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Taking bicycles to Cambridge is a bit like taking tea to Yorkshire. Cambridge is Britain’s number one cycling city with two-thirds of its residents regularly getting about on two wheels. Surprising then that thousands turned out to welcome the Tour de France cyclists depart for their third leg from the historical town today. I had come all the way from Spain to watch (long story) and although it was a mere nano-second when the peloton passed me – my fascination was with the French-ness of it all.
I first heard about Le Tour’s Cambridge stage many months ago as we began developing an art project involving recycle bicycle parts – which has come to fruition this week. One of our first contacts were the Alliance Francaise in Cambridge who insisted that Cambridge wouldn’t know what hit it. The take over started at the weekend, when the AF and a wealth of French businesses hosted an array of stalls at Le Big Weekend on Parkers. Cheese, bread, olives and every French dish you can imagine was available. We tried to buy a drink in English and where met with a stubborn display of French. It had begun.
Early this morning a lady in clipped English offered me a free croissant and coffee from a stall set up outside a quaint English church. No tea and cake in sight. Croissants continued to be a theme, as did sticking “le” in front of anything. But most impressive where the Gendarmerie, who I observed shouting instructions the British “tour makers” and French officials on bright red fold up cycles barking into walkie talkies. I stood next to a menagerie of French media crew and their motorcycles. Clad in denim and leather the all male group brazenly smoked roll up cigarettes, greeted each other with double kisses. It was a real culture shock for many onlookers, but I loved it. There was a real confidence in the air.
First came the “caravan” which I am assured by those that know the tour well is a traditional and perhaps even a little tongue-in-cheek affair. It was slick and corporate, as a bizarre set of sponsors paraded their shiny cars along the route. There was less free Haribo and Bic lighters than I expected, and Carrefour merely waved, but plenty of people caught boxes of air borne Yorkshire tea. A car with a giant bag of McCain oven chips was followed by a Sheffield Hallam University Landrover. An old couple next to me shook their head in disbelief, but the middle-aged man in lycra on the other side was delighted with the spectacle. The day after-all was his.
The Gendarmerie returned in force and lined their bikes up in a neat row out side the Catholic church and took photos on their smart phones. French officials took their photos with the Cambridge police and their “funny hats”.
And then the cyclists went past, and it was all over.
France has had its moment in Cambridge – and they certainly proved they can put on a show. As a nomad, I have to admire their ability to put down and then pick up camp in a matter of hours. I’m not sure the tour will have inspired yet MORE of Cambridge to cycle, but it has generated a new admiration for the French I am sure – and many can go home and have a nice cup of Yorkshire tea.