Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Stage 8, Tour de France 2012

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This summer, European sports fans are enjoying having a non-stop schedule of top events hosted on the continent. Throughout the month of June, the Euro 2012 football tournament in Poland and Ukraine prompted a rash of mysterious work absences among fans, as well as a nightly racket in Geneva of whoops, car horns and plastic trumpets from the supporters of each night’s winning team. The Portuguese supporters were the loudest celebrants; the Spanish supporters were the next loudest, and in the end they celebrated two extra wins, including the all-important last one, when Spain clobbered Italy 4-0 in the final on July 1st.

Straddling the last few days of the Euro tournament, the Wimbledon tennis tournament began in London on June 25th and the Tour de France cycling race began in Belgium on June 28th. Later this month, London will host the 2012 Summer Olympics, starting on July 27th.

We do not have television, so the great European sports summer of 2012 has not occupied much of my time. I mention it because it is so visible in Geneva. For example, during the Euro 2012, half of the cars on the road had flags in their windows, as did several balconies in each apartment block. In the downtown crowds, national team jerseys were as common on young men as suits or black t-shirts. And every park was busy with men and boys of all ages kicking around the football.

After the transition to the Tour de France, the footballers disappeared from the parks, replaced by amateur cyclists on the road, all of them snapped into garish spandex outfits, cluttered with corporate logos.

Wimbledon was less visible – I guess I do not pass many tennis courts when I walk in Geneva – but nonetheless every corner store window was full of newspapers tracking Roger Federer’s progress through the tournament.

This past Sunday, July 8th, Eileen and I had the opportunity to participate in this European sporting summer, when our friends Isobel and Nick offered us seats in their car to go watch a Tour de France stage. We have wanted to do this since we arrived in Geneva, but during the previous two Tours, we were either on vacation or getting married.

After its start in Belgium, this year’s Tour spent its first week rolling through northern and eastern France before, on Sunday, its eighth stage climbed into the Jura Mountains and northern Switzerland. Although not as strenuous as the more famous mountain stages in the Alps and Pyrenees, stage 8 was the first mountain stage of this year’s Tour. Below is the map of the Tour’s entire route. You can see the stage 8 finish on the far right, in the Swiss town of Porrentruy:

Although I had never seen a Tour stage of any kind, I was glad to start with a mountain stage, as the climbs slow and disperse the riders, meaning you see them in smaller groups and for longer.  In addition, the strenuous climbs test the strength and will of all riders simultaneously, meaning that only in the mountain stages can you witness the drama of a rider reaching his breaking point, falling off the rear wheel and conceding time to his rivals. This is different from the flat stages, in which it is rare to see any time gaps at the finish, and which are generally decided in a mass sprint. Different too from the time trial stages, in which the riders compete individually against the clock.

Therefore, our goal on Sunday was to find a picnic spot on the steepest hill possible. Our plan was no more specific than that, as none of us knew this remote part of Switzerland, and the roads on or abutting the race route would be closed.

After running into a couple of closed roads, we found our way onto the race route and stopped in Saulcy, a little village on a beautiful ridge, just over halfway along the day’s route.

Saulcy lived up to what is my central attraction to the Tour de France:  the travelling fête organised by households, businesses and communities when the Tour passes through their town. Every year, the fête winds through cities, towns, villages and hamlets throughout France and its neighbouring countries. Its face changes along the way, reflecting the different communities on the route, but it also links all of them in a shared cultural and sporting experience. For some communities, the Tour passes rarely: in 2012, the Tour visits nine towns for the first time. Part of my fascination with the unifying fête is to imagine it moving through both geography and time; different from national holidays that are celebrated in all geographies on the same day.

When we arrived in Saulcy, families were arranging banquet tables in their driveways and decorating their properties with ribbons, balloons and banners. On a typical Sunday in Switzerland, everything is closed, but in the centre of Saulcy, the general store was open and a concession was busy selling drinks and baked goods. We were focussed on finding our viewing spot, so we did not linger in the village centre, but here is a photo of Isobel amid the decorations in front of the general store:

The next photo shows a decorated barn door near the village centre:

Just up from Saulcy, we found the crest of the Côte de Saulcy, which you can see at 97km in the stage profile below. It is a category 2 climb – the middle ranking.

Just over the crest, we placed our picnic blanket at the steepest point of the hill – a 14% incline – with a clear view down the hill.

Many of the spectators had the same ideas as us, so the roadsides were full of people, picnic blankets and lawn chairs. Also a row of tailgaters:

That said, the local community had prepared for a vastly larger crowd. Here is a photo of the parking lot they created in a field above the road:

Happy with our spot, we laid the picnic, poured the wine and prepared to enjoy the afternoon.

