I’d be lying if I said I was missing the camper van because I am not.

Regular readers of www.cyclingweekly.com may know that for the past two summers, we have followed the Tour de France in a camper, the idea being to cut down on hotel bills and be more flexible, allowing us to get in touch with the ‘vrai Tour de France’ in a way that’s just not possible if you spend every afternoon in whichever school hall, gymnasium or converted warehouse serves as the day’s press centre.

After two cracks at it, we have realised that it would be great for a holiday, but the inconvenience of having one slow-moving vehicle serve as transport, hotel room and office for (at times) three people, was not a practical one.

However, it seems there are more camper vans on the roadside of the Tour de France than ever before. Tuesday’s time trial course at Cholet was one long line of the beauties, taking up every spare patch of grassy verge, ruining it for any fans arriving in a humble motorcar.

Now, we know CW is something of a trend-setter in the old camper van department, but they can’t all have been owned by cycling journalists!

Anyway, for us, it’s back to a hire car and hotels of varying quality.

So it was that our journey began at the car hire place beneath Paris Gare du Nord. We’d booked a modest Opel Corsa in the hope we’d be offered a free upgrade to something more spacious. Don’t tell everyone about this ploy, or they’ll stop doing it. We thought our luck was in when they offered us a Zafira, and we would have got away with it too, had the Zafira not been blocked in by another car.

The car park under Paris Gare du Nord smells. It smells bad. Like the city’s entire population uses it as a public convenience on their way home from a Friday night out. So we stood there for ages, trying not to breathe, waiting for the man from the hire car company to find the keys to the car that was blocking our Zafira.

Then he appeared and told us he couldn’t find them and that we’d have to take a Fiat Bravo instead.

It’s tiny. Two men, two bikes, two sets of luggage. It’s a tight squeeze alright and for a moment I craved the overhead locker space, sink and fold-out dining room table of yer Granduca 67.

RIDING THE TOUR

Every year we bring bicycles to the Tour de France and every year we manage a 30-minute spin in week one and then never touch them again. Or in the case of the 2006 Tour end up getting them stolen at Alpe d’Huez.

This year we have sworn it will be different, so on Tuesday morning we got up early and drove from our hotel, in inconvenient Angers, to Cholet.

As we got off the autoroute we hit a jam and decided to park the car in a layby – where a man was having a wee, which backed up visually the love affair French men have with urinating in public that the Gare du Nord car park could only offer a flavour of.

Hastily we got on our bikes and headed towards town, taking not a moment’s notice of our surroundings or whether we were turning left or right. We would regret this.

It was impossible to get on the course in Cholet, and we had to pick our way through the crowd on the pavement before we found an unguarded gap in the barriers about after about two kilometres. From there we had an uninterrupted ride around a deceptively difficult course. We were buffeted by a strong headwind on the outward leg that was not repaid with the interest it should have had on the way back in.

At one point we passed a group of riders, one of whom, we found out later, was former Chelsea and France central defender William Gallas.

As we finished the ride the crowds in Cholet were much bigger and the gendarmes less permissive about which roads we could cycle on. Suddenly we were disorientated and unsure where the car was parked.

I won’t describe in any detail the hour-and-a-bit we wasted cycling around not knowing where we were or even where we were trying to get to. We headed out of town in three different directions before finally striking lucky. Each time either Ed or I said: “Oh yes, I remember coming past the Leclerc supermarket,” or “Yes, this looks familiar” only for it to turn out that we were wrong, or lying in the hope that the car may magically appear just around the next bend.

THE TIME TRIAL

In the afternoon, we watched David Millar warm-up for the time trial. Warm-up probably isn’t the right word because throughout the 30-minute session he was wearing an ice vest.

The sleeveless jacket, rather like a gilet, was kept in a cool box and as one began to warm through, the Garmin-Chipotle coach Allen Lim – who used to be Floyd Landis’s coach – handed Millar another cold one.

It often occurs to me that modern sports science debunks in just about every way the hunches and instincts of athletes and their advisors – you can’t really call them coaches. In the 1960s riders on the Tour would wade through a mountain of steak for breakfast, nowadays that’s not the done thing because it’s incredibly difficult to digest a block of cow while trying to race a bicycle. Not so long ago you’d see riders warming up wrapped up as if they were heading out on a winter training ride, now it’s all ice vests. Most people had to look away when Millar’s all-white British time trial champion’s skinsuit became alarmingly see-through as he began to work up a sweat.

