My fascination with the Tour de France begin in the mid 1980’s when I saw a documentary on a rider called Robert Millar, a Scotsman who had finished fourth and won the King of the Mountains jersey. I remember being captivated by his skinny white body and his dark brown arms as he described the daily torture and suffering of a tour rider.
My interest in cycle racing was restricted by my obsession with football and music during the 1980’s. I rode quite often but I was more of a tourer than a racer, and nobody else I knew was into cycling. But when the start town of the 1994 race was announced as Portsmouth, I decided to catch a train down to the South Coast and experience the Tour de France for myself.
I loved it. I positioned myself at the stage finish, and to be honest the cycling was gone in a blur, but I hadn’t realised that the whole race would be led by a 2 hour procession of noisy and colourful promotional vehicles which threw out gifts and mementoes as the tension built up. I wanted more, and when I got back to Cardiff I followed the race on television intently. As the tour approached the Alps, I made a snap decision to book a flight to Paris, and make my way to Geneva.
Stage 18, July 21, Moutiers – Cluses
I flew out on Wednesday 20th, intending to travel by train to Cluses, via Geneva in time to catch the stage as it finished in the Alpine village on Thursday July 21st. Unfortunately, I made an ‘acquaintance’ on the flight across to Paris, and decided to stay in the French capital for the evening, eventually arriving at Cluses train station on the following day about an hour after the stage had finished.
This turned out to be a huge stroke of luck in adversity, as I decided to make the most of things by walking around the tour vehicles which were parked behind the finishing line. And it was there that I came across a rider sitting on the steps of the doctor’s caravan. It was Marco Pantani. I asked him for his cap, and he swore at me. How was I to know that he had smashed his knee earlier in the day, before riding heroically to claim third place on the stage? But I had met the great Marco Pantani, and I fell in unrequited love with a rider who would become my hero over the next seven years.
Stage 19, Thursday July 22, Cluses-Avoriaz (Individual Time Trial)
My vague plans were disrupted further when I discovered that there was no train out of Cluses that evening, and nor was there any accomodation available. These were the days before the internet, and I hadn’t been able to research or prepare anything. I decided to hitch-hike the 25 miles to Avoriaz where the following day’s time trial would finish. Again, I was stuck for accomodation, but managed to find an emergency bunk in the village school alongside other intrepid tifosi.
The following day, I rose at dawn and walked for hours up the hillside toward Morzine, finding a place about 5 km from the summit alongside a party of Miguel Indurain fans.
A mountain time trial is one of the best ways to get a close up view of the riders, as they ride individually, passing you every few minutes in various stages of suffering. One of the first to go by was the Georgian sprinter, Djamolodine Abdoujapourov, another favourite of mine.
Then I met my old friend Marco Pantani again, sharing a few warm words as he passed.
Then came the snivelling toad Richard Virenque, wearing Robert Millar’s precious polka dot jersey. I shouted abuse.
Indurain rode past as the fan club went mental, on his way to another Tour win.
Stage 20, Friday 23 July, Morzine – Lac de Saint Point.
At the end of the stage, I descended quickly and caught the train back to Geneva, where I spent the night in an hotel at the side of the lake, before catching a local train to the small town of Annemasse where the tour would pass through once again. From there, I travelled to Paris by train.
Stage 21, Saturday July 24th, Eurodisney – Paris – Champs D’Elysee,
After a night in gay Paris, I made my way early to the Champs d’Elysee as I knew it would be difficult to get a place near the front of the barriers.
While scouting around for a good spot, I saw a familiar face. It was Phil Liggett, who presented Channel 4’s race coverage. “Hello Mr Liggett!”, I shouted, and he gave me a cheery wave.
I was right about getting there early. I found a spot just beyond the finish and settled down for a few hours. It was tough, and the worst thing was that I couldn’t leave to use the toilet. I was on my own, and had nobody to keep my place. Agony!
The most impressive thing about watching the tour on the Champos D’Elysee is the noise made by the huge body of bikes as it passes at incredible speeds of about 45 mph. But in my opinion, it doesn’t really compare to a mountain stage. It’s an interesting element of the tour , but not the best one.
And that was it – my first experience of the Tour, and looking back, I’m not sure how I managed to get round to the final four stages using only the sporadic train service around the Alps, and with no accomodation booked in advance. I didn’t even take a tent.