The 2012 Tour de France is in full swing, and I gather a lot of my friends around the world have been glued to the telly watching the swarm of lycra-clad coureurs pump their legs around most of the French hexagon. I can’t tell you much about it as I’m being short-listed for the honour of being named Australian Most Indifferent to Sport, and the trophy will look so good on my mantelpiece next to my Empty Schooner award for Aussie Least Likely to Drink Beer. That said, the hoop-la around the event is interesting marginalia in the way that watching a fight break out between two religious processions in Naples is more illuminating than the central text.
Since the Tour Eiffel and La Tour de France are the twin pillars of popular French culture I’m taking today out to witness the event as it flashes through Montesquiou, a small commune between here and Mirande where we sampled the Country Music festival a few days ago. I had to check the spelling on this one as there are several places called Montesquieu around France, but only one Montesquiou.
The event’s website helpfully displays each day’s route in the sort of obsessive detail that you’d normally only find on a CERN particle physicist’s collision charts. I believe this is the first time that the Tour has been through Samatan, today’s starting point, so much of this route may as new to the participants as evidence of the Higgs Boson is to the afore-mentioned. I would certainly be more entertained if collisions between Tour cyclists produced a whole new set of lower-energy cyclists ... but then again maybe such collisions are what generates the long tail of unidentifiable competitors. Now I wish I'd paid more attention earlier in the event. At Montesquiou we’re near the middle of the day’s course, at an elevation approximately the same as start and end points. The commune is a small hilly blip on the course profile so they’ll have slowed a bit on the ascent to where we’ll be perched.
I didn’t pay terribly close attention when Jean said the Tour was coming through Montesquiou at 1.45pm other than accepting we’d need to be there at least an hour ahead of time as surrounding roads were closed off. Jean took a car-load of the Munsoneers off to a point west of the town, while Munson and I elected to dive straight into the melee and found a sparsely populated park at the top of the hill with a generous number of shady trees lining the roadside.
We found ourselves in the company of a group of locals, of which at least one of les femmes was self-professed to be folle sur les chiens and certainly none of them could keep their hands off Munson, who was as they said many times, très sage. I thought this meant “very wise”, but it more commonly means “very well-behaved”. They were very solicitous to Munson, whipping home to fetch biscuits and water for him, and in turn very helpful with me language-wise.
As I’ve found time and again, if you can construct a few jokes in their language, then barriers fall away, although all credit to Munson working malamute magic in making a connection. I’ve noticed that having all the introductory conversation about Munson with essentially known vocabulary is a good way of acclimatising my ear to the speakers’ individual accents. It also lets them know I’m not a totally helpless boob linguistically.
As our group swelled over the next few hours, the Mingling Brothers Circus did its work. Having progressed from meat-queue to Montes-quiou we’re got our little act down pat, or down! patte! in Munson’s case.
About half an hour after we arrived, the first vehicle in the Caravan arrived, a white van selling “show bags” of yellow tour tat, including those notoriously dumb magnetic bracelets that the French have taken to their heart as much as the homeopathic magic sugar-pill potions that line every pharmacist’s walls.
For the next two hours we were treated to an onslaught of elaborately made-up vehicles, some with cheerleaders and pole-dancing marketing droids, others dispensing sample product and logo-wear to the throngs lining the route. We were at ground-zero for the only ad-break that can be seen from space. I was rather bemused by grown men scuttling up and down the roadside trying to collect Tour tchotchkes, nearly getting hit by the trucks breasting the top of the hill with even more manna from Carrefour. I learnt the folly of this when I picked up some juice samples in foil packets which promptly leaked into my pocket, nearly destroying my phone, and leaving a giant juice slick through my shorts and over my thigh. Where, i wanted to know were the sample steak knives, hurled into the eager crowd. If you’re going to have a thirty-kilometre long advertisement, why not make it a gladiatorial event?
After our group had collected a large stash of flimsy caps, a detergent truck arrived to distribute product samples to wash them with. Munson on the other hand, saw this hail of trashkes as just evidence of the sky falling in, and as any sensible Malamute is wont, kept his head under cover. Even if he were feeling unwell, he could have relied on the constant laying on of hands as he snuggled up against the back of the viewers’ deckchairs and they reached around to give him a scritch or gentle massage.
I should totally hire a car and enter the caravan next year with Munson. I can disperse malamute hair for 2000 kilometres without coming to the bottom of my vacuum cleaner bag.
Every twenty minutes or so a burst of police cars and other officials would arrive, and I would take that as a signal that the peloton had arrived. Alas, it was just a burst of local officials getting their day in the sun, and we quickly returned to our program of 99% advertising. It wasn’t till I consulted a time-chart that I confirmed that the caravan was scheduled for 1.45 and the peloton for 3.15 or so. Well I wouldn’t have missed the roadside camaraderie and there was little chance of escaping now anyway since my car was trapped behind late arrivals who had simply stopped their cars in the middle of side roads and walked away.
A guy standing next to me pointed out that a television showing the progress of the course could be clearly seen through an open door across the road, so we were able to gauge where they were from the surrounding terrain. However, the best judge of time was the cloud of press helicopters that presage the cyclists. A few people referred to them as chameaux (camels) but I can’t identify the connection, or maybe I misheard something that very definitely wasn’t hélicoptères.
At 3.18 the advance group of escapees swept past, greeted by my Aussie Aussie Aussie Oy Oy Oy which would have been totally unexpected if heard by Cadel Evans.
Two and a half minutes later the main platoon came through in about the space of a minute, with the tail-end of the bus or gruppetto dragging out maybe ten more minutes. One of the cheeky Munsoneers du jour in my group asked me if I’d seen the Australians. I explained that they were trop vite pour voir (too fast to see) which earned me a wink and a wry smile.
At this stage you can see a number of the cyclists are chatting amongst themselves as if out for a leisurely Sunday drive. With the end of the Tour only a few days away, they’re not out to make any upsets.
I popped back to the car for a moment to return Munson’s bucket of water and then asked loudly if any of the French cyclists had been seen or if they were still back in Samatan eating foie gras. Ooh la la! The protests they made, but only half-heartedly as they could see the truth in my remarks.
After the tumult died down, some pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela trundled past, bemused by the crowds lining their path. "Où sont notre cadeaux?" I cried!
And so my sports coverage comes to an end. If you turn to Channel Jean, you can read her account of the day with the kids.