Press conference hell and hotel heaven at the Tour de France.
Words by Edward Pickering in Les Herbiers
Friday July 1, 2011
And the winner of the Tour de France is…us! Team Cycle Sport, to the bilious envy of our colleagues in the pressroom, are staying in a castle for the first four days of the Tour. We’ve endured petty jealousy and comments, but when you’re staying in a castle, you can endure pretty much anything. Except the sight of Bjarne Riis lecturing us at the Saxo Bank press conference about sticking to the rules. That was as indigestible as the oysters we were offered at the press buffet today.
Welcome to the Tour. Tiredness, indigestion, irritability and stress will be our travelling companions over the next three weeks, as we follow the biggest race in the world around France.
Cycle Sport’s Tour began on Wednesday, with a Gumball Rally-style race to the start in Vendée. Hugh and Ellis relived childhood holidays and French exchanges by driving the Cycling Weekly Skoda to Poole, taking the overnight crossing to St Malo, then driving the rest of the way the next morning. The tech crew (from whom we’ve not heard – if anybody sees them, let us know) flew to Bordeaux and drove up. Lionel and me took the Eurostar to Paris, hired a car, drove to Illiers-Comblay (inspiration for Proust’s A la récherche du temps perdu), and finished the drive on Thursday morning. Our car is a red Citroen C5, which gives me electric shocks every time I get out. There was a brief panic when we thought there was no auxiliary jack, and that Lionel wouldn’t have to spend the next fortnight listening to my music collection. But we found it in the glove compartment, of all places, to Lionel’s clear relief.
We thought we’d won the mini-Gumball, when we got to Les Herbiers in good time for Sky’s Thursday morning press conference a good hour before Ellis and Hugh, but then we realised that CW snapper Andy Jones had already been there for a day. Andy’s made of sterner stuff than us – he drove all the way from Sheffield, made the small concession of an overnight stop in posh Sandbanks (“Harry Redknapp lives on the same street as the hotel. I didn’t see him,” Andy informed us), then drove to Vendée. He’s staying in the castle as well, while Hugh and Ellis are not. It’s not really come up in conversation yet, but it’s the elephant in the room – we know they’re extremely angry, exacerbated by the fact they were late back to their Ibis last night, missed dinner and had to have microwaved dehydrated pasta, while we were sipping cognacs, digesting six kinds of cheese and watching the sun set from the terrace.
Since arrival, it’s been a rolling rotation of press conferences. Our tech guys are always telling us about the latest developments in cycling technology while our eyes glaze over, but the real innovation at the Tour these days is in the teams’ press management. Sky’s press conference was good – old-fashioned questions and answers. Top marks to Geraint Thomas for his comedy timing and deadpan expression as he outlined his aims (“follow Brad around France then nip past him for the podium”), bottom marks to the nameless wally who addressed Ben Swift about his aims, while looking at Geraint Thomas.
But Saxo Bank and HTC set new standards in inventing new methods of saying absolutely nothing. Saxo turned up late, then Riis talked extremely slowly while making his speech, then his press officers shut down the Q&A early, just as it was starting to get interesting.
HTC didn’t have a press conference. They arranged for Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen to make a presentation, at the start of which they invited the press to give the team a round of applause (we didn’t), and during which some extraordinarily tedious questions were asked, to which bland answers were given. A sample exchange:
Sherwen (to Tejay Van Garderen): This race is different, isn’t it?
Van Garderen: It’s totally different.
Sherwen: (awkward silence) Er, why is it different?
I missed Van Garderen’s answer because I was holding my head in my hands and wishing I was somewhere else. Then they read out some questions which had been submitted by fans of the team (“which is the best use of all your time”), and wrapped things up. Brilliant. If anybody from HTC is reading this, can you let us know if the lack of success in finding a new sponsor is affecting team morale, please? Phil and Paul forgot to ask that one.
Now all that’s left is for the race to start. We’re celebrating Lionel’s birthday tonight. Usually the Tour thougtfully gives him a doping scandal for his birthday, but it hasn’t happened this year. Maybe it’s been delayed in the post.
Wednesday June 29
Travel: London-Illiers Comblay
Hotel: Les Aubepines, Illiers Comblay
Dinner: Ed ate the rabbit casserole, followed by his first moelleux au chocolat of the Tour. Lionel had “delicious” hake. Washed down with a white Cheverny.
Thursday June 30
Travel: Illiers Comblay-Les Herbiers
Hotel: Chateau de la Tremblaye, Cholet
Dinner: Lionel had pollock. Ed had skate terrine, followed by pork, and six cheeses. Ed’s cheeses looked so good, Lionel ordered some as an extra course. Red Côtes du Rhône to drink, plus a cheeky cognac.