Over the last month, I have been working for Velogogo, the company responsible for running the Tour de France Fan Parks, helping out with the design and setup of their events. In my first week I had adverts on the M5 and M6, the Underground and newspapers like The Daily Telegraph - Impressive on the CV to say the least. It has been full on; the hours put in to make these free events come to life has been massive and huge credit to Dan and Ross for pulling it off! Working from office spaces (or cafes!) all over London there have been plenty of laughs, and I've met and worked with a great crew, restoring my faith in the London crowd!
The final Fan Park was held at Canary Wharf, coinciding with the last four stages of the Tour de France and La Course (women's race). A great location set right in the heart of London's corporate district, I felt utterly out-of-place in my running shorts and sneakers!
Friday evening and the end of day two rolled around when I was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime; Eurostar to Paris, accommodation five minutes walk to the Eiffel Tower and the best part of all, VIP tickets to the finish line of the 101st Tour de France on the Champs Élysées. Heck yes, I was keen! A quick call to my flatmate Laura, who didn't need any convincing (her boss needed a little more) and we were go; two kiwi girls ready to rock Paris.
By the time we had mastered the underground, found the right hotel (getting lost is something I've been excelling in lately) and figured out what name our room was booked under, we were starting to cross into 'hangary' territory (hungry angry). A look on trip advisor directed us to a bakery literally 100m from our hotel, so it was a quick refresh and out the door. There was a good reason it had a 5-star rating, it was amazing. Always a good sign when the queue goes out the door too. With eyes bigger than our stomachs and after one too many croissants, we were set to explore.
Laura has been to Paris before so I took the reigns and like any good orienteerer I mapped out a rough guide as to where we should head. I know what you're thinking here; never trust Hollie with the map. (That's a story for another day, but let's just say Bishop's Stortford is nowhere near the Tour de France route from Cambridge to London!). Using famous landmarks as our navigation points, we hired bikes and headed to our first stop which happened to be the jewel of them all, the majestic Eiffel Tower. Art history class came flooding back as we came across architecture like the Arc de Triomphe (my absolute favourite), the Champs Elysees, Place de la Concord, Le Louvre, Musee D'Orsay and the Palais Bourbon, before finishing the loop back at the Eiffel Tower which was now sparkling in the dark clear night. It always amazes me that in such a short space of time you can see so much, forever a small-town country girl at heart!
The following day we headed across town to drop off some tickets, which happened to be very close to the Moulin Rouge. While living in the boarding hostel at school, we would get slightly 'obsessed' with certain movies, watching them almost on repeat until quotes would roll off the tongue and become part of our everyday language. The Moulin Rouge was one such movie, so standing in front of it bought back many great memories, like the hours wasted eating milo straight out of the tin (Flis) and singing entirely out of tune (I speak only for myself and Anna McCone here). Those were the days!
We stumbled across another delicious patisserie for brunch before making our way back to the hotel to get ready for the real reason we came - to watch over 100 men in lycra zoom past on two wheels! For the first time since 1984, the last men's stage was preceded by a women's race, not quite as long (only one day) but still a much-needed step in the right direction for female cycling. We would have made it in time if it weren’t for the half-hour wait to get out of the train station and endless road closures to get where we needed to be! So, unfortunately, we missed the women cross the line which was won by Marianne Vos, but still got to see them on their victory lap!
After a two-hour wait in the scorching sun and a few Heinekens on board the crowd started to roar, the Peleton had made its way through the outskirts of the city for the last final laps on the cobbled streets of the Champs Élysées. It was epic; 150m from the finish line and as close as I could get without being in the saddle myself, I watched them scream past at lightning speed.
Many unusual traditions go with the Tour de France that until now I had been entirely unaware of. The opening stages (known as the Grand Depart), change location each year, with 2014 starting in Leeds. The tour alternates direction depending on the year number, so 2014 meant it followed a clockwise route around France. The final stage of the race is no different, starting with champagne served by the race's tour leader (and much deserved I would say). The first part of the 137.5km day is generally cruisy (maybe not by our terms), but it gives the riders the opportunity for photographs and time to reflect on the last few weeks. As the riders approach Paris, the pace picks up as the sprinters, and their teams begin the real racing of the day. When they reach the heart of the city, they ride up the Rue de Rivoli, on to the Place de la Concorde, swing right on to the Champs Élysées itself before turning at the top around the Arc de Triomphe. The riders complete eight laps of this loop (plenty of opportunities to nail the #selfie) before crossing the finish line for the final time.
Again this year the winner was decided by a sprint finish with Marcel Kittel from Germany taking line honours, but it was Vincenzo Nibali from Italy who took away the much-coveted yellow jersey by more than seven minutes, the biggest winning margin since 1997. The crowd was electric with plenty of cheering and support for each rider and country represented.
To experience first-hand one of the greatest races so up-close was incredible. These guys are truly amazing; fitter than I can ever imagine and even skinnier in real life! Last year I read Tyler Hamilton's book, The Secret Race and was utterly blown away. You would've had to be hiding under a rock not to think drugs have been involved in previous years, but the extent and seemingly ease that they were used dumbfounded me. It's an incredible book if you're looking for a new read, a great insight into the lives and sacrifices these guys make to wear the colour yellow (so maybe it's a little more than that!). Are drugs still present? Who knows, everyone has their own view but how anyone can average 40+km's for 3,664km's, with plenty of grade five hills thrown in, is beyond me. I know I'd need all the help I could get!
After watching the presentations and the teams do their victory laps, it was off to find a bar and taste as many different cocktails as the pocket would allow. A great way to end a fantastic surprise weekend and one that won’t be forgotten in a hurry!