Dicing with disaster: Inside the Tour de France Femmes on a race motorbike

Having never been on a motorbike before, Rouleur’s Rachel Jary was invited to spend a day following the Tour de France Femmes. She said yes, but was unprepared for the chaos that came with it

The commune of Collonges-la-Rouge is named after the red stone buildings that shape the messy web of its streets. Its 15th and 16th century houses attract tourists to the area and the place is alive with its history. Today, the Tour de France Femmes has come and alongside the rouged brickwork are flashes of yellow to celebrate the arrival of the race. Flags have been strewn and murals have been painted on the roads, the barriers lining the race route have narrowed the pavements so that the crowds are squeezed together. It has the sort of buzz that only the Tour de France can bring.

Up a slope on a main road above the cluster of buildings that make up Collonges-la-Rouge are team buses and race vehicles. The riders fuss to get ready there, scrambling to make last minute checks to their bikes. Some are on turbo trainers warming up, others are more relaxed and do some stretches with the aim of waking up the muscles. We are in the third day of racing now and fatigue is beginning to set in. Elisa Longo-Borghini of Lidl-Trek stifles a yawn as she rolls towards the team presentation, Lizzie Deignan waves to fans behind her.

This is the sort of scene I am used to. As a journalist, I’ve been here plenty of times, milling around the team paddock to chat to riders, gathering insight and interviews. This part of the race feels comfortable to me, just like the press room does later in the day, just like the mixed zone does at the finish line. Image: ASO/Charly Lopez

Beyond the bustle of the buses, further down the main road and leaking ominously into the French countryside sit the Tour de France Femmes race vehicles. As I wander near them, the number of cars and motorbikes surprises me – I know that the Tour is big, but it takes seeing the convoy with your own eyes to really appreciate the magnitude of the event. The race motos are lined up in formation, bigger than I thought, intimidating like a pack of wolves, snarling at me, laughing at me, almost. You, in your denim jacket and Adidas trainers with a notepad and an iPhone, following the race on us?

It’s true that I don’t really know how I’ve ended up here. It began with the ASO press room manager creeping up to me as I was hunched over my laptop writing stories the day before. She’d told me that there was a spare spot on an in-race motorbike the following morning and I’d instinctively agreed to do it. I knew the opportunity was rare and that it was, really, pretty cool. Later that night I’d lay in bed reconsidering it all, though. The high speeds and chaotic convoy seemed dangerous, and I’d never even been on a motorbike before. 

Alas, too embarrassed and awkward to back out of my agreement, here I was, wandering away from the part of the race I knew, leaving my fellow journalists to do the questioning so that I could spend my day in the convoy. I’d had a WhatsApp message pop up on my phone about half an hour before from a man named Arnaud. “Je suis Arnaud votre motard (no 17),” it read. “Je suis a l’avant de la course sur la ligne droite.” Alongside it was a photo of the bike that would be my steed for the day. I fire up my Google Translate app to double check I’ve got the right idea behind Arnaud’s message and realise he was telling me where the bike was. As I make my way apprehensively in the general direction, I type out with shaky, clammy hands in the very best of my basic, rudimentary French: “Je suis en route.”

Arnaud greets me with a broad smile when I finally spot motorbike number 17, we exchange bonjours and quickly come to the realisation that we were going to have some trouble communicating today. He speaks little English and my French is GCSE C-grade at the very best, but we try. Eventually, I manage to ask him how long he’s been driving a motorbike in the Tour de France for, expecting a reassuring answer that he is an old hand at this job.

“Première fois,” he says enthusiastically, holding one finger up at me. It took me a moment to process. His first race? Really?Image: ASO/Charly Lopez

Usually, Arnaud’s job would be ferrying round in-race photographers on the back of his Yamaha, listening to their instructions to ensure they are dropped off in the best place to get the best shots, weaving them through the peloton with the aim of getting live-action photos too, whenever it was safe and possible to do so. There will be no photographer riding with Arnaud today, which is why I have been randomly given the opportunity to take the spot on the bike. I am given a white vest with the word “PHOTO” and number 17 printed on it in bold letters, as well as a black helmet.

