Paris, where stick-thin women smoke pencil-thin cigarettes. It’s a thing, apparently, as are electric bikes. They are everywhere over here. The nation that considered the 2CV to be perfectly adequate transport for two people, a pig and a couple of hay bales also has no qualms when it comes to sticking a motor on a bicycle. For a capital city renowned for its snobbery, it’s surprising. When the fixie is no more and Swegway users have been laughed off the street, expect to see e-bikes tearing up the bike lanes of London. Mark my words.
The Palais des Congrès is a big gig. I’m thinking Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at Brixton Academy, but it’s bigger than that. And with a smarter-dressed crowd. Or Prince at the O2, but it’s smaller. Somewhere in the middle. Four thousand, so I’m told. And it is sold out. Or full anyway. There’s no paying to get in. We are special guests, or as special as it is possible to feel in a crowd of 4,000.
The house lights go down, the first film of the day rumbles into action, a brief resumé of ASO’s events worldwide. It is actually quite an eye-opener. They’ve got their fingers in more pies than a Ginsters pastry chef.
Jean-Etienne Amaury is first on stage, interspersed with camera cutaways to the front-row stars in attendance: Froome, Cavendish, Greipel, Bardet and the rest. Daniel Teklehaimanot garners a hearty round of applause from the appreciative crowd, as does another Daniel – the splendid former Tour commentator Monsieur Mangeas, who has presumably had to learn to talk all over again since retiring: “I would-uuhhhhh-like-a-uuhhhh-coffee-aaarrgh.”
There are no sartorial faux pas from the riders present to report, sadly. Well-cut suits and sober shirts all round. Gone are the days when a mulleted Frenchman could be relied upon to pull something lairy out of the top drawer – or the bottom drawer, more likely. Blame it on the absence of Italians. Where’s the modern day equivalent of Cipo in a tiger-print onesie when you need him?
Next up, a short film of last year’s highlights. I’m feeling Tony Martin’s pain as he breaks his collarbone; shedding a tear along with Simon Geschke as he explains that he dreamed of winning a Tour stage for 15 years. It’s the same used-and-abused feeling you get after seeing a Spielberg movie: he’s wrung you dry emotionally and you hate him for it. Bloody Tour de France.
Time to man up. Christian Prudhomme, alpha male supreme and hero of the nation, strolls to the lectern and commands the stage, like a boss. Well, he is the boss, so fair enough.
And now the 2016 route, from start to finish. The music has ramped up considerably. Imagine, if you can without inducing a panic attack, U2 backed by a full orchestra, but with the entire drumming cast of Stomp smashing away over the top. Oh, and Bono has popped off for a ciggie break, leaving the musicians to it. Get the picture? It’s big. It’s bigger than big. It’s massive. Or, dare I say, epic.
We start at Mont-Saint-Michel, that glorious pimple on the Normandy coastline that last hosted the Tour in 2013. The monastery staff were on strike that day. Hopefully, they have settled the dispute by now, but that’s the beauty of France. You never know when industrial action will impede your progress, so be ready for every eventuality.
Once away from the Grand Départ in La Manche, there’s a host of Tour regulars on the itinerary – Carcassonne, Montpellier, Mont Ventoux, Tourmalet, Morzine – and a fair few that will require some research (L’Isle-Jourdain, anyone?)
No prologue, team time-trial or cobbles, but a mountain TT and plenty besides to pore over and scrutinise in the coming months.
One recommendation for anyone planning a Tour trip: do the descent of the Col de la Ramaz towards Morzine, the best it has ever been my pleasure to fly down. Sweeping, swooping loveliness on two wheels, with barely a brake to be squeezed the whole way down. And stick a couple of quid on Bardet for that stage. Actually, don’t. I’m a shockingly bad tipster.
And that was about it, really. Prudhomme said “bonification” at one point, but being so used to the harder-edged Sean Kelly version, it was a struggle to pick out the word.
The grey-haired Normandy contingent with their matching black-and-white striped scarves (Mangeas included) appeared to be ready to storm the Bastille demanding independence after the ceremony. Or go straight home for their tea – could have gone either way, to be honest.
An endless queue of local dignitaries lined up to have their photos taken with the race director, pointing to their particular part of la France profonde on the route map backdrop, hoping for an influx of tourism in the Tour’s wake. And it obviously works – hosting the Tour, that is. The jury is still out on the ‘point at the map’ photo opportunity.
Ambling past the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Élysées, I couldn’t help but feel excited about a race that is still nine months away. And I consider myself a diehard cynic, apart from uncontrolled blubbing during Spielberg movies, that is.
Bloody Tour de France. It’s got me. Again.
STATS THE WAY, UH HUH UH HUH
16 – new towns and stage finishes on this year’s Tour
10, 6, 4 – the stage finish time bonus is back after seven years’ absence
2 – bow ties worn at the Tour presentation, with both Romain Bardet and Christophe Riblon sporting the cool intellectual/preppy nerd look
Performing motorcycle gendarmes, bubble cars and a publicity caravan of unmatched beauty: 1960 and all that jazz
A drummer called ‘Puncture Kit’ at the 2014 Tour presentation in Leeds. The photographer appears to be inspecting for chain wear
Lizzie Armitstead fettles her new bike back in May in preparation for the World Champs. Turned out nice again, as they say in Yorkshire