We are deep in the Pyrenees. Paris is still a long way off.
The vehicles of the Tour appear to be suffering more than the workers, two press cars and a Teisseire ‘Fruit Shoot’ mobile hoarding suffering the ignominy of entering town aboard a flatbed breakdown truck. The vintage Citroën 2CVs used by saucissons producer Cochonou may have a reputation for requiring more attention than most to enable them to tootle their way around France, but this time it’s the modern machinery that has failed.
A man in a red-and-white checked shirt riding a cargo trike patrols the finish line area proffering slivers of meat over the barriers to seemingly ravenous Tour fans. Young women on roller skates circulate, distributing flags. The assembled hordes scrabble over each other to get their hands on these prized possessions. The race? Who cares! There’s free stuff to be had.
The whole scenario is bizarre, yet seems to work, much like the publicity caravan itself. In an age of viral marketing and internet advertising, this gloriously low-rent Tour precursor is refreshingly and quintessentially French: a protectionist throwback to an age when driving a crazy blaring vehicle around the country for three weeks was deemed an efficient marketing strategy. That it still exists – and continues to thrive – is quite remarkable.
When Henri Desgrange introduced the caravan as a means of plugging a revenue gap following the introduction of national teams in 1930, little could he have imagined that over 250 vehicles would be parading around the route ahead of the peloton some 85 years later, hurling tat (sorry, free samples) in all directions.
Some of my fellow cycling journo friends detest the publicity caravan, finding it unseemly and a distraction from the serious business of the race an hour later.
Piffle. The preceding convoy is as much a part of the spectacle for the roadside spectator as the hurtling peloton and the team cars. The gap between the passage of the caravan and the race is exquisite anticipation, every gendarme’s motorbike and commissaire’s Skoda a false dawn until – zoom! – the Tour is gone in an instant, the broom wagon sucking up wind and dust along with stricken riders.
Those of us who cycled down to the Ashdown Forest one Wednesday in July 1994 still treasure standing besides Sean Yates’ family as he dismounted briefly to embrace his family, as is the tradition when the Tour passes through a rider’s home town. Which is just as well, as we were still smarting from not catching so much as a keyring or sachet of instant coffee an hour earlier. The prissy British authorities considered souvenirs thrown from moving vehicles to be one health and safety hazard too many and banned the practice for both stages on UK soil that year. The caravan passed, blaring and waving, but not giving. It left a bitter taste in the mouth not dissimilar to the result of drinking a sachet of that instant coffee we didn’t receive.
No such problems in the Pyrenees, as the parade passes hurling objects in all directions. We head to the caravan assembly area in search of Boris Peyroles, the man in charge of the Tesseire vehicles, one of which passed earlier in its stricken state aboard the breakdown truck. He is flat-out on the grass in the sunshine, a gorgeous girl across the crook of his arm.
It’s his seventh Tour, he tells me, which I am struggling to compute: Boris does not appear much more than 20. It turns out he is a 22-year-old student and his father is the CEO of Idea Actif, the brand agency responsible for bringing the likes of Teisseire to the Tour. So a little bit of old-fashioned nepotism landed Boris the dream summer job for a young man: travel the country and meet people from all over the world – including the beautiful Cecille.
“When it rains, it is crazy,” she says, “but we have had very good weather.” Have the fans been well behaved? “The crowds have been massive here in the Pyrenees. You have the Spanish and the Basques, plus all the people who follow the whole race. Sometimes the crowds will throw water at you, but it’s only water, not beer.
“We hand out a lot of stuff. Today I gave out 10,000 sticks of syrup and 4,000 maracas. We have a schedule for each stage, with more product for the days in the mountains.”
Maracas and syrup… Focus on the job in hand: will she be back next year? Cecille shoots a playful glance across to Boris: “If he wants me to…”
“I’m not sure,” he replies, as sternly as he can muster. “She didn’t work hard enough. Not enough smiling!” Cecille beams on cue, as if she were incapable of doing otherwise. He had to be joking, didn’t he?
We go in search of Jonathan Cusigny, the skimpy shorts-wearing Tour virgin last seen in Brittany, to see how he is holding up after another four days of faux shower action. We pass the PMU trucks, past women with thighs of steel dressed as jockeys who perch atop plastic horses for hours on end, to where the Xtra vehicles have parked.
Cusigny is nowhere to be found. Olivier Simon, his team leader, fills us in. The young man’s back had given out due to all that enthusiastic gyrating in the cause of promoting washing powder. He had retired hurt and a replacement was drafted in.
It’s the same deal for riders, team workers, organisation, journalists and race caravan workers alike: everyone wants to reach Paris, exhausted but satisfied in a job well done, and ready to party the night away in one of the world’s great capital cities.
Not all of them will make it.