My wife, Clare and I spent two weeks in July following the Tour de France. Although I had been to the Tour many times before this occasion was definitely the most memorable as our son Michael was competing for the first time.
The first time that I saw the Tour was in 1956 when I rode to Paris from London with a ferry crossing of the Channel. There were four of us who were all good friends: Rhett, Frank, Brian and me. Our bikes were loaded with camping gear as we planned to camp in farmers’ fields along the way. The 350 kms. took us about four days and on arriving in St. Denis on the outskirts of Paris we managed to get permission to pitch our tents in just about the closest field to the City. The farmer and his wife made us very welcome, even providing us with more comfortable bedding and meals.
Rhett, Frank and Brian on the road to France, 1956.
A couple of days later we rode out to a hill on the Tour course and joined the crowds waiting the arrival of the race as it made its way to the Parc des Princes Velodrome in the centre of Paris. In those days the Tour always finished on the Parc des Princes and unlike today where the last stage is always a parade, then it was a hard fought race. The publicity caravan threw out souvenirs similar to those of today and we scrambled to collect them. When the race came through I managed to get a few photos--even a pretty good one of the yellow jersey Roger Walkoviak. We spotted many of our heroes that we had seen before only in the French sports magazines.
Roger Walkoviak on his way to winning the 1956 Tour de France.
As soon as the road was opened we jumped onto our bikes and followed the course to the Parc des Princes. When we arrived, the Tour presentations were finished but an international track meeting was in progress. There were no attendants on the gates so we parked our bikes, selected great seats in the stands and for the next couple of hours watched the best track riders in the World. A sprint competition with all the best sprinters of the day was won by my schoolboy hero, Englishman Reg Harris with fellow countryman Cyril Peacock taking second.
The finale of the meeting was a hard fought motor pace race behind the ‘big motors.' It was a thrilling display of speed and skill which was animated by the thundering noise. Verschueren of Belgium won the race, followed by Godeau of France and Timoner of Spain. The spectacle of those riders thrashing around the steep bankings of the Parc des Princes behind those big, noisy pacing motor bikes with flames coming out of the exhausts will always remain in my mind as possibly one of the most exciting sporting events that I have seen.
We hadn’t seen much of the Tour de France but we had had an exciting day, so I was determined to see more the next year.
In 1957 Rhett and I took the train from London to Pau in the Pyrenees. We were greeted with very low cloud and rain but we immediately set off to climb the Col du Tourmalet. When we arrived at the top we certainly knew we had been climbing but hadn't yet seen anything of the mountains as we had been in cloud all day. The restaurant was a welcome refuge from the weather and after a good meal we set off into the fog to make the descent.
Eventually we got below the cloud and could see a meadow at the side of the road. We decided to camp there for the night. There was an inn close by where we were served a wonderful warming meal. We went to sleep in our tent, tired from the ride but without having yet seen anything of the surrounding mountains, which had been shrouded in cloud all day.
I awoke to bright sun streaming into the tent. I put my head out and had my breath taken away by the surrounding beauty. Having grown up in London, these were the first real mountains I had ever seen. Even today I remember that sight as one of the most beautiful. The calm of the serene mountain environment, the sound of the breeze and the aroma of the pastures and trees was unique to a boy who had spent his youth often riding in the coal smog of London.
We spent the day hiking in the area before tucking into our tent for our second night of sleep. Again in the morning we awoke to bright sun but that morning there was a difference: the road which had been deserted the previous day was now just one stream of cars, buses, bikes, motor bikes and walkers moving up the mountain. The Tour was due through in about eight hours.
After a leisurely breakfast Rhett and I joined the crowd and made our way up the mountain on our bikes. We found a great vantage point and there we waited for the whole moving circus that is the Tour de France. We weren't disappointed. We collected souvenirs from the caravan and then watched and cheered the riders as they made their way up the mountain towards us. Prominent was the yellow jersey clad Jacques Anquetil riding towards his first of five Tour victories. After the race passed there was the previous years winner, Walkoviak, in the broom wagon. He had climbed in lower down the mountain.
That first experience of the Pyrenees formed my love for those mountains and I have been back many times since.
I’ve also been back to the Tour many times since. I have seen most of the greats of cycling over those years and seen the race from many different vantage points. This year however was the first time that I have followed it for more than a couple of days.
We hoped that Michael would be selected by his new team Sky to ride the Tour but it wasn’t until two weeks before the start that we got the call that he was on the team. Clare and I had just returned from a few weeks in Girona but we immediately decided to return to Europe and follow the Tour. A few days of searching the internet for flights, rental car and accommodation followed before we were set to go. We decided to meet the Tour at the end of the first week and follow it through the Alps and Pyrenees and on to Paris.
We flew to Geneva and met up with Clare’s brother Ralph and his daughter Laura who were to be with us for a few days. The next morning we went to the stage finish in Station des Rousses, a Ski resort in the Jura mountains. which was memorable by us getting caught in probably the heaviest rain storm that I have ever experienced. Fortunately it was after the stage finished and we had met up with Michael. He seemed well but was suffering from the injuries that he had sustained in a crash on stage two.
