My feet are soaked, as I pull them clear of the offending puddle I look up and am greeted by a cacophony of noise and colour. Bright shirts and flags are everywhere, a drunk dutchman cavorts across the narrow path in front of me, flower-patterned shirt open, bare chest exposed with a can of lager in one hand, and an unintelligible song upon his lips.
This is not the start of some riotous festival upon the banks of Amsterdam’s canals, these are my first steps upon the streets of Morzine for the finale of the Tour de France’s 14th stage, and I am instantly infatuated.
The baking sun has burnt off the morning’s threat of thunder, and the oppressive Alpine heat only adds to the sense of frenzy, and anticipation that accompanies the greatest sporting event in the world.
We jostle our way to the barriers at the 75m line. Never have I seen so many people, united in such camaraderie at a sporting event. Though the Danish cheer for Vingegaard, the British for Pidcock or Wright and the French for Pinot, there is none of the animosity of a football crowd. Instead, people respectfully make way for families with children or those with bikes.
A truly international carnival somehow shows France in all its glory. English, Dutch, Danish and French jokes are hurled from one group of spectators to another, all to a beat dictated by French race commentary and Euro-pop blasted from sound systems attached to every single lamppost.
The excitement is palpable, building up for hours as people sit, drink and smoke at the roadside. The first rush as the caravan comes roaring through, a hundred vehicles of wildly differing specifications. Each designed to promote a different sponsor, and each greeted with a cheer as the crowd scrambles to collect the tat hurled from these speeding metallic beasts, directed and cast by beautiful French men and women alternately screaming commercial songs into microphones, or dancing ridiculously to pop anthems.
Never have I seen strawberry, melon or bottle-shaped vehicles induce such a welcome. Children and adults squeal in unbridled joy at their victories. A packet of Haribo’s here, a themed tea towel there. All of which will be cast aside in a few months as pointless clutter, yet in that moment there is no greater victory than grasping hold of the merchandise flung to the riotous crowd. The environmental repercussions of this rampant capitalism deserve considerable rumination yet in that moment, even the staunchest environmentalist would struggle to not get swept up by the current of materialism.
But the frenzy of the caravan is nothing compared to the bacchanal that occurs once the race itself rushes through.
And what a race it was, one of the greatest stages in recent memory. It has everything, a breakaway hauled in, controversy, the two greatest bike riders in the world tearing chunks out of each other on a steep climb and a rider coming from nowhere to claim the stage and climb the GC rankings.
I followed the race in the only way possible, ducking into various cafes and bars to catch snapshots of the rider’s progress. Encouraged constantly by the enraptured crowd.
The first roar erupts as Pogacar attacks on the final climb, cries of ‘COME ON POG’ matched only by groans from the Danes. For a moment the Maillot Jaune hangs in the balance, as Pogacar opens up a gap of just a few seconds.
But Vingegaard keeps his own inexorable pace, and a louder cheer ripples through the spectators crowded around a TV loosely hanging from a café window. Vingegaard has bridged across to Pogacar, and looks, for all the world, as though he might escape the irrepressible Slovenian.
But the white jersey hangs on, as the honking of horns induces another rush from the café to the barriers to catch more promotional rubbish flung from the caravan.
A ripple goes through the crowd, drawing me back to a television screen like a tractor beam just in time to see Pog’s mammoth attack cut short by an errant motorcycle. A groan of ecstatic agony escapes the breathless crowd as a race-winning move is ripped away from them.
Bare seconds later, the noise soars again as Vingegaard launches himself across the summit of the Col de Joux Plane to claim the bonus seconds. Pogacar responds with an assault of pure fury into the descent.
Every single person is dripping with anticipation. I tear myself away from the screen, jostling for position at the roadside, readying my Road Book emblazoned banner and waiting, every muscle tense with excitement, for the greatest cyclists in the world to pass mere feet ahead of me.
