Yes, you read correctly. To this day, everything still has not soaked in: the screaming fans, helicopters, team cars, the radio chatter, motorcycles, and best of all . . . the riders. It was Stage Ten of the Tour de France, and the Secondratecyclist was no longer just a bystander.
It all began with a hike up to the ville haute of Saint Flour. My wife and I had a beautiful Airbnb just outside of town with another incredible host. By the time we made our way into the lower city of Saint Flour, the road up was closed, so we threw on our backpacks and walked. It was a morning wake-up, for sure. At the top, another city was again electrified with excitement, as we made our way to the start line. People were jockeying for good spots along the fencing, and souvenirs were being thrown from various Tour sponsors. We really did not have a plan. We just wanted to hike up, maybe see the start and look around at the village that began in the 13th Century. Trying to move a bit away from the heavy crowd at the line, we moved to the road that led out of town, which was the route of the race. Looking down the hill, there were a few fans sprinkled here and there and a few spots that looked promising.
Walking down what was the backside of what we had hiked up, I spotted the Mavic support vehicles lined up awaiting the start. A mechanic was working on a pair of shoes at one end of a car, and I started a conversation with the men standing around. It was all innocent enough; after all, I really do enjoy Mavic products. They were all very nice and asked if we were Americans and how we came to be in Saint Flour. We responded that we were and the trip was part of our 30th anniversary trip and were having so much fun.
It was around this time when one of the drivers, who introduced himself as Max, came up to me and asked about our plans for the day. “Look, if you guys have things to do it’s okay, but if not, both of you could ride with us today. Our VIPs did not show, so we have room.” Okay, I think I temporarily blacked out for a second or two, but I did manage to mumble something about no plans. Max said that he would have to run up the hill and get out VIP passes and asked me if I could meet him back at the cars at 11:30AM. I quickly told him that we would not be moving from this spot. Off he went.
Before long, Max was back and introduced us to Neil the mechanic who would be riding next to my wife in the backseat. He handed us our VIP stuff, and just like that we were over the barriers and loading our stuff in the back. We pulled off in a line of bright yellow Mavic cars and motorcycles, getting in front of the race before they left the neutral zone. This was actually happening!
The radio came alive the moment the race began out of the neutral start. Max was explaining our role and how it would shift throughout the race. Christian Prudhomme, the race director of the Tour de France, was chattering away with various directions to . . . well, everybody. Before long the breakaway had established a two minute gap on the peloton, and we were told to fall in behind them. Max pulled the car over, and in a moment the police came around the corner and three or four helicopters zoomed overhead. The six-man breakaway moved by us in silence, and we fell in. If the break fell below a certain time, explained Max, then the team cars would be called off, leaving us as the main support to the breakaway. The Mavic neutral support cars and motorcycle were spread out among the riders.
My wife and I felt like celebrities, as fans screamed and waved at our car. We waved back, and a few even high-fived me through the window as we slid up one of the category three climbs. The gap opened again, and we rotated with the motorcycle and were sent back to the main field. Riders were all around us! Fabio Aru was cruising next to my window, hands in the hoods, just pedaling it out. Even Thomas Voecklar, who now works for French TV, was riding on a motorcycle on the other side. Surreal is so often overused, but this was the textbook definition.
In what felt like an hour, four hours had passed. We were closing in on the stunning city of Albi. I tried to stay “cool” during the trip, but inside I was doing cartwheels. The main peloton had split, and we were gliding back to the middle. Oh, that’s nice . . . there is Peter Sagan and Sonny Colbrelli going right by the window! The race was ramping up, and so was our car. The teams were shutting down the breakaway, and setting up their sprinters. The intensity in the car was very evident. Max is an incredible driver. Sliding in and out of cars and motorcycles, while not impeding riders, and making sure you are where the car is supposed to be is a feat in itself. Many times I caught myself white-knuckling the door handle, especially on some of the descents where a bicycle and motorcycle can move a lot faster than a car, but Max had to stay with them; and that takes skill.
Later, we entered Albi, and the cars were moved from the line through a side exit. We pulled in among the team buses. Our VIP passes had given us access to the Mavic bus to hitch a upscale ride back to Saint Flour, complete with dinner and champagne. Our ride did not leave for another twenty minutes, so we walked around and tried to take it all in. The race had ended, and the riders were coming back to the team buses. We walked by Dan Martin, and I told him that he rode well and good luck in the rest of the Tour. Yes, that happened. You know . . . an after the race conversation with Dan Martin.
The ride back was wonderful. My wife and I were just giddy with excitement. I even looked over a team route book for Stage 11, although the next day was a rest day in Albi. We needed a bit of downtime for sure. After we arrived back in Saint Flour, we had to drive back to Albi to find our apartment . . . three hours each way . . . but WELL worth it. Driving through the dark, in our car and making our way back to Albi, my wife and I talked about how incredible God is and how much He blesses those who are faithful. “Just think,” she said. “If you would have had those bikes that were cancelled on you, all of this would have never happened.” I had no words. I just nodded. Incredible. Just flat out incredible. We still had many days to go. This would not be the last shocker.
. . . something special would happen again on Stage 11.