Sometime during Glastonbury (a blog still to come), I suddenly realised that it had been far too long since I’d been to see the Tour de France in person. 2015 was the last time I’d been there, when I’d taken my bike to the Pyrenees to both watch the race and do a little cycling.
The Grand Depart was in Brussels, and that’s just a quick hop on Eurostar. Last minute tickets weren’t astronomical (nor were they £35), and hotel accommodation seemed plentiful – in large part because most Belgians can easily make it to Brussels for a daytrip should they wish to, without incurring hotel costs.
So on Friday night, after work, I found myself in a “Standard Premier” seat – only £5 more than a regular seat – getting a meal and a glass of wine, and spreading out in a business class seat on the way to the Tour.
My hotel was more of a B&B, but the room was something of a suite with a couple of sofas, and a very friendly lady who ran the place. Then it was out into the night air to see what Brussels had to offer.
I couldn’t help noticing that electric scooters are everywhere in the city. I did at one point have a go on one of the Lime ones, but as I’d feared, the tiny wheels in comparison to the holes in the road, do not give the rider a great deal of comfort. So although the young seemed to be whizzing everywhere on them, I only went a few hundred metres at a cost of €1.50 before stopping. Fortunately, Uber Jump e-bikes are everywhere, along with a myriad of other hire bike schemes, and the Uber machines would be my transport means of choice to get around the city.
A walk up the main road from my accommodation, were a fleet of very smart looking brand new Skoda cars belonging to the Tour de France race organisation. Across the street in a hotel simply called The Hotel, Trek Segrafrado were in residence – I knew this because they had team cars, their bus and a truck all parked outside.
I rose early on Saturday morning having made plans to let me watch the Tour twice. The first stage – Bruxelles > Brussel to keep both Belgian languages happy – was a circular 195km flattish stage that was expected to end in a big bunch sprint.
The race was in part honouring Eddy Merckx, the all time record stage winner of the Tour, and unarguably one of the greatest cyclists ever. It was the 50th anniversary of his first win, and Belgium had gone Eddy crazy. There were as many posters across Brussels for Merckx as there were for the Tour. And the man himself was appearing all over the place, lapping up glory.
The first day’s route would go through Merckx’s hometown and took in a couple of the iconic Belgian ‘bergs, familiar from the one-day classics. However, these came early in the race, and were unlikely to affect the result since there was well over 100km of racing after the riders had cleared them. Nonetheless, I’d settled on getting a train out to somewhere near the Bosberg, watching the race there, before getting a train back into town to see the finale somewhere near the finish.
At breakfast in my B&B, a Dutch couple were in their cycling gear. They were big fans of Dylan Groenewegen, the Dutch sprinter from Jumbo Visma. Groenewegan had apparently been a member of their cycling club once. The two were meeting some colleagues for a ride, before watching the finale themselves. But when they heard my plans to see the race at the Bosberg, they suggested it wasn’t a good idea. Seemingly there’d be tens of thousands of spectators there – some camping overnight. I’d be very lucky to see anything!
Maybe this was true. I did also recall that parts of the Bosberg seemed not to have spectators. Why not instead go to the nearby Geraardsbergen? It was actually a little easier to get to since the climb began in the town of the same name, and it was just a stop further down the line on the train.
When I reached Brussels-Midi station, I realised that there weren’t thousands with the same idea, with just a handful of people seemingly doing similar. Brussels main station itself was well set up. They had Tour volunteers handing out booklets with maps and timings of both Saturday and Sunday’s stages. I grabbed one before jumping on the train.
Geraardsbergen is a small town, but it was en fête for the Tour. There were flower-strewn bicycle wheels in the street and every shop had a window display that incorporated a bicycle. It reminded me a lot of the efforts of Yorkshire when they held the Grand Depart in 2014.
I walked through the town, past bakeries filled with mattentaarts (I was too nervous to try one, and it was a good move, because I’m not a fan of cheese), and the strange giant figures they had in the middle of the town. I managed to place myself at the roadside close to a big screen, but just out of sight of it. A local DJ was entertaining the crowd until the race started. At one point I was amused to hear Bradley Wiggins being interviewed in English by the Belgian commentators.
