Fatty, our intrepid forty something buyer was lucky enough to be invited to watch stage 10 of the Tour de France by the good people of Garmin. All attempts for him to tell us his itinerary and scheduled helicopter trip without smiling failed miserably, as did his claims that this wasn’t a ‘jolly’ and was in fact an important business trip…Yeah right! Luckily for him and the office harmony, no-one was in the least bit jealous and we all were delighted for him and wished him well on his trip. The following is an account of his experiences and for the record, when we heard that his travel arrangements had led to a tortuous car journey over the Alps, we didn’t laugh….honest!
Every story has a starting point an event or action that kick starts a chain of events, sometimes like here it is very tangible, sometimes it’s lost in the midst of time. This story, well this chapter finishes with stage 10 of the Tour de France on July 14th , France’s National Day.
But it starts in 2008 when Garmin announced sponsorship of the Jonathan Vaughters, Slipstream team. Garmin who were keen to expand on their leisure GPS systems already had some bike related products, but working with the team the development of the Garmin Edge 500 unit became a necessity. (A performance computer with the ability to pick up secondary systems running the ANT+ software; namely power meters). The introduction of the 500 has changed the perceptions of many on what to expect from a cycle computer and it has seen a massive surge in sales for us here at PBK, a surge so strong I was invited to be a guest of the Garmin-Transitions team for stage ten of the tour. Seeing the tour and a behind the scenes a look at the tour organization and a unique view of life on the road.
Stage 10 was classed as ‘transitional’, but had the prospect of a very hard day what with 35 degree sunshine and strong winds, the riders at the start were worried, especially after the ripping apart of the race on stage 9 and of course being Bastille day, the French where expected to attack, attack, attack! With the first ascent of the day, the steep Côte de Laffrey that leaves Vizille after 77km of flat but windy open roads, followed by the Col du Noyer, a Cat 2 – 7.4km ascent of 5.3%, that has the same tricky descent where Joseba Beloki crashed in 2003, the prospect was mouthwatering and I would be lucky enough to watch from a tour helicopter (still not managing to smile much!)
In the event the French failed to deliver and with the peloton content to sit the day out no doubt resting for the next high mountain conflict, the race to the line was between Radio Shacks, Sergio Paulinho (the eventual winner) and Caisse d’Epargne’s Vasili Kiryienka.
However, the race profile and race reports are available to everyone so I was after something different, a view not from the side of the road or even from the pack but an insider overview…..
There is an adage in the UK, P### Poor Planning = P### Poor Performance. This is true, but you have to be able to adapt and Garmin had done an excellent job of arranging the flight details, but Swiss air threw a spanner in the works. Their flight out of London delaying us to such a extent, that we missed our connection in Zurich which resulted in our brilliant Garmin host (big cheer for Julie) driving us 400km through the Swiss Alps to get to our hotel (our un-air conditioned Hotel) at a reasonable hour. At this point, all of the non-jealous office staff raised a slight cheer!
So, it’s 30degrees at night and 35 during the day. When Will, (an ex-Garmin team rider) and Brandy our tour guides turn up in the morning in the Garmin team van (our transport for the next few hours) the first topic of conversation is the heat. What is surprising (and if you are a pampered Sky rider probably not applicable) but for a lot of the teams and for a lot of the nights, they too are in fetid hotels with no air-con and sometimes 3 to a room. Lets just pause and think about that, 7hours riding across the Alps, forcing a route through screaming fans as you climb another alpine gradient in 35 degree heat, your tyres sticking to the treacle like tarmac as some well meaning member of the crowd hands you a bottle of juice you mistake for water, a mistake you only realise after pouring the warm sticky contents over your scalding head. 50km to go, hot and sticky, the road rash from the previous days crash stinging and stretching and the prospect of just making the cut if , if you just push a little harder. Then a night sharing a airless room with 2 team mates in an attempt to recover in time for the next days battle… think about that, let it sink in, there just isn’t a tougher sport and this is everyday for 3 weeks. For one race this would be harsh, but a lot of these guys just did the Giro they may be doing the Veulta as-well and even if they aren’t, they are racing or away training for 200-250 nights a year ….
