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Wednesday, 13 November 2013

100th Tour de France... And we were there!!!

  After last year’s trip to watch Sir Bradders of Wiggington at the Olympics...
  ....and what with the Tour of Britain coming virtually right past our house too, we had been thinking of another exotic cycling adventure.

  In the spring we came across an ad in the local paper for a four day ‘Tour de France’ coach trip to Paris at a suspiciously cheap price and gave it a bit of thought but were very dubious.  As experienced independent travelers it potentially represented our worst nightmare - visions of some awful pre-packaged ‘sightseeing’ trip with a load of old biddies and some annoyingly camp and over-enthusiastic tour guide patronizing us incessantly.

  But 3 nights in Paris, all the travelling and ferry thrown in for a r-i-d-i-c-u-l-o-u-s-l-y low price? There was no way we’d beat that price doing it independently… Besides, it might even be a laugh…
  We booked it!!!

  Friday morning saw us up at an unearthly hour to rendezvous with the coach in Gt Yarmouth. The coach was slightly late but we were kept entertained by the Norfolk police as they pulled over and arrested a drink driver (yes, it was 7:00am) right in front of us.

Travelling light as usual....
  A shiny white coach hissed to a stop beside us and I was slightly relieved – I’d been expecting a bit of an old banger. Out sprang the wise-cracking driver, a proper old-school Norfolk boy, and helped us stash our cases under the bus.  The bus had already stopped at Dereham and Norwich but only contained half a dozen people which was quite surprising. Next stop was Lowestoft, then Stowmarket, then Ipswich… then Dover and the ferry.

Watching you... Watching me....

  More and more people got on and the coach was completely filled at the Ipswich stop. Our tour guide had got on at Stowmarket and, spot on the stereotype, was a slightly camp, well spoken retired-army-colonel-type bloke who hadn’t a clue what he was doing or what was going on but because he was posh, he seemed to be able to get away with it.

  All the classic stereotypes on the coach really, the know-all ‘a mate of mine works in a pro team and he reckons that…’ bullshitter types, the bike component geeks (Aaaarrrrgghhhh!!! Aaaarrrgghhhhhhh…..), the ‘Only Here For The Beer’ group, the ‘We’re considerably wealthier and better than you but have decided to slum it for once’ types, the Obsessive Compulsive Complainers…
  But, the majority were pretty laid back folks out for a cheap, no frills trip to Paris to see a bit of bike racing and have a laugh. That included us.

  The trip to Paris was pretty unremarkable really.  I was pleased to discover that we were on the ferry rather than the Tunnel – I’ve always loved that feeling of standing on the deck and watching the old White Cliffs vanish behind you, it feels like you’re really going abroad that way. The Tunnel just feels like you’ve been teleported or something – not quite the same really.

 Anyway, it was ‘kin hot in France, defo a notch or two higher than the UK – lovely! We still hadn’t got much of an idea where we’d be staying but we’d got quite low expectations – I anticipated something just slightly better than a youth hostel but perhaps I was being a bit pessimistic! Turned out we’d be staying in a ‘Mercure’ hotel right next to the airport at Le Bourget.
  Le Bourget is where they hold the Paris airshow and is the airport where the doomed Air France Concorde flight was attempting to reach when it stalled and crashed killing everyone on board in 2000.  Bizarrely, it’s also where the Soviet TU-144 (‘Concordski’) crashed in 1973 and it’s the airport where Hitler landed during his only trip to Paris during WWII!  Le Bourget itself seemed a bit rundown with quite a large Somali population and reminded me of one of the poorer London boroughs.

Come on, it's got a pool, how bad can it be?
   The Mercure hotel chain seemed to be the French equivalent of the UK’s Travelodge so it wasn’t a fleapit by any means – it even had a pool! Woo!  For some reason, the arrival of several coaches full of tired British tourists at nine o’ clock in the evening seemed to take the staff by surprise as only one person was on duty and the bar and restaurant were closed. Bit of a crappy state of affairs really and a lot of people were severely pissed off but we’d thought ahead and stocked up with provisions on the journey.  We just grabbed our room key and headed up to our room to make a drink and a sandwich while a major row kicked off downstairs…
  Feet up, phones on charge and Eurosport on the telly to catch up with the days action on the TdF. Quite surprised to see Richard Virenque as a cycling pundit on French TV – that’s a bit like the Canadians having Ben Johnson as an athletics pundit.  Ah well, don’t suppose they can afford be too choosy, not had a Tour winner for a while, have they? Haw haw haw….

