Yesterday the Park Lepelenburg became a cultural cycling site; a mix of sporting enthusiasts, curious locals and tourists. The formalities are almost over and we have reached the eve of the 102nd Tour.
“I knew only two Dutch terms,” Christian Prudhomme told the large crowd in Utrecht when welcomed onto the stage where the cyclists for the Tour de France would be presented moments later. “Dank u wel and alstublieft.”
Thank you. Please.
The crowd cheered and he grinned at the knowledge that cycling had allowed him to cross another cultural divide.
Utrecht isn’t too far from Paris, a little less than 500km if you opt to travel by car. But the bike offers an alternative. Tomorrow 198 cyclists will begin the journey that leads from the Dutch city to the French capital, and they’ll get there by going the long way around – via Belgium, Bretagne, the Pyrenees, the Alps… with a few long transfers thrown into the mix.
This is a time when the bicycle is in focus. It’s about racing. Sport. Competition. Bravado. Camaraderie. Spirit.
It exposes the good, and often the bad but the Tour lures people in to what cycling can be. If it didn’t then the race director, Prudhomme, and the vast entourage that facilitates this curious annual coming together wouldn’t get the support that they need to put on what is essentially a promotion.
The Tour was born out of commercial purpose: to generate newspaper sales. It’s become a lot more than that but the basic element remains – it is still used as a promotion.
This year, more than ever, technology will be utilised to expose people to what cycling is – to what it’s become – and millions of people will watch for one reason or another. Some like the racing, some like the scenery, some in Europe like the summer-time tradition, some in Australia like the late-night winter TV viewing… whatever the reason, the Tour de France becomes captivating for many.
Prudhomme finished his brief address to the crowd at the Park Lepelenburg with another brief comment, “Now I also know another Dutch word: fiets!”
And with that, he raised his hands to thank the public for their support and he was guided off the stage. There was no translation for the Frenchman speaking English – with a few Dutch words – in the Netherlands. And no one seemed to care.
The formalities continued. After some musical interludes and the obligatory introductions by the local Dutch TV personality, we got to the purpose of the evening: to introduce the 198 riders from the 22 teams that will make up the peloton of the 2015 Tour de France.
First to appear on stage was Trek Factory Racing. You’d know some of the names and recognise that there are genuine cycling superstars in the mix of this US-registered team. Nine riders representing six nations: the Netherlands, Colombia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Spain and Belgium.
Onto the stage they rode, the new red Madone bikes of the title sponsor underneath them (save for the white Domane frame for ‘Spartacus’ himself). With full cycling attire except for their casual, comfy shoes, they stood and waved to the crowd like all other formations would do over the subsequent two hours. They smiled and a couple were asked questions by the MC for the evening.
The Dutchman at the microphone reminded everyone how Fabian Cancellara has won on the opening day often: 2004, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012… every time in a time trial (like it will be tomorrow in Utrecht) – and every time when the Tour’s Grand Départ was outside France. Liège, London, Monaco, Rotterdam. Liège. It bodes well for the Swiss TT maestro. But he was humble and told everyone that he wasn’t sure how he’d go, that he’d see what he could do, that he hopes to do well…
He knows his clichés and knows this isn’t the time or the place to get too analytical. Tell the crowd what it wants to hear, move on. Race day is coming but for now, in the warmth of a record-breaking heatwave in Holland, soak up the vibe, add to the anticipation, and help with the promotion.
Before Cancellara offered his appraisal of how magnificent the crowd was and how lovely it was to be in Utrecht – “Thank you… [insert town name]!” – the MC spoke to the GC man of the moment from the host nation.
“Bauke Mollema, welcome. It’s nice to see you…”
“Thank you, it’s good to be here.”
And so on with the platitudes…
But that’s no translation for the sake of the story. That, to me, was one of the striking things about the ceremony. It was being broadcast around the world so there was a need for an international language but here we were: in the Netherlands, with a Dutch rider talking to a Dutch TV personality in front of a predominantly Dutch crowd… in English!
No one complained. They listened intently to an all-English interview, laughed when jokes were offered and cheered at references to possible success. And off they rode, through the waiting media, back to the bus, and onward to their hotel and a good night’s rest.
Racing commences soon but in the meantime, we got a taste of the cultural changes in a proud nation… where cycling is the dominant form of transport, where people say thank you and please, where riding is part of life and bike racing – once in a while – gets the headlines.
At one point or another we are all foreigners – to a place or a sport or a culture – but eventually there comes a time when we feel at home. There are only two days of the 102nd Tour’s competition in the Netherlands but it’s long enough to feel welcome. It’s a Grand Départ indeed!
There are Dutch favourites – Mollema for a good overall performance, Tom Dumoulin for the opening stage, and others also in the mix along the road to
Paris – and success may come again at the Tour for the Netherlands but if a foreigner wins, they’ll surely be cheered with equal gusto.
Utrecht: Dank u wel!