The best thing about camping is being gently woken by the dawn chorus. The worst thing about camping is the dawn chorus starting at 5 a.m. And thus starts another long day.
A few hours later I am diverted by the first of many Route Barrée signs in Abbeville. I follow the trail of yellow signs, barriers and police vans until I find Le Village Dèpart. I lock the bike to a railing and wander across the road to try and figure out what’s what.
I walk past the media enclave and someone hands me a Guide Du Depart. I glance at the timings and realise I’m an hour or more earlier than I really need to be, the race isn’t due to start for another 3 or 4 hours. I blame the dawn chorus and the fact I’ve been working on English TV timings. I decide to stroll around town hung in red, blue, green and yellow bunting in search of breakfast. People are starting to collect on pavement edges., bars and cafes are making the most of the tour being in town.
Finding myself back at the Dèpart I wander along the road as I see the Caravanne Publicité starting to assemble ready for the off. I decide I don’t need to be bombarded with noise and tat again so find a tree to sit under whilst Abbeville fights over free hats, carrier bags and assorted nik-naks. From where I’m sat I see the team buses arriving in the temporary paddock, fenced off from those without VIP passes. The crowd is getting thicker and noisier, there’s still more than an hour to go but anticipation is growing. The Caravanne continues. Greater numbers of people elbow their way into the already dense rows on the barriers. Rider sign-on is due to start soon.
The noise emanating from the commentators on presentation stage gets more excited and animated as sign on starts. It seems that riders poke at their name on a screen rather than actually sign on, some chose, or are chosen, to speak to the commentators, their image televised to the big screen to the side of the stage. Riders are coming up one by one from different teams as if a single rider from each team is being sent out like the sacrificial lamb to keep the crowds happy whilst their team mates get ready and warm up.
I shift back along the barriers and spot a gap behind a parked TV car. It turns out to be right opposite where the riders are toing and froing between the team buses and sign on. Phones and cameras are trained on a few square metres of road just ahead of me. Riders come and go, the names of better known riders announced by the commentators and stopped for a few words. Pinot arrives, the French crowd love him, and call his name hoping he’ll stop to sign something. Chavanel arrives and the French crowd absolutely adore him, he gets the loudest reception of the day, more so than Pinot or Bardet or any of the other French. The riders are signing on thick and fast now, the big names receiving the biggest cheers, but not as big as Pinot or Chavanel, they may love cycling the French but they are partisan about it. You know when one of the team leaders are around as the TV and press gaggle around them.
Riders start to amass in front of me, seems it’s a kind of holding pattern before they spin down to the official start. Geraint Thomas stops for a chat with Ian Stannard and Steve Cummings. Team cars head for the start line, stopping briefly to load up on rations of bottled water. The national champ jerseys look cool, and there’s a lot of national champs here. Bernard Hinault rushes past. I don’t recognise him at first (there are a lot of French men in cream chinos and blue shirts amongst the VIPs cluttering up the start straight) but there’s almost a revered hush as he passes and I hear someone near me whisper “Hinault” to his son. Other names are reverentially muttered in the crowd – Quintana, Nibali, Contador. Griepel passes by in green, and Purito in polka-dots. Cavendish is one of the last to sign on and heads straight to the start line.
I decide I’ve seen enough and grab my bike to find somewhere in town to catch the complete peloton roll out of town behind the lead car. Once they’ve passed I look at the bunting above my head and happily realise I’ve got a tailwind all the way back to Amiens.