Monday, July 07, 2014

Le Tour visits Epping

All quiet before the Sprint tears up here
The Tour de France completed its third, triumphant, day in England today with the Cambridge to London stage. As the route was to pass through Epping, at the very end of that self-same Central Line that also serves beautiful Ruislip, what could be better than a day in the sun watching the world's largest annual sporting event coupled with a jaunt on the Tube into deepest Essex?

Mrs. Commuter was up for it so we packed lunch, folding chairs and our hopes for good weather and set off.

It was quicker and more comfortable to take the Met to Liverpool Street than to walk three quarters of a mile to the nearest Central Line station. Both lines were on form. You could spot the spectators easily - loads of them with casual clothes and an air of being on holiday contrasting nicely with the few workers going in to town rather late in the morning, but most seemed to leave at Baker Street bound for the finishing sections along the Embankment and the Mall, and the Central Line train was surprisingly quiet. Actually this was an illusion. Our carriage was half full but there were plenty further up the train and a fair number emerged into the bright sunshine at Epping to march up the hill and find a place to watch the race.

In the past two days the stages in Yorkshire have brought out huge crowds, even in the most obscure of villages and we had no idea how far we might have to walk to find a decent spot. The friendly helper with the "Tour Maker" T-shirt who was strolling up with us mentioned that no sooner had the area by the sprint finish (bang in the centre of the town) opened that morning than it was filled up. This seemed a bit ominous even though we were there before 11:30 and the race was not due until 2:30 or later. But the High Street is long and wide and there was plenty of room. We took a prime pitch on the road itself (behind a barrier), well shaded by the huge oaks that line the whole street, and settled down to wait. Gradually the crowd thickened until there was a wall of people as far as one could see in both directions.

When we arrived the local bell-ringers were having a fine time banging away with great gusto but when they concluded, rather bafflingly with two single chimes at exactly 11:41, the only entertainment was cheering the parade of vehicles that preceded the race. Some blared their horns. The British police motor-cyclists waved and, as they roared past, extended gauntleted hands to be slapped by people leaning over the barriers. The French Gendarmarie were grim-faced and stared straight ahead. One or two official cars played what must have been important announcements but as they were in French and as the cars were driving past at high speed, so that we only heard a few distorted words anyway, who knows what they were trying to communicate?

Every cyclists's dream - chips
Around 1pm the official publicity caravan began pouring through. A bewildering succession of cars and floats, some with young ladies prancing around, others tossing the odd freebie into the crowd (We nearly scored a small pack of Tetley's Tea and had a carton of fruit juice sail overhead whilst a red sunhat was scooped up by a lady within arms length) and some giving us a blast of pointlessly loud "music". The photo shows the approach of the McCain Oven Chips platoon. And no, they weren't chucking heavy packs of frozen chips at 40mph into the spectators.

After the caravan we had no real idea how long the racers would take. Someone heard that the race was running late. The clouds gathered, the day cooled and a few drops of rain fell but fortunately nothing more serious. More cars and motorbikes came by, the police continuing to be the noisiest contributors. Things seemed to pick up when a few vans stopped nearby and what have must been a hand-picked team of specialists emerged to spend some time stacking up some traffic cones before driving away to applause.  Everyone was cheered at this stage, the team cars, the official cars and the mysterious interlopers from French institutions. There was a lull. A red official car, the first such, came by. This suggested the race was pretty close. Suddenly there were press motorbikes hurtling by, the helicopter was clattering above and with a burst of cheering from further down the high street two real competitors flashed into view and were gone. A louder cheer and the peleton were with us in a blur of black, green and blue. A long tail of team cars each bearing a rack of spare bikes. More cheers for a couple of stragglers. A few more official cars and a van bearing the legend "Fin de Course".  And that was that.

Now for the journey home. A mob of tired but satisfied spectators trudged back down the hill to the station, found the main entrance cordonened off and had to walk a bit further to go round the back, to be greeted by a waiting, empty train. Everyone was able to get a seat and it left a moment later, with another alongside ready for the next contingent. We had been apprehensive about this bit, fearing a long wait even to gain entry to the station, never mind boarding a train, but the Underground did well today. To arrive at Liverpool Street and wait approximately 30 seconds for an empty Uxbridge that took us home was the icing on the cake.

Congratulations to the organisers, the huge number of smiling volunteers and our good-humoured fellow spectators. Social historians might care to note that nobody was smoking - how's that for a massive change in customs in the space of a generation?

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