I squeeze the vest over the four layers of clothing I’m wearing despite the 25 degree heat, after convincing myself when getting dressed this morning that people on motorbikes always wear plenty of layers. I am starting to feel like a bit of an imposter as Arnaud asks me what I would be using to take my photos. I hold up my phone in its pink case with a unsure smile. Something had been lost in translation here. A bead of sweat forms on my brow.

Still we persist, I pop the helmet on and Arnaud helps me do up the clasp – I really am a rookie. Arnaud’s colleague takes my phone and shoots a quick picture of me and my driver before I haul my leg over the bike and try to get comfortable on the seat I’ll remain in for the next four hours. It feels higher than I expect and the adrenaline starts pumping through me. There is 10 minutes to go until the riders start and Arnaud signals that we’ll be going ahead of the race first to get me used to the flow and bumps of the moto. The engine fires up, he sits on the bike. It’s time. We start.

The French countryside blurs past me in a flash of green, split up only by the huddles of fans that stand by the side of the road waving French flags and signs that read “Allez les filles!” Arnaud beeps at them as we zoom past and I wave at them like I’m some sort of royalty, giggling to myself inside my helmet about the ridiculousness of this situation. I’m loving the speed though, the fast buzz of it all. We go on like this for some time, before we stop at the top of the first Queen of the Mountain point. 

I jump off the bike and Arnaud asks how it was. Thumbs up from me. I walk down the hill slightly and watch the riders pass, a swarm of brightly coloured jerseys with one lone leader, Kathrin Hammes of EF Education-Tibco-SVB up ahead. As soon as they come, they are gone and Arnaud is shouting at me that we need to go and get on the bike again. I jump up and go towards him, putting my sweaty helmet back on as we go. He helps me do the buckle up again – I still haven’t quite got the hang of that.

And then we are in the convoy, and this is when the fear hits. We’ve joined the lines of team cars just as the race has started to descend, and there are things moving everywhere I look. Team cars beep at us and I’m unsure if they are letting us know they are there or if we’re doing something wrong. Dropped riders weave in between the cars and motorbikes in an effort to regain contact with the bunch, their tyres heart-stoppingly close to vehicles. It feels like one mistake in one split second could break the flow of everything. It’s organised chaos: the right of the road is for team cars, the left of the road is for motorbikes. The riders take priority, always, then the cars of the best riders (SD Worx sits in car number one in the line), then the rest of the team cars take priority after that. The commissaire's motorbike (Arnaud tells me that this identifiable as the rider on the back of the moto wears a red helmet) and Iris Slappendel’s in-race commentary motorbike for Eurosport are at the front of the convoy too, then we are aiming to move up behind them.Image: ASO/Thomas Maheux

The real photographers around me ride with apparent ease, their bodies mind-bogglingly relaxed. They don’t even hold onto the handles on the back of the bikes and are able to pick up their cameras from around their necks at moments when I could never even fathom removing my hands from the cold, reassuring metal of the bike. I take a few, wobbly Instagram stories when we are going at the very slowest speeds uphill and that’s the best it will get from me today. I gawp at the sports directors who are managing to drive and navigate this mess while also speaking into radios and instructing riders, their multi-tasking unfathomable.

Arnaud turns around and tells me that we’re going to move up outside the peloton. The commissaire has given us the go ahead on a wide stretch of road we get to the front of the convoy and pick up speed. We have to get past as quickly as possible before the riders spread across the road again, and I fight not to close my eyes as we zoom past them, so vulnerable in their lycra compared to our big, burly machine. 

Somehow, mercifully, we get through it safely and pull over again further down the road on another climb. Arnaud starts speaking into his translation app and gives me the run-down about how the convoy works, explaining that we could only pass the bunch at that point because it was allowed by the lead race judge; what he says, goes. If a motorbike driver doesn’t follow his instructions, he will get thrown off the race entirely.

I take a few bites of my cereal bar, though my stomach is turning slightly from the thrill and rush of adrenaline and the riders pass us once more, I give them a cheer and then Arnaud tells me it’s time to do it all over again. Back to the back of the convoy and back amongst the chaos. Deep breaths, here we go.