  Even ‘kin hotter the next morning (Saturday) which was scheduled for a coach sightseeing tour of the city, a guided tour of the Latin Quarter, a group meal in a restaurant by the Seine and a ‘romantic’ night time river cruise through the city.  We endured the coach trip into the City and then decided that we’d like to spend the day exploring on our own rather than sitting on a roasting hot bus ticking off all the cheesy touristy sites. We hopped off at Place de la Concorde and arranged to meet up with everyone again later on in the evening at the Bateaux Mouches river cruise station.

  Hurrah! Freedom!!

  We crossed the river and had a nice wander down the old Rive Gauche for our own tour of the Latin Quarter. Bit of shopping then we headed for Le Jardin des Plantes botanical gardens which we both really enjoyed although it was now hotter than ever. A visit to the 'desert' house proved an incredible test of endurance at well over 40 degrees - most people simply opened the door went, "woooaa!" and instantly left. Not us though. I do love cacti and their crassulacian acid metabolism. An amazing piece of evolution....

 Back outside queues of people were attempting to fill their water bottles from the one drinking fountain on the site  - either that or get totally fleeced buying water or fizzy drinks from the kiosks. As it was I grudgingly handed over 6 euros for two cans of Fanta in desperation….

 We plonked ourselves down in a nice restaurant just across the river from Notre Dame and whiled a way an hour or two watching the Parisiens go by.  Then a brisk retracing of our route through the Tuileries Garden and La Place de la Concorde on route to the boat station.

  On the way we walked past the underpass where Princess Diana was killed (or murdered, if you’re a fan of conspiracy theories). Such a dull, uninspiring spot considering what a momentous day in history it was. Pretty crappy place to end your life really too, especially at the hands of a pissed / stoned chauffeur. Ah well…

Well, I thought it was funny at least....

 The boat station was absolutely rammed with bloody tourists. Not respectful low key visitors like us mind you, I mean proper tourists, you know, the sort that give tourists a bad name! Effing packed like sardines, shoving and getting grumpy. I hate queuing at the best of times but I was close to losing my cool on a couple of occasions. Anyway…
  Once the gates had opened and the stampede for seats on the top deck of the boat was over, the evening became much more serene as we chugged down the Seine following the same route we’d walked earlier, then back downstream to see the Eiffel Tower all lit up. The banks were lined with chilled out Parisians picnicking and sipping wine, all very civilized – worlds away from a leary Saturday night out in central London. Oh, apart from the young bloke who decided to moon at us as we chugged past (must have been a Brit, or Dutch….)

  Then a short bus ride back to the hotel where we’d planned to have a sneaky midnight swim in the pool but we were both shattered and fell asleep watching the TdF highlights on Eurosport….

  "Woo! Sunday morning. The Tour de France is in town!!"

  We all excitedly piled onto the coach in the morning, virtually everyone dressed in silly cycling gear / union jacks etc and headed off into the city. It probably sounds daft but I don’t think either the coach driver or the tour guide had any idea of the scale of the TdF and actually seemed quite surprised the whole city centre was virtually shut. After several attempts to get in close to the Champs Elysees we persuaded them to give up and just drop us off at a Metro station on L’Avenue Charles de Gaulle about a mile away from the Arc de Triomphe. Me & Sue fancied the walk, so we headed up the hill with the gently swelling crowd. It was already ridiculously hot again. On reaching the Arc de Triomphe, we managed to find a way through the barriers and were amazed to find the road surface already melting in the sun. In a few hours the riders would be on the same tarmac and we wondered how on earth they’d stay upright! The soigneurs would certainly be busy that evening cleaning the tar off those hugely expensive bikes…

  Right, we’d arrived at the top of the Champs Elysees really, really early (about six hours early to be exact!!) and now had to think about where to position ourselves for the race.
  For weeks I’d be planning on either the embankment on the Seine by the Tuileries Garden or round the back of the circuit where they go through the tunnel – Norwegian Corner I think they call it. I’d already resigned myself to the fact that a good spot on the Champs Elysees would be nigh on impossible to find as the crowds were already 2 or 3 deep….

