Cycling / Tour de France: Britain rolls out the red carpet: Yates on home run as race receives remarkable greeting from spectators: Mike Rowbottom experiences organised chaos with the Motorola Tour de France team

Click to follow
THE Tour de France, returning to Britain after a 20-year absence, yesterday surged through Kent and Sussex like an exhilarating wave. The response of the spectators - hunched back into the high hedges, settled on to garden chairs in their driveways, waving paper Union Jacks in the packed town centres - was astounding.

Even to Jim Ochowicz and Geoff Brown, respectively team manager and mechanic for the Motorola team, whose long experience in cycle racing was packed into one of the 42 team cars on the route with your correspondent taking a seat alongside.

'I've never seen so many people at a bike race. Never,' Brown, who has been on the circuit for eight years, said. Ochowicz, who cycled for the US team at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, commented wryly: 'The Queen doesn't get a turn-out like this, does she?'

The progress did indeed seem a royal one, nowhere more so than in Royal Tunbridge Wells, where the centre was thronged. A mile or so beyond, a large sign in a private driveway testified to the fact that a certain trio of gentlemen - no names, no libels - 'are defective and negligent solicitors'. One could only guess at the case history. . .

The motivation for the crop of posters in Kent's orchard territory was less hard to fathom. Support British Growers. English Fruit is Fresher. When the assembly moved into Sean Yates territory - the route passed within three miles of the British veteran's home in Sussex - the signs of support cropped up everywhere. One group of supporters included Yates's parents. He was allowed to ride ahead of the peleton to greet them.

The vehicles from Motorola, Yates's team, received particular adulation. But at this point, Ochowicz, alerted by the tour radio which keeps team managers informed of events at the head of the race, was becoming concerned with tactics.

Before the race, Ochowicz had identified the crucial area of the 204-kilometre stage. 'It will happen here,' he said, pointing at the relief map of the route and picking out Cote de Ditchling Beach (180.5 km), the steep climb on the outskirts of Brighton.

As the race approached the rise, the two early leaders, Emmanuel Magnier and Francisco Cabello, still had a four-minute lead. Ochowicz's sporting director, the former Olympic gold medallist Hennie Kuiper, radios through to suggest that GB, the leading team, are not doing enough to close the gap and that Motorola need to put pressure on them. As he speaks, Radio Tour crackles over the information that an attack has begun. But it soon becomes clear that one of the men involved is a GB rider, Flavio Vanzella. Motorola have not covered him.

'Frankie or someone should be right there next to him because GB will stop chasing if he gets away,' Ochowicz said. 'They were sleeping there.'

Ochowicz is assured as he steers the car through the other vehicles and bikes ahead of him when there is cause to make contact with the riders. 'When you get among the peleton it's the centre of a hurricane,' he says. 'The closer you get, the more chaos.'

But it is organised chaos. The 42 team cars stick to the right-hand side. When contact needs to be made - Motorola's riders have pagers - the cars move up on the left side, which operates as the event's spinal column.

As things turn out Vanzella's third place on the day sees him take the overall tour lead.

Kuiper, a veteran of 12 Tours de France was suitably phlegmatic afterwards. 'We were trying to get the yellow jersey. But letting Vanzella break was a mistake.

'Then it is easy to talk about mistakes when you are in a car. If your legs are not strong enough, what can you do?'

(Photograph and map omitted)