After a long drive up from the Grand Départ at Mont St-Michel, we approached the finish of stage 1 at Utah Beach with rapidly mounting excitement. For one thing, the last corner came a healthy 5km before an almost perfectly straight, slightly downhill run to the finish line. For another, a strong tailwind was blowing. And for another still, we were allowed to drive almost the whole final section, cheered on by a large and very good-natured crowd, only turning off into the car park 50m before the line. Clearly, whatever happened, the finish was going to be fast and fun.
Other than the appropriately insured photographers and cameramen, at the finish the press is restricted to a small pen covered by a tent, where the organisers had thoughtfully installed several large TV screens. As we watched the peloton reel in the break and thunder to the finish, all the talk around us was of who would take the stage win and the yellow jersey. Opinion was split roughly evenly between Etixx-Quickstep’s Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel of Lotto-Soudal, with a few plumping for UCI Road World Champion Peter Sagan of Tinkoff.
No one seemed to fancy Mark Cavendish, of Team Dimension Data. Indeed, at least one notable member of the press pack was heard to announce that, if Cav won, he would eat his own underpants. There was also a general feeling that, thanks to the sensibly straightforward nature of the finish, crashes were unlikely.
Of course, you know what happened next. After a huge effort on the front of a terrifyingly fast bunch, Dimension Data’s Eddie Boasson Hagen was one of a number of riders caught up in an immense crash, hitting the ground sickeningly hard. Meanwhile, up at the front, Cav rolled back the years to pull off a signature victory, repeatedly picking the right wheel to follow until he launched a devastating, perfectly-timed final effort, so spectacularly successful that second-placed Marcel Kittel was over a bike’s length adrift as Cav celebrated.
Suddenly, somehow, I was out of the press pen and in the middle of the road, along with what appeared to be every single member of the world’s cycling media. I now understand the meaning of the term “media scrum” (though in my experience a real rugby scrum contains no heavy camera equipment, is considerably more organised, and is overseen by a referee - plus, half the members of it are supposed to be on your side).
I was about six feet from Cav and Mark Renshaw as they cried in each others’ arms, having built up to this moment over months of training and hours of racing, only to execute a perfect plan with flawless precision. Nonetheless, proving once again that I lack the true paparazzi instinct, I had had no idea in advance how close I would be, and had no idea at the time how close I was, to the winner and his team mates, and so I was caught wholly off guard with entirely the wrong lens on my camera and no idea where anybody was. So I got exactly no pictures of the important events of the day. I’ll put that one down to experience.
If the occasion of Cav’s victory was emotional, there wasn’t a dry eye on Utah Beach when he spoke after the race, holding his daughter in his arms. “There is no bigger icon in cycling than the yellow jersey and it will get the recognition for our sponsors and for the Qhubeka charity. There is no bigger stage. I do this for my team and I do it to try and get 5,000 kids on bikes. I'm so happy. I can't believe it.”
As I attempted to make up for my initial incompetence by at least photographing the unfortunate (but happily not seriously injured) Boasson Hagen while he held still for a minute, an older gentleman with an iPhone kept barging in front of me. It took me several seconds to spot the strong similarity between him and the Norwegian champion, and give thanks that I had kept my curses silent rather than unleash a torrent of abuse at what was obviously Eddie B-H’s dad.
Amazed once again at how close the press and spectators can get to the riders, I wandered among the team buses in the hope of a few last candid shots. But I was too late: almost everyone had fulfilled their media commitments and made for the showers. One rider, sadly not a participant in the race, was, however, very much in evidence: Oleg Tinkov, owner of the Tinkoff team, was slowly pedalling up and down in his violently yellow full team kit. There’s a word for people like that.
Thanks to what was either an enormous stroke of luck or (more likely) a miracle of organisation, we were able to drive straight out of the field where we parked and onto the road back to our base near Avranches, way down in the south of Normandy. Crashes aside, the first real day of the Tour had been a triumph: Cav had won, and we had seen everything we hoped to plus a six foot chicken on a turbo. Surely stage 2 couldn’t top that sort of excitement?