Compressed by the huge crowd, with a child in each hand, I can see people’s chests, armpits, and the top of my children’s heads; but very little of stage 3 of the Tour De France I have come to watch. My children are moaning – understandably – that they are hot, but they can’t escape the heat of the crowd; they want to sit down, but there’s no space on the pavement and they can’t see a thing except for people’s groins! In stark contrast, two years before in the Midi-Pyrénées, we positioned ourselves wherever we liked on the sparsely-populated street. Picnic in hand, residents offered us their chairs to sit in and we had an enviable view of the publicity caravan, the pick of the flying gizmos, as well as an up close and personal view of the peloton; with amazing photographs to boot!
Same event, different country! My experiences of watching the Tour de France, cycling’s biggest and most prestigious stage race in the world, in Britain and in France are vastly different! In 2012, we watched the Tour de France in the Midi-Pyrénées. Strategically-positioned towards the top of a hilly road so that we would get a longer view of the peloton, we were there early enough to soak in the sights: witnessing local French residents gradually appearing from their houses; coffee mugs, wine glasses and deckchairs in tow, this was clearly an annual and leisurely event! With relatively few spectators lining the road, when the publicity caravan arrived, my children were inundated with gizmos flying through the air: mini packs of sweets, mini pens, mini baguettes, mini sausages; our picnic quickly lost its allure (for the children) to more exciting treats! And such was the relaxed vibe that many gizmos falling near local residents’ feet, were brought over to our children with a welcoming smile.
Fast-forward two years and we were delighted that the Tour De France was coming to Britain. We saw on television how the UK embraced the Tour’s Grand Départ in Yorkshire, with two million people turning up to watch the most-northerly stage in history! Eagerly, we took the children along to Cambridge for stage 3 and fighting our way through the crowds, it immediately became apparent that we could not expect the same carefree French experience. The crowd, in its thousands, was heaving, noisy and vibrant. The unprecedented excitement was palpable in the air, but with constant jostling from the crowd, shouting reverberating through my ears and having my nose pressed into armpits (a drawback to being short!) whichever direction I turned, it was a completely different experience to France. Impossible to not get caught up in the frantic excitement, yet with such a poor view of the actual event! Whipping the crowd into even more of a frenzy, the publicity caravan made its debut; with its blaring music and many elaborately-crafted vehicles and dancing occupiers throwing gizmos into the crowd. Watching people – mostly adults – scrambling for the sparingly-issued (for a crowd of this size) freebies flying through the air, you would think the small packets contained French Champagne, or some exquisite French chocolate samples, rather than Bic biros or Haribo sweets!
Two weeks later, whilst holidaying in France, we decided we couldn’t miss the opportunity to watch stage 15 which was passing nearby. Although not as quiet as our experience in the Midi-Pyrénées in 2012, this was still a more dignified, less frantic experience than in Cambridge. Residents and holiday-makers watched the peloton, coffee in hand, from their café chairs or street-side, but pretty much everyone got a front row view if they wanted to! The only erratic behaviour I witnessed in this laid-back environment was a man irresponsibly leaning into the peloton with his camera. Seriously what was he thinking…!