Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Le Tour at Loughton

I'm driving through Epping Forest. Up ahead the road is closed, parked cars nestled into the bank at the roadside. It's the Tour de France de England. I park up, half in the road. Probably won't get a ticket. Although you would in Hackney.

Stroll up to the barrier at the roundabout at the top of Golding's Hill. The crowd is one or two deep right round the road. A nonplussed crowd, patient. Nothing much going on. I ask a steward how long til the bikes get here.

"Two-thirty," he says. I look at my phone. It's 1.30.

The first five minutes drag. After they're over, I think well there's only 11 more of them to go. After 10 minutes I think well there's only five more of them to go.

Nothing is happening. A few cars drive by, dressed in decals advertising various French things: cars, TV stations, mineral water. A security car of some kind, growling French instructions via megaphone. I decide to wait it out. The quality of boredom is very different, less irritating, once I've decided to stay. A pantomime cow parades around the roundabout to muted applause. A police motorbike passes by. More cars, some with bike stands on the roof.

The crowd is a gentle variety, dressed in pastel shirts or horizontal stripes. Women have their shoulders out, the men have bald pates and bad postures. A few guys with racing bikes and the full cycle helmet/shirt/leggings combo; three of them in identical kits. Smattering of kids. I stare round at the thousand or so people in view. Not, so far as I can see, a single ethnic minority person, unless you count Italian.

A BMW goes by, middle-aged men wearing police baseball caps, waving heavily tattooed arms out the window. The crowd waves back.

A guy behind me has a tall tripod on which sits a small, odd-looking camera that could be out of the Terminator films. I ask him about it.

"It's a cine," he tells me. "Digital cine." He doesn't manage to explain how a digital cine differs from an ordinary video camera, beyond saying: "It doesn't take stills."

More cars go past. A yellow van with speakers on the roof blaring euro-pop swings by, two women dancing on makeshift podiums at the back. Another follows. A few minutes later two more arrive and pull up, French accents blaring out of the loudspeakers, offering fun bags for £20. The crowd, starved of entertainment, filters over to snap up the goodies, which turn out to be a yellow bag with a yellow t-shirt, a yellow cap and some other yellow tat. I ponder the offer, and decide against it.

After ten minutes two gendarmes on motorbikes pull up behind the van and tell them to get on with it. This must mean the riders are near. The gendarmes are in no rush though, and stay and take photos with the crowd. I look at my watch: 2.25. Just five minutes to go. A bloke in front of me says to his wife: "Another half hour, I reckon." The two yellow vans and the gendarmes drive off.

It starts to rain.

I've found myself a vantage point on a grassy knoll, slightly raised above the crowd, overlooking the roundabout. There is some talk as to whether the riders will take the far side of the roundabout or the near side. If they follow English road laws, they'll take the near side, but already many of the French cars have streamed by the opposite side. Spectators speculate as to what variables will influence the cyclists when they arrive, but everyone is agreed that no one knows. The cyclists will make a split-second decision, with no regard for the people who have stood out in the rain for more than an hour now.

A woman gives out leaflets advertising a working-from-home pyramid scheme of some sort, illustrated with pictures of people on holidays. I don't want to take one but somehow fall prey to her rapacious psychology. In revenge, I fold up and wrap the leaflet around my finger, so as to waste it.

I start to think about writing this blogpost. I need some observations to make it interesting, but looking at the crowd, I am bereft. I must be losing my observational nous. The crowd is le Essex ordinaire, quintessentially unremarkable. I feel that I should maybe go off and find something to report, but I don't.

Comedy bronze, however, comes to me, in the form of a man with two kids, a boy and a girl on his shoulders, who take up a position on the knoll. "Get ready to wave when they come," the dad says

"What?" she asks, with a beautiful Estuary twang. "Are we allowed to wave?"

More cars come by. A steadier stream than before, but still sporadic. A few with Skoda livery, and the slogan "le voiture officiale". Some passengers wave to the crowd. They wave back, enthusiastically. More police cars. The police seem to be doing the most waving, and beeping. The police motorbike has gone past five or six times, beeping. Or they could be different bikes each time.

"I can see a cow," says the girl, talking about the pantomime cow now chatting amongst the crowd. "You won't see a cow round here," asserts the dad. "There's a mascot one," the son says. "Black and white." "Oh, a black and white one, yeah," says the dad.

A guy with a paparrazi-looking camera arrives, lens as big as an arm. Later I see another guy with a lens as big as a leg.

A Sikh family arrive, a bloke and three daughters. They are the only ethnic minority people that I can see, along with a couple of Persian looking women who have stopped in front of me, but that is fine because I am raised on my grassy knoll, and they are short.

The main problem with viewing is that seemingly every second person has a camera.  Everyone is taking photos. The crowd is a sea of pastel shirts and arms holding cameras.

I imagine that when the riders get nearer we'll be able to hear the noise of the crowd, a discrete unit of noise that will start at the first rider and end after the last one; we'll be able to hear it moving, like a train, coming towards us, from over the hills. But, as time goes by, what we can mainly hear is helicopters. Three of them swoop, glide and hover above us. People strain with iPhones and point-and-shoots to get pics of them. One for the album, a blurry picture of a helicopter. Still the riders don't arrive. A couple of the helicopters go off, to where the action is. The crowd waves frenetically at the remaining helicopter. It doesn't appear to wave back.

A Team Sky car drives by, and everyone cheers it. British, you see. I check my phone: 3.15. The Sikh girls are bored and want to leave.

More cars are coming. A steady stream of cars, taking both sides of the roundabout. It does feel as if the riders are closing in. I listen for the crowd noise approaching, but there is just the rotor blades of the helicopters. Every now and then the crowd on the entrance to the roundabout start cheering and waving, but it is inevitably a police car or a Team Sky car, or a Vittel car, that they are yelling about.
And then motorbikes swoop in, more cars, and the crowd start waving some more, and someone says, they're here now, and the front two riders – Barta and Bideau, I now know – steam round the roundabout, on the far side. I let out an unconstrained woop, mostly cheering the end of the long wait. The two go about as fast as two guys cycling quickly, which seems obvious now, but seemed surprisingly slow at the time.

Some more cars and motorbikes. Then the peloton: who knows how many bikes, bunched like a flock of birds, split more or less 50/50 around the roundabout, a blur of cycle shirts and those flash bikes you see about the place. The Team Sky riders pass, all together, and get a good old British cheer. Everyone takes photos. And then it's done. Cars and motorbikes continue to pour down the road, but the cyclists have passed, and the crowd starts to peel away. I go quickly, to get my car out ahead of the rush. I chat to the paparazzo and ask if he got any good shots. He shows me one of some cyclists. It looks good. "I should have had a bigger lens," he says, probably thinking of the men with the leg lens.

When I get to my car, all of the cars parked ad hoc on the side of the road have a ticket on them. Even in Loughton the bastard traffic wardens are on it. But it's actually a flyer for the Ilford NHS treatment centre. Yeah, I don't know either.