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5. Who will we support now?

Six years ago I was very ill, experiencing my third bout with cancer in five years. I was undergoing a tough chemo treatment in a Paris hospital on a hot July day, with no air conditioning in my gloomy room when, to take my mind off that awful drip that felt like it was poisoning my whole body, I switched on the TV set, and suddenly nothing mattered anymore around me. While watching the man in yellow, a cancer survivor they said, so elegant and ethereal on his bike, attacking one of the highest Alps summits, I forgot my damaged body, my pain, my treatment, my illness. And that moment changed my life.

Like most fans I fell in love with Lance first. Then I got to know and love Chechu, and soon I was smitten with the whole team. Over the years, I became acquainted with almost all of them, from the sports directors to the mechanics. I started regularly attending the departure of many cycling races to encourage the boys and try to show them how much I cared. It did me a lot of good and helped my recovery.

I learned their names, the names of their wives or girl friends, the names of their children. When I had not seen them for a while I asked for news about their kids. I liked it and they did too for they started greeting me with a friendly kiss. It was like a second family.

The Lance Armstrong-Johan Bruyneel duo is unique in cycling for they have managed to create a team spirit which is not found elsewhere. Not only the star riders, but also the domestiques in this set-up were passionately proud to be part of this team, and worked the hardest possible for their leader. They all shared, as if they were a single person, the glory of the winner.

What will happen to those who have been living for and from the team? What will happen to the riders who, like Chechu, are at the end of their career? And what about the rest of the staff, all the support personnel behind the scenes: soigneurs, mechanics, office personnel, Paceline employees etc.? I cannot imagine not seeing them all together next year.

US Postal and Discovery Channel were unique and no other team will ever replace them in my heart.

4. Henry Anglade (Champion of France 1959, 1965) and the first Village du Tour de France

Last Sunday, 29th July, at the entrance of the Tour de France Village in Marcoussis, departure point of the last stage of the 2007 Tour de France, I bumped by chance into my longtime friend Henry Anglade and his family.

Henry knows everyone in the cycling world for he was a famous French professional rider, twice champion of France, and several times in the top five in the Tour de France general classification in the 1960s. His rivalry with icon Jacques Anquetil is well known among the old guard of professional riders.

As it was raining cats and dogs, chats et chiens, we sat all together in the Crédit Agricole booth, where the hostess in charge was lovely Nelly, daughter of Tour de France 1975 and 1977 winner Bernard Thévenet, the man who ended the reign of the giant Eddy (The Cannibal) Merckx.

There, sheltered from the rain, sipping a glass of local red and white wines, Henry spent a couple of hours recounting (he is a very good story teller) some of his cycling memories.

At one point, I asked Henry if he knew who had invented the so friendly and festive Villages du Tour de France where you bump into cycling and media personalities, sporting news journalists, film stars, or ex-champions

To my utter surprise Henry replied it was himself!

When Henry Anglade retired from professional cycling in the 1970s at age 34, he was hired by an advertising company linked with bike racing and kept a lot of contacts in the cycling world.

One time, when the Tour departure was near Marcoussis, a town where Henry has close relatives who know the mayor, Henry was lent a room in the town hall. He then called all his current clients telling them they could expose their products for free on the day of the stage.

A Tour de France stage attracts a big crowd and Henry’s clients were only too happy to accept the offer. Each client brought samples of food and wine that were offered to the crowd.

This was so successful that the Tour de France manager of the time, Jacques Goddet, who at first was reluctant (but Henry is a strong-willed man, full of new ideas, very straightforward as well as stubborn) finally accepted the idea of having a similar celebration at the end of the Tour also. Soon this habit was extended to all 20 stages.

The Villages du Tour de France have become a very popular tradition and it is getting more and more difficult to secure invitations.

Throughout the Village du Tour, there are breakfast or lunch stalls, depending on the time of the day, with large displays of croissants, bakery products and cakes, fruit, wine, soft drinks, coffee, ice cream and hot dishes. These are served in disposable plates that you can either eat standing, or sitting at a table in the sponsors stands, waited on by charming hostesses while reading the day’s various newspapers that are at your disposal.

