It’s an oft-quoted fact that the Tour de France is the biggest sporting show on earth. TV Audience figures are hard to quantify but they vary from the modest 1.5 billion to a bullish 4 billion people watching at least a few minutes of the three week race.
And it’s from the TV compound at the finish area of each stage that the race is broadcast to 190 different countries. The logistical miracle of packing up, transporting this whole village and setting it all up again some 200 kilometres away on a daily basis is astounding.
The result is an area encompassing about a square kilometre packed full of caravans, trucks, temporary shelters, catering tents and portable commentary booths. NBC’s base is an extraordinary Heath Robinson contraption that unfolds from a truck into an enormous studio, make up area and suite with editing facilities.
Hundreds of workers are involved in laying out thousands of metres of cables which wind their way in a tangled, serpentine but organised mess across the entire site so you are constantly looking down to avoid tripping up. Every one of these will be wound up at the end of today and laid out in a different finish town tomorrow.
My initial few moments in the area leave me in a whirlwhind of starstruck, tongue-tied dumbness as I’m introduced to three stars of the sport as well as the triple jump Olympic and world record holder, Jonathan Edwards. As Eurosport's commentator Carlton Kirby leads me between stationery trucks and caravans, over and under cables and past grilling plates of sizzling sausages, we bump into Phil Liggett.
Carlton is still buzzing from winning a 100-1 bet on Rigoberto Uran in the previous stage and can’t resist a gentle brag to the man many still regard as the Godfather of cycling commentary. After a quick catch up we duck under another temporary awning where Carlton introduces me to Juan Antonio Flecha, the former Classics specialist who now plies his trade as TV presenter for Eurosport.
Round another corner and there’s Jens Voigt and Carlton harangues him for a prediction for today’s stage, as well as another boast of his Uran windfall. Within a space of a hundred yards I think the whole TV enclosure knows about his good fortune with the bookies!
It’s all rather overwhelming as Carlton presses on and I look over my shoulder to confirm that, yes, that really was The Jensie we were just having a casual chat to. And yes, he really did make all those disparaging remarks about French people!
Everyone here is either frantically busy, en route to do a piece to camera, preparing their day’s commentary or else they’re a technician on a break. Camping chairs, blow up sofas and metal staircases offer respite for those whose day presents them with a brief hiatus to catch some rest.
A quick trip to the urinoir stationed outside the commentary box and we’re up the metal steps into Kirby’s position which overlooks the finish line. This is an enormous truck that holds two floors of booths, each one a cramped space with just enough room for two chairs sat behind a desk .
Next door to the British boys are their German counterparts, including Karsten Migels (our rest day companion) who, I notice, have laid towels on their chairs – it seems this is a national trait not only reserved for bagging a sunbed on holiday! On the other side are the ironically named CCTV team, from Chinese TV. One wonders if anyone is watching them and strangely, they don’t even commentate for much of the time and leave their space completely empty for long stretches of the day.
There’s just enough standing room for me to peer over the shoulders of Carlton and Sean Kelly as I look at the monitors which show the race. It’s a beautiful stage through the stunning Dordogne countryside but little to talk about in terms of actual bike racing. This is where the commentator really earns his money as they try to fill hours of televised shots of the obligatory chateaux and vineyards.
Carlton entertains the viewers with tales from his rest day with a description of the fine wine and food we imbibed the day before. His twitter account begins to ping immediately as people react to his comments: “I’m picturing @carltonkirby today with a £3k bottle of Moet and a stinky saucisson.” Actually it was a Cahors which cost a lot less than that and, while there was saucisson in the cassoulet, it was the local cheese that stood out the most. But it’s these personal recounts of the region, its local products and Carlton’s memories of them that viewers seem to love, especially on such an uneventful day for racing.
I’m struck by how there’s a constant need to keep talking about something, anything. With each stage being broadcast from flag to finish there are many hours to fill each day. This is why the broadcast is interpersed with interviews from riders recorded earlier in the day or John BH's receipe of the day and his scores of Tour de France hay bale sculptures. Carlton’s ‘Kirby Codec’, a grid which he fills in with cricket score precision, provides him with an easy reference to each stage’s events and standings. So excited are viewers by this that you can now own a version of it printed on a tea towel.
When they’ve exhausted reminiscing about the food and wine and reflected on the current race standings it’s over to Kelly for a perusal of the latest papers and he finds a story from L’Equipe about how the AG2R boys get by with sharing rooms with snoring teammates.
While he does so, Carlton is scanning the previous day’s results to pick up another topic to discuss. After two hours of this it’s time to pass over to Rob Hatch, who will call that day’s sprint to the finish and Carlton breathes a huge sigh of relief having exhausted just about all his local knowledge and speculation of the day’s winner. The absurdity of bike racing is amplified by the fact the peloton will cycle 180km today on a stage that will all be decided in the final few hundred metres.
We decamp to the French TV catering area where food is provided for hundreds of people every day. Here TV commentators, journalists and retired cycling legends rub shoulders with technicians and workers who all queue up patiently for a delicious three course meal should you want it. There’s something very egalitarian about the way everyone mucks in together here.
The stage itself is won today by Marcel Kittel but I don’t have time to hang around at the end. There’s a three hour drive to the Pyrennean town of Pau and a hotel room or campsite to find. It’s only been one day on the Tour but I’m shattered from taking everything in. Even on such a quiet racing day, the buzz and excitement have been palpable from the moment I started the drive into Bergerac to the moment the Green jersey flashed across the finishing line. What a day!
(In Part 3: Pau, gateway to the Pyrenees; masquerading as a professional photographer; podium girls; the Tour de France caravan; a spectator's view from the verge)