In at least one sense, this is the single best time to photograph the peloton. This is the high point and the focus of their year, the moment they have been training for and looking forward to since the winter. So the likes of Dan Martin, Bauke Mollema and Wilko Kelderman look lean and muscular, clearly at their peak. It is also the main focus of the teams and their sponsors, so in addition to being in top form, the riders will never be better organised, dressed, and equipped than today. This is when it becomes clear that, however much you love Paris-Roubaix, Flanders, the Giro, the Vuelta, or any other event in cycling’s calendar, the Tour simply puts them all in the shade.
And of course, the riders are excited, like all of us. This is their Cup Final, Wimbledon, Lord’s Test, Superbowl and World Series, all rolled into one. The new riders, like Fortuneo – Vital Concept’s British sprinter Dan McLay, are awestruck but smiling. The old hands, like Team Dimension Data’s Steve Cummings, Mark Renshaw and Bernie Eisel, cope smoothly with the crowds and the media attention, but also have a childlike excitement written all over their faces.
There are exceptions. The leading GC contenders keep a low profile, saving energy for the unique, 3,500km-long race they are about to undertake. A windy day is forecast, which could mean meaningful splits in the peloton – on just such a day early in last year’s race, Nairo Quintana lost almost 90 seconds to Chris Froome, but was only 72 seconds behind in Paris.
And the elite sprinters, Cavendish, Kittel and Greipel, who know that a victory today will mean wearing the yellow jersey tomorrow, are unsmiling. Bernie Eisel never leaves Cav’s side, even as they face the press and ride to sign on together. There is a deep seriousness at the heart of the carnival.
This is it: this is the Tour.
Of course, it is the caravan that gets things underway. You will have heard stories of the train of commercial vehicles that precede the Tour, their occupants heralding the imminent arrival of the peloton by hurling plastic tat and junk food at the roadside spectators (this year the organisers estimate the total number of promotional missiles at a staggering fourteen million).
But words cannot express the sheer plastic, technicolour awfulness of it. Photographs, too, are inadequate: no picture can capture the impact of all 150-plus vehicles, each more hideous and bizarre than the last, as they rumble by. Here, a phalanx of women dressed as bags of bright yellow pommes-frites. There, a man in a swing, somehow representing – I think – insurance products (he is wearing a harness, which may be a clue). Behind him, a flat, blue, open-top platform on wheels, perhaps ten metres long, which transports nothing but several gurning out-of-work actors and a pair of spectacles the size of a house. Most oddly, among the tablecloth-patterned 2CVs, towering Haribo packets, gyrating plastic cattle and ingeniously anthropomorphised salty snacks there is a simple rectangular box on wheels, with ever-changing abstract symbols on its digital display, and bearing the single word “L’OPTIMISME”. What does it mean? It means it’s the Tour. What more does it need to mean?
And the assault on the senses does not stop at the visual. It seems every second vehicle hosts a commentator with a PA, an audience of millions, and therefore the chance of a lifetime. One truck has a team of cheerleaders, who will be as fit as the riders if they keep pummelling the pom-poms for the full three weeks and 3,500km. Others, advertising mineral water, unexpectedly deliver their “sample” in the form of a misty spray, drenching onlookers – welcome, perhaps, on a hot afternoon on a sun-baked Alp, but not so much on this brisk seaside morning.
A six-foot plastic chicken slowly pedals a bicycle mounted on the roof of a white Peugeot. As it passes, one spectator turns to another, shaking his head and smiling knowingly. “Hey – what’s wrong with this picture?” he asks, pointing.
The other frowns, confused. What answer can he possibly give? He looks again at the chicken, which grins glassily as it pedals away. He shrugs.
The first smiles knowingly. “Look – it’s pedalling, and the back wheel is going round, but the front wheel isn’t turning. That’s wrong.” The second man looks again at the chicken for a few seconds. He raises his eyebrows as a thought strikes him. “Maybe it’s on the turbo?” he says.
A recent survey suggested that 47% of the Tour’s roadside spectators come primarily to see the caravan.