Helicopters heaven or hell? Watching the Tour de France come through

THE helicopters circling overhead made it feel more like a terrorist incident or war-zone rather than an afternoon out to watch a major sporting event. But this is the Tour de France, in France, where the media and who knows who else are allowed to fly camera-equipped helicopters at low altitude to capture every move of the riders.

As the riders came through, the noise was incredible. First, from the helicopters’ rotor blades slapping the air as they turned. Second, from the klaxons blaring from support, official and police vehicles. Third, from the cheers of the crowd, including us. “Go, Bradley, go!” Sorry, bit xenophobic but there you are.

And my cursing… I’d set up and practised time and again this photo shot. The riders came round a corner, with crowds either side of the road and I had the peloton head-on. From this position, which we’d bagged two hours earlier, I could capture the full pack, every expression, fingers twitching over brakes in case some mad spectator leapt out too enthusiastically.

I’d get the long shot, then zoom to wide angle to capture the peloton as it passed less than two metres in front of me, then follow them as they entered the little hamlet of Espies on the D618 and get first a wide shot, then zoom closer.

Tour de France 2012
The peleton of the 2012 Tour de France arrives and the shot I’ve practised fills the viewfinder… up pops a woman with this board!

But just as I was squeezing the shutter button for the first shot, up popped Madame Europcar with her giant board supporting her favourite rider. A great chunk of my carefully arranged head-on shot wiped out (see below). It may not have been a World Sports Photography award winner but it would have been good. B******s!

We saw the yellow jerseyed Bradley Wiggins power through midway through the leading pack and yelled his name. Not a flicker of response but I hope he registered it through his concentration. It’s hard to believe a Brit is actually doing well in a sporting event sometimes.

The riders were heading up to the Col de Peguere, a side road off the D618. We’ve driven up this narrow little road many times. It clings to the hillside in an impossibly steep climb, with bumps in the road surface which must jar through handlebars. And it’s long too, going on and on, steeply and narrow with trees on one side and rock on the other. If the riders get a chance, which I doubt, there’s a great view back down the Massatois Valley in places.

This was the first time we’d watched the Tour de France come through. The bit when the riders come past is over quite quickly. What takes hours beforehand is the procession of sponsors’ vehicles and promotion… well, parade floats comes to mind.

There were loaves of bread being driven along, huge dogs on motorised wheels, a model of the mountains complete with snow and clouds, a plastic bottle representing spring water, Disney characters, and an entire collection of classic Citroen 2CV cars and vans immaculately restored in company colours. See the photo gallery below.

Most were chucking out freebies – T-shirts, sweets, key rings, cakes, packs of playing cards and even clothes washing liquid. At least the Vittel mineral people didn’t throw the bottles of water.

There’s a bit of a scramble for the freebies but it’s all in good fun, even when a sachet of warm yoghurt suddenly lands in your lap. When I saw the Haribos truck I hoped for some Tang Fantastics but we got strawberry blobs instead.

Once the Tour has passed, everyone got up to mingle for a while. Actually we dived back in Espies’ village shop, specially open all day, to buy a bottle of vino. Earlier we’d bought lunch here – homemade bread, local ham thickly cut, local cheese, peaches and local honey. And while supermarket France may seem expensive, this little shop bucked the trend.

Tour de France