By Robbie Broughton
As dawn breaks over the city of Pau I wake up with eager anticipation and look out across rooftops to the peaks of the Pyrenees that loom over this town. After two flat stages this is where the Tour will be headed tomorrow, promising a tussle among the GC contenders at last. I imagine the likes of Quintana and Aru licking their lips at the prospect of finally having an opportunity to challenge Froome for yellow. But they'll have to wait: today is another long, flat stage.
The night before I'd sat outside a brasserie chewing on some steak frites overlooking the Place de Verdun where the TV compound was to be set up. While I soaked up the atmosphere of the cafe, the open flat square remained empty save for the occasional strolling couple. By the time I'd got to coffee the trucks had started to arrive after their 200km drive from Bergerac and had begun the process of unloading . By morning the whole compound was set up and ready to go: trucks unloaded, gazebos up, miles of cable purposefully laid out, trucks unfolded like transformers to become mobile studios, editing suites and commentary booths.
By 10am spectators show extraordinary patience and are already taking up their stations on the barriers at the finish. Christ, the riders aren't even going to leave the start town until 12. They aren't due to arrive here until 4.30 in the afternoon! There's a strange atmosphere - you can sense people trying to reign in their excitement. After all there's a few hours to wait before even the Tour caravan passes through.
With little going on I decide to wander through the town which carries on its normal midweek routine. Workers sweep the streets, shops begin to open up, deliveries are made. It's a normal day for most of the locals in Pau, which has seen the Tour pass through many times before. I decide to catch the start of the stage on TV at the press centre which has been set up in a large municipal town building. Rows of desks with electricity and internet connections are lined up like an exam hall, and the place has the same intense hush as a smattering of journalists ponder what to write on this, the second of two dull flat stages.
Back at the finish line the stands are beginning to fill up and the fans are kept amused by giant chickens and men dressed up as baguettes. I'm constantly amazed that the crowd, which includes all ages from infants to grandparents, is able to sustain their enthusiasm with only clowns and walking giant saucissons to amuse them.
Later I catch up with Carlton Kirby in the commentary box who shares a cheese platter with Sean Kelly. They take turns to eat while the other speaks, although commercial breaks give both of them the opportunity to dive in. It's another predictable day as the peloton parade down long flat straight roads that offer little opportunity for real bike racing. The only action today will be the sprint finish. I decide to see how far my TV pass can take me and find that I can walk along the course along with the adults dressed as giant farm animals and items from the boulangerie.
As the riders approach, the course is cleared of entertainers. The tension ratchets up, rows of policemen take up their stance, hands behind backs, and the podium girls apply final touches to their make-up. I miss the entire sprint finish on the screen as I find myself jostling with dozens of photographers all eager to get the finish shot. It's Kittel who's won - I only know because I'm swept along with the scrum of media men and women who crowd around the green jersey. It's impossible to get a clear shot so I just hold up the camera and point it in his general direction. Amazingly I manage to catch him in the frame.
Kittel is swept away by officials along with the other jersey winners of the day. The media circus move to the podium and within a couple of minutes the presentations begin. As soon as they're over, technicians begin to dismantle the stage. Then it's off to the interview enclosure - more jostling as eager journalists and cameramen thrust microphones into faces and riders are interviewed in French, Spanish, English and German.
Afterward the frenetic finish I wander into town and watch the Quickstep mechanics strip down the team bikes as they're surrounded by fans. Later that night you could hear the team celebrating Kittel's victory in their hotel with cheers and chants. But by 10pm it's all quiet as they retreat to their rooms. A big day beckons in the mountains tomorrow and not one for the sprinters.
The next day I decide to experience the Tour from a real fan's perspective and head off to the outskirts of Tarbes before the riders hit the mountains. It's a grey gritty day with spattering rain in a gnarly part of the town as far from the tourist trail as you can get. It's that strange combination of industrial/agricultural that you get on the edge of these French cities. I watch the caravan come through this poor area, as spectators collect as many throwaway freebies as they can, many of them delighted with their collection of cheap keyrings, packets of Haribo and mini salamis.
It's a side of the Tour I haven't seen yet, but I feel I need the obligatory sunflower shot so begin to walk out of town towards fields of hay. I pass through an industrial estate for a couple of kilometres when suddenly the ugly metal warehouses stop on the edge of Le Pouey to reveal open fields. I'll wait here for the riders to come through.
Locals have begun to gather and they look at me suspiciously. I'm an out of towner and I look it and feel it. Workers begin to leave their warehouses and factories to line the road. Banners are raised. Excitement levels rise as various team cars and photographers on motorbikes zoom past.
Then suddenly they're here! The breakway whizzes past, followed a minute later by the main peloton who flash by in a whirr of bright colours. The hum of rubber on tarmac, motorbike engines, cheers from the spectators: "Allez, allez!" and "Vive Le Tour!" Then it's all over in a minute. Bikes, cars and motorbikes are gone and people begin to turn away. Back to work, back home. A small crowd head down a backstreet- a post tour party perhaps.
As I make my way back to the car, a truck draws up, collecting hay bales put there to protect the riders. The street is empty and deserted and there's a horrible sense of anti climax as the rain begins to spit again in this grimy edge of town.
I don't want it all to end like this and I'm torn between heading up to the mountains or catching my flight back home. For a minute I weigh it up but decide to play safe. Airport it is. It's strange how I've hardly seen any actual bike racing in four days of following the Tour despite such privileged access. But it's been thrilling and exciting and I vow then and there that I'll be back next year whatever happens. Vive Le Tour!