At the finish line in Grenoble, everyone waits. It is the final stage of the 2008 Dauphiné Libéré, and for the riders a final 128 kilometre romp through the foothills of the Alps from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne – two Cat.1 climbs and a Cat.2 before a 20-kilometre descent to Grenoble.
The crowd has been building slowly all day. The Dauphiné is a Pro Tour race, the traditional warm up for the Tour de France and the majority of the major contenders are represented. But this is also a local race, 60 years old that year no less, and a race that has had plenty of time to build its own history and write its own stories.
And the crowd seems to know that there will still be room on the barriers late in the day, still room to wander among the team buses and the anxious crews, and still room to score a souvenir Crédit Agricole hat before the riders come streaming in. The sun is out, it’s hot, and there’s no hurry.
Inside the secure area, the VIPs for the day have enjoyed complimentary beverages. The more well connected, local politicians and the like, have been able to rub shoulders with invited guests, including an impossibly tanned Richard Virenque. As Virenque shakes hands and provides a little race commentary, his impeccably presented (and also impossibly tanned) post-racing crisis smokes constantly and with appropriate insouciance under an umbrella, talks on her phone, and looks utterly bored.
The gendarmes are out in force, but the mood is light. The photographers line up in their assigned positions, watching the big screen for updates on the progress of the stage. In seems that the GC has been largely decided and today will be a day for the lesser names, a chance for glory on the final day of the race and a front-page photo in the Dauphiné newspaper itself.
Crew from the teams start to assemble as well, ready to nab their charges and shepherd them quickly to doping control, the podium, or back to the team bus as required. They know exactly the order of the arrivals. First the photag motorbikes, which will roar down the finishing straight well ahead of the race, quickly park in a uniform row, and allow their camera-garlanded passengers to rush to their position on the line or off to the seclusion of the media room. Then will come the official race cars; quick, move aside, part the crowd, as no one seems to have any intention of slowing down.
The the crowd lining the barriers starts to become animated. Cheers and shouts can be heard from further up the road, a ripple effect as it starts to approach. The crowd noise builds, then it all becomes a frantic blur of sound and movement. The last of the official cars swoops in, with the riders hard on its heels – they move so fast, and are so diminutive, that it’s easy to miss them as they roll through, faces animated by the ecstasy of victory or the anguish of being so close.
A whirlwind of colour, camera flashes sparking, journalists and team crew jostling, team car horns blaring, the riders themselves – exhausted – trying to navigate the chaos, find their chaperone, and make their way through to the safety of the team bus. Overall winner Alejandro Valverde congratulates second-placed Cadel Evans, who momentarily finds himself alone without someone to direct him.
For the winner of the stage, Dimitry Fofonov, a Kazakh rider for the French team Crédit Agricole, a chance to bask in the glory of a stage win, and chat to journalists and officials as the rest of the peloton rolls in (he will later suffer the ignominy of a positive doping test at the Tour, for the obscure product heptaminol, but later find his way back to the pro ranks with Astana).
But there is little time to waste, as everyone is anxious to move the proceedings along. The are the riders summoned to the doping control caravan, and then the prizes are presented – for the stage and for the overall. The ceremonies are quick and functional: a bouquet, a kiss, a handshake, and a pose for the assembled photographers. All the while, the stragglers for the stage continue to roll across the line; no one has anything for them, let alone applause for their efforts, but the majority of them look too tired to notice their anonymity.
Back among the team buses and trucks, the mechanics and crew are looking anxious and rushed. It has been a long week, of early starts and late nights, but the bikes from today still need to be washed and cleaned, then stowed on the bus or the truck for the ride back to the Service Course.
There are few formalities now, no security barriers like at the Tour, and the fans mingle among the riders coming back from the awards ceremonies, with the cheekier grabbing an autograph or perhaps a discarded team bottle. Any riders making their own way home grab their luggage from outside the bus. Some of the French riders have friends and family in attendance, and collect their bags and head for the family car amid congratulations and commiserations.
In no time at all, it seems like the buses and team cars are pulling away, the riders tucked away inside while the managers and directors look more relaxed, relieved at another race in the calendar completed, sponsors satisfied, prizes collected, and sporting glory assured. As the skies darken with rain over the mountains, the Dauphiné Libéré for 2008 draws to a close, a well-lubed and efficient machine, impeccably organized. It rolls into town, bringing a taste of professional cycling to the locals and visitors, upbeat enough to entertain but relaxed enough to keep the dedicated fans engaged and involved.
A glimpse behind the scenes offers the thrill of proximity to the excitement, a closeness to the intimate race action and its chronicling. But for the riders, the machine rolls on relentlessly as they are hustled by their team or by officials to their next appointment; they are dulled after a tough week of racing, already looking ahead to their next race, anxious to rest up and recover. Without them, though, none of this would be here.