First, of course, must come the Caravan – that moving advertising behemoth that announces the race is on its way. In traditional fashion, most of the vehicles were pumping out music, had dancing men and women atop them, and were throwing out – well tat. Yes – I tried to grab a Skoda hat or an E.Leclerc t-shirt. But only a local Lotto vendor’s yellow “Eddy” casquette reached me. Well also some massive flag affair that you’re supposed to wear like a cape. I brought it back with me though…
Finally it was time for some actual racing. Fortunately we have EU roaming data these days, so Twitter was useful, but so was the Eurosport Player (although Eurosport, please fix the problem that means I have to log out and back in again every single time I use the app!).
Four riders had gone off the front, and one of them was the Olympic champion and Belgian, Greg Van Avermaet. As he rounded the corner on 3rd category Geraardsbergen he was toying with his fellow breakaway riders. He would go on to win maximum points on the hill, guaranteeing him the polkadot jersey at the end of the day.
Less than three minutes behind was the peleton, loudly cheered, but in truth just rolling up the hill. There would be plenty more racing this Tour, and it was far too early to get excited now.
After the riders had passed through, I grabbed a local “Export” beer from a vendor, before heading back down the hill to the station, where somewhat more people were heading into Brussels. From the central station, I grabbed an Uber Jump, and set about trying to find somewhere to watch the race return.
I still had plenty of time, and in the end, found a not-too-busy corner just outside the 3km to go mark. I knew that while they’d be strung out, the riders would still be together with the general classification riders being careful not to lose position until they’d cleared that 3km mark. At that point they could drop back, and the sprinters could have their go.
I grabbed a few shots as they sped past, and then opened my phone to watch the finale. Maybe 500m from where I was standing, there’d been a crash that took out hot favourite Groenewegan. The sprint finish ended up in a free for all, with Groenewegan’s leadout man, Mike Teunissen winning the stage and with it the yellow jersey.
I headed back to my room to catch some highlights on TV, and watch a bit of Wimbledon, before heading to a nice nearby bistro for some traditional Belgian food and beer.
Sunday was Team Time Trial day, which meant that I should be able to take a lot more photos. But first things first, I set off to have a look around the start area of the stage. The team buses were already out, with the staff members all setting up their trainers, fans and mats. It was interesting to see who was really on it like Team Ineos, and who had a somewhat more l’aissez faire attitude like Movistar.
Then it was a rendezvous at the Rapha pop-up shop where I could catch up with Richard, Lionel and François of The Cycling Podcast (for those who don’t know, I’m one of their regular podcast producers, doing the work from home, and usually quite busy during the Grand Tours). I had a bit of chat with them, before heading off to grab some lunch and find somewhere to watch the TTT that afternoon.
Having examined François’s roadbook, the big volume that gives every stage in enormous detail. I settled on going to Bois de la Cambre, a large park to the south west of the city. Again an Uber Jump carried me and my camera gear there. The crowds weren’t too bad, and I found a decent corner to watch the first few teams go by. Somehow Team Ineos had managed to end up going first, and I was a bit worried about my camera settings, with little chance to test them. But I got some good photos.
Over the course of the afternoon, I moved around a bit, and got at least one picture of nearly every team. Only Katusha Alpecin escaped me, a mad Norwegian waving flags in front of my lens and completely ruining my autofocus!
Somehow Ineos managed to stay in the hot seat until the very last team, Jumbo Visma. They absolutely blasted around, beating everyone by 20 seconds or more. Teunissen held onto his yellow jersey.
I got some food and then headed back to the station for the ride home. Brussels Midi isn’t the most exciting station – at least not once you’re through security. But then neither is St Pancras. A delay at Calais meant we ended up 20 minutes late into London. But the trip was fine. I’d got some good photos, and been to visit the Tour again.
Next time, it’ll be some “proper” stages – in the mountains somewhere.