Isobel and Nick are both Australians and avid cyclists, two details that help explain their outfits:

Bel and Nick support Cadel Evans, the Australian rider who won the 2011 Tour. I was happy to join them in supporting Cadel, as the top Canadian rider, the aptly named Ryder Hesjedal of Victoria, had withdrawn from the race on the previous morning. He had fallen and hurt his leg in a scary 70km/h pileup during stage 6 that also forced a number of other riders out of the race. A subtext to Ryder’s withdrawal is that, like many other riders, he plans to compete in the Olympics next month, so likely had no interest in pushing through injury. Here is a video of the aftermath of the crash:

Canadians are a rare sight on the Tour, so it was a shame Ryder withdrew, doubly so because he was a top contender. He placed seventh in the 2010 Tour and, in May, he won the 2012 Giro d’Italia – the second most prominent cycling race in the world after the Tour de France. He won in dramatic fashion too, overtaking his rival in a time trial on the last day.  Ryder’s Giro win was the first by a Canadian in one of the three Grand Tours (Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España). Although he was unlikely to win this Tour de France so soon after the Giro, he would have liked his chances to become Canada’s highest ever finisher at the event: Steve Bauer finished fourth in 1988 and is so far the only Canadian ever to win a Tour stage and to wear the leader’s yellow jersey for a part of the race.

So – we were an adoptive cheering section for Australia and Cadel Evans. Probably a good choice, as the Australian contingent was surprisingly visible in the remote Jurassic village of Saulcy. For example, I have no idea how this Western Australian licence plate made the trip here, but I am pretty sure it means “go Cadel”:

Now that we had picked our spot and our team, all that remained was to await the riders’ arrival. Indeed, watching the Tour de France seems to have little to do with watching cycling. The vast majority of our day resembled a massive roadside picnic, rather than a race. To illustrate, here was our approximate schedule on Sunday:

9h30 – leave from Geneva

11h30 – arrive near the race route and begin scouting for the best vantage point

12h00 – park the car, drink a coffee and buy some groceries in Saulcy

13h00 – lay out the picnic blanket and break bread on the Côte de Saulcy

14h00 – the caravane (see below) begins

14h45 – the caravane ends

15h30 – helicopters overhead alert us that the riders are approaching

15h40 – the first rider rolls into view

16h00 – the last rider pedals out of view

16h30 – back in the car and driving out of Saulcy

17h00 – stop for drinks at a restaurant amid the pastures

19h30 – arrive back in Geneva

As you see, we watched cycling for 20 minutes in a 10-hour day. I am not complaining – I had a great time – but this is to stress that the Tour de France experience is more about how you occupy the free hours of your roadside picnic. I chose to wander around with my camera. The rest of our crew lounged and kept track of the approaching race on the iPad:

Our neighbours ate and drank all afternoon:

Many people spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon socialising with their friends:

Unfortunately the solitary German guy had to sit on the other side of the hill. By himself.

Naps were the order of the day for the amateur cyclists who had huffed up the hill on their bikes to watch:

Others used the spare time to catch up on bodily functions:

The Tour also seems to be a coveted opportunity for the police and emergency crews that patrol the route and follow the peleton. The clue for me was that the text on the Swiss police uniforms were in all three of the main Swiss languages – Police, Polizei, Polizia – suggesting that policemen from distant parts of Switzerland had all clambered to work the Tour’s two brief forays into their country.

Just after 14h, a buzz began – it’s the caravane! The caravane is a parade that travels ahead of the Tour, in which sponsors can advertise themselves or distribute branded swag. It began in the year 1930 and has remained a fixture in the event. I suppose in bigger Tour stops, there might be elaborate floats, but in Saulcy, the caravane was composed mostly of brightly painted cars, from which smiling women threw cheap stuff into the crowd. Many French people apparently claim they come to watch the Tour as much for the caravane as for the cycling. Here is a typical swag car:

No one seemed to know what this guy was advertising:

I found it amusing, but if at some point sponsors spent time and money on their floats and swag, those days are definitely in the past. The following photo shows the only float with any imagination. The woman’s name on the marquee is a play on words with “finish line.”

Spaced throughout the caravane are official merchandise vans that stop to sell Tour programs and loot bags for 20 Swiss francs.

After the caravane passed… more waiting.

At last! VRRROOOM – the line of official cars preceded the riders.

At 15h40, the Swedish rider Fredrik Kessiakoff of the Astana team pedalled into view at the head of the race. He was leading the latest in a number of breakaways that occurred throughout the afternoon.

