The End of The Road
These days I often get asked by younger journalists what the Tour was like when I started reported on it in the 1990s, long before cycling stopped being a minority sport in the UK and - until 1998 - well before the race became sullied with incessant doping scandals.
The short answer is the Tour entourage was much smaller, much friendlier and, particularly to a rosbif like myself, much more French. It wasn’t just that official press conferences and communiques would only be in French but the proportion of local journalists to foreign reporters was much higher, perhaps, at a guesstimate, four or five to one rather than the rough parity of today. As for the British, whereas the number of English-speaking media on the race now runs into the hundreds, back in the 1990s, there were half a dozen reporters at most.
Some of the British journalists who got to the 1990s Tour had no more than a passing interest in bike racing either. Rather they would be newspaper general sports writers sent to cover the ‘phenomenon’ of an event which the broader British public had virtually no idea about but which somehow, and to the British inexplicably, managed to keep the French seriously enthralled for the best part of July and which travelled the length and breadth of the entire country, too.
Photo: Alasdair Fotheringham
Reporters would be sent out from the UK specifically to write about the Tour’s publicity caravan, for example, trying to described the garish, utterly outlandish, spectacle of thousands of giant advertising floats wending their way through Pyrenean villages and tiny towns in the France profonde, flinging free articles to roadside fans ranging from, in the 1990s, ice-cream Mars Bars to peculiarly revolting cans of boiled vegetables, only good for trying to squash as you drove past. Barring Chris Boardman’s prologue results, there was little sporting interest from British media. Two of the British journalists who worked there in the early 1990s, I recall, had an annual Tour-long bet of a slap-up dinner in Paris on whether they could get through the entire race without talking to a single rider or team official. (Their other three-week competition was who would be the first to wangle an ultra-obscure word past their sub-editors’ beady eyes and into the next day’s paper.)
But if the pressure from editors was pleasantly low for some GB journalists (although not for all British newspapers and definitely not from my then employers at Cycling Weekly) in another way the 1990s were one of the worst eras for Tour reporting: when it came transmitting copy. Dictating your article, as was the norm up until 1994 or so was an ok process if tedious, but the problems started when editors began to insist we sent copy by the earliest, wonkiest, forms of the Internet: it could, literally, take hours.
My worst internet meltdown of the decade was, at it happens, in the 1998 Tour. Stage three was a crucial day for British cycling given that race leader Chris Boardman had crashed out in Ireland, and after the race ended far later than usual, it also just happened to be the deadline day for the entire week for Cycling Weekly. The real problem arose when, having driven like maniacs to Cork and onto the ferry back to France, we were trying frantically to send a week’s copy via the one payphone on the ferry that allowed us to use a dial-up Internet connection.
Our computers on that Tour, uncooperative, bulky creatures prone to shutting down every time we tried to connect them to the internet, were already one problem. But the real low point came when we were told by the Cork ferry crew members that the Internet wouldn’t work for another hour: we’d ‘have to wait until the ferry started to move before the phone would start operating because it’s only then that the satellite can identify its location.’” Hardly reassuring, given that not only were we already running massively late, if the phone and its predictably wonky link-up failed, there was no way off the ferry by that point. Plus, there would be another 11 hours before we reached dry land in France and a more reliable connection. Ultimately it worked, but it made for a very fraught evening on an already very fraught race.
So what has not changed for those reporting on the Tour? There are the sporting highlights, which are numerous, of course. But there’s also the stress and extreme tiredness produced by what for many reporters become absurdly long working hours, combined with driving for thousands of kilometres, irregular eating hours and a failure to get enough sleep over three weeks. The tendency to stop thinking in terms of days of the week but simply stages of the race remains, as does your increasing inability, in three weeks’ worth of different hotels and cities, to remember where you have woken up that morning or indeed will be sleeping that evening. The working conditions can be incredibly beautiful at times, too, such as sitting in an outdoor press room on top of an isolated Pyrenean mountain pass. But that same scenario can easily morph into something far grimmer, like when you realise there is no prospect of getting any supper in such isolated surroundings and with an enormous traffic jam on the one road coming off the mountain, that you will likely reach your hotel at three in the morning.
That constantly changing environment, some would say, is what makes the Tour so special for journalists. It certainly makes it different.