Tour de Tunbridge: Next Wednesday, parts of Kent and Sussex will be engulfed by croissants and croques while the locals enjoy a glimpse of strange men on bicycles whizzing by. Ruth Picardie reports

A sunny Wednesday afternoon in Maresfield, on the edge of the Ashdown Forest in Sussex. Washing flaps in the breeze. A farm sign announces that the strawberries are 'All picked out]'. Children's bikes are abandoned on a grassy verge. Young mothers chat across prams. Jenny Morris sweeps outside the Cabin Cafe; her husband, Mike, is thinking about going carp fishing across the fields.

In a week's time, Maresfield will have disappeared. The roads will be closed, the village school empty, the fields bumper to bumper with what Mrs Morris calls 'German camper-vans'.

St John Ambulance will be on full alert, alongside the temporary public toilets. A bouncy castle will have taken over Littlejohn Tyres. The only traffic allowed through the village will be a giant motorised profiterole, a fleet of TV cameramen balanced precariously on the backs of motorbikes and 189 whirring flashes of sweat, logo and Lycra, plus entourage. Welcome to Le Tour en Angleterre.

History is in the making in Maresfield, for the world's greatest bike race has come to Britain only once since 1903. Twenty years ago - before Channel 4 began televising the race, before croissants were available in British supermarkets, before A Year In Provence topped the bestseller lists - the Tour spent a day ploughing up and down an unopened stretch of dual carriageway that by-passed Plympton in Devon. It was not amused.

This time, things will be different. The two British stages - a 128-mile stretch from Dover to Brighton on 6 July and a 113-mile trip around Hampshire on 7 July - have been four years in the making. The pro-cycling entrepreneur Alan Rushton has Hampshire's Assistant Chief Constable on his side, along with four local authorities, to help make the route as scenic and exciting as the British countryside will allow.

There have been special leaflets, local meetings, education programmes, cycling awareness promotions, event cross-fertilisation. The Tour will mark the 800th anniversary of Portsmouth and the opening of the Channel tunnel, through which the riders will whizz on 5 July after setting off from Lille, in north-east France.

Even Royal Tunbridge Wells, traditional home of the disgusted ex-colonial, is strewn with bunting and signs welcoming Le Tour en Kent. 'People are coming round to the idea,' says a council spokesperson. There will be a flower-arranging competition in the Great Hall Arcade, an antique Parisian bus outside the Town Hall and a barbecue with French bistro-style dishes.

Such razzmatazz is to be expected, for the Tour is a massive, multinational business, reckoned to be the largest annual sporting event in the world. (Only the Olympics and the World Cup are bigger.) The worldwide television audience is 950 million, and sponsorship - of the 21 teams and the race itself - pours in from around the world.

Total prize money is pounds 1.4m; the wearer of le maillot jaune at the end of the Euro Disney-to-Paris stage, on 24 July, will win more than pounds 250,000. The stars of this race, the ones likely to be posing with bouquet and babe at the end of each stage, are likely to be the Spanish winning-machine Miguel Indurain, who will be trying to win his fourth consecutive Tour; the Swiss Tony Rominger, last year's runner-up; and the Italian Claudio Chiapucci, aka 'Il Diablo'.

In Maresfield, however, the build-up has been endearingly amateurish. Mr and Mrs Morris, whose cafe marks the end of the third sprint of the Kent-Sussex stage, have planted a bed of petunias in red, white and what looks to me like purple, though I am told they are blue. 'Well-behaved bunch, cyclists,' says Mrs Morris. 'We get a lot down here from Ashdown Forest.'

On the day, friends and family will gather under bunting to help out. 'We're planning a Frenchie theme,' says Mrs Morris. 'Croissants and croque.'

'Everybody's joining in,' says Peter Selby, who saw the Tour in 1963 and volunteered as the Maresfield co-ordinator. 'We've been told to expect 5,000.' Mr Selby is a chartered surveyor, wears a beard and dashes about like a scarecrow on speed. 'On the day, I'll just be jitterbugging about,' says Mr Selby. 'That's my role in life.'

