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By Rupert Guinness
There are all sorts you meet on the route of the Tour de France. People, that is. Many of them you forget as days, weeks and years pass. Others remain etched in your mind.
Today, I fear, may be the latter. Had we filled the gas tank of our car earlier, rather than after the emergency light had been flickering for 50km, those fears would not exist.
Finding service stations in France is not as easy as it sounds, and even less so on the Tour route. Filling stations are either closed, blocked off by barriers or take French-only credit cards.
But we felt lucky today, 85km into stage 7 from Lyon to Morzine-Avoriaz at the small town of Artemare – nestled in the valley between the Col de Portes and Côte des Monts des Princes – when we found a gas station that was open for service and on the route.
Lucky, that is, until we met our vendor – a middle-aged women who curiously wobbled out of the station office to serve us. As she walked up and stood face to face to me, I realized the wobble was not due to some misfortune or disability, but rather her own undoing.
That habit was clearly “the bottle.” Without sounding the hypocrite, she did leave us slightly perplexed. How was she so smashed at 11:50 in the morning? How would she be by the time the Tour peloton passed through town at 1:30? On her back? Even worse, on the road?
She certainly wasn’t shy. Leaning frontward, then backward, then side-to-side, she grasped my accreditation to read my name. She asked my age. She … no, I won’t say it.
Then, one by one she did the same to John Wilcockson, Andy Hood and our new passenger on board the VeloNews car, David Walsh of London’s Sunday Times fame.
In the meantime, all we wanted to do was fill the tank, pay up and hightail it down the road towards Morzine. Not easy when the pump didn’t work. Certainly not when your vendor insists, amid drunken stutters, that she will show you how it works. Then, having overruled our polite response that she need not trouble herself, she had difficulty holding the pump in her hand – let alone putting it correctly into the tank and then squeezing it to let gas flow.
Three times she tried to get it working. Three times she failed and was left to wander back and forth from pump to car (almost tripping over the gas line) at the same time virtually wielding the soon-to-be flowing handle like a weapon. Our real fears were that her breath would ignite the lot and send us, the car and the entire gas station sky high!
As it happened, the pump finally worked. We cheered, she cheered. Then after looking at our press accreditations once again, she put one arm around me, smiled, and pointed at David before asking in broken English: “Iz eee good?”
“Is he what …?” I said as the pair walked to her office. For the record, David paid the bill.
Oui, eee’s very good.