Saturday, 3 August 2013

London to Paris - part 5 - Paris for The Tour de France....

Sunday 21st July 2013

I woke at around 11.00am - in fact Gary woke me as he staggered around the room - I felt awful and just needed sleep - Gaz decided on walking down to the centre with Stephen our farmer friend from Suffolk. I said I'd see them later and pulled the blanket over to shield the spears of hot, bright sunlight.

I wished I had kept clear of the club last night - we were so misplaced in there - I should have retired, not out, at a more respectable time. Too late now - but another hour or two in bed should sort it - I set the alarm on my phone for 1.00pm.

Instantly it was 1.00pm - I felt no better - but got up anyway and made a wavy line for the shower. Gradually I was feeling human again - I wandered down and out of the Hotel - heading in a vague, uninformed way to where I thought the Eiffel Tower would be. Within four-hundred metres of the hotel I went past a Blues club - we went in the wrong direction last night. The sun was hot and my dehydration needed attention - I stopped at a cafe for coffee and a bottle of water - there was a piano player singing 'Those were the days' in French. I moved on - using google maps to direct me - I was shocked to see that I had to walk almost 6km - my legs were tired, my feet hurt - I almost turned back - then Gary called - he and Stephen were at the Eiffel Tower - where was I?..... On my way I told him - but at least an hour away - I told him I'd call him when I was close.

I paused at a random green patch, caught in the intestines of concrete like trapped wind. A sit down - it's just too hot, i'm grateful that the bench is in shade. I realise that wandering around the streets of Paris is pretty much the same as the streets anywhere, .... all the International brands and universal labels are here in their masses - the old Paris, the pensions and bistros, 10f menus, coffee with chicory in bowls and Pastis at 9.00am have vanished. But that's not to say there aren't still places to be seen and stylish people to see - you just have to work harder. The characters are still there - the cabinet minister with the drooling lip, eating oysters with one hand; the French pop star dressed entirely in black leather with dark glasses the size of satellite dishes; the old glamour model with her dog; the father with his daughter, or perhaps a friend of his daughter, the mournful, gargoyled faced waiter.

Finally, after what seemed like a journey lasting days, there it was. The ultimate landmark - 324 metres of latticed iron work - the most visited pay-to-enter monument in the world.  I couldn't quite understand how it had remained hidden from me for so long - it's not exactly small - You could say it was an eyeful..... I strolled along the Seine in the general direction, I bought another bottle of water from a street vendor and sat on a bench overlooking the river and the city beyond. I'm close now - but feeling extraordinarily tired. At last I cross the Seine and I'm on the Champs Elysees - there are people lining the streets already, their places claimed next to the barriers. There are a lot of Union flags and people wearing Mark Cavendish masks. The atmosphere is building, there are various 'official' trailers selling merchandise and the usual food stands. The smell of onions fried in fat and water and then scorched on a hot plate is something that England has given to the world - I imagine this is a smell that the Crusaders would recognise - all the way from Tilbury to Acre.

I arrive at the half-way point, the Arc de Triumphe is up the hill and I'm around the finishing line. I can see they're setting up the podium for the winner and there's a big screen here too. I buy another bottle of water and a can of coke and call Gary. He's on the other side somewhere but says he'll wander over. I need to sit down but the only place I can find is a bench under the full intensity of the blazing sun - I don't care - I take a seat and drink the coke in a couple of gulps - I start sipping the water and listening to the other people sitting around me. There are a husband and wife from Evesham - he has a strong Birmingham accent. He sits on the other side of the bench whilst his wife sits on the floor - he talks loudly of watching the Tour on TV and how he much prefers Phil Liggett commentating to Sean Kelly. His wife says nothing. Then he seems to be assembling something, looks like a box, not sure where it came from but he offers it too his wife as a makeshift seat - she declines and stays on the floor. There are another four people sitting immediately behind me. They are Scottish, two couples. One of the men bears an uncanny likeness to a younger George Clooney - the other man is older and dressed in cycling attire including what looks like a recent purchase of a 'King of the Mountains' polka dotted jersey. They get chatting to the Birmingham couple - The Scots have been on holiday to the South and the older man has climbed Alpe d'Huez and The Galibier - he tells of riding up d'Huez before The Tour passed through - the crowds were already assembled and gave him much encouragement. It's about an hour since I spoke to Gaz - and I spot him wandering through the crowd. We decide to get another bottle of water and then move away from the crowds to a patch of grass for a lie down. It's about 3.30pm - The Tour won't be here until around 8.00pm - it's going to be a long, tiring wait.