Something of a wartime mucking-in, we're all in this together spirit is afoot, led by the Maresfield Women's Institute, which will be providing all-day refreshment in the Village Hall. Mostly, however, the Tour is an excuse for a bit of fun - something between a local fete and the street parties organised for the Queen's Silver Jubilee.

Dave and Linda Olive, out for a stroll in the June sunshine, are planning a barbecue. 'We'll be landlocked,' says Mr Olive, a service engineer who will be taking the day off work. 'Bit of an inconvenience. But so what? It's not the end of the world.'

As with all British summer events, the weather is the most important topic of conversation.

'We just hope it won't be wet and horrible,' says Mrs Olive. The sport itself - riders, teams, stars - is not the point at all. 'Indurain and that other chap? Our two boys could tell you about the riders.'

The only person in the village who appears to be taking a coldly businesslike approach to Le Tour is Keith Western, an ex-apprentice for Leyton Orient FC who bought the Chequers Inn 18 months ago from the receivers. 'Am I interested in cycling?' says Mr Western, who is wearing jeans, slicked-back hair and a Harrods sweatshirt. 'I am on 6 July. Could have filled the place five or 10 times over.'

Still, he has managed to fit in a mixed grill and finger buffet for 250 corporate guests (Channel 4, a and a local estate agent) plus two bars and a barbecue on the High Street. Stella Artois - a Belgium beer, by the way - is the nearest he is getting to a French theme.

Michael Bentley, an estate agent in the nearby village of Forest Row, is planning to watch the race from Crowborough, the highest town in Sussex, where some of the locals will be dressed as can-can dancers. Something of a cycling expert - he saw the Tour pass through Bordeaux in 1990 - Mr Bentley has his money on Miguel Indurain. 'He's got the best legs, hasn't he?' he chortles.

Alan Rushton believes that Le Tour en Angleterre marks a renaissance in British cycling. After Reg Harris retired in the Sixties until Channel 4 began televising the Tour in the mid-Eighties 'it got very utilitarian,' says John Bagnall, Alan Rushton's press spokesperson. 'Too blue collar and no heroes. People preferred the glamour of their Escort XR3s. Now cycling has become ecologically sound, healthy, hi-tech and above all stylish. 'The Tour,' says Mr Bagnall, 'will have a tremendous catalytic effect.'

He would say that, wouldn't he? But in Maresfield and elsewhere in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, he might be right. Francophobia - except in the loonier reaches of the Conservative Party - died when the croissant arrived in the Cabin Cafe.

The Keith Westerns of the world know that the Tour and its entourage is big business. Everyone else in this nation of slackers relishes an excuse for a barbecue - a rail strike without the aggro.

On the edge of Forest Row, in a tumble-down cottage on an unpaved track, I found one couple who were not looking foward to the Tour. Roger Yates, a sculptor, is rail-thin, sunken-cheeked, with two pierced ears. His wife, Jan, her grey hair loose down her back, has brought up their five children. The eldest, Sean, is 34 and is a domestique (a rider whose sole purpose is to make the race easier for his team's leader) for the Motorola team - one of only two or three Brits riding this year.

'In the old days,' says Mr Yates, 'I used to follow Sean round France. The pack would let a local boy stop in his home town, kiss his wife and kids. Now the Tour is big business - all pressure from sponsors and no character. Sean's motivation is the same as everyone else's - money.'

Mr Yates will not even go and eat croque monsieur and drink Stella Artois at the Maresfield street party. 'We'll probably go and have a look at the race from Ashdown Forest,' he says, puffing on a cigarette. 'But I'm betting on Rominger.'

Tomorrow in the sports section: how you can ride in Sunday's Tour de Kent with the 'Independent'

(Photographs omitted)

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