The big blue and yellow bike makes its way down the street, towed slowly along by the tractor. Marching along behind it are dozens of singing pirates and princesses from the local school waving their homemade blue-and-yellows maraca and bicycle-themed headgear. This is definitely the kids’s day at Paris-Nice.
The rain has dampened the crowd size a little in Brioude, but it certainly hasn’t dampened their spirits. What the locals lack in numbers, they make up for in their fervour. Down by the finish line, the kids from the local cycling clubs are having races in twos and threes. The four-year-old rider is particularly popular with the watching public, who thunder their approval of the youngster and his comrades. It’s the prelude to the grand entertainment of the day. Stage 3 of Paris-Nice is on its way.
It’s raining in town as the live race coverage for the final 60 or so kilometres starts on the big screen. It’s raining on the race route, too, and the weather is making it hard to see what’s happening. The air is humming with voices pointing out riders and calculating times, and children eagerly cheering the still-distant peloton. As everyone watches, the Sky rider off the front of the peloton skids on the wet road and hits the deck.
The spectators let out a sympathetic groan as the race goes right on past him.
The camera switches to the breakaway, and the crowd at the finish line lets out a huge cheer. The cameraman has found Romain Bardet of AG2R-La Mondiale, a local boy from right here in Brioude, and the town couldn’t be prouder of him.
People everywhere are holding up signs saying ‘Vas-y Romain!’ – ‘Come on, Romain!’ There’s a half-dozen other riders in the breakaway with him, and though the peloton is catching up to them, they still haven’t been caught yet. Brioude is loving it. The prospect of a hometown victory has got everyone excited.
The flamme rouge appears on the big screen, and the noise level slowly starts to escalate. The riders are hesitating to open the sprint. But the peloton is right behind them now, the lead race cars are passing the finish, and if someone doesn’t start the sprint now the peloton is going to catch them with just a handful of metres to go…
Bam. Bardet goes for it. Brioude is waiting for him. But his breakaway companions are quickly on him, and as they cross the finish line all that can be seen are seven muddy, wet guys on bikes.
From the victory salutes it was obvious Bardet didn’t win the sprint. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The crowd descends on the Frenchman and the AG2R-La Mondiale bus like he’s just won the Tour de France. You can’t even walk down the footpath for all the fans. But given the smile on his face, the 22-year-old doesn’t mind.
This is Bardet’s day at Paris-Nice, too.
Note: A one hour Highlights package of the 2013 Paris-Nice can be seen on SBS TWO on Monday March 18th from 7:30pm.