Le Tour d’Essex
In the global league of immense sporting events, the Tour de France is third to the Olympics and the World Cup, or so the Essex Chronicle says. So how can a narrow lane in this corner of Essex between Chelmsford and Ongar, intensely rural though hardly thirty miles from London, accommodate the event?
The imminent invasion, preceded by the Normans, among them Mandeville, de Bouelles and Peveril who came and left their names behind in the local villages, is met by serious defences. Crowd barriers mounted on the corners of tiny, unpeopled lanes, a mysterious chicane outside Chelmsford (the county town, now city, bypassed by the Tour) and yellow signs every few dozen metres: do not stop, you will be towed, road closed from 7.30 to 5.00. All signed off by letouressex.com.
And so at midday the ‘caravan’ arrives, on a tiny lane which normally sees no more than two dozen vehicles a morning. The four-wheeled circus promoting – among much else – hotels and supermarkets(French brands), fatty foods and sugary drinks (UK products), seasoned by Yorkshire’s own (tea, building society and Sheffield Hallam University among them) peels by for most of an hour. The people on the floats smile manically or bop to the weary tunes but already look tired of waving – they’ve been doing so since Cambridge and have to get to London by the end of the leg. The goody bags are running out but we get an Ibis inflatable cushion and a couple of Yorkshire Tea packs. Interspersed, the English motorbike patrol police look cheerful, their French opposite numbers less so, gimlet eyed and hatchet jawed.
The caravan gone, the free gifts garnered, we settle down to wait. The Essex Chronicle, our guide in all this, had said the peloton was due at two but how should we know what the signal was?
Five helicopters flew over, very stately and neatly spaced, but nothing was happening below them. On the lane, sporadically, official vehicles with different displays of urgency, sirens, headlights on full beam, hooting, came along like a series of showers. Then a single helicopter, heading over and turning back – perhaps seeking out some idyllic shot of ripe cornfields. More time passed. It was 2.30. Somebody has the app and suddenly we have facts: the race has reached the Chelmsford area, is heading for the next village – it's here.
We holler and wave, first at the breakaway pair, almost entirely cocooned by the support vehicles, fore and aft, and then the solid streaking block of the peloton, and then they’ve gone – it all took less than two minutes.
We’ve just witnessed the third most important sporting event in the world and now, an hour later, this modest Essex lane looks the way it always does in high summer, framed by meadowsweet and thistles, scabious and brambles, elm hedges fighting the disease that always lurks ahead. When the road reopens in an hour or two from now, a slightly larger handful of cars than usual will pass, and probably some cyclists of a more lowly order, and life will be back to usual.