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21 days of madness: On the road with the Tour de France media

24 Aug 2020

Covid-19 has altered almost every aspect of the upcoming Tour de France: team bubbles, unpredictable racing, fewer roadside fans and, something that you may not notice, no more media madness

Words Mark Bailey Photography Sean Hardy

‘When I interview a rider after a hard stage, I see the emotion and pain on their face and it starts to feel complicated,’ says Eurosport cycling reporter Laura Meseguer, who is tasked with extracting live reactions from suffering athletes.

‘It feels like you’re interrupting a private moment, like you shouldn’t be there. I really admire how they deal with their emotions so publicly. I just try to show empathy and get a few words to help explain to people at home how much this really means.’

Ten million spectators line the roads of France for the Tour each year, but most fans inhale the daily drama through the words, pictures, analysis and interviews of the 2,000 reporters and photographers and 90 television and radio commentators who cover the race.

With up to 3.5 billion people across 190 countries tuning in on live television at some point over the three weeks, and millions more following via newspapers, websites, social media or radio, the media plays a vital role in transmitting the pain and joy of the race to the world.

‘When you see broken riders with snot-encrusted noses you peel away the mystique,’ says Richard Moore, co-host of The Cycling Podcast. ‘That’s not a bad thing to see. I still feel a sense of awe but you realise riders are not the mythical beings that you tend to put on a pedestal.’

Reporting on the Tour can create golden memories. ‘Seeing Chris Froome win in the yellow jersey on Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day was very special, but to see him stagger off his bike and be given oxygen to recover, right under my nose – that is an image that will live with me forever,’ says ITV commentator Ned Boulting.

The emotion can sometimes get too much for Eurosport commentator Carlton Kirby. ‘I get very choked by displays of human fortitude,’ he admits. ‘A few years ago when Nairo Quintana was battling Chris Froome at a mountaintop finish, I lost it. I was wobbling. I could see [co-commentator] Sean Kelly look across at me as if to say, “Pull yourself together!”’

Life on tour, however, is anything but glamorous. ‘I do about 5,000km of driving over the three weeks,’ says photographer Chris Auld, whose pictures appear in publications around the world.

‘We take shots at the start line, then look at the map and work out how many places we can stop for pictures – usually it’s about three – before getting to the finish,’ he adds. ‘We drive hundreds of kilometres each day and have 25 days of fuel and accommodation to deal with.’

Tour de Chaos

In his new book Magic Spanner, Kirby shares some of the comic drama behind the scenes, from Kelly being forced to leave the commentary booth live on air to avoid having their rental car towed away, to getting locked out of his Paris hotel room at 4am, stark naked, after venturing out to complain about the noise.

Whether enduring the stench of the journalists’ plastic outdoor ‘pissoir’ in 35°C heat or trying not to mow down a man dressed as a giant leg of ham after getting caught in the 11km-long ‘caravan’ of sponsorship vehicles, each day is laced with irritations and indignities.

‘While the Giro has one commentary unit, the Tour has eight double-deckers stacked up like overblown Winnebagos at the finish line,’ says Kirby. ‘We have sound walls either side, but the gap between Sean and me is the width of a laptop. If we have a third commentator, like Adam Hansen, they often have to stand.’

Ned Boulting, who chronicles his experiences in his book How I Won The Yellow Jumper, admits, ‘That’s the reality of it – we’re in an airless, windowless, soundproof booth in a truck, watching the telly and talking about it.’

But the stress and tension doesn’t end when the commentary is over. ‘It’s mics down then we run like the clappers to make “the evacuation”,’ says Kirby. ‘That’s when the police hold back the public – especially if we’re on the top of a mountain – so we can get away.’

Trying not to trip over the 60km of cable rolled out in the technical area is a challenge in itself. ‘Then we might have a three-hour transfer – or seven if it’s a big transfer from Brittany to Bordeaux – and the hotels can be absolutely shocking,’ Kirby adds.

‘Some feel like you’ve gone to Dignitas. I’m 6ft 4in so if the bed has a footboard I have to sleep on the mattress on the floor with the bed stacked against the wall. The cleaners must hate me.’

While the commentators discuss mankinis, breakaways and French chateaux live on air, reporters such as Moore and Meseguer have to dash to the finish line.

‘We get to the start an hour and a half early to do interviews, then we either drive the course, in which case you can leave 15 minutes before the start, or take the fast route to the finish using the motorways,’ says Moore.

‘We share cars so if you’re a passenger you can watch the race online, but we actually see most of the stage in the press room at the finish line. You see the riders cross the line on the big screen, then we turn around and they’re right there.’

Meseguer has developed a strange love-hate relationship with the race: ‘At my first Tour I was working for a website so I didn’t have the right accreditation and I couldn’t get access to anything from the interview areas to the buffets. I said I’d never come back. But this year was my sixth Tour and I love it.

‘The Giro is relaxed and beautiful. The Vuelta is small and friendly. But the Tour is incredible and exciting. It’s stressful and every day we stop at service stations and eat pre-packed salads and sandwiches. You get so tired of it after your 30th sandwich. But it’s also a big adventure. I’m always in a rush.’

