Divide the route between the three of us 1 staff writers and head across the channel to cover the entire 2015 Tour de France. It seemed such a simple proposition. The nuts and bolts of logistics were an entirely different matter.
Poring over the race route and trying to work out a workable itinerary was proving to be rather complicated. Why I plumped for the opening stages of the north, rather than the rugged beauty of the Pyrenees or the fabulous Tour history of the Alps, God knows, but it turned out to be fascinating in several unexpected ways.
First stop: Sèvres, on the banks of the Seine just outside Paris, where the final stage begins.
It is also where the trophy awarded to whoever wins on July 26th is manufactured. The town is renowned for the quality of its porcelain production, established on this site in the 18th century.
The building is vast, dramatic, verging on palatial. A total of 120 ceramicists work away in peaceful surroundings in this state-owned facility, making traditional and modern products both for government organisations and for sale to the general public.
We entered the workshop where the two separate elements of the trophy are joined together to find the very one that will be seen on the Champs-Elysées on July 26th in the hands of the champion. But another sat beside it. And another beside that. And a couple of smaller versions on the next table…
You will have to buy issue 55 to find out why.
Our next stop was the Champs-Elysées itself, this year celebrating its 40th finish of the Tour.
We hit the cobbled boulevard at the height of rush hour, the road clogged with traffic, the pavements with tourists. I intentionally wanted a hurly-burly shot to counterpoint the emptiness on the last Sunday in July, save for the hurtling peloton.
I dropped Jakob off lower down the road, circled up and around the Arc de Triomphe without causing any accidents (that I am aware of) and picked him back up on the way round. We did this a few times from various positions, then headed out of town, content we had something decent in the bag. Only two images went in the magazine in the end, but they were two very important shots.
The next day, we hit the pavé of stage 4, driving the cobbles in reverse order to how the peloton will approach them on July 7th. Three of the seven sectors were used in this year’s Paris-Roubaix.
The first six are relatively tame and smooth – or smooth as northern-French cobbles can be, anyway. It is the seventh, the 2,300m section just 12km from the finish line in Cambrai, that promises to tear the bunch apart: very rough, extremely rutted and a potential nightmare for anyone hanging on for dear life after 200 frantic kilometres of racing. It is going to be dynamite.
Wednesday was Dwars Door Vlaanderen, so I got to play race driver for the day, while Jakob navigated perfectly and dropped us off at just the right point of the course every time. He’s been doing these Belgian races long enough to know his way around the back lanes – very useful knowledge.
I really must mention at this point that Skoda loaned us an Octavia Scout for the duration of the trip. And marvellous it was, too, particularly on Wednesday’s race and when smashing over the cobbles, four-wheel drive a go-go. I’m no petrol-head (is there such a thing as a diesel-head?) but I know a decent car when I drive one.
Plug over. Back to the road trip.
Day four took us to the service course of Lotto-Soudal in Herentals, not far off the stage 3 route finishing in Huy.
They’re funny places, pro team HQ’s. There’s absolutely no frills or glamour: just a warehouse containing bikes and bits, and a couple of offices from which they plan to conquer the world. We tend to build the service course up in our heads as something it isn’t.
Seeing as Lotto-Soudal had a very successful opening to their season (and continue to do so), I was glad we dropped by. The place may have been practically empty, with the mechanics all away at the races, but there was obvious pride in those who managed the fort in their absence.
Friday morning, and the owner of a small family-run hotel in Vlissingen, a Dutch seaside town jutting out into the North Sea in Zeeland, asked what we would be doing that day.
We’d come to photograph the extraordinary finish line of the upcoming Tour de France’s second stage, I replied, on a bridge that forms part of the Oosterscheldekering – a nine kilometre-long storm surge barrier that keeps Netherlanders’ heads above water.
“It looks amazing from the air,” he said.
“Would you happen to have a helicopter we could borrow?” Jakob joked.
Not exactly, but two phone calls later by our hospitable host and we were on our way to a nearby grass airstrip where a 1967 Cessna was being prepared for take-off. Think of the oldest Mini you have ever seen, but with wings, and you’re about there. Our pilot, a talkative and amusing man with the kind of moustache only an airman can wear with conviction, thought an Opel Kadett with wings (the Dutch car-owners’ equivalent) might be a better comparison.
I squeezed in the back of the antiquated aircraft, complete with ashtrays and sick bags but little else in the way of home comforts, while Jakob strapped in up front, and we rattled and roared away, headed for the flood barrier.
The Cessna was buffeted by the wind, much like the peloton will be on July 5th, while we circled the man-made islands and moveable flood defences. Jakob flung open the window, the pilot banked hard to the left to give him a bird’s-eye view, and we had our spectacular shots in the bag, as promised by our hotelier. Forty minutes in the air felt like ten at the most, as our flying Dutchman brought us back down to earth with the smoothest of landings.
“I’m not the actual pilot,” he said, as we stepped out of the plane. “I’m just the mechanic usually, but the pilot couldn’t make it today…”
Jakob laughed. I laughed. The pilot (or “mechanic”) laughed. He might have been joking. Or he might not.
Some days – and this was certainly one of them – it feels great to be alive. It’s not a bad job, is it?
Thank you to Skoda UK for the loan of an Octavia Scout for the duration of our trip. Issue 55 is on sale now.