By Rupert Guinness
They may speak of the phenomenon that is the Tour de France organization; of how well-oiled an engine the operation is; of how smoothly and coordinated every action is.
What they don’t usually talk about are the times on the Tour when one person – given his or her authority for a day (if that) – can throw the whole thing into total disarray.
Fortunately, it is usually further down the 3400km road that the frustration of these hiccups test the patience of a Tour suiveur (follower).
Unfortunately, that was not the case today, on stage No. 1 to Meaux. The 168km stage had not even officially started when the VeloNews cars (and several others behind us) were sent every direction but the correct one by officials who basically hadn’t a clue… well, other than the clue that led them to conclude that they were right and that no one had a right to assume otherwise.
Take, for example, the local French policeman who ruined our day. On the outskirts of Montgeron, where the stage was to officially start (as it did in 1903), he decided to stop us in our tracks and make us divert off the course for a devrivation that would take us another hour before we got to the point that was then only one kilometer away!
I still swear he was smiling behind his black moustache as he said, “Non, non, non,” and waved us and the others off course. The only alternative, he said, was to sit and wait for the advertising caravan – which organizers encourage us to stay ahead of – to pass.
We took the derivation, as did a line of press cars and motor bikes. We all then snaked our way through narrow lanes and up and down hills, even touching onto cross roads we had only left minutes before. The two-hour advance we once had dwindled until we finally got to Montgeron with only a few minutes to spare!
Anyone who has been on the Tour will tell you these hurdles are simply meant to be. They are tests of patience, self-control and the art of diplomacy (your own, not that of the temporarily powerful).
Still, it usually takes a good week or so before such trials arrive. The Tour, in most years, allows the suiveur a settling-in period: to adapt to press-room systems, new faces, new car companions and, sometimes, roommates. But this is the Centenary Tour. Perhaps it all a bit accelerated.
We in the VeloNews car were not alone. As frustrated as we may have felt by the day’s end – Andy Hood with his hay fever (it isn’t even spring), John Wilcockson with a nagging toothache and me with a slight fever (Hoody claims it was flatulence) – there were many others wondering what the hell was happening with only one day down.
Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s minister of the interior, must be asking why he went to the Café Reveil Matin for the celebrated stage start. He was booed by the crowd. Then again, he is the man who is pushing for French workers to work an extra two years before being eligible for their pensions.
And then there are the riders! Take Tyler Hamilton, for example. And Levi Leipheimer. Hey … maybe Lance Armstrong, too. He hasn’t had the easiest of Tour starts. And he has won four of the things!
It all begs for thought that maybe this Centenary Tour is set to be special. Maybe it will be remembered for its difference (bad and good). Maybe this will be a Tour to test the limit of everyone in the 5000-strong entourage further than ever before.
Even if it does, you still can’t help but feel the Tour was harder 100 years ago. But, hey, maybe that’s the point of it all!