By Rupert Guinness
It is 8.52 p.m. It is now more than three hours after stage 3 of the Tour de France has been raced, fought out and finally won by Italian Alessandro Petacchi. The pressroom at Saint Dizier – a cavernous sports hall – still has 27 members of the 1000-strong print media furiously typing away.
Our pledge to try and not be the last to finish (and, inevitably, be the ones who are later told at the nearest restaurant that “zee keetchun is closed”) is reaching a crisis point.
With officials holding to their promise to close the pressroom at 10 p.m., the media around me are either working slower than normal – or are on a big story that the rest of us know nothing about.
In most cases, it’s just us and the other 24 stragglers. Most are doing what we try (but fail) to do every day on the Tour: Leave before 9.30 – the point when restaurants in France seem to relish turning us away, saying it is too late.
So far, that has happened every day in this Tour. Last night, at 11 p.m. and after an action-filled day that saw John Wilcockson escape suspension from the Tour for his driving in stage 2, we were left sitting outside in the town square of Sedan eating take-out, washing it down with cans of beer.
And in the middle of this feast John stopped and asked Andy Hood and me: “what was good about today for you?”
Andy looked at me. I looked at Andy. We both looked at John. Neither of us could come up with an answer. We all took another bite of pizza and swig of sickly rich and sweet French ale.
Had either of us answered “that it’s over,” we would have been wrong. Our day was still far from over. The search for our hotel in the town of Daverdisse in the Ardennes of Belgium, some 47km away, would not end for another 90 minutes. Just to make things a bit more exciting, the warning light on our petrol gauge flashed its “empty” warning for the last 30 minutes of our trip.
It did it again this morning, apparently a sign that the petrol elves hadn’t snuck up to the car and filled our tank over night. So, we made the nearest petrol station 10km away with barely a splutter of fuel kicking our black Pasatt along. But after a quick refill of gazoil at least we were back on the road for another day in the Tour.
It is 9.15 p.m. Now 21 members of the written press remain. The cleaners are sweeping through desk-by-desk, like scavenging hyenas fighting for scrap after lions have had their fill of a fresh kill. Suddenly, the thought of wasted minutes, possibly hours, taunt me.
Maybe I do spend too much time talking to others during the day? Maybe I do nod off in the car when I should be furiously typing? Maybe, we spend too much time on the race route, following the pack at a 40kph snail’s pace, while most of our colleagues head directly to the finish line via auto route?
Had I not, it would be still be 9.15 p.m., but maybe I wouldn’t be here.
Then again, if we did not spend the day talking, joking, enjoying a little sleep now and then from late night excursions like last night’s and trying to spend as much time on the course to savor the mood and feel of the Tour as possible, we wouldn’t be at the Tour de France.
Still … there’s gotta be a better place to be at this hour of night than the press room. My guess is that we’ll never find out. But that hasn’t stopped us coming back every year.
It is 9.25pm. The head count is down to 15 – and three of them are ours. The answer won’t come tonight!