The tour caravan employs 450 staff (mainly students), throwing to a wild crowd, hats and sweets, mini sausages and cakes, hats and giant foam hands. Setting off 2 hours before the riders they bring the crowd to a frenzy with their promotional material. Watching from the relative safety of the Garmin van (happily air conditioned and windows closed) you have to wonder what that guy will do, with his 6 polka dot cycling caps and why he and 12 others defy death by running into the road to retrieve them. There is a strict order to the caravan, (the more you pay the better the position) with the vehicles staggered left to right to allow officials and the Gendarmerie access if required, the caravan has its own director, an assistant, 3 motorcyclists, 2 radio technicians, a breakdown and a medical crew, plus six garde republicaine police outriders. The whole caravan is controlled and positioned using GPS and air support, being none of the above we needed permission to scythe through the odd collection of motorized plastic chickens and ubiquitous collection of beetle convertibles. However being in France, permission is achieved by shrugs and waves and we were soon playing a crazy live game of frogger in what looked like a Hollywood scripted car chase. Advertisers pay approx 150,000 euros to place 3 vehicles in the caravan plus the cost of the samples (usually 3 to 5 thousand items a day). It’s a lot of money, but this was the 80th year the caravan had been giving out gifts so clearly it works (well in France anyhow).
In 2009 there where 2477 journalists covering the event for 186 countries, there’s the caravan staff, the daily VIPs and the hangers on. All have to be fed and the race organization supply hampers for all. The menu rotated in 4 day cycles and every hamper is for one use only (the logistics off collection clearly outweighing the cost). There is also food supplied again free for the armband wearers at the start village and the finish.
Moments after the last rider crosses the line and sometimes well before, the show starts shutting down for the next day. The village is massive, but the guys doing it are well rehearsed. What about all the guests? Well we all need to be ferried from the finish back to the start or on to the next town (stages rarely start and finish in the same town), so the society has at hand a fleet of buses with more hampers more beer, more water and more smiling staff….
After our Lunch there was to be the highlight of the stage (for me) a trip back up the mountain in a helicopter and then on to Gap to see the finish. Again this is a big operation, with 6 helicopters plus the TV and officials flying over the riders, ferrying guest and VIP’s around. So a most excellent experience and thank youGarmin and the Garmin – Transitions team, an experience of a lifetime and a chance to see the work behind the tour and everyone, every cycling fan should at some time stand on an Alp in the sunshine fighting for a free cap and a cake shouting for there hero, but between you and me, you get a much better view on the telly, better even than in a helicopter (shhhhhhh but don’t tell anyone I still want to do it again next year…………….
From the left Will (ex Garmin Pro had the inside scoop and rally like driving skills), Julie from Garmin UK the perfect chaperone and Brandy from Garmin America our guide through the tour village and co pilot in the van.
One final thought. The riders who make it to the start have achieved something great. They may suffer heat, broken bones, agony and they may never get a stage win or to wear a leader’s jersey, but they have done something few people will ever achieve; they have ridden in the Tour De France. Fewer riders can say that they have rode the TDF in the last ten years than there are journalists on one stage and the girls and boys in the caravan. They get to play in front of 15million people in 3 weeks and some reports say there was 3 million people at stage one of this years tour alone, what band have ever achieved that?
No, my heart goes out to one man, a man who stands head and shoulders above everyone else, a man who finishes the tour leaner than Andy Schleck, the only man to finish his 3 weeks paler than when he started in fact a man with the complexion of a vampire, a man with the toughest job! 35 degree heat for the riders , well at least they generate a breeze. This man is constantly cheery and receives no glory. My hero for the Tour de France…..
As for the presents that our intrepid colleague brought us on his return….. A sweaty Musette, some rancid meat products and 3 day old French newspaper! Thanks!