Mary Branscombe (marypcb) wrote,
Mary Branscombe

Faster than a speeding cyclist

We spent Saturday touring the Tour De France Grand Depart Prologue. Orange are providing all the connectivity and telecoms logistics (see The Other Place for geeky details) so we crawled through the lorries and cables filling the mall, climbed up to the radio commentary post, stood on the track at the finish line and then jogged off to Embankment to wait for the shuttle down to Excel. Only a fraction of the journalists covering the Tour fit around the actual course; many others sit in serried ranks in a more organised than usual press room - not just WiFi but power on every desk without crawling under the tables, and giant Machines (they deserve the Capital Letter and some reverb) that recharge any phone battery in 15 minutes. But the really impressive bit, and the fastest we went all day, was the catamaran there and back. We often see the Damien Hurst spotted boat pootling up and down the river; on Saturday it was slamming along, with slowdowns when we passed piers, police boats and inlets. After the usual barges and crawling tourist ferries it was a revalation; the river would be a superb way to get around London. Excel will be the site of part of the Olympics and demolition, small businesses going on fire, levelling and building proceed apace.

Back to Horseguards and we thread our way through the crowds, blocked by security and then escorted across the road by a concerned policeman - I just don't want you to get run over by a bicycle, he confides earnestly. We're not getting in the way of the race, it's just warmups and random cyclists at this point. We arrive for the stamping-back-and-forth bit of the changing of the guards (we've already seen one troop ride in and another ride out). French sporting event, French company, French food; they make lunch in a box both stylish and delicious, with real cheese (Camembert and Beaufort), good red wine at the right temperature and a tasty rolled ham canneloni plus roasted dorade. One of the riders bounces over the gravel, leans his bike against a plantpot and sits down to eat a cake and make a phone call (back to Khazakhstan by the sound of it); we see a great deal of cake eating throughout the day.

After lunch we watch the starters for a while; in reverse order as we walk along, they speed off down the ramp followed by their support car, sit on the ramp being commentated on with an official propping the bike up by holding the rear wheel between his fit, ride up the ramp and sign in, ride in circles at the bottom the of ramp having their tyres wiped down and checked for punctures and get the bike weighed and measured - nothing is under the mininum 7kg 400g but we see one or two have their handlebars adjusted. Nearly all have a solid rear wheel; sometimes you can see light gleaming from facets of carbon fibre; some have three or four thick spokes on the front wheel, most have half the number you'd expect on a normal bike wheel. The frames are normal height but flattened. And the skin tight, nothing to the imagination cycling suits and extended helmets make the cyclists look odd even when you're standing next to them - the helmet sweeps back like an alien head and has as many adverts as the socks that zip over their cycling shoes.

You really do get up close to the cyclists back stage; next we're taken around the team buses to see the higher seeded cyclists warming up on their own bikes propped up on stands; one by one they finish their cakes and bananas and coca cola and jump in the bike laden car; I'm not sure at which point they jump out and cycle off, but the break seems to be built into the routine, as we saw one chap tucking into a bowl of cereal in the back seat.

Our tour guide knows the cyclists and the team managers and the entourages from having been a pro cyclist and a team manager before moving to Orange so it takes a while to get back to the finish line; we arrive a couple of cyclists before we see Ken Livingston leave, looking tanned and cryptic. There are only 14 riders left to finish the time trial at this point and with the crowds and the curve of the course we can't see as far as Buck House, and we can barely see the giant screens; we know there's a rider on the way when the crowd start applauding and banging on the barriers. When they reach a certain point the timer starts counting up their time (I derive some amusement from the brand being called Festina) and we see a lot of 9.6, 9.15 and 9.30 times on the clock, which means it's fun to see the rider swoosh past but we can tell they're not in contention. Then there's a time of 8.15 and the rider comes barrelling towards us; most of the bikes are dead upright but he's pedalling so hard the bike sways rhythmically as his legs pump and he's over the line in 8.50. The best riders go last in the time trial so all the cyclists we see are fast; only one approaches Cancellera's time and he's 13 seconds behind. The majority of 14 riders we saw seemed to finish around 9.44, putting Cancellera a good way ahead of the main field - but the 7.9km of flat London road aren't much of a test for the 300km 5 hour stages up hill they'll do for the rest of the tour.

We planned to catch Oceans 13 at last but the times didn't work out so we went home for pizza and Lucky Number Slevin: very slick, nicely complex, gruesomely violent, featuring a satsifying ending and impressive wallpaper.

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