It fell to me to drive The Cycling Podcast’s Skoda home from the far south-west corner of France to Not Watford in Hertfordshire – the final 1,200 kilometres of a 6,700-kilometre trip that began on Thursday, July 5 with the journey from Not Watford to the Vendée.
So I set off from Biarritz at nine on Sunday morning, dropped François at the railway station in Bordeaux just after eleven and stopped for a break at the services somewhere on the motorway near Poitiers at about two in the afternoon. I took another break at around teatime, then stopped to watch the last half-hour or so of the final stage of the Tour de France on my phone and arrived at my extremely budget hotel in Isneauville, just north of Rouen, at about 7.45pm.
I’m not complaining about the budget hotel – I’d booked the cheapest room possible on the off-chance I felt like pressing on to Calais, or in case I got extremely weary and couldn’t make it as far up the Road to Rouen as I hoped and had to cancel it. After the luxury of two nights at Le Viscos – François’s favourite Pyrenean hideaway in Saint-Savin near Argelès-Gazost – it did feel like a bit of a comedown but the journey home from the Tour is never anything other than functional.
It felt a bit like cheating to skip Paris but the logistics were insane. Driving 800 kilometres from Biarritz into the centre of Paris in time for the stage might just about have been feasible but, as my journey to Rouen proved, I would have been cutting it fine. In previous years, when we’ve not enjoyed the benefit of a car supplied by a sponsor, we’ve dropped the hire car off at a railway station and taken the TGV to Paris on the Sunday morning but this year there was no such option.
After a functional meal in a functional chain restaurant on an industrial estate opposite my functional budget hotel I had a few hours’ sleep and woke early to resume my journey. A two-hour drive to Calais, a long wait to check-in for the Eurotunnel, and then a nightmarish drive from Folkestone round the M25 to Not Watford meant I was home in the early afternoon.
That the final 170 kilometres on English soil took almost four hours when the driving time to cover the whole length of France was around 10 hours was not lost on me. As I waited to drive off the train I searched for the quickest way round the M25 and was left with the dilemma of whether to sit in the jams just past the Dartford tunnel, or whether to sit in the jams past Clacket Lane and Heathrow.
Eventually I arrived home, emptied The Cycling Podcast’s car of all the empty water bottles, Tour de France results sheets and other assorted detritus collected along the way and noted that a plastic bag of fudge, given out in one of the press rooms somewhere, had melted and reformed like a lump of lava in the footwell of François’s nest.
I opened the front door and was greeted grumpily by the cat, who meowed for food, avoided a friendly stroke on the head, which was presumably his way of making it known he was none too pleased about my three-week absence and not all that chuffed about my return either, and walked in the direction of his empty lunch bowl. I looked out at the back garden and saw the grass had been scorched maillot jaune yellow by the sun.
I put the kettle on to make a proper cup of tea and opened my post.
For the rest of the day and much of the next I felt exhausted, slightly wobbly and a bit lost.
François has a good way of describing the return to normality after the Tour. He says it’s like adjusting to life on land after three weeks at sea. I get what he means – for three and a bit weeks we are almost always on the move, hyper-stimulated by the work, the logistics, the discussions about the work and logistics, the problem-solving, the creativity and keeping up with the ever-moving, ever-changing race.
We see places that are brand new, and others that are familiar – in the case of Lourdes too familiar – and the Tour feels endless yet at the same time all over in a flash. Living in a car, hotels of varying quality and comfort, and working in a succession of sports halls, ice rinks, civic centres and marquee tents for three weeks is an odd but exhilarating way to make a living. By the end I feel almost institutionalised. It’s been three weeks of always looking for the team buses, or the finish line, or the press room, or following the orange arrows that mark the hors course route from the Départ to the Arrivée. Three weeks of checking the Google Sheet for details of that night’s hotel, of reading the Tour de France roadbook, of hoping to find a restaurant still serving dinner when we arrive and of trying to work out how the shower operates. Three weeks of croissants, mostly terrible coffee, ham and cheese baguettes and bottled water. If I never drink Vittel (the official water sponsor of the Tour de France and the only drink other than terrible coffee available in the press room) again it will be too soon. I was going to ask how it’s possible to develop an aversion to water, a neutral liquid with no discernible characteristics, but then I remembered the genius of François’s water challenge during last year’s Tour, when he correctly distinguished several brands of bottled water from each other.
Yes, I know how ridiculous it sounds complaining about the water given out for free while I’m working at the Tour de France but by the third week the sheer, numbing nothingness of the Vittel just adds to that sense of being instititutionalised. The feeling is that every day is different yet somehow the same. Ciro, our Italian colleague from La Gazzetta dello Sport, keeps a little countdown of the days in his notebook and crosses them off one by one, but I think that way madness lies. These days I can’t bring myself to count down to the end until after the second rest day.
And yet, 24 hour after returning home, the sense that something is missing hits hard. After three weeks with a vague pang of homesickness in my stomach I now feel homesick for the Tour. Last night I caught the last ten minutes of ITV’s final broadcast and watched the thrills and spills montage of the race. Condensed and stripped down to the basics like that shows what the Tour de France really is. Brutal, joyful, painful, dangerous, beautiful.
There’s a void and it’s hard to know what to fill it with. Having spent much of the final week craving a day off, yearning for the chance to just sit and do nothing for a while I find myself restless and under-stimulated, which is probably why I’ve written this.
Anyway, the Vuelta a España starts in four weeks’ time.