I am well aware that there are millions of cycling fans who would want and deserve more than I do to have been where I was yesterday, but who said life was fair? David Millar got in touch, asked if I fancied going in the Garmin support car at the Dauphine, and I said yes. I’m glad I did.
Cycling – at least the road- racing variety – has always struck me as the sport that vies with golf and cricket as the one where the spectator is most disadvantaged by being present at the event, compared with the TV viewer able to follow every angle with expert commentary at home. But none of the many hours I have spent watching cycling on TV quite compare with the thrill David and his directeur sportif Charly Wegelius gave me yesterday.
Charly, a former cyclist, half Finnish half English, who speaks half a dozen languages, was my driver for the day. Given the pace at times, you’d think that was a full time job. But he was also in charge of radio contact with the riders, giving encouragement and tactical advice, he was having to stay across the official race radio and pass on any relevant info to his team, he was the man who had to drive like a maniac through all the other team cars whenever one of his own required help and support, often just a bottle of water or a bit of encouragement to ride through the pain. And he was having to answer all my daft questions.
At various points, we had David or one of his team-mates chatting through the car window. It is when you see the drip drip drip of sweat falling from their chins that you see close up how what looks easy is actually the product of relentless effort. These guys were going up steep climbs faster than I go on the flat. As for the descents, Charly kept asking me if I was car sick. I certainly should have been. At one point the speedometer topped 80kph, and we followed three riders weaving their way through turns and half turns with barely a dab on the brakes. I was scared just watching them.
Then there’s the whole community thing. Everyone knows everyone and so even along narrow roads, cars will chase along together, chatting and bantering out of windows. I told Charly I knew Johann Bruyneel, Radio Shack team boss, from his Lance Armstrong days and an event we did together a while back. So Charly pulls alongside, windows go down, and Johann and I are talking away, the cars millimetres apart, police bikes and media bikes weaving in and out, and me resisting the urge to grab the wheel.
The logistics of these big races – and the biggest is yet to come with the Tour de France – are stunning. All the teams were set up in a car park at Lamastre for the start, and by the time we reached the finish at St Felicien the whole lot of them – buses, lorries, hoardings and the like – had got there ahead of us. Within minutes athletes had warmed down, showered, got the bikes packed onto car roofs, then off to hotels for food, drink and massage.
Some of the top guys earn really good money, into the millions. But there are plenty there who are on as little as 35,000 euros a year. Unlike football, the big TV revenues have ended up less with the performers than the event organisers. To be fair, they organise good events, but what with France now having a socialist president, a bit of socialism getting injected into cycling wouldn’t go amiss.
One thing cycling does retain ahead of football however is the accessibility of the athletes. Bradley Wiggins was warming down on a static bike feet away from young and old men and women who had cycled up to gawp at the impressive Sky team set up. David Millar and his colleagues, despite having just spent four hours flat out on the bike, responded with patience to endless requests for autographs and souvenir water bottles.
Good bunch, great atmosphere, lovely day out. And now, I shall struggle into the Garmin kit they gave me as a souvenir, and head out on the bike, while they go through the whole thing again.