Awake at 4.30.
The last time this happened on the eve of a Tour was in 2003. My very first. That night we’d been housed near Les Invalides, not so far from the next day’s finish line. All throughout the long, dark hours before dawn, an outrageous summer storm had blown in and out of Paris, a last breath of wind before a heatwave settled over France which exacted a terrible toll; accounting for the deaths of nearly 15,000. Outside my window, a rogue branch from a plane tree tapped and scratched at the glass, clawing away at my fitful sleep.
It was, as I say, the night before I ever saw the Tour de France. I wasn’t to know it, of course, but the following day would change my life. It may seem preposterous to claim that a race can do such a thing; it sounds like I’m over-reaching. But there it is: An undeniable truth.
The three weeks that followed that restless Paris night whacked me around like a cartoon fop in a punch-up. Lifted by the collar, and pinned against the wall, I was powerless to resist the succession of face-slaps I was about to receive from a series of intense encounters: Armstrong, Alpe d’Huez, a massive crash in a sprint, Beloki on the road to Gap, Hamilton, Boonen, Millar, McEwen, McGee, Ullrich, a time trial in a cauldron, Luz-Ardiden, a deluge in Nantes, and Paris again, lit up as dusk began to settle on Armstrong’s fifth win*.
Nothing had prepared me for the richness of the experience I was about to be immersed in. Nothing could. This oddity of a race stands apart from anything else which fits into the realm of normal human endeavour. It makes little sense, and yet it has a perfect shape. It maddens and disappoints in the same way that it ensnares and impassions. It is both vast in scale and deeply human. It is quintessentially French yet spans the world. Pick your oxymoron, and slot it in.
Here I stand again, at the threshold of another Tour; my eighteenth in a row. Covid-19 has of course messed with the matrix to the extent that I cannot be in Nice, and instead find myself sleeping in a grand room in the picture-perfect Leeds Castle in Kent and broadcasting some nearby studios. This plush accommodation, after years of hilariously patchy French hotels in industrial estates is at once completely absurd and entirely in keeping with the pomposity and grandiose spirit of a race which looks at the world from above and celebrates it all: trees, roads, hills, rivers, fields, villages, towns, cathedrals and chateaux. Of course I am living in a moated castle! How could I not be? It’s the Tour de France.
Too much has been written already about the main contenders. Too many column inches have been devoted to sanitized hand-wringing about how long the race can possibly last. Let’s park those thoughts and simply watch this aberration of a race as it rolls out from the Promenade des Anglais. Let the riders have their turn now. They deserve our fullest attention.
I always say that my two decades of acquaintance with this race have taught me only one thing: The only certainty is that something totally unexpected will happen. Well, 2020 has got there first this time!
With these hastily penned thoughts I invite you, alongside Gary, Pete, Chris, David, Daniel, Matt and me (as well as the dozens of staff who make this work for you) to accompany us on another journey into the known unknown.
And nothing has changed, apart from everything.