Meals on wheels and nerves of steel at Le Tour

Taking the lunch order of a Tour de France cyclist through the open door of the race car, while travelling at 60km/h along roads with hairpin bends, would test the nerves of the most passive waiter. Yet, if the driver is casual, the more relaxed person in the exchange is the cyclist who receives water bottles and ham sandwiches, tucking them into the back pockets of his vest while controlling the bike with one hand as he hurtles down treacherous descents. There is an eerie calm about a day’s ride in the Tour de France, as the race driver knocks the side mirror of his vehicle in order to get close to the bike rider as they exchange information. While passengers such as myself exhibit a white-knuckle fear as the race car weaves between riders, the most passive people are the athletes. No wonder in a race the French call their own, nonchalance is a French word. To succeed, the cyclist either has to have an unshakeable belief in the doctrine of predestination, or be born without a central nervous system.

Each day carries its own surprises. My bonus was to be travelling in Orica GreenEDGE’s lead race car as it chased the breakaway group on the Vaison la Romaine to Gap leg of the 100th Tour. Gerry Ryan’s team had two riders in the group, including 23-year-old Cameron Meyer, who was riding in his first Tour. He had signed a new two-year contract the day before, and was keen to offer an instant reward. With the steep ascent to Gap looming, he calmly told the race driver Neil Stephens his strategy. “I’ve got to go early,” he told Stephens, a former Tour stage winner. “There are too many good climbers in the breakaway group, particularly [Rui] Costa.”

Meyer calculated that if he waited too long, the more explosive cyclists would accelerate away and he would never catch them. He called for an ice sock to slide down his back for cooling and then sped forward, searching for Costa. As it transpired, Costa, of the SpanIsh Movistar team, sprinted away to win the stage. Meyer, who finished ninth, said of his debut Tour competing against the best: “It’s good to get a bit of a monkey off my back and understand how this race works.”

Orica GreenEDGE race director Matt White was equally prescient in his team talk before the day’s racing. He knew it was a day for opportunists, and some of the other teams had failed to win a stage. Some of the sponsors had not renewed, and the big budget teams, such as Cadel Evans’ BMC, Europcar, Astana and the Russian team, Katusha, had failed to live up to expectations. He also nominated Movistar as a desperate team whose riders would take risks. “Stay calm,” he repeated on the radio wired to Meyer but the experienced Costa was able to stay in control.

A stage of the Tour de France is like a pool of mercury which throughout the day, splits into globules, then small pearls, to become a string of quicksilver, only to reform into larger drops. The Gap stage began with two pools of the just under 200 riders and it quickly split into three. By the end of the 168 kilometre journey, where the average speed was 43km/h, it was one long string with a peloton of only eight bike riders.

There is much to fascinate in the Tour de France. The drivers of the race cars weave in between each other, holding the wheel with one hand while studying a map, eating a baguette, answering a mobile phone, speaking on the radio, or watching the small TV screen of the leaders. They are constantly seeking information on the location of their own and the rival riders. Cyclists draft in behind them, yet they must not assist members of their own team.

The crowds lining the route also fascinate, including an increasing relationship with the riders via social media. Orica GreenEDGE has been sending out a daily e-bulletin called Back Stage Pass. One bulletin included a quote from Stephens, who is nicknamed “the sheriff” because he is the bad cop to White’s good cop. Stephens speaks four languages but prefers Australian idiom. He answered one question asked of the interviewer with the words, “f—— oath”. This was sanitised to “fruit and oats”. As each of GreenEDGE’s nine cyclists sprinted past a waving band of Aussies, they were treated to a huge banner reading “GreenEDGE. Fruit and Oats. Good one, Sheriff.”

It would seem that Stephens, the casual waiter supplying food and drink, had delivered his order not just to the cyclists but the hundreds of thousands watching the progress of the team on social media.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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