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Jul. 12, 2011
In Pictures: The Tour de France Crowds
This just came our way from Mark Johnson who’s spending July in France with the Garmin-Cervélo squad. Mark offers a nice look at a day in the small town of Bordessoule, along the route of the 2011 Tour de France.

Until you’ve seen the crowds, it’s difficult to appreciate just how much the Tour de France is part of the fabric of French life. Here’s a peek.

Stage eight, a 117-mile run from Aigurande to Super-Besse Sancy, passes through the rolling, wooded countryside where the Loire Valley meets the mountains of the Massif Central. We roll out of our rustic hotel in Nohont—which is where one of France’s most famous writers, George Sand, wrote the bulk of her 19th-Century work—and drive down a two-lane road toward the hamlet of Bordessoule.


Though it’s 8:30 in the morning and the race doesn’t come through until 12:40 pm, Bordessoule is filling with people. Someone set up a beer and wine stand in their front yard. They will do business today.


The road attenuates into a web of farm lanes. Two cars, even little European ones, cannot pass on these tractor paths. Cows look on behind stone walls as they have since the days when Sand entertained composers Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt in her slice of provincial heaven.

We dead end at the race course, where a farmer has decorated the front of his maison with three bicycle wheels painted in the colors of the French flag. This is no simple endeavor. The wheels are 20 feet in the air and cantilevered at an angle. In France, if it’s worth doing, it’s done with style. His wife wears a yellow Tour de France shirt. Their German shepherd paces behind her, then lays down in the gravel driveway for a nap.


Along the course, families install themselves and their folding tables in forest alcoves. Laden with bread, cheese, wine and beer, these tables bear the trappings of celebration and feast.

Three hours before the race arrives, official TdF merchandise vans scour the course with blaring megaphones. They sell souvenir bags for 20 Euros. A yellow feed bag, a hat, a t-shirt, some trinkets. Imagine how much these vans sell over the Tour’s 2,341 miles.


The Tour shwag vans disappear, and half an hour later a couple of police motorcycles materialize. A team of kids in blue riding kits bicycle past in a smiling pack. It’s a development team riding portions of the course in advance of the pros. The Tour de France looks forward as well as behind. Imagine the effect this will have on their lives, and how it may inspire other kids along the way to pick up their bikes, ride France’s endless bike-perfect lanes, enter a race, find a passion, perhaps a profession.

After the blue riders, except for the murmur of voices rising from the crowd, it’s silent. Only singing birds in the trees and the distant bark of a dog, muffled by its passage across rolling fields and wooded creeks.


Until Lady Gaga arrives. You can hear her from afar, like a Paris nightclub uncorked in the ruralest of rural France.

The highlight of the day for the kids gathered with their parents and grandparents is here—the publicity caravan. Blaring music and calling out wares like a parade of carnival barkers, it takes a half hour to pass. Advertising everything from car tires to bottled propane, it’s is a bacchanalian eruption of commerce and stuff flung to the fans. The highlight is the Vittel trucks, where lithe women strapped into giant water bottles hang upside down and spray water from wands.

An old man wanders down to the race course. Back bent, arthritic hands crumpled over the end of two canes forged of tree branches, disheveled coat. It’s as if he stepped out of a Dickens novel. He cries out in an unintelligible local dialect, invites a hand shake, and carries on to the race.


A British family approaches, shows a map, asks how to cross the race course. It’s impossible I tell them. You have to go around, over the top of the race start in Aigurande then back down. This is the land of slow; no motorways to speed you from task to task. It’s as if the rumpled landscape conspires to preserve the bucolic essence of the Loire Valley.

About 10 minutes to noon, noodling horns approach. This is the pack of press and team cars that drive the course in advance of the riders. The fans wave at everything and everyone who passes. It’s all a prelude to the main event.


The red Tour de France Skoda car signals the start of the big show. It leads a break of eight riders. Cheering crowds will carry these aspirants onward for the entire stage and the peloton will reel them in like tropical fish on a long line. All, that is, save Movistar’s Rui Costa, who stays away for the win.

A few minutes later the field rolls through. An Astana rider at the point, with Garmin-Cervélo’s Ryder Hesjedal just behind and to the right race leader Thor Hushovd in yellow. The field rushes by in a watercolor blur, lifting the windbreakers of a cheering little girl and boy who woke up at dawn to be here, at the Tour.


Then comes the long line of team cars, barreling into corners with squealing tires. Stone-faced directors in the driver’s seat, exhausted mechanics pretzeled into the back seat with a nest of spare wheels.


The broom wagon passes, still empty. The race is over on this slip of backroad France, but not really. Blessed by its physical presence, back at home and in cafes, the crowd will tune in and watch the race finish next to the ski lifts of Super-Besse Sancy. The greatest sporting event on earth having woven another strand into the cloth of their lives.

In 2011 Mark Johnson is writing and photographing a book on Garmin-Cervélo to be published by VeloPress in early 2012. You can follow his travels with the team on Twitter.
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Le Sensation American
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We like getting our heart rates up, taking a big breath of fresh air, savoring delicious food. But we also love telling stories and here's where we type 'em up. (BTW, it works both ways; leave a comment—please and thank you.)

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