Less than 10 minutes later, the last motorbikes rip down the course, and suddenly the noise which has been bubbling away all day reaches its cacophonic zenith as the first rider sweeps around the corner ahead of me and up towards the 500m line where we are now stood.
I can hardly believe it as the red and blue jersey of one Carlos Rodriguez whips past me, and I’ve barely enough time to process what has changed before the trio of Adam Yates, Tadej Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard peddle furiously in his wake.
I have heard that in battle, in the violence of combat, soldiers experience an extreme and sudden slowing of time as an adrenaline spike reduces their awareness to the immediate, every minute event exposed in a desperate, primal desire to survive.
After the agony of suspense over the last hours, and with the blistering heat of the Alpine sun baking my skull I experience something similar. The riders, jerseys splattered with dirt, seem to slow down, and I see every single detail. The whites of their eyes staring out through dust blackened faces, mouths hanging open, chests heaving, desperate for air; every vein upon their forearms raised, pumping the blood necessary to keep their bodies at the very limit of human endurance. Pogacar’s dry and cracked lips caked with white lather from his herculean effort. I feel as though I can hear their breath and the pounding of their hearts, smell the sweat. Though of course I can’t, deafened by the crowd and nose blind as I am.
But in a second, they’re gone, up the road towards the finish at an unimaginable speed. The crowd around us surges back to the television, desperate to catch the last few seconds. Rodriguez has obviously won the stage, but did Pogacar manage to reduce the 9 second deficit in the GC race? No, in fact, due to the time bonuses on offer, the gap has widened by a solitary second.
We don’t stay to watch the rest of the peloton dribble in. Dazed by the cocktail of emotion still coursing through me, I follow my friends and guides through the back streets of Morzine, as we find a way to cross to the bus stop and make our way home.
Both then and now, I am struck by the intimacy of the experience. At the oldest and greatest bike race in the world, the largest sporting event, even the average spectator is afforded a closeness to their heroes which is inconceivable in any other sport.
As we wander, trying to cross the long human barricade of the gendarmerie, I come within a hand’s breadth of the riders, rolling slowly towards their team buses. Wout van Aert, a man who’s riding has caused the very hairs on my neck to rise at time watching from TV, pedals past at a snail’s pace, weaving his way through an exuberant crowd as though he were simply on his way to pick up a loaf of bread from the local supermarket.
It is unbelievably surreal. Fred Wright is hailed by some fans from Herne Hill and stops for a chat. Describing his crash earlier in the race, disarmingly calm as blood drips slowly from an open gash, soiling his kit and dropping to congeal in the dust beneath his feet.
A mechanic wheels Vingegaard’s bike, the number 1 emblazoned upon a plastic pinon attached to the saddle pole, through the packed streets. Spectators stop and point, share conspiratorial words as one of the worlds most valuable bikes is paraded before them without fanfare.
The spirit of the Tour is still very much the heart of the experience. It feels ancient in every conceivable way. The dirt which covers every surface, the connection to the athletes themselves and the absolute chaos of its organisation. It is an adventure, even just to stand by the side and watch the combatants pass. A sporting experience unmatched in all my short life, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The TV (despite Ned Boulting's excellent commentary) simply cannot do it justice.
The Tour de France is France at its peak. A primal carnival of noise, an orgy of joy, heat and beer induced delirium.
The greatest sporting event in the world by more than a bike length, and I shall return year after year for as long as I possibly can.
It is beauty and fury incarnate.
Written by Henrick, a member of the Road Book team.
In the writing of this piece, I owe a few thank yous to people.
Firstly, to Susie, Paul, Xav, and Alex, who’s hospitality and generosity not only made my visit possible, but an experience of fantastic joy, and who’s photography graces this piece.
To Ned, who gave me the opportunity to work on The Road Book and thus led me to discover the beauty of road cycling. I’m afraid I’m hooked. See you next year for a stage or two I suppose.
To my parents, for you know, raising me.