Tour de France: Pastries, pain and downhill dodgems

A race like the Tour relies on teamwork. Chris Maume played his part for a day in the Alps
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The Independent Online
11.30am: I can't get Steve McQueen out of my head. We are heading out of the town square of Dignes-les-Bains in Haute Provence and Jose Arenas, driver and soigneur, or trainer, is treating me to a re-run of Bullitt.

I quickly realise the key to driving a team car, or indeed a race car or sponsors' car, in a bicycle race: the road is closed to the public. There is nothing coming. As long as you don't actually run over the riders, you can do what you want.

I'm in the second US Postal Services team car for the penultimate stage of the Dauphine Libere, 117 miles to Briancon. It's a big day for them, as their Russian team leader, Vyacheslav Ekimov, is in the yellow jersey, but only 49 seconds ahead of the Spaniard touted by many as this year's Tour de France winner, Abraham Olano. For the first hour or so, we ride with the main convoy, out of sight of the peloton. Around every corner there's a row of plump Frenchmen with their backs to the road - race officials, sponsors' guests who spent too long in the hospitality village before the start.

Each village we pass through is lined with what appears to be the entire population in the middle of a fine day out: families in their gardens, lovers in arms, nuns in deckchairs.

12.45: We get our first call from team manager Johnny Weltz in the main car: Peter Meinert, the Danish domestique assisting Ekimov (the domestiques are the foot soldiers whose work is mostly concerned with getting their leader to the finish) is struggling with a respiratory infection, and we are to stand by to pick him up if he abandons.

Shortly after comes our first big job of the day - collect the pastries and get them to the main car in which Weltz, an addict, is waiting. We reach the main car and I lean out of the window and hand them over in mid-flight.

1.30pm: The field has broken up and we are able to move up to Meinert and Ekimov, who has fallen behind Olano and may even have lost the yellow jersey.

Then comes the call from Weltz that Meinert is pulling out. Jose slams the car into gear and at once is Michael Schumacher at the first corner of a grand prix. We reach Meinert, Jose dashes out and puts his bike on the roof-rack - and I get my chance by the side of the road. Meinert falls into the back of the car coughing, the haunted look in his eyes is of a man who has just crawled across the Sahara.

The rain sets in, and we move up to hand out plastic capes, following our men Adriano Baffi and Pascal Derames as they work together. The veteran Baffi is having problems, and he motions his team-mate to go on without him.

As the first of the two big climbs approaches, the first category Col de Vars (take it from me, first category is tough), Baffi is in dire straits. We stay with him as makes his painful ascent, each push on the pedal seemingly his last, his calf muscles writhing around each other like snakes fighting in a bag, his face crumpling under the strain.

3.30: Baffi gets to the top of the Col de Vars, but we get the call to move forward to support the American and Canadian, Marty Jemison and Tyler Hamilton, who need fluids. As the ascent to the awesome Col d'Izoard looms, I lean as far out of the window as I can without falling out and had over drinks - water and Dextran for Hamilton, a can of Coke for Jemison.

The main car is near the front supporting our man, Jean-Cyril Robin, who is in Olano's group, and we get the call that Ekimov needs help as he tries to claw back his lead. Once again, Jose is Schumacher crossed with James Bond and I am in danger of whiplash as we surge through the field. We reach him as the lower slopes of the Col are kicking in. Ekimov is in trouble.

As we ascend, the rain stops, the clouds clear, the riders throw away their capes and misery in the rain becomes, well, misery in the sun. What Baffi was going through, so now is Ekimov, his plight made worse by the certain knowledge that the yellow jersey is on his back only in the strictly physical sense. His fight makes compelling watching, even given the distractions of the astonishing lunar scenery. As we near the peak the fans crowd in, manic and wild-eyed.

4.15: Ekimov goes over the top and picks up speed. Descents are the real stuff of bike races. For the drivers, that is. Give them an open road, a few hairpins and any excuse and they are unleashed, their cars running on high-octane testosterone. Not content with flinging the car about like a demented dodgem, Jose is yelling "Allez, Eki!" - the only bit of French he seems to speak - while I wonder what the Spanish is for "brown trousers".

The end is only 10 miles away, and Ekimov finishes more than three minutes down on Olano. But for a neophyte like me, the entry into Briancon is triumphal, and as we proceed through the old city, up the Grande Gargouille, a narrow, ancient, cobbled street with a fierce slope, the crowd is a car's breadth apart. As I open the window to taste the atmosphere, the sound rushes in like a slap in the face. Then it's on to the finish, where I leap out on a glorious high. I quickly have to rein myself in, though - with US Postal's yellow jersey lost going into the final day - the mood is sombre. But not mine...

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