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By Rupert Guinness, Of The Australian
Invitations come in different forms and shapes on the Tour de France, depending on the region it might be visiting.
In the Champagne region where the Tour passed through yesterday and today, they came as empty champagne flutes.
“Take this monsieur,” said a smiling hostess at Chateau-Thierry in the department of the Marne where today’s 67.5km fourth stage time trial from Epernay finished.
Passing me a flute engraved with `Les champagne des Vigneron’, she informed explained that from 6pm it will gain entry to a free swill of bubbly.
Here we go again, I thought. Another town. Another drink. No doubt too many drinks. And another hangover. Well, that is the potential on the Tour were one to attend every function.
Too bad it’s already well passed 6pm. Reporters are still typing their stories.
Their empty `invitations’ are standing like little trophies next to them.
Occasionally someone looks at their flute. Then they look up, as if they are expecting one from the Confrerie du Pinot Meunier de Charly sur Marne – a brotherhood of local wine growers – to appear with magnum in hand.
Looking at my empty glass, the thought passes through my mind. While waiting (in vain) for THAT magnum, I can’t help but think about occasions celebrated on the Tour since first covering it 1987.
I look at John Wilcockson across the table. There he is. Thirty three Tours covered. I know my own drunken indiscretions, those he knows and those he doesn’t, and wonder how many stories he has kept to his heart.
Here’s one we know about John for the record: albeit it was induced by supposed medical need than any desire to let his curly locks down.
It was 1999, 9p.m., the Alps. The stage had just finished in Sestrieres. Typically, we were nearly the last still in the mountain top press tent.
Typically it was freezing at the end of a rain drenched day.
Under dressed, under fed and our knees rattling faster than an old steam train, the sight of a woman bearing a tray full of small grappa bottles was like seeing an angel appear from the heavens.
Grabbing three, I drank the first one slowly and felt the warm glow the drink was intended for. Grabbing three, John drank the first one quickly, then the second quicker, and the third even quicker!
Never heard him talk so much (not that we understood most of what he said) as he sat in the front passenger seat or our car for the long and late descent down the mountain and to our hotel.
To this day John denies his jibber. But to be fair, many of the Tour entourage would deny their own little episodes.
The temptations over over-indulgence have been endless, and always will.
There have been epic ferry rides from Portsmouth and Dublin to France which have turned into overnight champagne runs at sea. And you thought sea sickness was bad!
There have been hazardous high-altitude swills too. L’Alpe d’Huez can make for a sickening drive down the 23 switch-backs to the next day’s start at Bourg d’Oisans in morning.
There have been impromptu lunches when the stomach is growling from that rotten French coffee at breakfast and suddenly out of nowhere a menu and wine list is in your hands.
There have been many official buffets too. Of them, nothing matched the now extinct ‘Kilometre 92’ do’s which were on the route at the point they were named after every day.
You could forget the signage and official directions to find them. The sight of flying food and the drunken bellows of wine guzzling Frenchmen was like a storm beacon to a ship at sea!
It was little wonder that in the mid-90s and with road safety becoming a bigger issue as incidents became more reported `Kilometre 92′ buffets were scrapped.
Wisely, Tour organizers asked regions wanting to promote their food and wine to do at the finish where from time to time official presentations are also made.
Protocol. Don’t the French love it. Even we do in the Velo News car from time to time, especially when the day’s winner comes from the nation one of us is from. Rule 1-100: They must shout the champagne!
Come to think of it, didn’t Aussie sprinter Robbie McEwen win yesterday?
Sorry, gotta go … my champagne flute is still empty.