In the Village du Tour, you can see all the podium girls for they work here as hostesses for the various sponsors. They switch jobs and clothes according to one job or the other, i.e. from uniforms enhancing the colors of their sponsors, to elegant dresses for handing over the various jerseys at the end of the stage.

One of them, a dazzling, tall, raven-haired girl with dark eyes called Ness, we meet regularly on the Critérium du Dauphiné route or on the Tour de France, and she has become a friend.

Bernard Hinault at Tour de France 2007

Christine with Raymond Poulidor at Tour de France 2007

3. Mi amigo Valentín

If you’ve ever been up close to Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team, you’ll know him for sure, if not by name at least by sight. He drives the blue Discovery bus with matchless skill, managing to park it in the smallest spaces without ever stopping smiling or losing his cool. In fact, I have never seen Valentín in a bad mood.

Valentín Dorronsoro is not only the team bus driver but also one of the team’s masseur-therapists. During this year’s Tour de France, he is taking care of two Spanish riders and room-mates, Alberto Contador and Benjamín Noval.

Each evening, after the end of the day's stage, he drives the riders, with all their personal belongings, to their hotel. This is normally a new hotel each day except on rest days. Once there, he looks after Alberto and Benjamín.

I first met Valentín in Aix-les-Bains, a spa town of eastern France, between the Alps and the Jura mountains. We were there for the departure of the 2005 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré. Lance Armstrong was the star of the team, there were loads of media people hanging around the nice hotel the team shared with T-Mobile and AG2R.

Valentín is a Spanish Basque. He speaks perfect French, as well as Spanish, Basque and English, which is the team lingua franca. His hometown is near San Sebastián, he is a bachelor and lives near his parents, to whom he remains very attached. Valentín was a professional cyclist in the 1980’s and competed mainly in Spain, at the time of Bernard Hinault’s reign.

Before he was hired by Discovery Channel, and in the year I met first him, Valentín was the masseur-therapist for Joseba Beloki at Once-Euskadi. He witnessed more closely than anyone the dramatic episode of Beloki’s terrible fall and injury, as he was leading in the descent to Gap, in the 2003 Tour de France.

Everybody who follows cycling remembers very clearly those images when Lance Armstrong, who was chasing him, had to switch to mountain bike cycling and ride across a field to catch the pack which was already on the other side of the mountain bend. This episode surely marked everyone's memories. This Tour was hit by a heat wave of unprecedented intensity, and patches of melted macadam rendered its route extremely dangerous.

Young or old, all Discovery fans know Valentín, his gentle smile and relaxed attitude, and his way of dressing, mostly in shorts and sandals, whatever the weather.

Valentín has a very good memory and will know straight away when he has seen you last and on what race. Every time we meet, I ask my husband Roger to take a picture of Valentín and me, so I have a souvenir for each time I meet him. And when I show him the pictures a few months later, or even a year, he knows exactly where and when it was taken.

This year, we’re planning to visit Valentin’s region to attend the departure of the Clasica San Sebastián. We badly miss not seeing Chechu in France, so we will celebrate our wedding anniversary in Spain, where Chechu is scheduled to race at the beginning of August. Naturally, my friend Valentín will be there and, as usual, we are already looking forward to seeing him again.

2. Six tips to help fans approach their favorite teams

If you are lucky enough to go to a Tour de France stage (or any other major race) this year, here are some tips to help you approach your favorite teams and riders.

1°) The fist golden rule: don't be pushy. Always stay polite, courteous, and respectful of the staff and riders’ condition (if they are tired or just finished a hard stage, for example).

2°) The best place to approach the team and have a chance to take a photo, get an autograph and maybe talk briefly with a rider is at their hotel. Every day, during a multi-stage tour, the team changes hotels, except on rest days where they generally will stay two nights in the same place.

Some of the race organisers will give freely the names of the teams’ hotels, so ask them by phone/email. Some teams put this information on their website.

