The Tour de France circus comes to town: I am not sure that life will ever be the same again in the little French town of Hucqueliers in Pas de Calais.
Usually the most exciting thing that happens there is the annual flea market, or the horse show in which a truck load of horses arrive, parade around the square and then go home again. Hucqueliers has a population of around 500, compared to my own village 10km away (142 inhabitants) that’s quite sizeable – there’s a mini supermarket, bakers, bar and restaurant but not much else.
Tractors trundle along the main road past the town hall and into the surrounding countryside. The church bells ring once a week. The bar opens at lunch time and early evening and is a hot bed of gossip – most of which consists of what the Paristos are getting up to. If you didn’t know better you might think that some of the locals masqueraded as invisible spies at the Palais de Champs Elysées during the week as they all have an opinion on the goings-on of those in government.
Like I say, nothing much happens, it is a sleepy, tranquil, very friendly and pretty town that attracts hikers thanks to the beautiful scenery of the countryside that surrounds it.
Recently however, the town was filled with thousands of people. Helicopters circled overhead, police outriders filed through the little roads, children practiced how to do a Mexican wave, everyone waved flags and the band played for all it was worth. Much to everyone’s disgust the boulangerie ran out of bread at 10.00 am and had to close – an unheard of disaster in the history of Hucqueliers.
What, you might ask, was the cause of all this thrilling turmoil? We had visitors. The Tour de France, the world’s biggest sporting event, watched by 3.5 billion people worldwide came racing through tiny Hucqueliers. 3.5 billion – to put that in perspective, that is 50% of the entire earth’s population.
The Tour de France had departed from swish le Touquet (the Monaco of the North we call it here in Pas de Calais) on the Opal Coast. Le Touquet was the jet set destination of the rich and famous in the early 1900s and is where the world’s biggest hotel of the day was built – so large it had swimming pools in the suites. Le Tour meandered through the hilly countryside of the lovely Seven Valleys to historic Montreuil-sur-Mer. It was here in 1837 that Victor Hugo partied with his mistress and was inspired by the hill top town, the people and the fabulous scenery to write Les Miserables. After that it was up and down hill, winding country roads and finally at around 12.30 the publicity caravans that are so much a part of the whole shebang arrived. Down a steep hill, past the village church, sharp left at the WWI memorial, sharp right past the boulangerie and up another steep hill… and then they were gone.
You might think it was all over in a flash which doesn’t at all warrant the fuss, but you’d be quite wrong. The publicity caravan – some 600 vehicles dressed in their carnival finery lasted almost an hour on their way through tossing gifts to the cheering, waving crowds. Over the course of the 3 week tour, they will give away 16 million gifts! The two lone, young gendarmes that were trying to keep the crowds in a semblance of control had a hard time trying to stop the kids scrabbling around in the road to pick up keyrings, note pads, packets of cakes and other goodies. There are an additional 500 or so vehicles carrying extra bikes, tyres, camera men and journalists plus a couple of hundred gendarmes and officials cars – they all get a cheer from the crowds.
Now, nothing shows it like it was like a few photos so here’s our fabulous photo gallery of the day
Once the publicity vans had gone through, tension mounted as we awaited the cyclists, anxiously monitoring the sky for signs of helicopters – a sure signal the riders were near and being filmed from above.
I caught up with some of the people there, a young girl hung out of her grandma’s window, an old man bought a chair out and sat waving a flag – this is “awesome” they said.
I spoke to a couple of cyclists, Nick Donald a banker from London told me he had been watching the race in London the day before and been so inspired that he and his friend John Fullick decided to watch it in France too. They drove down to Dover that morning, left the car in the carpark, carried their bikes onto a P&O ferry, stopped for a typical French lunch in the countryside and cycled to Hucqueliers to watch the riders come through!
The Colchester Rovers Cycle Club from the south of England were in town too! 30 of them had cycled over in the morning via the ferry and were exhilarated by the town, the atmosphere and the race. “What they do on a bike is beyond normal, it’s pure athleticism” Ian Fox said. Linda Thompson confided that as a fairly newbie rider she was exhausted after the 70km ride from Calais and had missed the race in town due to an unfortunate puncture but had found the ride and the whole Tour experience “inspiring and absolutely brilliant”
As everyone gathered outside the local auberge, drinking cider or rosé wine in the afternoon heat, we discussed how laid back it was here in the town as world biggest sporting event was taking place right in front of us. Everyone could still park their cars right in the centre, for free. There was no hassle, just a couple of gendarmes keeping the crowds off the road as much as they could – totally chilled.
Suddenly the tension started to rise – the helicopters were seen hovering overhead. The first of the gendarme outriders came into view and the crowds readied themselves, flags and breaths were held…
The kids doing the Mexican wave at the top of the hill suddenly scrabbled to their feet from the edge of the road where they’d been sitting, the young girl in the window craned forward and almost fell out, the crowd control gendarmes blew their whistles…
15 seconds later it was over… the 219 riders and the camera cars and helicopters had gone by in a blur on to the next town where the local folk would be waving flags and cheering wildly as we had.
Magnifique, suberbe and utterly compelling – the Tour de France is everything you’d expect the greatest sporting spectacle on earth to be and Hucqueliers will never forget the day the carnival came to town.