Day 7 ? Friday, July 7

OMINOUSLY, Friday was a quiet day by Broomwagon?s standards. One wonders what is waiting around the corner. Perhaps we?re just getting ourselves organised and into the routine, or perhaps this is the calm before the storm.

To compensate for any dinners that may have been missed, we managed to squeeze in two four-course meals during the day, in between Chris? tales of his days as an undercover detective.

One of the stories that was not related to his police career, we assume, was that he once pulled a piece of rope from the bottom of a dog that belonged to the sister of a quite well-known celebrity. The dog had eaten the rope, we were assured, before anyone rings the RSPCA.

?You?re not putting that in,? he said, before warning: ?If you fit me up, I?ll fit you up worse.? He was smiling, of course, but there was a look in his eyes that said we?d better not name the celebrity in case his complimentary tickets to Wimbledon fail to turn up in the post next year.

We experienced Le Tour de la France Profonde by parking up in a tiny Breton village called Croixille. We couldn?t believe our luck when we nabbed a table in front of the telly and were offered a four-course lunch for just 10,50 euros. Egg mayonnaise salad, pork chop and flageolet beans followed by pungent cheese and then a custard flan, all washed down with a carafe of red for about six quid. In England a Ginsters pasty and a petrol station sandwich is not much cheaper.

Chris got chatting to the sister of Serge Beucherie, Credit Agricole?s assistant manager. She was upset Hushovd had failed to win while all Chris could think about was running after her to blame her brother for losing Robert Millar the 1985 Vuelta.

It was nice to spend the evening in a reasonable-sized town again after a week trekking across the countryside and staying at campsites at the end of very long, tree-lined lanes miles from civilization ? or at least the sort of civilization I want to mix with.



Day 8 ? Saturday, July 8

THE campsite that is our base for two nights is right in the centre of Rennes and the best appointed yet ? there?s even access to the internet in the reception building.

We are plotting our way round France on an ad-hoc basis. It would, clearly, have been more sensible to book all our accommodation well in advance so we would be guaranteed a stress-free trip.

Naturally enough, we?ve decided to wing it, simply because it wasn?t practical to decide too far in advance where to stay. Some days we want to be at the start, other days at the finish, others somewhere in between. Travelling round like an enormous tortoise has its drawbacks but at least we are not inflexible.

We have a copy of the Michelin Camping book ? a green bible that gives details of every camping site. It?s clear already that those campsites allocated a one-tent rating are beyond basic. Two tents is our minimum requirement and our current base in Rennes is a splendid three-tenter.

It?s amazing what living in a Transit Van with mattresses will do for your sense of what constitutes luxury.

Staying put in one place for two evenings is a rare treat although I hope not to bump into one particular woman again. On Saturday morning I enjoyed a very hot shower and emerged refreshed to see a middle-aged German woman putting on her bra.

?C?est les douches femmes?? I asked, shocked. Clearly I missed the great big logo of a lady in a skirt on the door. My embarrassment was eased the next morning when I saw a burly man trimming his beard in the ladies. Well, I didn?t look too closely but I assume it was a man.

There are also a lot of Brits staying here for the Tour ? some of whom have managed not to complain about the magazine. For the first time we have had friendly waves from the roadside ? unlike in Holland where the Belgian registration plate marked us out as the idiots from over the border.

We said farewell to Chris on Saturday as he headed towards the Alps to cover the Etape du Tour. He?s been great company and seemed to enjoy himself although when he said: ?You deserve a medal if you make it to Paris,? he seemed to contradict his earlier statement that “he?d love to come along again next year?.

The time trial was the most eagerly-anticipated stage of the race so far ? and wasn?t it good to see a young rider do well. Little Serguei Gonchar, just out of nappies, showing that the new generation is alive and kickin. Move over grandad!

Ed and I spent a frustrating couple of hours sitting in reception at the T-Mobile hotel, a charmless Mercure. We needed to get the signatures of some of the T-Mobile riders for our charity sign-on board. We asked the T-Mobile press officer to grab the riders as they came down for their dinner.