3°) Once at the hotel, the best contacts and the most appreciated are outside, on the parking lot, nearby the team bus and team cars. Neither the hotel managers nor the riders or team directors appreciate being bothered inside the hotel. They particularly don’t like photos to be taken inside, unless you have asked permission in advance.

4°) Try to establish and cultivate a trustful relationship with the mechanics, the bus drivers, the masseurs-therapists, etc. who reach the hotel long before the riders and stay in the parking lot taking care of the bikes, the lunch bags, and all kinds of race equipment.

Even better and very valuable but more difficult is to establish contact with the team communications director (seen only at the really big races).

5°) To make contact with riders at the race venue itself, time trials are the best opportunities because the riders warm up for a good hour on trainers in front of the team bus. You can take as many photos as you want but beware not to disturb the riders’ concentration by requesting autographs.

6°) And finally, if you can address the rider in his own native language, it’s a plus for you.

In order to help you recognize a few people that you generally don’t see on TV, here are some photos my husband Roger and I took of this year’s Tour de France Discovery Channel Pro Cycling staff.

1. Communications Director, PJ Rabice with George Hincapie
2. Chris van Roosbroeck, mechanic with a young fan

1. Craig Geater, Vincent Gee, mechanics
2. Elvio Barcella, massage therapist

1. Christine with Richie Kielpinski and Dimitri Borysov, massage therapists
2. Alan, mechanic

1. A morning in The Village du Tour de France at Montpellier

It's Friday morning (July 20) and there is already quite a lot of bustling activity in Montpellier, known as “the town where the sun never sets”, which once again hosts a Tour de France stage.

Famous for its dynamic life and the oldest medical faculty in Western Europe, Montpellier is the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, and one of the leading French university towns.

You can see the Mediterranean sea is only a few steps away, for people are dressed very lightly, and they have a typical accent not always easy to understand, even for a Parisian.

As usual, a big crowd is in attendance for the departure of the most popular French event of the year.

On arriving in the Village du Tour, we discover that the big news of the day is not the result of previous day’s stage - where French favourite Christophe Moreau lost more than 3 minutes and maybe also his chance to win the Tour de France - but Michael Rasmussen has been excluded from the Danish National Cycling Team because he failed to report his whereabouts to the appropriate authorities during the weeks preceding the Tour.

The immediate reaction of the press is “he has something to hide!” (meaning doping of course), this news is discussed all over the Village amongst journalists and TV reporters.

We even hear a couple of journalists discussing their banner headline, “who benefits from the crime.” There is an atmosphere of scandal totally contrary to the idea one has of sports and we are shocked.

When the team buses start arriving, the Rabobank bus is immediately besieged by a horde of TV crews, but for us it’s a nice change to visit all the other team buses with much less hassle than normal.

It’s always a great pleasure to meet the whole Discovery Channel Team again.

George Hincapie gets off the Discovery bus first and spots his French wife, Melanie, (who has come especially for this stage with their two-and-a-half year old daughter Julia, from their house in Girona, Spain) among the crowd on the other side of the barriers. She had not been able to secure a pass.

So George has to find a policeman to lift the barrier in order to let his family in. With his distinctive US stars and stripes jersey, George is always a great favourite with the public. Melanie recognizes me and poses for a couple of photos with little Julia (nicknamed “Juju”) who speaks French with her mother and English with her father.

Alberto Contador, with his “Best Young Rider” white jersey that suits him so well, attracts journalists, and we note that he is becoming increasingly popular among the French public.

As for Yaroslav Popovych, he spots a group of Ukrainians who address him in his native language, and heads to the barriers to sign autographs and have his photo taken with his compatriots. He is in his usual good mood.

Egoï Martinez seems a little forlorn because he got surprised with Vladimir Gusev in the Astana attack during the Marseille-Montpellier stage, and could not reach the finish with the first pack.

As the riders are called to the starting line, I say farewell to the Tour until July 29, on the Champs-Elysées.

All photographs by Christine and Roger Kahane