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Saturday, July 11, 2009 – Here Comes, Here Comes, Here Comes - There Goes, the Tour de France

Our Man in Paris is Our Man in Paris no more.  Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, has ended his many years there, and now you can find him in the South of France. He has relocated to Port-Vendres (département of Pyrénées-Orientales, Languedoc-Roussillon région), a fishing village on the Mediterranean, just north of the Spanish border, where the Pyrenees drop into the sea.

This week the Tour de France roared through nearby Perpignan - or near enough. Salvador Dalí thought that the railway station in Perpignan was the cosmic center of the universe. Last week it might have been.

Scene at the 2009 Tour de France stage at Argelès-sur-Mer, near Perpignan

Argelès-sur-Mer, Wednesday, 8 July - Every year at this time the Tour de France rolls around France and all I have ever seen has been the TV news version. It may run its last stage in Paris around the Champs-Elysées but that's always a zoo. I know because club member Lucky from Astoria told me, used to tell me, every year.

Down here at the bottom of France nearly in Spain I thought I'd seen the last of it - yeah, sure, still got the old TV news - old man Lance Armstrong going for sevens! - and there's Perpignan last week re-electing the mayor who was tossed out on account of the extra ballots in somebody's socks - so when they said the Tour would be going through Perpignan I looked it up, and what-do-you-know, it was coming real close, to Argelès-sur-Mer, just two towns away.

So, oh so logically, there I was this morning heading for the train station to grab the 12:57, when I thought, hey, maybe there's a bus. This was our famous one-euro bus, runs on time, and is cheap. But today, no notice that it's not running because the Tour has jammed up everything from Argelès to Perpignan and, who knows, maybe Narbonne too.

Back to square one and phone the taxi and he comes in five minutes and takes 15 more minutes to drive to Carrefour, on the northern outskirts of Argelès. There a young Gendarme says all get out here, and get on the goodfoot, 15-minute walk, to this local road circle intersection cum autoroute on-ramp, out, kind of, in the middle of nowhere, les boonies, quoi.

There are police and there are straw barriers encased in red and white plastic, and there is a caravan parked offside with a parasol, and there are some folks hanging around with their dogs, kids, grannies, girlfriends, some with cheapo chairs and a couple of Brit flags, and the Gendarmes telling us to keep our feet out of the roadway, behind the white line along its edge.

Scene at the 2009 Tour de France stage at Argelès-sur-Mer, near Perpignan

Luckily it is not fully sunny and the wind is no more than a breeze. For a long time nothing happens and I suppose the new arrivals notice it too. A big Skoda comes by, an 'official' car, and there is a feeble cheer but a cheer all the same. Don't want to forget how to cheer.

Two hours later, after more Skodas and a few advertising trucks have passed by, more official cars pass. And more advertising cars, vans, motorcycles, and trucks, sponsors, sponsors' friends, friends of friends, the cops having a smoke, grannies looking a bit beat, kids getting impatient. And then L'Equipe vans, flogging their official umbrella and wrist thing, souvenirs of a lifetime! Ten euros with L'Equipe's plastic bag.

Scene at the 2009 Tour de France stage at Argelès-sur-Mer, near Perpignan

Far off a helicopter, like maybe over Spain, hours off. Nothing comes by for a while - is it a sign? Then there are more official cars, France Television 2, 3, 4, or is it 5 too? L'Equipe makes another trinket pass. Then the helicopter is closer, and the Gendarmerie cars come with their red and blues lights - wake up people! - the crowd shifts forward, off the line, off the line!

Scene at the 2009 Tour de France stage at Argelès-sur-Mer, near Perpignan

An elbow gets in my way. Cheering, noise, the helicopter is overhead, under my left arm there is the blur of the leaders - streaking past - a very fast blur, muy rapido, come and gone in seconds, split-seconds, no photo.

Bend down eyeball in the finder and index on the trigger, press, press. Camera looking for focus on the peloton. Oncoming bike racers, press, press. Something will be blurred, maybe something will be in focus. Keep doing it, press, press, until the all-clear, which arrives in about 30 seconds. That's it, it's a wrap. Three hours, four hours, standing, no food, no drink, no toilet - 28 seconds of lifetime thrill. Whew!

2009 Tour de France stage at Argelès-sur-Mer, near Perpignan

Wait, there's an anticlimax. After the walk back to Carrefour, the bus stop there is just as dead as earlier. But there's a local street ding-a-ling train for Argelès and maybe it's time to try it. The ticket-taking outrider assures me that the train will pass the SNCF station, the gare d'Argelès.

Damn but it's a hard ride. Yes, pass the station. But first a full and complete tour on lumpy roads of the entire Argelès plantation of industrial camping sites. They are everywhere, hundreds of them on the flats under the pines and palms, with the minigolf and paintball ranges, pizzerias, groceries, real French bakeries, rent-a-bike, rent-a-buzz bomb, minigolf and paintball, even a Luna Park, cotton candy called your dad's beard, frites, the whole freaking phantasmagoria, yes, to the centre of the beach, where we have to switch to the red train.

Okay fine, no long wait, and from there the rest of the endless tour of Argelès, to the port and beyond and then retrace, to finally reach the town and the outrider forgets to say the station is near, but we get off and find it anyway. And then, golly, a train from Metz to Portbou shows up, on time, and then we almost make the evening TV news on time. It devotes a whole 13 seconds to today's episode of the Tour de France.

For rapid sports fans, today's winner was Thomas Voeckler, who last won nine stages during the 2004 edition. It took him four hours, 20 minutes and 35 seconds, which beat my time by about five hours. The leader's yellow shirt was kept by Fabian Cancellara and Lance Armstrong maintained his second place in the overall standings. On Thursday they will cross the border for a race from Girona to Barcelona, and after that they will be climbing up and down the Pyrenees and I will see some of it, but more, on the TV news in the total comfort of my nifty living room.

~ Ric

Text and Photos Copyright © 2009 - Ric Erickson

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