The Grand Depart: On being a Tour Maker

Chris Froome - Tour Maker fanWith the world’s greatest annual sports event racing through my neighbourhood, I signed up to become a volunteer flag marshal for stage three of the Tour de France in London. I had a duty. I could not let those dastardly traffic bollards bring our heroes down (they can do that just as well themselves).

Firstly a disclaimer. I’m not the volunteering type. I’m a miserable misanthrope and thus even a smile is usually beyond me. Growl? That I can do. At a stretch I can muster a smirk when I’m really, really happy. So why did I volunteer? I am a Tour de France fanatic. No, that’s not it. The Tour is entertaining but I’m certainly no fan boy. Maybe I quite fancied a free uniform. Nope.

Did I want to help people? See disclaimer above. How about bagging a good viewing spot on the route? Not really, I could think of easier ways to get a decent pitch. To write a blog about being a Tour Maker? Hmmm, no. So why? Quite simply, I wanted to be a part of the Tour de France 2014, to be a part of something special.

The big day

Was that a pair of sideburns I saw?

Was that a pair of sideburns I saw?

Did my day as a Tour Maker in the Tour de France deliver? No, not really. I had a heck of a lot more fun watching the two Yorkshire stages on TV. Why? Well, I went into this experience knowing full well that cycling isn’t the most rewarding of spectator sports. This much I learnt watching the Olympic Road Race. It goes a little like this:

Wait, wait, wait…
Interlude of more waiting for many an hour.
Oh, here they come.
Excitement, noise.

Whooooooooooooosh.

Gone.
Right, shall we head home then?

Today was more or less the same but instead of being stood behind a barrier, I was literally in the middle of the road. Eeek! For all of the waiting, it was quite a moment. Literally, a moment. I was lucky in so much that I was stationed in between a left, and then a right hand bend, meaning the peloton needed to cut across the road right in front of me in order to take the racing line on each of the corners.

As the dodgy camera phone video below shows (no, it wasn’t a night race!), the peloton came so close and was riding so fast that the turbulence knocked my phone from the bollard and onto the floor (hence the lack of sound and the picture cutting abruptly – well I was busy blowing my whistle and waving a flag above my head!). Blink and you miss it! The noise was incredible, even Dolby Mega Double Surround Sound couldn’t do that justice. And yes thank you, that is some top whistling you can hear from yours truly.

The famous Tour caravan of freebies

I was expecting a carnival atmosphere for the promotional caravan that precedes the race. What we got was about 15-20 cars speeding past as if they were about to miss the last Eurostar train. Very disappointing. The spectators had to be quick to grab the freebies, of which there were less than ten. Tough times.

Training to be a Tour Maker

An entertaining Orientation Day. That's right, nothing to see here, move along now.

An entertaining Orientation Day. That’s right, nothing to see here, move along now.

First, it’s worth acknowledging the size of the task facing the organisers. It was almost as big as the uniform they gave me (more on that later). Training 7,000 volunteers to marshal an estimated 3-5 million spectators over three days. Quite the challenge.

Unfortunately the whole process sucked me dry of enthusiasm. First there was some online training (thumbs up), followed by a day spent at the Olympic Park in the Copper Box, where we endured a very long day of bureaucratic, corporate speeches and scripted interviews. Most of my fellow tour makers stared at their phones throughout the event, probably reading the small print of their volunteer programme. Still at least there were plenty of mentions of ‘road furniture’, a phrase that always makes me smile.

Orientation day was followed by an equally uninspiring training day cooped up in a corporate room at the Allianz Arena where we learned how to wave a flag. Combining the two training days would have been a much better use of everybody’s time. All was not lost, or so we thought. For many, the excitement of training was the collection of the Tour Maker uniform. The buzz was quickly quashed with a 30 minute speech not quite apologising about some balls up with the uniforms in which everybody would be getting oversized uniforms. Thanks Asda!

The great Tour Maker uniform farce

My Tour Maker uniform arrives

My Tour Maker uniform arrives

When applying, Tour Makers were asked for their clothing sizes. I asked for a small t-shirt and got a large. I asked for a small waterproof jacket and got a large. Like the peloton, I could only pray there would be no strong winds on the big day.

It seemed the organisers wanted us to feel great, be ourselves, feel confident, and smile whilst looking like we’d dressed ourselves in a six man tent. Apparently Asda had ordered the uniforms in advance and hence you had more chance of getting the correct size clothes by raiding a charity clothing bin. Oh dear. Fortunately my girlfriend is a whizz with a sewing machine and so adjusted my shirt to allow me a semblance of respect on the big day. Well as respectable as one can be dressed in high viz.

The organisers did eventually realise their mistake and ordered new t-shirts. Brilliant. Except they waited until the very week before the Grand Depart, which meant some people’s new clothes arrived on the actual day of the Grand Depart. When my cheap replacement polo shirt did arrive fresh from a Chinese boat, it was still the wrong size. D’oh! And let’s just say they didn’t exactly pull out the Dulux colour chart when trying to match the two very different blues of the replacement and original uniforms.

Happy to help?

The Tour is one of the world’s most spectacular, gruelling and compelling sports events. Volunteering was a little like this. A moment of excitement, a feeling of pride for having been a part of it, plus the gruelling slog of waiting around and worse still, the training, which was as tedious as a flat stage in the Tour prior to the big sprint finale in the last kilometre.

My advice? Don’t volunteer unless you really, really, really get into the volunteering spirit unlike a curmudgeon like me. Also don’t expect too much if you are a spectator watching a flat stage. It’s rubbish (and I like cycling!). Find a hill, camp out there and enjoy a slightly slower peloton climbing up the beast.

Better yet, forget all hopes of being a spectator and be a competitor. Well almost. Take your bike and ride the route on the morning a few hours before the pros rip up the freshly laid tarmac. This is my regret. Alternatively, stay at home and watch live cycling on the TV.

Still, I came, I saw, and I blew my whistle. My legs ache more than when I cycle and on the plus side, I avoided something like the video below (not for the faint hearted). A big hello and well done to all my fellow Tour Makers, the organisers, Yorkshire, London and last but not least, those sheep up north who allowed themselves to be painted yellow. My own anti-climax aside, it was the grandest of Grand Departs. Chapeau.

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