“I always heed the words of the Queen Mother: never turn down the chance of a cup of tea or a pee.” It’s the first of many golden nuggets of advice, quips and bon mots from my avuncular host behind the scenes of the Tour de France 2017. It is of course none other than the Eurosport commentator, Carlton Kirby, as he shimmies his way into the urinoir outside the commentary box in Bergerac for a quick one before he takes up his post.
Stage 10 and 11 of this year’s Tour may have been two pan flat stages that featured hours of televised chateaux, vineyards and fields of sunflowers with little else to entertain the viewer. But for me they were a dream come true when, for two whole days, I had unfettered access to the behind scenes goings on of Le Tour.
For years I’d been desperate to follow the greatest bike race on earth. I was now, not only doing just that, but had a much sought after Press pass that money simply can’t buy. And so it was that for 72 hours I had the biggest fat grin plastered across my face, the remnants of which are still playing around the edges of my mouth as I remember it all.
Monday was a rest day and I arrived bleary eyed after a silly early morning start – the kind that leaves you woolly headed all day. Just as I’m about to part with 20€ for a camping pitch on the outskirts of the historic Dordogne town of Eyzies de Tayac, Carlton calls to say there’s a spare room at his hotel going - a couple of no-shows. I snatch back the note from the hands of my prospective patron and leap into the hire car to find him.
I find him in chirpy form and, before I can begin to get my bearings, we’re off for an explore and, hopefully, sample some local wine and cheese. We find ourselves in a café in Rocques, where a biscuity sauvignon blanc begins to make me feel human again and Carlton shares his extensive knowledge of the history of the region. It’s here that cave dwellers decided to build facades outside of their abodes on the cliff face overlooking the river that oozes and meanders lazily around its bends.
We’re joined by Karsten Migels, of German Eurosport, and there follows the usual German/Brit banter. Karsten takes great pleasure in describing the luxuries of the chateau he’s staying in as Carlton grumbles about our ‘motel’. Carlton gets his own back by telling me that Karsten famously came tenth once, “Or was it ninth, Karsten?” in the German Cyclocross championships. For three weeks these guys live the Tour and you can sense that they relish the opportunity to get away from it all on this, their one of only two rest days. While the conversation does indeed occasionally turn to cycling, for the most part it’s anything but.
Losing track of time, Carlton realises that he has to hot-foot it to pick up his laundry before it closes and, not for the first time on this trip, I marvel at the sprightly and quick movements you wouldn’t normally associate with a man of his frame. Then it’s off for a classic rustic French meal of cassoulet, the likes of which you can only fully savour in this part of the world.
The afternoon has segued into the evening and it’s with tired bodies, full stomachs and happy hearts that we retire. Tomorrow will be my first ever experience of seeing the Tour firsthand and the thought brings warm comfort to a strange bed.
After fellow presenter and legendary former bike racer Sean Kelly has signed autographs at the breakfast table to adoring fans it’s time to hit the road. These guys travel the length and breadth of the Hexagon, as France is sometimes known, usually four to a car, so space is at a premium. They’ve learnt to travel light, often washing clothes in hotel sinks.
Kelly’s driving skills are as legendary as his bike racing accomplishments and it’s my unenviable task of trying to follow him in an under-powered cheap hire car. Bergerac here we come.
Our drive follows the final 70 or 80 km of today’s race route through the most fabulous countryside. One can sense Carlton preparing his odes to the region as we make our way there.
Even at 10 o’clock in the morning the roads are lined with spectators, perched on their picnic chairs and tables, eagerly anticipating the peloton, a six or seven hour long wait. But their enthusiasm shows no bounds – a toot of the horn has them waving, cheering, and brandishing banners and flags. We’re the last of the cars to pass through before the roads close – the next entertainment will be from the Tour caravan (more of that to come).
I park a couple of kilometres from the finish line and begin my walk to the TV compound. There’s a buzzy atmosphere in the streets as people check out the course and size up a good spot to station themselves for the day. Little bars and cafes are brimming with people and excitement.
I turn around when I hear a British voice call out, “Hey, Chris! Chris!” And there is Chris Boardman himself, astride his…er...Boardman, of course, rehearsing his lines in front of the the camera for his daily piece on ITV4 where he talks the viewers through the final approach to the finish. It’s a bizarre sight seeing him read his lines from a scrap of paper as he cycles the course, his cameraman perched on a Segway that must take remarkable skill to keep upright.
As I round a corner a tall, gangly man with floppy, dark hair zooms up to a café on a folding bike and nonchalantly dismounts. Christ it’s only David Millar! I ask for a shot of him standing next to his Chapter 3-customised Brompton and he agrees with his usual grace and politeness. I apologise for the intrusion and, leaving him to quench his thirst, approach the security gate for the TV compound, still not completely confident that this plastic pass is sufficient. But, Yes! I’m waved through and begin a trawl around the labyrinthine chaos of trucks, caravans, generators, vans and gazebos to find the Eurosport station.
In Part 2: Phil Ligget, The Jensie, Juan Antonio Flecha, inside the commentary booth, a win for Kittel, Pau and the Pyrenees, the photographers scrum until it all ends in Le Pouey!