Kessiakoff did not end up winning the stage, but by topping a few of the hills first, he took over the King of the Mountains title, which, in my opinion has the best jersey: red polka dots, instead of the boring solid colours of the other jerseys. Unfortunately, the rider wearing the KotM jersey at the time, Chris Froome, was hidden from the view of my camera, so here is an image of the jersey on its own:

A small chase group followed, approximately 20 seconds behind Kessiakoff.

In the above photo, the white jerseys in second and third place belong to the FDJ-BigMat team. To the best of my deductive powers, the eventual stage winner Thibault Pinot is the rider in third, looking over his teammate’s shoulder. By winning the stage, Pinot became an overnight sensation: he is the first Frenchman to win a stage this year; he is the Tour’s youngest rider at 22; and he was the more-or-less-local boy in stage 8, hailing from Mélisey, a town 100km away in France.

Almost as much of a sensation as Pinot’s riding was his hysterical coach: hanging out the window of his car to scream at him over the last few hundred metres, as the pack closed in behind him:

The peleton followed closely behind the chase group. At its head, yellow jersey holder Bradley Wiggins and his Sky teammates comfortably controlled the pace and kept the leaders in view.

I know little about race strategy in cycling, but I know that the Tour de France winners, whatever their individual strengths, are often also surrounded by the strongest team. My 30-second glimpse of the peleton on Sunday convinced me that Bradley Wiggins will win the 2012 Tour de France going away. In the above photo, you can see Wiggins riding comfortably, drafting behind three strong teammates.

By contrast, Wiggins’s main rival Cadel Evans was buried in the pack, with no teammates to protect him. Cadel is the BMC rider with the lime green shoes in the middle of the photo below. Evans is no doubt one of the strongest riders, and indeed burst forward later in stage 8 to place second, but it remains to be seen if his team can compete with Team Sky as the individual riders tire over the three weeks, especially in the big mountain stages later in the Tour.

Race leader Wiggins commented after stage 8 that it had reminded him of junior racing, due to a succession of uncoordinated breakaways attempted by small groups. That had scattered the peleton and made for a chaotic day, including an innocuous looking  crash that sent Sammy Sanchez, the cycling gold medallist at the 2008 Olympics, to hospital with broken bones. His injuries will likely prevent him from defending his Olympic title in London next month.

In general, the chaotic day and our position on a steep hill showed us plenty of tired cyclists. These are world class athletes who train for this terrain, but their suffering is nonetheless evident on their faces.

This rider was in enough difficulty that his team car pulled him along – no doubt this is cheating. I doubt the Tour watches for little incidents like this behind the peleton, but you can see that the spectators do not think too highly of this rider’s tactic:

As the peleton passed us, I had expected to hear the hum of a hundred chains and two hundred wheels. How naive: the sound that accompanies the peleton is a jumbled roar composed of cheers, support vehicles and the overhead television helicopters.

In fact, in the modern Tour de France you no longer need to keep an eye on opponents ahead of you. Along with your team car relaying race information to you through your earpiece, the helicopters over the peleton tell you where you stand. If you hear them, the peleton is just ahead. If you don’t, it’s time to dig in or give up.

After the noise of the helicopters subsided, we spectators milled onto the road, wondering “is that it?” and shooting our souvenir photos.

“Wait – here come more riders! It’s the sprinters!” A medium sized group rolled into view at the bottom of the hill. The group included British rider Mark Cavendish, a sprinting specialist who won last year’s green jersey, which is given to the rider who wins the most points in the sprint segments that are sprinkled throughout the stages. Many of the riders in the Tour specialise in only one of the three types of Tour stages – sprints, climbs or time trials – and are not competitive in the other types. So even in a moderate mountain stage like the one we were watching, the sprinters decided that they could not compete for the stage win, and coasted up until the sprint section that began just after Saulcy, where they would burst. Stragglers like this have to be careful: if you finish more than a certain margin behind the stage winner, you are removed from the race. But these guys were well within the margin and were chugging their big sprinters’ legs up the hill. I think Cavendish is the one in the white Sky jersey and the yellow helmet.

After the group of sprinters came the voiture-balai – the broom car – signifying that no more riders were to come. We chatted a bit about the race and moved slowly back to the car. Many of the Swiss spectators rushed off, hoping to catch some of the men’s Wimbledon final, featuring Mr. Switzerland, Roger Federer. The Swiss fans were rewarded by a comprehensive and historic Federer victory. And the great European sports summer of 2012 rolls on…


Written by Kris Terauds

July 12, 2012 at 08:42

One Response

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  1. Interesting! or Kewl! Speaking of cyclists, have you caught up on the latest in the Lance Armstrong saga?? Mike

    Mike Palmer

    July 12, 2012 at 15:29

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