Friday, 20 July 2012

Tour fever

“Wiggins is four minutes down. Nibali’s attacked.”

“Wiggins has cracked.”

Rumours fly up and down the mountain, word of mouth flashing through the atmosphere faster even than modern electronics. British faces start to fall. A Swiss driver in one of the Tour cavalcade cars sees the Union flag on the road and slows to enlighten us: “Cadel! Cadel attacks! Wiggins – twelve minutes down already!” He zooms off, blasted away by a welter of honking from behind. The heat – nudging 40 º all day – beats down.

Even watching the Tour is a marathon of endurance. We arrived here 3 days ago: driving up, all the parking spots on the roadside are full. Places that aren’t parking spots are full. Cars and vans are stopped at crazy angles, or with one wheel hanging over an abyss, advertising their owners’ non-sleeping intentions. People have laid out sleeping bags on the roadside, £3000 carbon-fibre race bikes are parked in bushes, naked men are showering using tins hung in trees. The whole mountain has been transformed into some kind of crazy vagabond camp.

Our van ends up parked in a field, where we and about 3000 other vans and campers have paid €35 to stay. The money’s apparently going to repair the local church; tours are offered. There are a lot of people in this field, and others like it up and down the mountain. Not all the vans and tents are self-supporting. There are no facilities. The sun’s been baking down all day, every day. It smells like a London back alley in the 1600s.

On the third day the organizers realize their mistake and bring in some Portaloos. Eight of them, reserved for the use of those without their own toilets. But give the owner of a white-box camper van a choice between: a) emptying the van’s waste cassette and b) shitting in a Portaloo, and he picks – extraordinarily – b) every time. Within hours the four Portaloos the organizers have opened – the others are being held back against some future poonami – are an overflowing poomageddon. The queue to use them is notably free of female customers, heavy on massive-bellied Frenchmen wearing unsuitable sports shorts. Back to a trowel in the woods, then.

The day of the race’s arrival, the endurance challenge ramps up. It’s baking, the sun hitting open spaces like a blow, but by 11.00 in the morning the roadside’s starting to get jammed. The riders aren’t due for another five hours.

We head down at about 3.30 in the afternoon, having sent an umbrella-ed, be-flagged advance party down to claim territory. Muscle in at the edge, between them and a bunch of plastered Basques (how did this get to be the richest region in Spain? They’re always drunk). The Union flag on the road, British bunting, nylon football tops, cheap lager, inappropriately large and brightly coloured trainers, and shouting all mark this out as a little corner of England in a hot and foreign land. I don’t spot any pickled eggs, bomb craters, cloth caps, plump ladies playing pianos in pubs, or ferrets, but they’re here in spirit.

And spirits are low, due to the rumour mongering. Then, thankfully, we’re all distracted by the arrival of the publicity caravan. Yippee! A chance to get loads of free plastic tat. I bag an inflatable beach pillow advertising a hire-car company, a money-changer’s shopping bag, a dog-food rubber keyring thing, a rubber wristband, and two sachets of fruit-drink sirop – though I do have to wrestle a small, fat child for the rare and sought-after tangerine-flavoured one.

Then, at last, the race arrives. Voeckler goes past looking, as always, like a demonic child. He’s ridden away from some of the world’s best riders, over four fearsome cols, 197km in 40 º heat. Tomorrow every French newspaper will have a photo of him on the front page. 

Then a group of three, then, a couple of minutes down, Nibali, Wiggins and Froome. They’re clearly moving faster up this final climb than anyone we’ve seen yet, or will see later, but Wiggins – Wiggins is smiling. I think at that point, with the hardest stage behind him and his biggest rival unable to shake him, he knew – rightly or wrongly – that the Tour was won.

The next day, Basso and Nibali do everything they can, but the Englishman won’t be shaken. In the end it’s Nibali who cracks, and Wiggins takes more time from him. The day’s marred by Froome’s showboating in the final kilometres, but nothing can really take the shine off it – barring disaster, Wiggins converts Olympic track gold into stage-racing yellow. I can’t, for now, think of a more incredible British sporting achievement. Answers on a postcard, please.

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