By Rupert Guinness
Once again there was drama on the undulating rural roads of the Tour de France today. And, again, it involved the VeloNews car. It also, once again, involved a policeman (okay, two). And, like yesterday, it again happened with our destination in sight – well almost.
After zigzagging through the publicity caravan with the “25km to go” banner 100m behind us, I muttered I was pleased that we would reach the press room two hours ahead of the race – on this particular day a must with all three of us with much copy to write.
With VeloNews magazine on deadline, John Wilcockson, Andy Hood and I all needed to file early. We also boldly promised ourselves a pre-midnight dinner and lights out call.
But then came less-than-divine intervention in the form of the Garde Republicaine firing the speed gun on Tour cars. It seems that our black Passat, complete with German number plates, was a particularly attractive target.
Signs we should have observed
We should have known we were doomed when, in an upset play-of-the day, John offered to drive for Andy who was still suffering out-of-season hay fever and too ill to drive. John never drives at the Tour!
Within minutes, John had already earned the wrath of one Garde Republicaine on motorbike as he ducked through a gap in the side of the road to pass a caravan vehicle. It was an unintentional act – carried out after much deliberation and consideration. John put his foot down and left a plume of flying dust and debris for the policeman to ride into.
That act saw John’s number marked and declared public enemy No. 1 before he was nabbed several kilometers later and forced to stop by two Garde Republicaine.
Ordered out of the car to produce his papers John was told he was speeding at 115kph in a 90km zone. His look of innocence was impressive, but did little to appease his accuser.
Instead, John was then also ordered – in no uncertain terms – to appear before a three-man Tour police tribunal back at the pressroom at the stage finish in Sedan.
Andy and I agreed if John was found guilty and the VeloNews car was banned from the race for a day (as can happen for a first offense), there would be some good to be had. For one thing, it would mean we could take a day off, or at the very least avoid, for at least the day, the Tour traffic and drive straight to the stage finish and reach the buffet before all of the best pickin’s were gone!
But John Wilcockson is not a man to be underestimated. There were fears he had done a runner when Tour officials came looking for him in the press room.
Cornered mid-mouth biting an apple from the leftovers of today’s buffet, John surrendered peacefully and willingly faced his time in court.
John was confident of his defense. As if we doubted. He represented himself, against his accuser and the tribunal. He pleaded his innocence. “I ain’t done it Guv …” he said.
Heads shook. The police panel had heard it all before. But then John’s very clean, 35-year Tour record was taken into consideration.
The minutes ticked passed slowly. Andy and I waited nervously wondering our fate. One for all. All for one. To be sure, we professed our solidarity with the defendant, but, dear reader, we did have visions of an early shot at the buffet dancing through our heads.
After much deliberation, the tribunal head returned and announced his verdict. Looking sternly at John, expressing his displeasure at poor driving in the Tour, the risks, the dangers and costs… and then, he paused. He nodded and admitted that for being a loyal “partner” of the Tour, a man of high distinction, John would get off with a warning and no record. (No buffet, either.)
The room stood. Hands were shaken and wishes of “Bon Tour” were exchanged between all.
John left and returned to his spot in the press room. Typically, he said: “Naaaghh … it was nothing.”
He looked like the cat that had just licked the cream!