When the Olympic road cycling race stormed its way through south west London I had quite the vantage point from which to watch. Much as I hesitate to admit it, some friends and I found space (with a little more legitimacy than one might assume) to perch on the roof of a shoe shop. We had a few folding chairs and sufficient refreshment to wait for crowds to swell beneath us before the riders flashed past.
It really was over so quickly that we had little choice but to dash back inside and fire up the TV to work out what happened – far too much anticipation for the subsequent 45 seconds of roaring bicycle tyres to live up to. With that in mind, I’ll be honest and admit I left for my maiden attempt to watch some stages of the Tour de France with a suspicion that the armchair in my house might remain the best place to sit, but I’m pleased to report that with a little planning, this is not the case.
You can tell this even as a spectator at home. The closed public roads pounded by each of the heroic riders who attempt the punishing 3500-odd kilometres in the saddle are lined with motorhomes – smug looking cycling fans sipping chilled beer as they cheer the teams past. Drive, park, boil kettle, sit, observe, put the telly on. This was my idea at the start.
But then, a clue. The word ‘caravan’ is used to describe the carnival that tears through each of the stages ahead of the riders, managing with fanfair to throw freebies, blast music, whip up the crowd and stay ahead of the sporting action. That last bit is key: the issue with a motorhome is that to get a good spot you need to have rocked up at dawn and found a field somewhere to get your rig out of the way.
So instead, we hitched up and fought our way past the long queue Operation Stack had strewn eerily across the M20 (hardly a human in sight, like it was some strange post-apocalyptic graveyard for broken Transformer toys). Barely an hour inside northern France we plonked the Bailey Unicorn Cadiz in a central position between stages and used our Kia Sorento tow car to shuttle us between locations.
It meant we could manage two or three flypasts on each stage with minimal waiting. There was some upfront investment in organisation (such as a handheld TV to keep an eye on the action), plus some use of the Kia’s four-wheel drivetrain on some of the surfaces our sat-nav called ‘roads’. We also developed a keen ear for gathering helicopters as our final warning for impending action, since the portable satellite dish we’d packed proved about as much use as a bent coathanger.
Yes, on Le Tour the caravan beats the motorhome and makes one of the world’s most accessible spectator sports even more visually thrilling – the only way we could have got closer to the action would have been to be run over by a man in a yellow jersey. Or perhaps packed a handful of folding bicycles so we could have made equally rapid progress through crowds after being forced to dump the car outside of closed streets.
And the evenings brought sunset barbecues alongside our Bailey, back at our well-appointed pitch at La Paille Haute in Boiry-Notre-Dame (not too far from the town of Arras with its picturesque main square). The site also had a restaurant, bar, swimming pool, fishing and various games (including the almost obligatory pétanque), plus extremely friendly service. A lick of paint here and there wouldn’t have hurt, but it far from detracted from the experience.
So as Chris Froome charges to his almost inevitable victory this weekend, spare a moment to think about how easily you, as a caravanner, could be a part of it next year. Take a few stolen days the other side of the Channel Tunnel to chase the peloton for a couple of stages. It’s a sporting event mixed evenly with street party and treasure hunt, where the real prize is getting to the heart of the action. And all without breaking into a shoe shop. Allegedly.
A caravan makes one of the world’s most accessible spectator sports even more visually thrilling