Cycling / Tour de France: Intrigued English hosts in culture shock: Mike Rowbottom watches a key support man for the Motorola Tour de France team

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THE RESIDENTS of Tenterden Old People's Home, comfortably seated at the roadside for the passing show of the Tour de France, bore powerless witness to a spectacle that none of them could have expected.

To either side, the hedgerows received a thorough sprinkling as the apparently synchronised bladder movements of around 20 of the world's fittest and finest cyclists decreed it was time to answer Dame Nature's call. Some of the ladies present stared straight ahead; some did not. The Continentals may be used to it, but for the British whose only other experience of the Tour of Tours was a quick blast down Plymouth bypass 20 years ago, it was hard to know how best to act.

There was further culture shock later on Wednesday as the entourage of team support cars queued for petrol at a designated station beyond the Brighton finish line. Among the regulation Fiats, a lady in a cream Austin Maestro defiantly exercised her right to purchase fuel from the garage of her choice.

The old people, the lady in the Maestro, were momentarily in a different country - for this was France, England.

In its 91-year history, the Tour has evolved into a self- sufficient organism and the men who make it so are the soigneurs, a collection of resourceful individuals perpetually toiling to make every little thing in a rider's life go right.

For John Hendershot, chief soigneur - caretaker is the nearest word in English - for the Motorola team, yesterday began at 6.0 am as he and his team of three began preparing supplies and clothing for their cyclists.

The operation originates in a cavernous van which contains a large washing machine and dryer and which also acts as a refrigerated storehouse for the drink and food which was bought in bulk near their team's base in Belgium. Motorola's shopping bill for the Tour de France came to over pounds 2,000 on drink and cake alone - that did not include any of the high-energy drinks and chewy bars supplied by a sponsor.

The team have been reduced to eight, following the morning's withdrawal of Steve Bauer with a knee infection, but there was twice as much work to do. Following yesterday's concluding British stage around Hampshire, the entire Tour was removing itself via ferry and plane for today's start from Cherbourg.

Hendershot, a former amateur cyclist, spent two years studying physical therapy before taking up his current vocation 11 years ago. A big, husky American with a stetson and an ear-ring, he is well suited to keeping the more desperate media surges at bay when team members such as the world champion, Lance Armstrong, are descended upon.

'You need patience in this job,' he said. 'You need to stay calm.'

That is not always easy. Hendershot and a colleague Serge Borlee, have the task of handing feeding bags over to their riders at the designated point on the route. As the peleton hissed into view just outside Basingstoke yesterday, that apparently simple task took on a dangerous aspect.

'The riders often pass either side of you,' Hendershot said. 'You have to stand still. The riders know you are not going to move. And so they can go round you.'

Good in theory. But the practice on Wednesday was less certain, as a rider swerved to avoid Hendershot and triggered a wobbling uncertainty in the group immediately behind. 'They were swerving every which way,' Hendershot said. 'It was a closer call than I have ever had before. I almost ran.'