Making predictions in this Tour de France has turned out to be pretty tricky so far, but there was almost unanimous agreement that Fabian Cancellara would win in Cholet. Certainly no one – absolutely no one at all – was speculating thoughtfully that it ‘could be a course for Stefan Schumacher today’ and anyone who casually mentions that they thought the German might ‘do a ride’ is fibbing. We saw the Gerolsteiner bus and there were no TV crews or journalists watching the finer points of Schumacher’s warm-up.

If you had told Millar in the morning that he’d beat Cancellara, it would not have been outlandish to assume that would be enough to give him the stage win, but it was not to be.

So, we’re off and running and after two nights in Angers, prepared to hit the road. Having only caught up with the race on Tuesday morning it’ll take a day or so before the feeling of being a latecomer at a really exciting party has subsided.

THE CW TRAVEL GUIDE

You’ve heard of the Michelin guide, the prestigious bible of fine hotels and restaurants – well this is the Domestique’s Guide.

It works on a similar principle. As we travel around France we will report on the quality of the accommodation and evening meals. Instead of Michelin stars, we’ll award between one and five inner tubes for the quality of the hotel and between one and five bidons for the evening meal, with three being perfectly good. It’ll take a special place or meal to get a four and an outstanding one to get a five.

ACCOMMODATION

Hotel Mercure Lac de Maine, Angers

Tarif: 80 euros per room per night

Facilities: A bar, restaurant and outdoor seating area. Also had a cabinet selling Mercure-branded ‘gifts’ including a bottle opener and a set of towels.

Room: Spacious but characterless with brand new furniture straight out of the French equivalent of Ikea. Which is probably Ikea.

Bed: Firm.

Staff: Very pleasant and helpful in the reception although the bar staff had perfected the French art of looking straight through thirsty people hoping for service.

Ambiance: Clinical. Would suit the average French businessman dropping in to discuss the last quarter’s sales figures, but not one for a holiday.

Surroundings: The hotel was next to a roundabout on a commercial estate. My room overlooked a building site and a Quick burger restaurant.

CW RATING:

Tour de France 2008EVENING MEALS

Hotel Mercure Lac de Maine, Angers

The starter was a plate of assorted starters, including parma ham and melon, smoked salmon and cream cheese roulades and a prawn on a piece of avocado. All the bases were covered there. That was followed by a very pleasant dish of lamb cooked two ways – a baked chop and a seared steak, with a dollop of pea puree and a round potato rosti that looked more like a hash brown from McDonald’s. Dessert was a platter of cheese, mostly good, by served with a pot of tasteless red jelly and a shot of a mild yellow-ish drink, perhaps a liquour, that neither of us could place.

CW RATING:

Tour de France 2008Brasserie de la Gare, Angers

The recommendations of taxi drivers can, like their driving styles, be all over the place. This one, though, was decent enough. The decor was not promising, but compared to the sort of establishments that sit opposite railway stations in Britain, it was outstanding. The smoked salmon salad was very nice, if a rather daunting portion size for a starter, and the steak with roquefort was cooked perfectly, even if the dauphinoise potatoes were a little firm. I am boycotting pudding for as long as I possibly can (cheese course excepted) but Ed said he preferred his creme brulee warm but that the sugary topping was nice and crispy.

CW RATING:

Tour de France 2008

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: STAGE REPORTS

Stage five: Cavendish takes first Tour win

Stage four: Schumacher wins TT and takes race lead

Stage three: Dumoulin wins stage from break

Stage two: Hushovd wins chaotic sprint

Stage one: Valverde wins

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: NEWS

Millar to go for yellow [stage six]

Team Columbia’s reaction to Cavendish’s win [stage five]

Cavendish talks about his Tour stage win

Tour comment: Why Evans should be happy [stage four]

Millar: Still aiming for Tour yellow jersey [stage 4]

Who is Romain Feillu?

Cavendish disappointed with stage two result

Millar too close to Tour yellow jersey

Stage 2 preview: A sprint finish for Cavendish?

Millar happy after gains precious seconds in Plumelec

Valverde delighted with opening Tour stage win

Comment: Is Valverde’s win a good thing for the Tour?

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: PHOTOS

Stage five

Stage four

Stage three

Stage two

Stage one

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: GUIDE

Tour de France 2008 homepage>>

News and features>>

All the riders (start list, list of abandons)>>

Tour 2008: Day by day summary

Route & stages>>

Teams and riders>>

About the Tour>>