, the peloton doesn’t pull back a breakaway at an astonishing, vehicular-like rate. With trust, the peloton can fall victim to “Ring Around the Rosie” — we all fall down. Without trust, the caravan of cars sees insurance premiums go through the roof because of daily pile-ups. With trust, the dance gets smoother and sweeter, tantalizing in its potential calamity, seductive in its intimacy.

The Tour de France is like a beautiful tango in many ways; behind every mesmerizing ballroom performance is the choreography — trust in the rhtyhm of your mutual movements. And the best way to find out if you can trust someone? Trust them.