  But bloody hell!  After battling through the crowds along the Champs Elysees for a while, ‘tout a coup’ we came across an empty spot in the barriers across a road junction, dead opposite the Louis Vuitton shop and a hundred yards from McDonalds.
 We couldn't quite believe our luck… and as politely as possible piled in, half expecting to be moved on by some disgruntled Frenchman. Nope, nothing. Blimey, we’d got a spot right on the barriers, just up from the finish!!  As we unpacked our chairs and sat down, we then noticed the giant TV screen across the road dead opposite. You are effing joking!!  This is just perfect!!  We almost had to pinch ourselves.

  The long wait for the race to arrive began. God, it was soooo hot. Our space beside the Champs Elysees was fab but with no trees we spent the next few hours getting absolutely cooked. The temperature peaked at 38 Celsius and all around people were passing out in the heat apparently but we just sat there like Darby & Joan with our sandwiches and glugging the occasional ice cold diet coke from McD’s. (If you’ve ever wondered what the Black Hole of Calcutta must have been like, trying queuing in a fast food restaurant on the Champs Elysees on TdF day in 38 degrees C).
  It got busier… and busier… and busier…  The crowd behind us got huge, quite intimidating actually to the point where we had to abandon our chairs for safety reasons and stand up! I think this initially panicked the families & small kids immediately behind but they eventually squeezed themselves in around us.
  Here we were, leaning over the barriers onto the Champs Elysees with a couple of hundred pro cyclists heading our way, led by a Brit. Things had worked out fantastically well!
  The sun worked its way slowly behind the buildings and finally gave us some shade. On the big screen, the riders were on the outskirts of Paris.  The excited chatter in just about every language imaginable all around us increased. Not long now!!

"Go on Bernie!" urged Greg, "Smell my finger!" 

  The endless caravan of carnival floats drove by...  Then a vintage sports car with three fat blokes sitting on the boot and some old bloke in the front... Hang on...  Bloody hell, Eddy Merckx, Greg Lemond, Miguel Indurain and Bernard Hinault!

  Then came a flyby of the French Red Arrows and we knew the riders were close...

  Finally, after a long day of being burnt to a crisp and dehydrated, the riders arrived.  First onto the Champs Elysees was ex-doper-cheating-git and now annoyingly contrite David Millar on some suicidal breakaway in an attempt to get himself on TV as his contract with Garmin was due to run out apparently.  He hung on for a couple of laps then, as expected, blew up and was sick pretty much right in front of us which was lovely.

  Then a whoosh of nearly two hundred riders behind.... looking for yellow... looking for the yellow jersey...  THERE HE IS! Chris Froome. Woo woo!!

  It was just a blur but coming back down the other side of the road a minute or so later gave us a bit more time to pick the stars out. Lap after lap the tension increased... Crap, Cav's punctured!!  We spotted him weaving between the team cars like a maniac coming back down the Champs Elysees desperately trying to get back on.  Phew... he's made it!

  Then the big wind up for the last lap...
  "Go Cav, Go Cav..."
  Arse. Pipped on the line.

  Never mind, we got another Brit on the top step of the podium in yellow, can't be too greedy!

  The crowds gathered around the Arc de Triomphe to watch the awards being handed out on the big screen, then we were treated to the most amazing trip-tastic holographic / laser show projected onto the Arc de Triomphe itself. I think they showed it on the telly but it was mind blowing up close and for real.

  What a great day. We were too knackered out to endulge in too much reveling but we met up with our fellow coach trippers in an English bar a short Metro ride away where we'd arranged for the coach to pick us up later.

  Back at the hotel, we both fell asleep whilst trying to spot ourselves on Eurosport on the telly. For some reason, we thought it'd be really easy....

The result we all wanted! Get in!!

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