We hear an announcement from the podium. ....'And the winner of the 100th Tour de France .... Christopher Froome'... and then the national anthem starts playing. They're practising the winners presentation - people start to sing along ... they even have people dressed in cycling gear on the podium waving to the crowd - it seems like nothing is left to chance. Then there's an open topped car riding along the Champs Elysees, in it a collection of past Tour winners - Eddy Merckx (the greatest of all cyclists), Miguel Indurain, Bernhard Hinault and Gregg LeMond. Then there's a childrens' race. We hear that parts of the tarmac are melting - we know about that - there's a vehicle like a big road-sweeper that rolls around the course sweeping away debris. All the time the crowd is getting bigger, swelling now with anticipation. The big screen flickers into life and we watch the riders setting off on the final stage. It's a relaxed day for most of the peloton - the tradition is that no one attacks the yellow jersey on the last day - the race is won, it's over - all that remains is the battle for the stage victory - for the sprinters - and a chance for Mark Cavendish to make it five consecutive victories on the Champs Elysees.

It will be another couple of hours before the Tour arrives in Paris - I'm flagging now - my legs ache, my skin is burning, I'm still suffering from last night - we realise we should have stayed in the Hotel and come down at around 6.00pm - there's a lot of waiting around for The Tour - which is fine if you're prepared, chairs, a parasol, a cool box, aspirin etc. Another can of coke and a bottle of water - I even pluck up the courage for a sausage baguette - much more stylish than a hot dog. Then, at last, The Tour caravan arrives in town - you don't get to see this on TV - a procession of vehicles, floats, displays featuring the various sponsors who parade around the course throwing out samples and bits and pieces - after that the riders are approaching - there's a long procession of outriders and cars then the riders speed into view, there's a surge and a cheer from the crowd as they fly past - its all over in the blink of an eye, as they head up to the Arc de Triumphe - then they come past again on the opposite side - its deceiving on TV - they don't look to be going very fast - in real life they are - and there's a distinct sound as 180 or so riders fly past. We watch on the big screen to see what's happening on the rest of the course, and wait for another blink of action as they come round again. All the time the tension is building - Cav gets a puncture, can he get back on the pace? Will it take too much energy, can he win for the fifth time on the trot? - The final lap sees the tempo lifted - they're really moving now - we know what that road surface is like, it's cobbles, many of them broken and rutted - its a shaky, unstable surface that rattles rider and bike - we can only imagine what it feels like at 40mph or more.

Then it's the final lap - everyone is shouting and straining to see the action - we watch it on the big screen for a clearer view - for a second we think Cav has done it - but no - he's well beaten - its not been a great Tour for Mark Cavendish - by his standards two stage wins is a disappointment! - but he'll be back next year I'm sure - with a better lead-out train.

There's 500,000 people around the course and we think the best option is a quick getaway via the Metro back to the hotel - within 20 minutes of seing the final sprint we're in the bar of the hotel - I can't face a beer so a celebratory soda and lime has to suffice. We sit for half an hour and others arrive back - all with iPhone pics from their various vantage points - many with much better views than ours. But it's still been a memorable day - I'd a long held ambition to watch a stage of The Tour - and the final stage must be one of the best - perhaps Alpe d'Huez would be the only one comparable?

We get to bed early - totally drained, aching all over and tired - but satisfied.

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