Cycling / Tour de France: The five minutes which brought a rare pleasure: Greg Wood joins the aficionados of Sussex who were lining the route

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'THE POLICE,' the local paper warned, 'will regard it as a criminal offence of defacing public property if cycling fans paint the names of their favourite riders on the road.' In the normally tranquil heart of Sussex yesterday, the crime figures soared.

Drawing and scrawling from early morning on the mile-long climb to the top of Ditchling Beacon, the names of Boardman, Indurain and the local rider, Sean Yates, were soon everywhere. The main problem for the small army of pavement artists was finding enough time and space to scribble as thousands of feet plodded wearily towards the summit, 813 feet above the Vale of Sussex. Many arrived six hours before the main attraction, clambering up the steep hillside and booking their pitch for one of the finest free shows in sport.

They had come not just from all over Britain, but from all over Europe: Italy, Germany, Spain, France. Serious enthusiasts mingled with sightseers, who were surprised at the fashions - 'I've never seen so much yellow Spandex' - and the numbers who had turned out for the Tour's first British stage in 20 years. A rough guess at the numbers lining the narrow road snaking up the Beacon would be 50,000, but of course an exact figure is impossible as no one was selling tickets.

The point was not lost on some spectators. 'Think what you pay to watch football,' one said, 'and then you come up here and you can watch the Tour for free. And this is the best there is, it's like the World Cup final.'

As with all great events, there was a careful build-up. As the public address relayed the news that two riders had broken clear of the pack, the first vehicles in the marketing cortege rolled around the corner and began to parade in front of a slightly bemused audience. The huge polystyrene computers and cereal packets on wheels would have passed in silence but for their own blaring horns, though the loud cheers for any vehicle bearing the logo of the GAN team (Chris Boardman) was proof of the depth of cycling knowledge among the watchers.

Strange, then, that with an intelligent, captive audience of tens of thousands, the advertisers were all French. 'It would be good if British companies could get involved in the advertising part of it,' John Creevy, who had been sitting on the hillside from 10 am, said. 'People are really interested in cycling and there's an enormous market out there for a sport with a good clean image.'

Just after 3.30 pm, cheers and applause began to spiral up the Beacon's twists and turns to signal the arrival at the bottom of the two breakaway riders. 'They've only made this a graded climb so they can say they've got one,' a spectator who was dressed as if he should know had said earlier, but when the pair rounded the last corner with the summit in sight, they had the good manners to at least appear exhausted.

Not so the peloton, which arrived in forlorn pursuit three minutes later, a magnificent, fluorescent mass of men and wheels which immediately swallowed every inch of tarmac on the hill's final stretch. Then came the support cars, bumper to bumper and squeezed three deep across the two-lane road, and finally the voiture balai for riders who have had enough.

And then, five minutes after the first riders had turned the corner, it was gone, and the thousands of spectators began to retrace their steps of several hours earlier. So much effort for five minutes of action, but there were no disappointed faces.

(Map omitted)