10 things to miss about the Tour de France

1. France

France
France. Scenery and character in equal measure.

Possibly the worlds most beautiful country, of which the Tour de France makes fantastic  use. From the Alps to the Pyraness, from Gap to Bordeaux, from the Sunflower fields to the dry dusty villages that would be missed with a blink of an eye, everything I love most about Europe can be delivered in one beautiful package. This year’s evening finish in Paris gave a fitting and proud end to the Le Tour’s 100th anniversary.

2. The French

The French
French farmers welcome the tour. A nice touch.

Standing at the side of the road cheering and waving for weeks on end, they love this race and their pride is always evident. They close the roads and give all the children the day off school to support the tour as it comes through their town or village. In recent years they have taken to making huge collages, models or celebrations in fields or on roundabouts, that they take the time to do these things speaks volumes for their love of this event and their delight at the attention afforded them – and just how much Armstrong must have let them down. Also, the French seem to be a genuinely proud nation, unlike ourselves whose pride manifests itself as a veneer of right wing plastic flag waving.

3. Ligget and Sherwin

Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin
Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin. The sound of European cycling.

The sound of European cycling. Their voices are as comforting now as they were in the eighties when they used to commentate over radios. Nobody knows more about cycling than these two and their commentary is intrinsic to the tour for English speakers throughout the continent. They know most of the riders and have an unparalleled level of insight into the mindset of the race, not to mention historical updates about the locale as the peleton passes through. Phil Liggett was the guest of honour at the CC Sudbury club dinner in 1988, he signed my Z Peugeot cap and described my brother as “A promising young rider”.

4. Time gap chalkboard

Time gap chalkboard
Time Gap Claire. The best summer job ever.

Not as important in recent years due to technological advances, the yellow chalkboard sponsered by LCL is updated by a pillion (Claire) on the back of a motorbike. In the eighties it was an essential for all riders in a breakaway and the camera would pan to it every 30 seconds. The race radio has replaced it but LCL have kept hold of it for advertising purposes, in recent years it was a race official, now it’s a cute French girl called Claire. Great.

5. Men

Johnny Hoogerland
Dutch pro cyclist Johnny Hoogerland, the “Bull of Beveland. He finished the stage before getting 70 stitches.

Been knocked into a barbed wire fence at 40mph and need 70 stiches? Fine, but you’ll finish the stage first. Crack your pelvis on the second stage? It’s only another three weeks racing to Paris via the Pyranees and the Alps. It’s an insult to call football a girls game because women usually do a better job at dealing with pain than men. Soccer players like Gareth Bale however should maybe take a look at what goes on outside the sheltered and pampered world of European football.

6. Domestiques

Allan Peiper
Legendary Aussie domestique Allan Peiper.

The worker bees who can bee seen going back to the team car for supplies before dragging their team leaders up the hardest climbs. The ultimate in sacrifice, these blokes will do practically anything to keep their leaders supplied and happy. They’ll give up their water, food, their bikes and run themselves into the ground for the cause. Cav, Froome and Wiggo are nothing without these guys. Respect.

7. Bernard Hinault

Bernard Hinault
“The Badger” dispatching a French protester during the 1984 Paris-Nice

Always present, tanned and well dressed. Five times winner of the tour , “The Badger” is always on hand to sort out the trophies at prize giving or throw his weight around if there’s a pesky protester trying to hijack proceedings. The tour simply wouldn’t be the same without him around.

8. Independant Television

Free for all, bore off SKY with your stupid 3d glossy graphics and your overpriced advert fest. Channel 4 kicked off the coverage in the 80s and handed the baton over to ITV4 when cycling became mainstream. They’ve made it what it is and deserve to keep it. Although the stunning HD images we see are courtesy of French television and despite Gary Imlach it’s ITV4 that has packaged this together to make it so watchable. The BBC need to stay well away, remember the shambles of the Olympic road race?

9. Podium girls

Tour Hostesses
Tour Hostesses in Yellow

Impossibly beautiful French women that probably don’t exist. Exquisitely turned out and as at home on Mt Ventoux in 35 degrees as they in in the pouring Brittany rain . Two or three kisses depending on the region and smile at the cameras, French style personified.

10. Every dog has his day

Dag Otto Lauritzen
Dag Otto Lauritzen wins his stage in the Pyrenees at Luz-Ardiden on Bastille Day, 14 July 1987

Every year, at least one stage is won by an unknown rider who gives it a go, makes a lone breakaway and spends several hours in the saddle to win a stage and put his local town on the map. For such riders this is the highlight of their career, they can spend the rest of their days as a domestique before retiring home to lord it up in front of the people they went to school with. As my brother Ben pointed out, on the afternoon of 14 July 1987 Dag Otto Lauritzen spent the entire afternoon out on his own whilst we were sat in a suburban Essex classroom. Every dog has his day.