As journalists, hired PR goons provoke a particular ire. These people have no other purpose than to prevent adult human beings speaking to other adult human beings. There are those who call journalists parasites but these wallies, schooled in the dubious art of producing reams of bland, meaningless self-promotional guff take the biscuit. They have never, nor ever will, produced anything that has added to the history of the earth.

But, like tedious faceless corporations, every cycling team has a multi-lingual time waster who can say ?No, it?s not possible at the moment? in a host of European tongues.

Still, at least they don?t clog our inboxes with daily drivel announcing how their best-placed rider on the stage was 74th. Oh, hang on. Still, at least we?re not one of the websites that reproduces this rubbish verbatim.

The cherubic-looking Lovely Luc of T-Mobile was one example. When informed that we needed only four signatures from his team for our charity sign-on board he helpfully sat in the reception area of the team hotel and did nothing. Ta, Luc, we owe you a beer. Later, Gonchar turned up and Luc handed him his yellow jerseys for the following day?s stage in a manner that suggested that he himself had decided who should have the honour of wearing it.

So, like schoolboys collecting Panini soccer stickers ? Kloden need; Rogers got; Gonchar got; Sinkewitz got; Mazzoleni need; Kessler need; Guerini got. The quest continues.


Day 9 ? Sunday, July 9

FRANCE is the country that likes to say no. Stick a Tour de France accreditation badge round the neck of someone whose day job is likely to be traffic warden or football referee and they just can?t resist it. No, you can?t go there. You can?t go there either. It starts to wear thin, frankly, and if we have some French wannabe bureaucrats squashed to the wheels of our Broomwagon by this time next week, I?m not responsible, okay?

We wanted to drive along the route to the Mur de Bretagne today but were kicked off the route and forced to go across country by a CHiPs look-a-like cop. He was wearing shades in the rain. Says it all really.

Apparently our orange press plaque ? stuck to the front of the Broomwagon, does not grant us access to the race route between the publicity caravan and the race, despite the fact that for a brief time in Caen the other day we were part of the caravan ? although we didn?t have any free gifts to chuck at the public.

We parked up, off the route and got the bikes down so we could ride to the Mur ? a dead-straight and quite steep hill that is the centre of Breton cycling lore. We?d pedalled no more than 200 metres when a man driving an official ?caravanne publicitaire? car told us to get off and walk.

So, we walked until we were out of sight and then got back on again, being sure to hide our accrediation passes ? there are times when they are essential but this was a time to play dumb.

It was a spectacular sight, watching the break and then the bunch battle up the Mur and when it was all over we rode back to the Broomwagon. Again, my crank fell off. The vibration of the van must be working it loose. Still, it is a slight nagging fear that it?s going to fly off as we hurtle down the autoroute so ?checking the crank on the C50? is now part of our pre-take-off routine ? as well as checking the engine is still under the bonnet and ensuring the wheels are still attached to the axles.

Don?t get me wrong, it?s not that I?m falling out of love with our Broomwagon, it?s just that it is not cut out for the job it?s supposed to do, which is drive miles and miles in comfort and then be a convenient and relaxing base for the night.

So, we didn?t think it was cheating to stay in a hotel for World Cup final night. While the riders have a charter flight to take them from Lorient to Bordeaux on Sunday evening, we?ll be driving all day. Add to that the fact we have to pick up Simon at Nantes airport on Monday morning and it made sense to split the journey in half and stay at a hotel in Vannes.

An Ibis hotel suddenly felt like a night in the Ritz. A shower that doesn?t keep switching itself off every 40 seconds ? a bed with an actual pillow and electricity to charge our various gadgets.

It was a quirk of the race that a Frenchman with an Italian name ? Sylvain Calzati ? won the stage on the day of the World Cup final between France and Italy. It was a quirk of our trip that the only other two people watching the game in the bar at the Ibis were a couple of Italian holiday makers.

It made sense, then, to support our adopted home nation ? not the first time on this trip we?ve backed a loser.

Still, at least, we weren?t kept awake all night by celebrating Frenchmen.