Tricks of the trade

Tour veterans develop clever luggage hacks and efficient routines. ‘I always pack light as we move every day,’ says Meseguer. ‘I’m on television so I want to look OK – I pack my hairdryer – but we have to be very practical in what we take and you learn to pack quickly.’

Kelly hangs his underwear in the car to dry. Boulting seals his smelly socks in plastic bags. This year Moore decided to pack a folding bike: ‘It’s quite good for exercise but mostly it’s practical because sometimes it’s quite a long distance from the press room to the stage finish.’

Kirby says his aim is to entertain the general viewer while providing insight for serious fans. ‘I’m in the entertainment business and the Tour has this “Wimbledon effect” whereby people who don’t normally watch cycling still tune in to watch the Tour, so I always want to be inclusive. Some like my commentary. Others think of me like a sewage failure in their house.’

He creates his own hand-written ‘codec’ of information to aid him during commentary. ‘It’s basically a sheet of A4 paper with 21 cells about 6x4cm containing all the information I need. It includes details like distances, the profiles of the climbs and the jerseys as they stand.’

His infamously quirky references to local sausages, cloud formations and farming methods are, he says, all stored in his head: ‘I have lots of ridiculous stories and I never forget anything. I don’t have a bin.’

Commentators have also learned to expect the unexpected. ‘I remember that in 2007 Marcus Burghardt got upended by a Labrador,’ says Boulting. ‘I rest my case.’

While the commentators are describing the drama, photographer Chris Auld is trying to capture it: ‘We try to get multiple shots out of one spot so in a mountain stage you position yourself on a bend that looks down onto another bend, so you can look down on top of riders, then shoot them as they come around the bend, and again as they ride away from you.

‘I shoot 2,000 pictures per stage. The atmosphere can be great but you get the odd beer tipped over you. Alpe d’Huez is the daddy. Dutch Corner is photographic gold with the smoke bombs going off.’

Auld respects professional riders but makes a point of not befriending them. ‘Guys like Greg Van Avermaet, Richie Porte and Peter Sagan say hi because I’ve worked with them before, but my pet hate is photographers asking for selfies,’ he says. ‘It’s unprofessional. I am doing my job and the riders are doing theirs.’

The busiest time for news reporters is at the end of a stage when they scrap for access to riders. Television and newspaper journalists flock to the stage winners but Moore is looking for something different: ‘We want riders and sports directors who can give a more insightful take for the podcast.

‘There’s this small pool of two or three riders on every team and certain directors who we aim for. Matt White is a great example at Mitchelton-Scott. We joke about using our “Matt White credit” because we don’t want to overexpose him, but there aren’t many who give as good insight as he does.’

In the scrum at the end of a stage, tact and manners can help a journalist stand out. ‘The Dutch journalists are particularly bad at keeping riders talking for seven or eight minutes, but we keep them only for two or three minutes,’ says Moore. ‘If you can be succinct you won’t piss them off, and they will remember that.’

Meseguer’s language skills are particularly useful: ‘It definitely helps that I speak four languages: Spanish, English, Italian and French. I always got on well with guys like Mark Cavendish, but new riders come in and it takes time for them to know you.’

Highs and lows

Arguments between journalists and riders are common. ‘Mark Cavendish once threatened to slap me live on air,’ says Kirby. ‘I think I’d called his sprint finish a mess. But I’m paid to comment. You can disagree or agree.

‘Not long after that I found myself in a taxi with him at the Tour of Turkey. We discovered that we had a passion for motocross and cars and we have kids of a similar age so it was quite a turnaround.

‘Even Chris Froome has had a go at me. He wasn’t happy that I said he was looking at his stem when he crashed into some barriers. He said, “You didn’t see it so how do you know?”’

But despite the long drives, bad hotels and angry riders, reporters wouldn’t want to spend the month of July anywhere else.

‘The second Tour I covered was in 2006 and Operacion Puerto had broken a few weeks earlier,’ recalls Moore. ‘There were rumours about riders implicated in this blood doping ring and suggestions Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich were involved – and they were the two favourites for the race.

‘As we sat through their press conference there was a real sense that something was coming and on the eve of the race both were kicked out. It’s tremendously exciting to be at the centre of a really big and unfolding story.’

Auld knows that if he captures an iconic photograph it will be seen around the world. ‘My most memorable shot was of a crash involving Romain Bardet and Chris Froome that nobody else got,’ he says. ‘That catapulted me onto another level because I was just in the right place at the right time and every news outlet wanted it.’

Most reporters and photographers agree that covering the Tour is the best – and most challenging – experience of their professional lives. But you won’t find them partying in Paris when the race is over.

‘I get out as soon as I can – especially now that I have a baby,’ laughs Meseguer. ‘It takes a week to recover and adjust to normal life.’

Auld has the same rapid escape plan: ‘I drive straight to the ferry the night it finishes. It’s over. I’m done.’

Perhaps most surprising of all, however, is Kirby’s post-race recovery strategy: ‘On the last night I buy a Chinese takeaway and some beers and eat it very slowly in my room, in absolute silence, all alone, with my phone and television turned off.

‘I’m emotionally wounded. I’ve been flick-flacking verbally and mentally for days and I’m spent. I wouldn’t swap my job for the world. But it’s bloody tiring.’