The next day we were in Morzine for the stage finish and then the rest day. We visited the Team Sky hotel and met up with the French family that Michael had lived with when he raced for an amateur team in nearby Annemasse. I’m sure that if it hadn’t been for their hospitality and help during those early years in France, Michael wouldn’t have been able follow his dream the way he has. Also in Morzine was Michael’s team director from those days Christian Rumeau. Rumeau is a great guy who directed Pro Teams for many years before ‘retiring’ and looking after the Velo Club Annemasse. He has a wealth of experience from directing Sean Kelly, Charley Mottet and many other top riders. Even today he takes an interest in Michael’s career and was very keen to get together with him on the rest day. Michael has been lucky to have his friendship and advice all these years.
The Team Sky staff really made us feel welcome and were very helpful in supplying us with passes to stage start and finish areas. They even arranged for me to take a trip in one of the Tour helicopters. That was quite an experience but not really the ideal way to see a bike race. We were too high to be able to pick out riders but what fantastic scenery.
The Tour from a helicopter. Not the best way to watch a bike race.
In Toulouse we were able to stay in the same hotel as Team Sky for a couple of days. Dede and the boys drove up from Girona to be with us and we were joined by a group of friends and Michael’s fans from England including my ex business partner from Bicyclesport days Mike Brown and his wife Jacqui. Jacqui had had some T-shirts made for us to wear.
Our English friends and Michael Barry supporters
The Team Sky staff made us very welcome. The mechanics even cleaned the boys bikes with their high pressure hoses much to Liam and Ashlin’s delight.
Ashlin's bike gets a cleaning from the Team Sky mechanic while team mate Liam admires his nice clean machine.
We stayed together with this group for the next few days while the Tour was in the Pyrenees. We had a wonderful time. Each day we drove from the hotel out to a vantage point to watch the race. Unfortunately we couldn’t get up on to the Tourmalet as the road had been closed two days before the Tour was to arrive due to the immense crowds camping up there.
A few of the campers at the top of the Col d'Aspin
We saw the race in a small village on the lower slopes and then found a bar with a small TV. We were about the first to arrive but soon after the bar was packed with bike racing fans shouting encouragement at the images of Contador and Schleck on the 14” screen. We were surprised to meet some Canadian fans of Michael’s amongst the crowd. The atmosphere in the bar was wonderful with the couple that owned the place giving out free treats to the crowd that responded by buying even more beer. I’m sure that it was the greatest number of people that they have ever packed into that bar.
Clare and I left our English friends before going on to see the time trial in Bordeaux. After watching the start and spending a very interesting time in the “Start Village” we walked along the course through the town to our hotel. The large flat screen TV in the lounge was excellent to watch the last chance for Schleck to beat Contador. Of course it wasn’t to happen but it was an exciting race nonetheless.
We had the lounge to ourselves other than for Liam a ten year old American bike race fan who was following the Tour with his father Bill Flanagan. They had ridden all the Pyrenean passes and Liam had the same enthusiasm for the sport that our son Michael had at that age. We told them about the Jeugdtour in Holland where Michael and the rest of our young group of riders had had many great experiences.
The Jeugdtour had always been held earlier in July so it was a surprise when a few days after returning to Canada we received an e-mail from Bill telling us that Liam was competing in the Jeugdtour in Assen. After we had said good bye to them in Bordeaux Bill had looked up the Jeugtour on the internet and found that they had a couple of days to get Liam an International USCF license and get to the start in Assen. Liam had a similar wonderful experience as Michael and the other Bicyclesport Club members had many years before.
Details of Liam’s experience in the Jeugtour can be seen on Bill’s web site: www.fathersontour.com
After Bordeaux Clare and I took the TGV to Paris for the finish of the Tour. Again Team Sky really looked after us by getting us grandstand seats on the Champs Elysee. Michael’s wife Dede and their two young sons joined us. It was fun to see three year old Ashlin shouting “go Poppy” each time the peloton passed and it was an emotional moment to see Michael leading the whole field on the last lap.
The trip to the Tour had been a wonderful experience. Michael had made it to Paris and had ridden very well for the team despite having fractured ribs and suffered other injuries on day two, which had made the three weeks very uncomfortable. Meeting up with our friends from England and some of Clare’s family had been marvelous. Being so involved with the Tour over two weeks is a time we shall never forget.
The Tour is massive, undoubtedly the greatest annual sporting event in the World. The logistics of moving everything from one town to another every day, setting up miles of barriers, press centres with all the communication facilities, finish and start areas with massive TV screens and “VIP” seating just boggles the mind. The crowds are immense. For what other sport would fans wait for hours, in all weathers, by the side of the road and then see the action for only a few seconds, which is often the case when the peloton is all together.
This was my eleventh visit to the Tour in 54 years. Things have certainly changed. In 1956 the riders and the crowds were all Continental European. Now there are riders and fans from all over the World. It was great to see all the Canadian flags, at times outnumbering the US. There were many fans from New Zealand and Australia and many more this year from Britain supporting Team Sky. Being at the Tour is an experience that any bike race fan should not miss.