France is of course a big country, more than twice the size of the UK, but it is still unbelievable that there are over one million kilometres of roads. Three times as much as in Spain for instance, which itself is not small.
The reason is, all French farmers live on their own land and not, like in Spain, in villages. All these farms, however far apart, are linked with roads.
Often narrow, but roads none the less, even on and around the mountains. Originally just dirt tracks, some are now comfortably rendered with asphalt and are ideal for the organisers of the annual Tour de France.
Maybe they exist because of this famous cycling event.
Each year a different 3,500 km route is chosen, and for each stage two towns or villages, one to start from and one to end at.
There’s a huge amount of inconvenience to the places the Tour chooses to start and finish in. Apart from the race itself there are the cars and buses and lorries, catering, security and of course all the cameras and journalists. One would think that the towns who host this lot should be paid handsomely as compensation for all the hassle, but no, Le Tour has a lot of influence and kudos in France.
Communities, instead of waiting for an offer they cannot refuse, are fiercely competing with each other, willing to pay for the honour and publicity.
The cost to the UK for the privilege of having Le Tour start there in 2014 is estimated at about £21million. For a French town it’s much less I guess, but then they have to meet other requirements, like road improvements.
Without knowing the plans for the next edition of the Tour, it was already evident in April and May how close this circus would pass our house; whole stretches of roads were getting new tarmac. One year the small town where we do our weekly shopping clearly had the honour of the peloton passing through on its way to the finish.
We couldn’t use that road for weeks. Speed bumps near schools, locally known as gendarmes dormants or sleeping policemen, were eliminated. The raised centre of the only roundabout was levelled, not because lorry drivers had cursed it for years, but as a safety measure for the cyclists. Streetlights sprouted hanging baskets with colourful annuals, and in the planters along the roadside the arid perennials, having been neglected for years were removed and replaced by cheerful petunias.
We got the message: La Grande Boucle is coming. With six thousand people, cyclists, their entourage, journalists, technicians and lots of cameras, the town should and would be presented at its best.
We were in a quandary, watch the event live or on television and see how ‘our’ town looked on the box after all the preparation? In past editions we had given our support to the athletes by cheering them on which can be less exciting than you may think. You have to be there early as the road gets closed an hour in advance of the race’s arrival. You may get treats from the sponsors, maybe even food and drink, or catch a glimpse of someone famous, but when the race does finally arrive it can be gone again in 30 seconds. They really do fly by!
Mais bon, the day arrived and we stayed at home to see how the caravan came closer and closer. There were seventeen men in the leading group with a five minute gap on the rest. In the distance we saw the helicopters getting closer and above us circled the plane that was distributing the TV signals to the world.
Time came to ramp things up; just before the town boundary the leaders have to sprint to gain extra points. The leaders only want to win the stage; they have little interest in the points, which are more important to the rest. Then one of the helicopters showed the first images of the town, the river that runs through it and the twelfth century church and…nothing else.
The camera was already back showing the sprinters in the peloton who all needed the points and were fighting to defend their position. Shots in close up, shots from the air and then the same shots in slow motion to see who crossed the line first and got the twelve points and the ‘losers’ with their ten, eight, six, four and two points, but where was our town?
In the control room the director switched to another camera and back onto the race leaders, who had already left town. One by one they were introduced to viewers just tuning in, taking so much time that by the time the ‘yellow jersey’ who was chasing them made it back on to the screen our town was already history.
After the months of planning and work, investment and disruption there had been about five seconds of publicity.
Oh well, at least we can now go to the supermarket without having to negotiate sleeping policemen.
Vive le Tour!
About Peter Schoenmaker: At 17 my mother decided that I had had enough schooling and arranged my first job at a chocolate factory, soon followed by a brief stint in IT but advertising became my calling. I loved the writing part but after 30 years decided to become a hotelier in France…. to end up as a full time writer. www.peterschoenmaker.nl