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Riders in the storm

Cyclist meets the moto men and women who bring the Tour to our screens and somehow stay upright.

Whether you watched this year’s Tour [2014] from the raucous roadside in Yorkshire or the quiet comfort of your sofa, you couldn’t fail to notice the hordes of motorbikes that play a crucial role in the organisation and safe passage of the race. If it sometimes looks hairy from the sidelines as these machines squeeze past the riders and chase them down mountain descents, then from the saddle it most definitely is.

‘The whole race is a near miss,’ says Luke Evans, long-time Tour motorcycle rider for the renowned photographer Graham Watson. ‘In certain situations you’re as close to the riders as you can ever be. Obviously the key is never to touch a rider.’ But does it happen? ‘Yeah, now and again a rider will lean against the motorbike as you’re going through the bunch or you might touch the riders with your handlebars. They don’t like that very much,’ he says. ‘The key thing is not to panic, just to be patient and wait for gaps to open up.’

For the photographers and cameramen whose job it is to bring the action to life for the print media and TV audiences, getting close to the action is paramount, and there’s almost as much pressure on them as there is on the racers.

Fred Haenehl is a motorbike TV cameraman with seven Tours under his belt. ‘I also work at football matches and there you have 10 or 20 cameras all taking shots of the action,’ he says. ‘But at the front of the Tour you have two or often only one camera to record the riders so you have to get it right. If you miss it, it’s gone. This is exciting as a cameraman because you know your shots are being broadcast worldwide – but it also adds a lot of pressure.’

Back to front

Shooting at the front of the race is the most technically difficult, Haenehl says, because he has to sit forward while turning sideways to point the camera at the riders, but physically, it’s toughest when he’s at he back of the race. 

‘When you are “Moto3” – the bike filming at the back of the peloton – you’re standing up on the motorcycle footpegs all day doing the same shot, sometimes for 240km on the longest stages. There is no break. If someone crashes or drops out, you have to be there filming ready to get the shot. Also the pavé stages are very difficult because it’s so bumpy and there are a lot of crashes.’

There’s also the ever-present danger from the crowds, which can introduce a source of fatigue that’s not obvious from the outside. A good example occurred during the Grand Départ in Yorkshire, as Haenehl explains: ‘Always when the Tour goes outside France it’s incredible. We always say, when we get to France the roadsides will be empty!’ he says. ‘The stages in Yorkshire were unbelievable. Those three days were very beautiful for the pictures, but very tiring for us because each day it was nearly 200km with all these people shouting for the entire stage. The noise was amazing, but really exhausting!’

A question of speed

Sometimes it seems miraculous that there aren’t more incidents where bikes collide with motorcycles, and from a viewer’s perspective there’s the eternal question of whether the riders are potentially faster than the motorcycles on the descents. 

‘It’s a bit of a fallacy that a bicycle can go faster than a motorbike down a mountain,’ says Evans. ‘You’ve only got to see the fantastic skills of the motorbike cameramen when they follow the race downhill and the racers aren’t getting away – even though they’re going flat out. 

‘There are two areas where you have to be careful though,’ he adds. ‘One is if you’ve been doing 120kmh and you slow down because you think you’re a long way ahead. It is quite surprising how quickly riders catch you up. The other time is around certain corners and roundabouts where it’s quite difficult to flick-flack a motorbike about, but the sheer narrowness of the bicycle means they can almost straight-line a roundabout. On a motorbike with panniers you might be going at 30-40kmh and there’s not a lot in it, but you’ve got to make sure you’re doing about the same speed as they are.’ 

With such potential for accidents, you might think that there would be a rigourous set of qualifications for motorcycle riders before they can share asphalt with the pros in the Tour. Not so, says Evans, who got his slot because his photographer ‘saw me riding through town traffic with a fairly exuberant riding style’.

Of course there are riders on the Tour who are as highly trained as they come, namely the members of the French police’s Republican Guard section, who are there to guarantee the security of the race. Among their number is Sophie Ronecker, nine years a member of the elite riding squad: ‘My unit specialises in escorting nuclear convoys, Bank of France convoys, high risk prisoners, and we also ensure the safety of cycling races – the Tour de France, Tour de l’Avenir, Critérium du Dauphiné, Tour de Bretagne, and so on.’ 

So how does the Tour compare to those other jobs? Ronecker says, ‘Cycling races are long missions, let’s say. But working on lower-profile races involves less danger and less pressure than escorting a dangerous prisoner, for example.’ The Republican Guard riders are split into six units positioned in the following areas: ahead of the race, at the race lead, at the back of the race, with the broom wagon, with the ambulance and riders known as drapeaux jaunes or ‘yellow flags’. 

‘These are the riders I would call “free agents”,’ says Ronecker. ‘The work of the yellow flags is the most sensitive and even dangerous. There are usually four or more and their job is to control the dangerous points in the race, and to do this they may need to pass the peloton many times during the stage. It’s not always easy to pass riders who are competing for position and aren’t always willing to let you past.’ This might seem like the premier job for the police riders, but Ronecker disagrees. 

‘Personally I have never been a yellow flag and I don’t really want to become one. You actually have to rub elbows with racers all the time and, even if they know that we work for them, they tend to sometimes forget a little. Becoming trapped in the middle of the pack is not my cup of tea!’ she says.

Ronecker’s reluctance is understandable given the responsibility of being a police rider. In 2009 a woman in her sixties was killed as she crossed the road by a yellow flag rider who was bridging the gap between the peloton and a breakaway. Thankfully this type of incident is extremely rare. 

Friends in high places

Despite occasional accidents and frayed tempers however, the relationship between the pro riders and support motorcyclists is generally cordial. ‘The top riders know that they need us, so they are good to us,’ says Haenehl. ‘Lance Armstrong was very good with us because he needed the pictures. Afterwards we know what happened, but with all the cameramen he was the number one. And he was the boss of the peloton.’

The mutual respect can even go beyond mere tolerance into cooperation, with racers fetching drinks for the camera crews. ‘We were behind the peloton on one stage and Stéphane Augé was going back to his team car,’ says Haenehl. ‘He asked if we wanted something to drink. It was a hot day and so I said I wanted a cold Coke. He said OK. But when he came near us again he said he’d forgotten, so when he’d finished taking bottles for his whole team he went back again – just to get us our drinks.’

So despite the long days, the potential for disaster and the unrelenting nature of the work, a motorbike might seem like the perfect place from which to watch the Tour. And that’s exactly how it is, according Haenehl.

‘There are only two ways to do the Tour: either as a racing cyclist or as a motorcycle cameraman, because it’s the only way to really experience what the racers are going through – their suffering and their joy,’ he says. ‘The most emotional moment for me, which almost brings tears to my eyes, was arriving in Paris on the Champs-Élysées with Chris Froome in 2013. He thanked all his team-mates one by one when he arrived in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower. You only truly get to share these moments on the motorbike, where you’re in direct contact with the racers.’

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