Following Tour a fast track experience

By Tracey Chatterton

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The atmosphere was fizzing with anticipation.

I was surrounded by hot, sticky bodies all craning their necks down the road.

There was a flash of green and yellow. The crowd erupted. This was the Tour de France.

Thousands had turned out to watch the blink and you miss it moment when world champion Tinkoff rider Peter Sagan crossed the line followed closely by Sky's Chris Froome in the yellow jersey. And thousands more would do the same tomorrow and the next day and the next.

To some, I'd travelled halfway across the world to watch men in lycra ride their bikes.

To others I was watching the world's best road cyclists ride through postcard-picture scenery in a race that needs strength, stamina and tactical awareness.

During this year's race almost 200 cyclists clocked up more than 3500 kilometres over 21 days and this spectacle is a mecca for recreational cyclists.

It was by chance and a little bit of luck that I came to be one of the screaming fans.

At the suggestion of a friend, my partner and I bought some Etixx nutrition from Cycle Nation in Havelock North to enter a competition to win a VIP trip to the Tour. We entered and promptly forgot about it.

At first I didn't believe the woman on the phone telling me that we'd won - but then the itinerary arrived with our complimentary flights, accommodation and opportunity to meet the Etixx-Quickstep team. That's how we came to be pressed against a barrier in Montpellier fighting for a good view of the giants of cycling.

But the next morning the barriers were removed for us thanks to a VIP pass hanging around our neck. We joined Etixx Sports Nutrition Australia representative and organiser of the trip Larissa Brander and her husband for breakfast at the Etixx-Quickstep team hotel. As we watched the team bus and cars racked with spare bikes prepare to depart, German sprinter Marcel Kittel casually walked out with a camera crew in tow.

Kittel, who days earlier had notched up his ninth Tour de France stage win was like a rockstar to many fans - myself included. I felt like a giggly teenager as he posed for a photo with me. Then to top it off, former Individual Time Trial World Champion Tony Martin also paused for a photo.

Slightly starstruck, Larissa, I and the boys jumped into our van and followed the bus to the starting line.

We arrived in the middle of a cycling circus. Fans squealed as the team buses passed, promoters strolled the streets giving away food and hats while cameras were rolling on street corners as journalists conducted pre-race interviews.

Inside the cordon mechanics made last minute checks and riders warmed up on trainers and we stood just metres away taking it all in.

Our driver Jo Planckaert rounded us up before the start as we were one of the cars allowed on the course in front of the race. Crowds of people waved and cheered us by. I felt a little bit like the Queen waving back. We had cycling royalty in our car, Jo, a former Tour de France rider, had come second in Paris-Roubaix in 1997, one of the one day classics on the European calendar. As we drove along the closed road he pulled alongside another car, wound down the window and started chatting to his uncle Eddy Planckaert who won the green sprinter's jersey in the 1988 Tour de France. It seemed famous cyclists were dime a dozen. We soon stopped in a small village, sat by a river and ate our lunch cooked for us by the Etixx-Quickstep team chef. We also toasted to being at the Tour with a glass of champagne.

We had just got back on course when Jo pulled over for a phone call. But then the crowd started screaming as a breakaway group of riders approached. We'd misjudged how fast the cyclists were going on the flat and now found ourselves in the middle of the race.

Jo cursed in Flemish - we did not have permission to be in the middle of the race. The multi-coloured peloton made up of 22 teams then whipped past. They were flying and soon so were we.

We turned off the course hoping to re-pass the riders and get back on course before the ascent up Mont Ventoux.

The adrenaline was pumping in the van as we raced the race. Fields of lavender and sunflowers whizzed by but our eyes were on the TV screen to see if we'd make it. The French police officer on the cordon wasn't happy when we tried to get back on the race course. Jo frantically explained and persuaded him to let us past. We'd made it.

The cyclists were about 30km behind us as we started the famous Mont Ventoux climb. The stage had been shortened by 6km to 178km due to the 100km winds at the summit.

The crowd closed in on us, we passed families picnicking on the road side and beer-drinking smurfs.

One Belgian fan who ran alongside our van in awe of our famous driver Jo, said he'd been camping on the Mont for five days waiting for the five minutes of action. It was so steep even the van felt like it was working to get up the road.

It was mayhem so it didn't surprise me when I heard about Richie Porte and Chris Froome crashing into the back of a motorcyclist who had to stop suddenly due to the encroaching crowd.

By that time we were standing at the finish line so it wasn't until after the race that we realised that Froome had taken to running up the Mont as he waited for a suitable bike. It was Belgian rider Thomas de Gent for Lotto-Soudal who took the stage win.

That night we were invited to dinner at the team hotel in Montelimar.

We ate from a set menu but the Etixx-Quickstep riders and AG2R La Mondiale riders had a carbohydrate-heavy buffet. Tubs of Nutella and Ben and Jerry's icecream also littered their tables.

The team drivers and soigneurs invited us on to their bus for a drink and we chatted about life on the Tour.

When they switched the TV on we learnt about the attack in Nice - just 300km away. The race officials decided to continue with the individual time trial in Boug Sain Andeol the next morning.

In respect of the victims, organisers "turned off the volume" of the race so the start and finish line areas as well as the publicity caravan were silent.

Other than that it was business as usual for the riders who all had set times for their race against the clock.

I managed to get a quick photo with Julian Alaphilippe before his ride.

The slight 24-year-old later went flying in to the side of a cliff thanks to a strong gust of wind.

That night he and the other riders were laughing at the dramatic shot of him hitting the cliff. He came away with cuts and grazes only and was able to keep riding.

We followed Belgian Julien Vermote on the course with his spare bike in the boot. We trailed just metres behind him as he dug in to complete the hilly 37.5km time trial - which would have been hard after the climb the day before.

A Tinkoff rider managed to close the two minute gap and was soon passing us and Vermote.

We spent the rest of the day in a prime position watching Froome, Nairo Quintana and Adam Yates set out on their time trial.

But it was Tom Dumoulin who reached an average speed of 44.7km who took the stage win.

We finished another amazing day with dinner at the team hotel.

It was hard to leave the Tour the next day. As we boarded the train back to Paris we joked that no one would believe us if we said we were having dinner the Etixx-Quickstep team.

Just as well I got the photo to prove it.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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