The Ultimate Job: ending the journey on the Champs-Elysees

Over the past two weeks we've followed Matt McCullough and Stefano Ferro as they made their way around France, tackling amazing climbs and following Le Tour. In this final post, our Ultimate Job winners see out the 2014 Tour de France on the Champs-Elysees, watching the race from "Norwegian Corner".

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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Over the past two weeks we’ve followed Matt McCullough and Stefano Ferro as they made their way around France, tackling amazing climbs and following Le Tour. In this final post, our Ultimate Job winners see out the 2014 Tour de France on the Champs-Elysees, watching the race from “Norwegian Corner”.

All along the Champs-Elysees people hang from lamp posts, throng balconies, set up step ladders, and jostle for a space on the barrier. With each lap the crowd sprouts cameras and phones, a mexican wave of devices lofting skyward as the peloton passes, chased by a forest of long lenses on the back of motor bikes.

It’s mad and joyous – Paris is hot, the beer flows, we feel the cool detachment of the Parisians in contrast to friendliness we’ve experienced across France thus far.

We opt not for the controlled opulence of the Triomph tent, where the champagne and canapes will flow in endless abundance over an uninterrupted view of the finish and end ceremonies. We spend the afternoon on Norwegian Corner where a huge crowd of fans in facepaint and viking helmets have been drinking all day, yelling themselves hoarse for Alexander Kristoff, winner of stages 12 and 15 and their current champion. It is beyond delightful.

Balanced — often precariously — on beer kegs, waving flags, they make the corner bright and vital, stealing attention from the passing blur of the race.

It is a fitting end point to this trip. All along the way the race has been one part of the larger experience of being in France while the Tour plays out, a background hum always in the air wherever we go. It seems we’ve always been experiencing the symptoms of the Tour, being happily tossed in its wake without ever being able to grasp it fully — too fast, temporal and elusive as mercury.

As the peleton passes for the final time the crowd heads into the tent to watch the finish on the wide screen. Kristoff is second on the line – we wish he’d won, the place would have exploded.

And then this war-painted, screaming crowd, who had been drinking for many hours before the race arrived in Paris, quickly and quietly clean up after themselves. They return chairs and beer kegs to the tent, pick up rubbish and clear away any sign that they’d been there. It is as surprising and extraordinary as stumbling upon the party in the first place.

Whether this is testament to Norway or the nature of the crowds here is hard to say. I can say that coming from Australia it was more than a little humbling to watch. Norway is now on the to-do list.

We walk the barrier toward the finish line with the crowd dissipating and the wide boulevard empty but for a scattering on gendarms as the Italian national anthem begins playing from the lamp posts. Stef pauses briefly, taken by national pride as Vincenzo Nibali takes the podium.

We are exhausted, a happy mess of tired muscles, lack of sleep and being repeatedly overwhelmed and amazed for two solid weeks.

As we leave on the final morning we happen on Dave McKenzie and others from the SBS crew in the hotel lobby – they look a little like they’ve returned from a war. Part of this is, by Dave’s admission, the final night’s celebrations, but chasing a quarrel as relentless as the Tour from the outset is no doubt a daunting prospect each year. As one of the cameramen says, while discussing the prospect of moving straight on to the Vuelta, it’s the best job in the world. Even with our small taste we can’t help but agree.

We hope we’ve managed to get even a small part of this experience across to you. If you’ve not yet been to France while the Tour is on, it is mandatory if you’re a cyclist. Before we sign off there are people to thank and spot lights to shine. Just to be clear, we’ve been under no obligation to promote anyone or anything through this trip, apart from our shameless self-promotion of course, which was heartily encouraged.

Bikestyle Tours have taken extraordinary care of us. Grace, Pat, Jen and Allan made organising 30 cyclists of diverse abilities through mountain passes and chaotic crowds look easy. It was seamless the whole way – always a sign of a virtuoso performance. We can’t thank them enough for their dedication and openness.

As an aside – these guys ride bikes like water. Watching them ply up and down some of the most challenging climbs in the world, herding our small, sometimes desperate, flock of riders through those high passes was inspiring and astounding. It taught us more about what it means to ride a bike and how much we have to learn.

Thank you to Wade, Matt and Andy at CyclingTips – not only for the opportunity but for an easy understanding and awareness of what would be possible, whatever our plans had been at the outset. Some parts went undone, others unexplored – above all they wanted us to communicate the experience, with any luck we managed this at least.

It has been two of the most vital and exultant weeks of our lives, I’m confidently speaking for Stef here as well. We’ve been swept up and away by the whole experience, seduced by the culture, amazed at every turn.

I’m writing this on the balcony of a hotel in St. Germain looking over a dreamlike cityscape with the awareness that in a little over a week I’ll be back in Melbourne trying to hold close this feeling as it is slowly washed away by the everyday mechanics of daily life. This record will hopefully defend against that.

See you on the interwebs.

More from Matt & Stefano

– Day 0: The Ultimate Job begins!
– Day 1: Conquering Alpe d’Huez
– Day 2: Having a moment on the Col du Glandon
– Day 3: An interview with pro photographer Mark Gunter
– Day 4: First contact with the race and climbing the Col d’Izoard
– Day 5: The madness of the publicity caravan
– Day 7: An interview with John Trevorrow: his career, the Tour de France and Australian cycling
– Day 9: The fans, festivities and towns of Le Tour
– Day 10: Tackling the mighty Col du Tourmalet
– Day 11: The seven best reasons to visit the Tour de France

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