Earlier in the week, my friend Paul called to ask us to look after Hamlette, their venerable Golden Retriever and Alf’s object of increasingly improbable sexual desire. I figured that they were going off somewhere in their camping van. But you’ll miss the Tour de France, I protested – knowing what a cycling fool Paul is. He’s never happier than when he’s on two wheels, dressed up in lycra and ‘shuffering and shmiling’, as Fela Kuti would have it.
Therein lay the rub. The family Foulkes were de-camping a few kilometres down the road to book their premium spot by the Lac de Causse, where the riders would go whizzing past on Friday afternoon. So we took charge of Hamlette on Thursday morning. Over coffee, Paul told me all about Bradley Wiggins’s preparations for the annual epic. The man with the matchstick legs and the JPR Williams sideburns apparently spent his winter apart from the family he loves, cycling up and down some volcano to improve his climbing ability. Q: Are they not human, these cyclists? A: One wonders sometimes.
One wonders, too, whether the riders ever get attacked by mad French farm dogs. On Tuesday morning, an unhinged collie attacked me as I cycled through the village of Bonnard. Alf saw him off courageously with a show of fangs and gums, but not before the beast bit my leg. Following my wife’s prescription, I bathed my leg in water and six drops of lavender essential oil. My leg’s fine now, thanks for asking. My jaw didn’t lock and there’s no sign of rabies, but you can still see two tooth marks on my shin. Typically, I didn’t phone the owners to rant and fume. Well… the old man’s ill and I didn’t fancy talking to his wife, who personifies the worst of peasant womanhood: rendered bitter and vicious by a lifetime’s servitude in a pinafore. Maybe even more to the point, I didn’t want to feel doubly disappointed by humanity should they conform to the stereotype and fail to apologise.
But let me not detract from the excitement of Stage 18 of the 2012 Tour. I’ve been watching the live coverage on ITV4. Not exactly watching, but kind of working with the commentary on in the background. It’s a recipe for distraction and evening frustration when I look back on what I have achieved during my working day. But the thing is – and it’s really only something that sports’ fans understand – I have been witnessing history in the making. If the Wigginator makes it to the Champs Elysée today with the yellow jersey still on his back, arguably it will be the finest ever achievement by a British sportsperson. Even the boy’s own heroes of The Victor and The Wizard never achieved as much. Bradley Wiggins is Wilson; he is the Tough of the Track. One must watch.
There have been warnings all around here of deviations for weeks. Deborah left for work at her usual unholy hour, so she had no difficulty penetrating the fortifications of Brive. She had warned all her clients and the Dunkirk spirit prevailed. One woman borrowed her daughter’s scooter; others (gasp!) hoofed it to her cabinet. On arrival in Brive, the barriers were already going up. Later in the day she heard the cheers, but by the time she popped outside for a deco, the Tour’s human army of assistants had already snatched up the barriers for re-employment in pastures new.
That’s the trouble with the Tour de France. It’s so darn ephemeral. That’s why I elected to stay and watch it on the box. During our Corrézian life, we’d all three of us gone to see a stage up in the Monédière hills. We got there early, parked with the hordes in a field earmarked for the occasion and hung around. Since our daughter was very young at the time, the hanging around also involved frequent shoulder-rides. The caravan passed by with much ballyhoo, showering the hungry crowd with plastic publicity material. We caught a calculator, which Tilley used for several years. Then the riders flashed by and triggered much waving and cheering. And then it was time for home. At least they go around the circuit a few times in Formula One.
The TV coverage is excellent. The commentators even pronounce the names of the villages correctly. The helicopter shots of the Lot’s topography and chateaux made me glow with pride. Tilley joined me to work ‘n’ watch while she made an origami chicken for Compassion in World Farming’s anti-battery campaign. At half-past Cressenssac, not far from the Lac de Causse where my friend Dan, Dan, the graphics man took this splendid action photo, I was called away to meet and greet a slightly eccentric bunch of holidaymakers from Louth, Lincs. Ah! That’s where Robert Wyatt lives, I remarked. They had encountered the great man out and about in his wheelchair. Did I happen to know how their local celebrity had ended up in a wheelchair? They were decidedly not the type of people to get drunk and fall out of a first-floor window like the ex-drummer of The Soft Machine.
By the time I got back, they were already interviewing Mark Cavendish as the race winner. The Manx Express, or whatever his monicker is, seems like a charmingly ingenuous figure for a world champion. The proof of the pudding was in the eating. Over supper, we watched the pelloton claw back the breakaway group and tried to spot friends among the Union-Jack wavers. The climax in the streets of Brive was one of the most exciting finishes I’ve ever witnessed. By the time Mark Cavendish exploded past the leaders to pinch it at the death, I was up out of my chair and jumping around like a punk at a Clash concert. The girls laughed. They don’t quite get sport.
Once the excitement died down, I went with dog biscuit, chew and lead to fetch Hamlette from the ruined house down below us. She had wandered down earlier to see the campers and either taken a shine to them or hadn’t found the energy for the ascent. There she was, stretched out under their dining table. I had to coax her out with the comestibles.
Hamlette’s gone back home again now. All being well, Bradley Wiggins should ride into Paris and mount the podium in triumph this very afternoon. But then there’s also the closing session of the British Open from Royal Lytham. I shall arise and go now and don my toughest gardening gloves in order to attack with secateurs that shameful patch of brambles by our drive. By appeasing Gradgrind, the Protestant god of Work Ethic, maybe I can savour it all guilt-free. It ain’t just sport, you see, it’s history in the making.