For the first time this year, I drive the roads of the Tour stage; the last 120km. Up to 10 years ago, this was a daily occurrence, but it is something we never do now, as all superfluous cars are directed on to a diversionary route to avoid risks to spectators. As always, there are insights to be gained from actually seeing the roads that you simply don’t get from a television camera, and there is local colour in abundance. Everywhere is the emblem of the Beast, an 18th century legend involving – depending on who you believe – a vast homicidal wolf, or a serial killer who covered his crimes by inventing the legend of the wolf. Vast wolf prints are drawn on the road, trailers of hay bales are covered with wolf posters, and a lifesized wolf model sits on a roundabout in the town of Saugues. Also commemorated is a big beast of French cycling writing, Pierre Chany, whose poster adorns a tower in his home village of La Margeride. The L’Équipe writer died in 1996, one of the last of the old-school devotees of chain-smoking Gaullists, proper lunch breaks and typed copy, who could recall passing a bottle to Louison Bobet from a press motorbike in the mid-50s. Truly the stuff of legend.
No Chris Froome press conference, yet again. Another triumph clocked* up by Team Sky’s magisterial public relations skills. (*Apologies for the misspelling. I don’t know how the ‘l’ snuck in there.)
Vast amounts of Romain Bardet love in the French newspapers. Every front page has a headline along the lines that even if he doesn’t win the Tour, he should do. Later, Bardet is within an ace of losing the Tour when Sky inflict a coup de bordure 14km from the finish. Momentarily, he is adrift, until his Flemish team-mate Oliver Naesen comes to his aid and gets him into the lead echelon. Flahutes of his ilk are recruited specifically for such tasks and the Belgian champion justifies his salary with this single act. Also close to missing the split is Mikel Landa, who catches up in extremis. Depending on how the race pans out in the Alps this may be a double-edged sword for Sky.
Visits to the Tour are a rite of passage for every president so it is no surprise to see Emmanuel Macron riding in the organiser Christian Prudhomme’s car, and later appearing on the post-Tour chat show Vive Le Velo. Macron gives a massive man-hug to Warren Barguil, and advises Bardet that all that is keeping him from the yellow jersey is will power. It’s mildly cringeworthy, but not on the scale of Nicolas Sarkozy’s unabashed admiration for Richard Virenque, and it is nothing to compare with the Tour’s visit to the Chirac fiefdom of Corrèze in 1998, which coincided with the ejection of the Festina team from the race. Or, back in 1975, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s visit to the Tour finish on the Champs-Élysées amid immense demonstrations from the unions. But no one mentions that morning’s resignation of the Chief of Defence Staff, out in the real world the end of the honeymoon for “Manu”.
The Izoard is the latest in a series of summit finishes in classic locations deep into the Tour’s final week, following l’Alpe d’Huez (2015, 2013 and 2011), the Galibier (2011), the Col du Tourmalet (2010) and Mont Ventoux (2009). This is a relatively new way of structuring the Tour, and in general it seems to make for a more tense race, as the riders fear expending energy needlessly before they reach what is billed as the decisive stage. Just one remains to be visited: the Puy-de-Dôme, last climbed in 1988. It is hard to access due to the construction of a light railway, but given the ingenuity of the Tour organisers in devising fresh highlights for the final week, their willingness to modify the race’s vast infrastructure to fit new locations and their known desire to return to the Puy, who would bet against it in the next few years?
Barguil is the new home hero with his two mountain stage wins, his aggression on the bike and his emotional dedication of his victory on the Izoard to his late grandparents. A young, fresh-faced Frenchman in the polka dot jersey has many resonances, and indeed, the last home rider to dominate like Wawa gets in on the act. “It was like an uppercut. It took me back 13 years. His youth, his jersey, his victory salute. I was in tears,” emotes Virenque in Aujourd’hui. Given where Spotted Dick ended up, it’s a good job Wawa is very much his own man.
Tour visits to France’s second city are rare. This should make up for the occasion in 1971 when, on a legendary “cannibal” day, Eddy Merckx and his team dragged the race here into the finish on the Vieux-Port three hours ahead of schedule. The mayor was still at lunch, missed the race and never invited it again. The Stade Vélodrome is a magnificent location for the time trial. The downside: an eight-hour drive – bouchons permitting – to get to Paris for the finale. This has been an unforgiving Tour in more ways than one.