The Tour de France direction signs give the first indication that there’s something special in this house. Black arrows on yellow placards point the way up the stairs to a brickwork room. Upon entry, my jaw drops like Indiana Jones surveying the Holy Grail chamber. There is cycling everywhere you look: blown-up photographs, Tour de France trinkets, hundreds of model cyclists and team vehicles, stacks of aged newspapers, signed jerseys, prized publicity caravan, boxes stacked upon boxes.
Pete Martin is the man behind this awe-inspiring array and he loves the Tour so much that his youngest son will always remind him of it. “He’s called Henri Desgrange. I named my boy after the founder,” says the proud father.
It’s a four-hour drive from the Rouleur base in London to the little Norfolk village of Marsham, but that geography is no inconvenience. Martin willingly got up at two in the morning to drive to Paris-Roubaix via Dover, got the ferry, spectated near the Forest of Arenberg and was back home by midnight. He’s driven by the kind of intoxicating magic (or madness) that a fair few reading this will recognise in themselves.
For Martin, it all began in 1997 with the Rochester International Classic, that short-lived World Cup one-day race in Kent. The following year, he went over to see the Tour’s Paris finale in the flesh and got hooked, helped along by David Duffield’s colourful Eurosport commentary and a personal love of France stemming from childhood holidays.
In 2001, the annual Tour trips began. Nearly twenty years late, he’s seen 80 stages and experienced some curious things: Eddy Merckx eating a monster mayonnaise baguette in Dunkirk, the sheer madness of Alpe d’Huez (“As a guy on my campsite at the first edition told me, you’ve not seen the Tour till you’ve been on Alpe d’Huez”), getting drenched in Barcelona before David Millar’s 2009 breakaway and covering the entire centennial Tour in 2013, save for the opening weekend in Corsica.
“Everything about it is great. I like France, I like driving. Even the dressmakers in a little town has an old bike in it with hanging bidons. And it’s not tribal, there’s never any trouble,” he says.
Along the way, he’s amassed over 1,000 items – musettes, cycling board games, race posters, you name it – sourced anywhere from local flea markets to eBay. There’s also hundreds of bits of bounty gained from the publicity caravan: “I’ve never bought any of it. I’ve either caught it or people have brought it along for me. I would never go on eBay and buy something I needed to complete the collection because I think this is a case of ‘if you go to the Tour de France, this is what you get.’”
Here is a man who knows how to score big from that flotilla of freebies. His tips? Go to towns, stand near to children, make eye contact and, if possible, split the family up on two sides of the road. The line between precious collectible and tasty snack can get blurred for Martin; there was a time when he’d tell his kids not to eat a hard-earned packet of Haribo unless he could first verify whether it was a duplicate.
When he started dating wife-to-be Lisa in the mid-Noughties, he hid his passion from her. Heaven knows how: it conjures up the idea of going round Imelda Marcos’s gaff without seeing a shoe.
Inevitably, Lisa is now a cycling fan. “Pete’s love for it is infectious, whoever he takes,” she says. “His mum, who is in her eighties, came out to the Alps with him, best friends and work colleagues have been; he’s converted a lot of people. When someone’s so passionate, you can’t help it. And it’s not overly commercialised, the whole town gets en fête. I think that’s what’s drawn me to it too.”
From the humble beginnings of putting a few model cyclists on top of the television when the Tour was being shown, Martin’s collection has mushroomed into something far bigger. In recent years, he has organised occasional exhibitions to raise money for charities, the most recent being Autism Anglia.
So, does he class himself as a collector? “Probably now, yes. When I first started, I just didn’t throw stuff away, so I was more a hoarder. But I don’t really go hunting for it. I’ve met a lot of the cycling stars but that’s more been luck: you’re there, they’re there, the chances are higher.”
Such regular race appearances mean that this civil servant has become a familiar figure to several in the paddock. Rod Ellingworth, Brian Holm and Bernhard Eisel all elicit glowing mentions from Martin for their warmth. One encounter with the Tour head honcho stands out, though. At the time-trial finale of the 2012 Paris-Nice, he bumped into race director Christian Prudhomme who was surprised to encounter a Briton following the whole race. “He said ‘you must be mad.’ Well, we are a little bit,” Martin says. “We rocked up with our six-month-old baby and he was wearing a ‘future Tour winner’ babygro. ‘His name’s Henri Desgrange,’ I said. Well, Christian nearly wet himself, he couldn’t believe it.”
Prudhomme asked them if they’d like a team car ride up the Col d’Èze behind a rider. Lisa ran off to get the little one’s car seat and passport as there was such curiosity about an English baby named after the Tour founder. When she returned, Pete and Henri had already gone up with the first racer. Waiting a little longer, she had the thrill of following then-world champion Tony Martin.
The encounter is a hint of the immense, intangible reward that cannot be shown in the collection: the precious memories (not to mention quirky stories) they’re amassing. To an extent, that goes for every fan who lines the Tour’s route annually, whether a veteran visitor like Martin or a first-timer. Watching the Tour makes you feel like a kid again. The anticipation, the uncertainty, the colour, the wholesome feel, the sound, the speed, the rush, the shared focus of hundreds of people. The whole experience is an antidote to the more isolating and narcissistic elements of 21st century life.
So, to state the obvious, the Martin family will be on the route of this year’s Tour de France, aiming to see at least eight stages. “Every year it’s fun. You’d think I’d be jaded but I’ll go till I drop,” Pete says, smiling. “Scatter my ashes on Alpe d’Huez!” If he was still around, I’m sure the original Henri Desgrange would doff his hat at that.
This article was originally published in Rouleur 19.4