We make our way through the cars and spend a bit of time behind the bunch, watching them climb and descend, taking note of the riders who are dropping off the back and hearing the time gaps to the breakaway called over race radio. Just as I was beginning to relax into the rhythm, Arnaud says it is time to move up again. We need to go now in order to make it to the finish. The commissaire says it is allowed and we move. But this time, it didn't go well at all.

The riders do not stay in one long line and the bunch starts expanding perilously close to the front wheel of the motorbike. I gasp in panic and Arnaud turns the bike onto the grassy verge and comes to a complete stop. “It’s too dangerous,” he says. “If it’s dangerous, we stop.”

So, the only option is to rejoin the line of team cars and try to pass again when the commissaire says it is safe. The call comes around 20 minutes later and I ready myself for the speed I know is coming next. We start to move pass the peloton and it’s not easy, the riders are not in one line and Arnaud is constantly tooting his horn to remind them of our presence. They are racing and they do not care. I start to feel my stress building as I find myself shoulder to shoulder with the riders. I tap Arnaud’s shoulder and tell him to back out. He persists and we are getting closer to the front of the bunch.

Image: ASO/Charly Lopez

In these moments I begin to reconsider it all. I start to question the logic of having these motorbikes at all, and wonder if any photographer’s snap would ever be worth the risks that it could pose to a rider’s safety. Regardless of how well-trained a driver is, the peloton is an unpredictable place, and no one can control the movements of the bunch or guess where a rider will move next. I don’t have a solution but I don’t know if the way this all works is quite right. Something in the pit of my stomach reminds me of how many risks are attached to this crazy, crazy sport.

Once we emerge out of the jaws of the bunch, the road is clear and Arnaud shakes his head. We both know that was stressful, he had followed the instructions of the commissaire but I’m not sure if it was the right decision at all. 

Still, we persist to the finish line, zooming down the roads to Montignac-Lascaux, past the fans who wait for the riders who will come a few minutes after us. The last couple of kilometres are technical and as we go through the fans that are four-rows deep in their polka dot t-shirts and yellow casquettes the finish line comes into sight. I know that my day on the motorbike is about to come to an end. People bang the boards and cheer at the sight of us and I can only imagine the wall of noise they will make when the riders arrive.

A few metres after the finish, Arnaud stops the motorbike and I get off. When I stand on the tarmac again my legs feel like jelly and it’s a strange sensation of coming back down to earth. We don’t have time to chat much but I say “Merci” as passionately as I can to convey my thanks for Arnaud taking me on the race today. The photographer’s vest and helmet come off and I walk quickly towards the swarm of familiar faces that wait in the mixed zone at the end of the finishing straight. Arnaud disappears into the crowds and that will be the last time I’ll see him. Tomorrow, while I am back in the warm comfort of the press room, watching the race safely on television, he will do it all over again.

I’m left with a complex web of feelings about my time on the bike. In some ways, it was probably one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, like being on a four-hour rollercoaster ride that makes the world feel small and fills me with adrenaline and life. I also feel guilty for feeling like this at the same time because my thrill was not controlled or safe like a rollercoaster is, I had no seat belt and the riders were real people to whom I felt like the race vehicles were presenting a serious risk to. I don’t think I want to do it again, because I worry that there are so many occasions where the race vehicles could cause serious consequences in the peloton, and I would never want to bear witness to that. 

It’s highly possible my feelings are shaped by my lack of experience in the convoy and perhaps things feel less high-risk and terrifying the more times that you go on a motorbike. The rider’s safety was certainly respected as much as possible by everyone involved, but my concerns come when I think of the things that are uncontrollable. A swift movement in the bunch, a sudden coming to a halt, one person’s concentration lapsing.

Despite my conflicted conclusions, I come away from the day with one certainty: the Tour de France is crazy, huge and wildly impressive. My respect for the riders and their skills has grown even further and my appreciation for the spectacle of the Tour heightened. As I head back to the car and the day is done, I decide that I’m not sure if I’m a motorbike convert and ascertain I’ll look forward to seeing the race through the TV screen again. Back where I belong in the hustle and bustle of the interview zone after races, with two feet on the ground, with the riders doing the hard stuff, and me just chatting to them about it afterwards.

Cover image: ASO/Thomas Maheux

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