At Large at the Tour de France 2010 – Part 1

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It is my pleasure to digress from African travel to bring you a feature in four parts from our roving correspondent and Guest Blogger, Donald Powers, who has penned these fabulous words and taken the photos you will see in the series on the Tour de France 2010 starting below. Enjoy!

Part 1: A Taste for the Tour
Words and images by Donald Powers

For five weeks in July 2010 two brothers – Angus and Donald Powers – put their Cape Town lives on hold to drive, ride, and generally give themselves over to the world’s most gruelling bicycle race, the Tour de France. An orgy of suffering for the competitors, le Tour is a magnet for roadside spectators avid for the sheen, sweat, colour, and noisy drama of a human pageant play spun out on two wheels across three weeks in all weathers and on all terrains.

The brothers’ road began where it ended – in Paris, where even the streetlamps have style. In the 24 days they were on the road, they lived out of the back of a hired van, pitched their tents in campsites across Holland, Belgium, and France, limped through conversations with locals in pidgin French, ate an excess of baguette, jambon, and cheese, bought more Belgian beer than they could drink, haphazardly filled their notebooks with prose, squabbled, suffered in peace and high temperatures on their problematically geared bicycles up epic mountain passes, got higher than altitude can measure in the Alps, drank less vin du pays than they had expected to (because of the warm weather), watched World Cup soccer games taking place back in South Africa in the dingy caravan-foretents and friendly company of campsite locals – and wondered throughout how they would compress the diversity of their experience into a story for those back home.

Here is an attempt – some pictures, some text – from Donald’s point of view.

Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Thursday, 1 July 2010. To preface our Tour de France jaunt we spent a few days in Amsterdam. As a newcomer walking the streets of this quaint city, it’s at first a real challenge working out how not to get knocked over by a moving bicycle, scooter, tram, or car. As a pedestrian, crossing a street requires some thinking as the red traffic lights don’t seem to exist for the cyclists, and scooters and motorbikes (often two-up, drivers and pillions rarely wear helmets) seem to pass as superior bicycles here. Counter-intuitively, if you’re doing the city by foot, the trick is not to think too much – just walk: the two-wheeled machines will find a way of avoiding you. The easy waters of the canals are a calming influence from the chaotic wheel-traffic.

One morning I tromped across town on a mission to sample some local fare I’d heard much of: croquetten, poffertjes, oversize pancakes. I was not disappointed. A ‘coffee-shop’ virgin, that afternoon I decided to trade in my virginity for 5 Euros worth of smoke and visions, which I took sitting down at a picture-window with views of the docks and sober folk on their way home from work casting me quizzical looks. Because I had a vague plan to see something else worth seeing that night (the Red Light District), or perhaps I was planning my route home, I sat there in that coffee-shop with my yard-square map of Amsterdam spread open on my knees. As the map-image started swimming in my vision, I realised what a strange sight I must look – sitting unhinged in a cloud of my own smoke in an Amsterdam coffee-shop trying to fix my co-ordinates on a map.

Later that evening I sat in the fresh air on a bench beside the canal and watched boat after boat cruise past on the water, each containing comfortable-looking folk propped on cushions sipping drinks and talking, taking in the long evening. Sitting there at that bench, I gradually became aware that I was being shot meaningful looks from occasional well-dressed men who wandered past. Was I sitting at the local gay hitching-post? Finishing my beers and locating my bicycle was the easy part: getting back to our campsite outside town was a whole category more difficult. Oddly, it was a South African girl studying in Amsterdam whom I stopped to ask directions of, who pointed me in the right direction.

Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Saturday, 3 July 2010. [Tour de France Prologue: an individual time-trial through the streets of Rotterdam, 8.9k.] Today was not a cold day, but it turned wet in the late afternoon. In the morning we rode to the start/finish area and followed the race route over the Erasmus Bridge (pictured here) into town. It was our first taste of the roadside crowds, the hundreds of spectators on bicycles, the French commentary crackling from the race vehicles as they hissed past on the wet streets, the traffic jams around the race route, the handful of helicopters at different altitudes in the sky at one time, the exhilaration of seeing the riders blur past in an ecstasy of pain and speed; the excitement. This was just the beginning…

After the Prologue I cycled back to our campsite along extensive, quality cycle paths that took me through quiet suburbs and serene fields. The flat landscape made the sky seem wide and deep – which in truth it is, photographed on the surface of some of these canals.

Brussels, Belgium. Monday, 5 July 2010. [Stage 2: Brussels – Spa, 201k.] Today we were lucky to see the race at all. We stomped around a wet Brussels, each in our own bad mood, looking for an internet café so we could secure accommodation for the days to come in the mountains. Along the way we ate disappointing chocolate crépes – they used Nutella instead of REAL Belgian chocolate! … but then I think that’s what we asked for because we couldn’t understand what other options there were, as these particular shopkeepers had no English. As we waited for the race to roll out of the centre of Brussels and a kilometre up the road to where we were standing, we watched as smartly-suited businessmen and -women were rudely shouted and whistled at by a fat, self-important policeman whose job it was to discourage spectators from crossing the street as the race convoy approached. He was taking his job very seriously, but because he could not move far from his position to personally chase down and reprimand any trespasser, he blew his whistle sharply and stared hard at any offender who was further up the road than he could shout. In this photograph, the cyclist directly behind the race commissaire’s red vehicle, sitting up with his hands behind his back and wearing the red, white, and blue jersey of the Champion of Luxembourg, is Andy Schleck. This year he would finish the race placed second overall to the Spanish sylph Alberto Contador – as he did in 2009.

After a wet day spent missioning around Brussels, miserable in the balance, we tacked our way along back roads to our campsite near Leuven. Here, Angus, smart in red, black, and yellow, negotiates a small gradient. In the French Alps and Pyrenees we were to learn unforgettable lessons about gradients.

Enjoy this post? Read Part 2: The Hard Men Hit the Cobbles

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