The Tour is passing nearby, along a ribbon of road marked with scenic Michelin green, and you dare to venture out on your Honda of a bike among the Vespas and Lambrettas of the spectating French, who take their cycling quite as seriously as the competitors. There is no mistaking the occasional Gallic sneer at the sight of your high street model and your ill-maintained moving parts, not to mention your hairy legs. Puzzling by the wayside at the lack of correlation between your map and the reality of the roads it details, you are taken in hand by one of the innumerable lifelong cyclists to be found on French roads. Following the man’s greying hair and blood red face, he and his sixties racer push you and your eighties frame to some effort of pursuit, until, finding your rhythm, you take his wheel and tuck into his slipstream. Parked cars and hoards of cycles line a junction with the route, which is already swarming with spectators though the race is still an hour away. Chatting a little with the man, he gives you the benefit of his Tour-watching experience, and picks a spot to view the passing riders to best advantage, preferring an uphill slope for the work you and he will see them putting in.
First comes an extensive cavalcade, the spectacle that serves to build to a climax the appearance of the cyclists. Patiently the purists see out an hour of cars, lorries and vans; who knows how essential or otherwise each is. Police cars come first, then there are lorries like overfast carnival floats which belong to a variety of sponsors and are personelled by hand-picked specimens of humanity aglow with vicarious attention, leaders of the leaders of the pack. They throw little gifts – souvenir booklets, t-shirts, pennants, flags – to the outstretched arms, like peanuts to monkeys; one vehicle slows to hand out cans of drink and then speeds away distributing peaked caps. You catch one thrown right at you, bright red with the message in white logo lettering: ‘Buvez Coca-Cola’. The answer to your headgear prayers, could you bring yourself to wear it.
Next up is the media circus, vans belonging to the papers, radio and television, all with hand-held devices and mobiles in self-important evidence. Following the hacks are team vans and cars roof-racked with new frames and wheels, then race organisers giving ETAs and pronouncing on spectator safety.
The buzz of a tv helicopter is the first indication of the approach of the race. Surrounded by a platoon of vehicles, police motorbikes with blue lights flashing, and under the microscope of a van proudly announcing its exclusive tv rights are three cyclists out on their own. The man with the sixties racer tells you that the leader is a Norman, and with every roar that greets him, he flashes physical menace, toiling with confident intent into the afternoon sun. At his heels are two similar faces, but these show hints of the pain of an inward struggle. It takes no more than thirty seconds for the other 180-odd competitors who form the peloton to pass, and you lose sight of the individual physical battles in a sea of pumping limbs and apparently expressionless faces. Amid the welter of sun reflecting on chrome and fluorescent lycra flashes, you catch leg muscles like overblown inner tubes and heavy lidded eyes which take in nothing of the endless landscape. Gangly bodies soldered to the stripped aesthetic of their machines, gone in the blink of an eye au Havre.
You shake hands with the senior cycling citizen and move off to explore a nearby château, but the outer stone is as lost to you today as the inner decor would be – dreaming as you are of the glories of sprint and climb, of breakaways and the maillot jaune.