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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

‘Brake, brake, brake!’: a white-knuckle ride on the back of a motorbike at the Tour de France | Tour de France

My eyes instinctively close shut as the wide roads flanked by vibrant sunflower fields give way to grass and then the stone outskirts of a village, which we’re fast approaching.

I’m on a motorbike and I trust my driver Gaëtan implicitly; I’ve been his passenger before and know he’s a pro when it comes to manoeuvring in the convoy at the Tour de France, which isn’t for the faint-hearted.

It’s as close as I’m going to get to the Tour de France without riding in the peloton myself.

My arms, which had been hanging loose by my sides, are now tense, my knuckles turning white as I grip the passenger handles by the seat. As I open my eyes there is a team car to my right, so close that if I extended my knee out even slightly, I’d hit it. The people inside don’t seem to register that I’m there.

The windows of the car are all up. One sports director is driving, and another is sitting in the passenger seat with a computer tablet in their hands. In the back is a mechanic, his arm over spare wheels that have taken up the remaining space in the sedan. Spare bikes are firmly attached to the roof of the vehicle as it pushes ahead of us, closer to the village.

The sound of idling engines has given way to the roar of fast accelerations, and then abrupt braking. My ears start to ring as the tooting of car horns is drowned out by the five or six helicopters now circling above us to broadcast the race. I look ahead to see the single lane entry into the village the peloton is passing through, under bunting that is zigzagging from rooftop to rooftop across the town.

My driver weaves in and out around the convoy, which now resembles a rally car race more than a procession. The lane doesn’t seem big enough for one sedan, let alone two.

‘Brake, brake, brake!’ Was it by magic? Somehow everyone is in and through. Can the sedans retract to go through the impossible, like that double-decker bus for wizards in Harry Potter?

There are thousands of fans lining the road, which has widened again out the other side of the village. I lift my visor to rub my eyes and can smell sweet crepes in the air. The fans cheer and wave at me like I’m a competitor and I feel obliged to wave back. Some of them hold signs for home heroes Julian Alaphilippe and Romain Bardet. Others have national flags – from Colombia to Slovakia and Australia – which catch the wind.

The majority aren’t there for one person though, or one team. They’re applauding with respect and admiration for the entire race; the moving circus that, in a few short minutes, has come and gone.

My driver signals to me, asking if I want to catch up to the peloton and we accelerate ahead. I spot some silver glittery things fanning across the road and can’t make out what they are. We brake again behind a bottleneck of riders. There’s been a crash in the drop-off zone, where riders can dump litter. The glittery things are caffeine gel and bar wrappers that have been discarded.

Most of the riders have cleared off, held up but not involved in the stack that brought a few down. I look back as we pass to see one, Luke Durbridge, limping around his bike, waiting for his team car to catch up and give him a spare.

The peloton has splintered now and, with the convoy behind us, I hear the familiar whir of wheels and clicking of gears. I turn my head to the side, not realising I am five seconds away from Dan Martin’s face. But the Irish rider, like the sports directors in the convoy, doesn’t seem to have clocked I’m there either. His eyes are focused forward, staring at what’s ahead as the dust from the road kicks up around us.

A scene from last year’s 108th Tour de France.
A scene from last year’s 108th Tour de France. Photograph: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The voice of cycling isn’t commentator Phil Liggett, it’s a Frenchman called Seb Piquet whose race updates crackle over the radios fitted to all vehicles in the convoy. He’s calling out the time gaps from the main group to the breakaway, then reading out the race numbers of the people in the escape.

Piquet is the Radio Tour speaker and everyone in the convoy responds to the information he provides. Sports directors, on a different frequency, can then pass that on to their riders, who all have a headphone taped into one ear.

“You have to be concentrated on what goes on all the time. And I mean all the time because something can happen at any moment – a crash, a rider asking for a bottle or whatever,” Piquet says.

He rides shotgun in a red car that follows the peloton on every stage. During the race he relies on scouts on motorbikes to tell him what he can’t see in the breakaway, and time gaps to it and the bunch.

“The things I’ll see on the Tour or other races are mostly the riders being dropped,” Piquet says. “Often when you’re watching your TV you see what the camera wants to show you and the camera is often at the front of the race.

“I’m at the back and I can see the guys struggling, I can see who is dropped, so that’s also information I tend to give as much as possible – ‘rider No 131 dropped,’ and give all that information because that’s not necessarily on your screen.”

Piquet works off many radio frequencies but the one I hear is the same as the team cars in the convoy. If a rider needs to speak to their director, they might drop to the back of the peloton and raise their arm to signal that to Piquet. “Movistar for rider 118,” he will say.

He’ll notify everyone of an incident, in English and then in French. “Crash, crash.” Then, as fast as possible, Piquet will name the teams impacted so their sports directors can speed up to the crash site and help the affected rider or riders.

At the beginning of every stage Piquet will list over the radio the number of riders who are starting and note if anyone has withdrawn overnight or that morning. At the end of every stage, he’ll call the result.

“I have a big responsibility because I’m not allowed to fuck up,” Piquet says. “If I say something wrong it will have repercussions. To give you an example, I don’t know what stage it was, but it was a sprint stage on the Tour and with a kilometre to go there was a crash. Someone in the car, I won’t name him, [said], ‘Phwoar, Cavendish is on the ground.’ And I didn’t check. I immediately said, ‘Crash, Cavendish caught in the crash.’ And a kilometre later he was winning the stage.”

It’s a mistake Piquet vowed never to make again. “I’d rather not say anything than say something wrong. And also, don’t trust anyone. If someone tells you Cavendish crashed, you want to see Cavendish on the floor before you call it.”

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