Every summer as I grew up La Grande Boucle would be on television as I arrived home from school - and the Tour’s pass through the UK in 1994 was cause to close school that day, so as to see the likes of Indurain, Virenque and a young Marco Pantani fly past.
The next time I would be as close to the Tour was in 2002, where a family holiday near Reims afforded us a sweltering day in the centre of Paris along the Champs Élysées. Though race may have been “won” (ahem) the day before, to see the French capital’s cobbles up close - and to truly appreciate the pace of the peloton - was incredible.
Fast forward just over a decade, and having been bitten by cycle mania that has gripped the U.K. in recent years, I found myself wondering whether there was any way to see some of the Tour in person this year.
Admittedly late the the party, for planning started under a month before Le Grand Depart, I came to a startling discovery - the Tour passed through Dieppe on the Normandy coast, just a 4 hour ferry ride (and 25KM ride on the English side) from home. Better yet, some brief research suggested that the ferry was just £35. Return. You rarely get a return ticket on the train from Brighton to London for £35, and so with that, a plan was born: Tour de France in Under 24 Hours. Maybe.
A few hours of furious research later, a rough plan came together. There was one potential downfall: the only possible outbound ferry crossing that made this possible left Newhaven at 00:30, and arrived into Dieppe at 05:30. Take a later ferry, and you’d miss the Tour. After a few more Google rabbitholes, I remembered that the Avenue Verte route from London to Paris uses the Newhaven-Dieppe crossing - and that the first 50KM of the Avenue Verte is on delightfully-traffic-free cycle paths. Throw in some online murmurs of excellent breakfasts in Neufchâtel-en-Bray, 40KM in-land, and all of a sudden the idea was transformed from spark to “Wait a minute, this thing might just be crazy enough to work”.
I’d have been happy to go on my own (though the other half was less so), but I ran it past my colleague Elliot to see what he thought. He thought he’d like to join me, and we both agreed that posting in our local Hovelo group might be an equally good idea. Within a week, the idea had spread to other local cycling groups and we had 4 folks with ferry bookings and 50 lurkers in a dedicated Facebook group.
We’d agreed to meet late on the Wednesday, and it was quite incredible to get a group together at relatively short notice.
As the sun dipped below the horizon we made a break for Newhaven, and were rewarded with an ever-so-slight tailwind as we rode along the cyclepath to Rottingdean, where we hit the road. The sight of a spread-out line of lights stretching along the undulating coast road was fantastic. We weren’t in a huge rush, and regrouped as we noticed the group was stretching out - and coming into Newhaven, it was clear we weren’t the only ones with the idea. Newhaven certainly wasn’t over-run with cyclists, but any cyclist out at 23:00 on a Wednesday night was certainly riding with a plan. No matter whether it was excitement or delirium, we were full of grins as we checked in for the ferry. We’d made it. We were actually doing this!
In all honesty, the ferry ride was a bit of a blur. Three hours sleep, a couple of banana loaves, and a banana later, we were walking the bikes off the boat - and in a good-sized queue of cyclists heading through immigration.
Through pure luck, the sun had risen as we disembarked, and after 6KM of deserted, sweeping roads out of Dieppe - cursing every whiff of not-yet-open boulangeries we passed - we hit the Avenue Verte.
The route to Neufchâtel is good-as-flat, though with some fun headwinds, and in the two hours we were on the path we barely saw another person. As we approached Neufchâtel and the time became slightly more sane, we passed the occasional dog-walker. But that was just about it!
One member of our group had been to Neufchâtel before, and she knew of a fantastic place to stop for omelettes. A quick ride uphill over some cobbles, a toot of the horn from a passing TV France Sport car (no-doubt bound for the Tour), and 11 omelettes and coffee were ordered (for those keeping track, we gained a Brighton Mitre rider on the ferry).
Sat in a small quiet square, basking in the sun, and enjoying a breakfast feast and espresso - it was truly glorious.
Run to the Coast
With breakfast officially done, we needed to head back to Dieppe so we hit the Avenue Verte again, and ran for the coast. Along the way, we broke into some ad-hoc chaingangs taking turns in the front - and in the process got 10-or-so rather fast kilometres out the way.
Back on the Coast
Back in Dieppe, we ran into a few hurdles of the literal variety. The town was alive, and road closures were in effect. But we had a plan. The stage route took one of two fourth-category climbs to the clifftop road, but not the one most-easily accessed from the city centre, and so with the publicity caravan about thirty minutes away we set off to intercept the route at the top of the cliffs. We really wanted to be on the second of the fourth category climbs near Dieppe (~7KM out of town), wanting to see the riders for at least a little more than a passing blur. As we approached the junction with the course, a spur of the moment decision was made: lift the bikes around the barriers, and ride on along the course. 5KMs of closed roads, a sweeping hairpin descent, a few Gaelic shrugs from roadside Gendarmes and a sprint down the perfectly straight main drag in a small French village later, all the while accompanied by crowds screaming “ALLEZ! ALLEZ!” we had made it to our desired spot to await the arrival of the caravan, breakaway group and the peloton.
Heat, A Run To The Ferry, and Home
The publicity caravan flew passed, and the early breakaway soon followed. A small group of riders, then the calm before the storm. Our vantage point meant we could see the sweeping descent on the other side of the valley, and before we knew it the peloton was with us. The experience of watching a cycling race from the roadside is truly incredible - you’re stood very literally next to the riders, and the iPhone’s burst mode certainly helped capture some moments as the peloton went past…
With the peloton through, and the roads still quiet we took on water (and a cheeky crepe) along the seafront, and climbed back up said sweeping descent (at a notably slower pace, it has to be said). The short run back to Dieppe meant there was time for a swift beer in the sun, though we had to pay up and make a swift departure after realising that we were about to miss embarkation…
Back on British soil, and climbing out of Newhaven, we were reminded how much more accommodating the Continent is to cyclists - “get in the effing cycle lane” rang out from a Land Rover - but after a day in the sun, seeing the Tour fly by, and an idyllic ride under the cliffs back to Brighton life was pretty good.
As it happens, the Tour starts on the Cherbourg peninsular next year (so I’m told). A re-run next year might just be on the cards.