Why mouth cap? Mathieu van der Poel is on the podium in his yellow jersey, a yellow lion in one hand and flowers in the other, when he jerks the yellow rag under his chin. A smile of the widest kind becomes visible – everyone can see how happy Van der Poel is that he is the leader in the Tour de France for at least one day.
Just before that, he was still crying in the catacombs. It all became too much for him when he heard that he had really taken the yellow card – something his grandfather, the now deceased but still much-loved former rider Raymond Poulidor, had never managed to do. “I find it very difficult that he cannot be there today,” said Van der Poel with red eyes after the ceremony. “A picture with him and his grandson in yellow would have been very special.”
What Van der Poel himself did on Sunday at the Mûr-de-Bretagne was also special. The mean Breton slope, with a gradient of over 10 percent, had to be climbed twice in the final. Van der Poel already took off in the first round – deliberately, he later said, because he had already calculated that he needed the bonus seconds on top if he wanted to think about the yellow at all.
Throwing your powers like that is something that most riders quickly pay for. But in the second round Van der Poel jumped away again, from the wheel of the Italian champion Sonny Colbrelli. After that, more than 700 long meters followed, but Van der Poel continues to pedal and drives solo to the finish. When he crosses the line, he points up. For grandpa.
It was a spectacular conclusion to an opening weekend that was already a party. After the strict corona measures during last year’s edition, the public is welcome again this year at the Tour de France, although everyone is kindly requested to wear a mask, keep their distance and be able to submit a negative corona test at start and finish.
It didn’t stop the cycling fans from lining up in the thousands during the first two stages. Packed together and not always with the requested mouth cap over nose and mouth, just like Van der Poel on stage.
The fans were everywhere; in Brest on Saturday the first beer opened before ten o’clock in the morning, even though the young people with a Thibaut Pinot imprint on their shirts had to wait at least two hours for Le Grand Depart. In the port city of Perros-Guirec, the start of the second stage, an elderly man raised his glass of bubbly to the passing caravan on Sunday, as if it were a greeting from an old companion. And on Saturday’s final climb in Landernau, the Côte de la Fosse aux Loups, the riders had to go through the smoke and noise of thousands of people lining the route. Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, who won the first stage, was almost shouted at his victory.
There were never such crowds as in 1974, when Eddy Merckx, who had just won the prologue in Brest, was able to walk over the heads, so many people had gathered to cheer him on in yellow. But it was busy nonetheless – to the delight of many riders. “It’s great that the public is back,” said Bauke Mollema before the start on Saturday.
Brittany has been the ideal choice for Tour organizer ASO for a return to ‘normal’. A lucky break: the northwestern region reported immediately when it turned out that Copenhagen, the original starting place for this Tour, was unable to organize the start, because it would coincide with matches of the European Football Championship in the city. The Danish capital is now next year’s turn.
The Breton region has a rich cycling history, with former Tour winners such as Bernard Hinault (five-time winner), Jean Robic (the first post-war Tour winner and Louison Bobet (three-time winner). Brest had already been three times before, in 1952, 1974 and 2008. the place for Le Grand Départ, making it the most frequently chosen starting place in Tour history after Paris.
Where does this Breton love for the bicycle come from? Denis Charles, who has been involved with Landivisienne Cycliste, a cycling club in the Breton village of Landivisiau for 25 years, isn’t quite sure either. “But it probably has to do with the fact that in the nineteenth century Brittany was a poor region, with bad roads. The region was difficult or impossible to reach by horse and carriage or the electricity train, so the bicycle developed into the way to connect villages with each other. The bicycle thus created social cohesion in the region.”
With that foundation, the Bretonners started organizing competitions as a matter of course. According to David Gaudu, the French Groupama-FDJ rider who was born in the area, three or four races are held almost every weekend. “We have been fortunate that many champions have come from here in the past, such as Bernard Hinault and Jean Robic. Brittany is above all a cycling region.”
That is why all Bretonners are so happy that the Tour is now starting in Brittany, after a nasty corona year, says bicycle shop owner Olivier Creach. “This area could use some promotion after all the corona measures.” A few very expensive Orbea racing bikes are shining in his shop window. He has been wearing his bikes for twenty years, he says. “We have a reputation to uphold here in Brittany when it comes to cycling.”
For ‘opi and omi’
Unfortunately, the crowd didn’t just show their best side this weekend. On Saturday, an inattentive onlooker, who killed his grandfather and grandmother (‘opi and omi‘) on television, before a massive crash after Jumbo rider Tony Martin hit her cardboard sign. The result: four dropouts, including Movistar rider Marc Soler who broke two arms, and many who had to continue the Tour after day 1. Wilco Kelderman, who still finished fifth, crossed the line with a bruised elbow.
Tour organizer ASO announced that it would file a complaint against the spectator. That is not enough for many teams. “It was a sad sight,” says sports director Merijn Zeeman of Jumbo-Visma, whose entire team fell victim to Saturday’s major crash.
“When you organize the Tour de France, you know that it attracts thousands of people. Then you have to make sure that the public is not on the road, they don’t allow that at Formula 1 in Zandvoort, do they?”
Zeeman argues for more fences, if necessary along the entire course. He is applauded by others: “Why not? It is the safest for us,” says Dylan van Baarle of Ineos. “But you’ll still have people hanging over the fences with signs.”
Stage winner Julian Alaphilippe, who was honored in yellow on Saturday, called on the spectators to behave from the podium. “Everyone is happy that the crowd is back, but it is disappointing that the crash was caused by the fans. They all need to stay alert and be careful.”
The next day, as is often the case with the Tour, it seemed to have all been forgotten. The crowd on the Mûr-de-Bretagne, also known as the Alpe d’Huez of the region, behaved exemplarily, although a cardboard sign passed by with a strong curse in the direction of ‘opi and omi’. But it was all about Van der Poel’s piece of art on Sunday.
He himself had not been so concerned with all the hectic, said Van der Poel on Saturday after the first stage. “Everywhere is hectic these days. It now seems worse because it is again with an audience for the first time in two years, but in Flanders there is always a lot of public.”
Van der Poel initially seemed little impressed by the restored circus of the Tour. It was only a day later that it became clear what the Tour de France can mean, also for Mathieu van der Poel, when he showed the smile under his mouth cap, wearing the yellow jersey.