It is seconds before the start of stage 2 of the Tour de France 2016. Tens of thousands of people are crammed into the centre of Saint-Lô, Normandy. It is raining, but no one really notices. No one except the riders, of course, all of whom stay in their team buses until the last moment to avoid the cold and damp.
Given the bureaucracy required to get accredited for the tour, the number of people with passes granting access to the restricted areas comes as a surprise. The team buses are behind barriers, but there seem to be as many people inside the barriers as outside. An area in front of each bus is taped off, but – at least before the riders belatedly emerge to head for sign-on and the start – no one seems to regard the tapes as a meaningful obstacle. Endless photographers wriggle under them for close-ups of saddles, seat posts, special paint jobs, and name tags. At Fortuneo – Vital Concept, a middle-aged woman steps forward and pinches a tyre between thumb and forefinger, signalling her approval with a nod, a shrug, and a turning-down of the lower lip.
Of course, the bikes of the jersey-wearers get special attention. At the BORA – ARGON 18 bus, Paul Voss’s downtube has been painted in King of the Mountain polka dots, which match the team’s red and black colour scheme rather stylishly. Better still, over at Team Dimension Data, a huge crowd has gathered to watch a mechanic applying yellow handlebar tape to the Cervélo of maillot jaune Mark Cavendish. When the mechanic has finished, a TV crew asks him how he feels about having done it. It is impossible to get close enough to hear over the noise of the crowd, but judging by the smile on his face, the answer seems to be “pretty good”.
I push my way through the crowd, looking for a good spot to join the Velorazzi. I am only slightly distracted by a young woman in some distress, standing next to a rather dented-looking tricycle-mounted coffee machine she had been piloting until one of the team buses unexpectedly pulled out, giving it a mighty whack. The total indifference of a pair of onlooking gendarmes did nothing to improve her mood.
As the riders finally appear and head to the start, the narrowest of channels is opened up by the crowd, barely wide enough for a single rider to pass. The police, with their inchoate shouts and whistles, make a great show of ordering people about, but are almost wholly ignored. The simple reality is that they are not needed: the crowd are excited, but have total respect for the riders.
I find a spot on a corner, where the riders have to slow down to make the turn, and defend a good-sized space by repeatedly doing the “pap walk” – backwards, viewfinder up to my face, snap, then forwards to await the next target. They pass within inches. Good for close-ups. Not so good for anything else. Still, it is exciting, and exhilarating. Some riders start heading the other way, back to the bus, perhaps having decided to take a jacket after all. As they come in from both sides, squeezing past each other as well as the crowd, with the shouting of the fans, and the screaming of the police whistles, all becomes a frenzy of colour and noise, with a whiff of danger.
The noise rises further as each star comes out. Quintana! – looking tiny, with a protective member of the team’s staff at his side to push a way through. Contador! – sullen in his rain jacket, doubtless still feeling the effects of yesterday’s crash. Froome! – looking serene in a pair of space-age sunglasses. Sagan! – wearing the rainbow stripes for possibly the last time in the race.
But nothing, nothing compares to the noise that comes next. Not screaming, not shouting, it is a low rumble that turns into a roar, a deep groan of collective excitement that makes the hairs stand up on your forearms. Of course, they are crying for the maillot jaune – Mark Cavendish, Cav, in vivid yellow for the first time, the crowd now parting reverently to let him and the jersey pass. He isn’t smiling: instead, he is looking serious, and very proud. I think of his tears after the previous day’s victory, of his words about doing what he does in order to put 5,000 African children on bicycles. Then I realise I am making the same noise as everyone else.
Snapping out of it, I also realise that fewer and fewer riders are coming through now. I decide to head up to the start, to see how close I can get. As I cross the bridge over the river, the team cars start rolling past, as well as more riders. There are more police and gendarmes blowing their whistles and waving their arms. I stop to get some pictures of the riders making their way through the madness. The colour, the noise, the vehicles, the movement, the people, now all one roaring, rushing blur. I laugh as I notice the Fortuneo – Vital Concept riders stopping at the power bar stand outside the Village Départ to stuff their pockets, like schoolboys given the run of the tuck shop.
The noise of the crowd intensifies yet further: something is happening. I turn to see the last of the riders coming through to join the back of the field. Who else? Tommy Voeckler, King Tommy, upstaging everyone, rides through the melee, nostrils flaring regally, and – in case anyone had missed him, which they hadn’t – emitting an other-worldly, eardrum-shattering whistle as he passes the screaming spectators. French police, please note: that’s how you use a whistle to move a crowd.
Then, before I can take a picture, I am grabbed by the arm and thrust behind a barrier. A policeman tells me I cannot walk in front of the podium. I decide against protesting, and simply walk around the back.
When I emerge back onto the road five seconds later, I am in a crowd of perhaps ten photographers who have been waved to the left hand side by a steward. They are mutinous: the countdown to the start has begun, but, due to the curve in the road, from this position we can’t see the riders. The official is wagging a finger and shaking his head at us. This does nothing to placate the photographers. Things begin to turn ugly as the photographers advance on the official, though it is clear that his only concern is for our safety. Eventually, one of his colleagues appears, and the pair of them bundle us (gently, to their credit) to the other side of the road, a rolling maul of tabards and flashguns. Now we can see the riders, but we are in the middle of the line of team cars – and as the stage starts, they all belt off after the peloton, horns blaring.
Before long, the buses are coming through too. The motorcycle gendarmes, some with a pillion rider whose only job is, apparently, to blow yet another meaningless whistle, merely add to the insanity. I give up on taking pictures, and just try to stay out of the way. Back to the car, and off to the finish in Cherbourg.