"NE ME QUITTE PAS/IF YOU GO AWAY' - NED BOULTING
It started, for me, when I was wandering through the centre of Brussels a couple of days before the race started. Deep in rambling conversation about God knows what (jazz-funk, football, politics?) with my old friend Matt Rendell, I was pulled up short by the name of a museum we had just stumbled across: La Fondation Jacques Brel.
Now Brel, the sharp-suited, wonky toothed melodramatist from Schaarbeek (which, to my total delight, was where the first intermediate time check was positioned on stage two’s Team Time Trial) is not to everyone’s tastes, I know. French speaking Belgians often ridiculed him for his heavily Flemish-steeped guttural pronunciation. He, in turn, ridiculed all of Belgian society, with particular attention to his natural constituency; Flanders. He loved Belgium, but didn’t really like it.
I discovered his music through my friend Sean, who used to do a passably awful karaoke version of “Ne Me Quitte Pas”. His songs have been with me all my adult life. A couple of years ago on the Tour, I persuaded our producers to play his hit “Vesoul” as the peloton rolled out of Vesoul. It seemed appropriate.
Anyway, Brel’s overwrought words and overblown expressiveness continued to play in the background of my days throughout the opening weekend, and I took them in my heart as we left Belgium, and the other Greatest Belgian Ever, Eddy Merckx behind and crossed into France.
Champagne then took over for two days. The chalk roads, fabulously manicured wealth of Épernay became the focal point for the a race suddenly became massively, effervescently French. The fields of ripening Chardonnay, lined with stone markers carrying the names of some of the more luxurious brands in the world. The Coco Chanel of the wine and cycling world; that was stage three.
Since then, I have been overwhelmed once again by the subtle shifting changes of the topography and the history of these lands. Alsace Lorraine sparkled, for a change. The white stone of Nancy, a gloriously elegant city gave way to the thickly wooded hillsides of the Vosges, with their hidden beauties (David and I stayed in the same hotel we’d spent the night in in 2107 very close to Le Corbusier’s masterpiece la Chapelle Notre Dame Du Haut), as well as their hidden horrors. Prompted by the sight of the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, behind whose walls and razor wire some 22,000 people were murdered in the three years of Nazi occupation, I read more about the everyday degradations of the age. The fact that French speaking was banned is truly astonishing. 130,000 young men of the region were conscripted into the Wehrmacht, the so-called “Malgré-Nous” (in spite of ourselves). This is my seventeenth Tour, and I am still learning.
From there we passed handsomely into more familiar lands, though I have to say that I have reconsidered my attitude toward Beaujolais; an area of France I must have passed through dozens fo times but never stopped to admire. The countryside and especially the architecture has a distinct and wonderful appearance; turrets, tiles, brown stone and yellow detailing. And, as white wine handed over to the softer red varieties on our journey south west, I enjoyed the light, salty delicacy of Gamay and Pinot Noir.
And all the while, we’ve had Pete Kennaugh for company. For Pete, the experience has been nothing short of jaw-dropping; being on the other side of the fence. Freed from the constraints of racing the damn thing, he is looking at the Tour de France as if for the first time, soaking it in, and appreciating its scale; a dimension that had hitherto remained hidden to him. Having his humour and enthusiasm in our days has been a delight. He leaves us tomorrow, and comes back for the third week.
Before long, though, we had smashed through the spiritual ugliness of Saint-Étienne for the umpteenth time, and traversed the wild, empty volcanic spaces of the Massif Central to find ourselves in terracotta Albi, with its remarkable brick built cathedral. This launchpad for the Pyrenees, with its vertiginous bridges and distinctive palate will be our rest day pit stop, and we can all pretend to be Cathars, while we feast of duck fat and white beans. Bloody brilliant Once, about ten years ago, I bought the last goose in the market here on Christmas Eve. But that’s another story, for another day.
This is the Tour, folks. Enjoy it.