A friend of mine emailed to ask what exactly I do all day on the Tour de France.

The main factor determining the day-to-day itinerary is where you happen to be staying. Very often you have to make a choice – whether to go to the start or the finish, and whether there’s time to see the race somewhere en route.

Wednesday’s 11th stage offered the chance to go to the start in Lannemezan to stand outside the team buses waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the riders to emerge. The only ones who get out early these days are the French domestiques who want to bask in the spotlight and glory of actually riding the Tour. Some riders will head to the tented village to sit and read the paper or have a cup of coffee.

But everyone else stays inside watching MTV, or whatever it is they do in their, until the last possible moment when they head to the sign-on podium to have their eardrums perforated by Daniel Mangeas – the Tour’s official commentator, who will tell the crowd all about that ninth place in the Tour du Poitou-Charentes last year while the rider tries not to look too embarrassed.

You can’t help but feel the fans get a little short-changed by all this. Of course the Tour is a free show, but they stand patiently waiting for the briefest of glimpses of the stars and a very slim chance of an autograph.

If you have a blue or green press sticker on your car – even one that’s been peeled at and picked away by thieves – you can drive on the route, so we opted to travel ahead of the race and head to the Col du Portel, the first-category towards the end of the stage.

When I first covered the Tour in 1999, it was common to drive the final 50 kilometres or so of the stage to get a picture of what the terrain was like. You pick up so much more than from simply watching on television. You get a different perspective on that tight corner on the run-in or realise the true severity of the unclassified climb the printed profile leads you to believe will be no bother.

Somehow, in the past decade, all the spare time on the Tour de France has been sucked into a vacuum and the day is spent only just getting to where you need to be in time. Travelling to the start means sitting in a traffic jam, trying to park at the finish can be a nightmare if you get there late, getting away and to your hotel can take a frustratingly long time.

The Lannemezan to Foix stage offered a stunning route, a meandering trip through the Ariege, up and down all day. It was perfect for cycle racing. It would make an ideal course for the Etape du Tour and started us thinking that perhaps the organisers should consider running two events each year, one in the high mountains and a more sporting course like this for those who don’t fancy hauling themselves over the Alps and Pyrenees.

Robert and Simon, who joined me in Lourdes, stopped off somewhere to buy lunch, which we ate on a hairpin bend about halfway up the climb.

As we ripped open the packet of country ham to put into our baguettes, Simon noticed the edges of the fat were slightly green. I was so hungry I immediately dismissed this as either some kind of local specialty or the ink from the stamp that is sometimes put onto huge pieces of ham like this before it is sliced.

Anyway, I ate it. It wasn’t until I looked at the expired sell-by date on the ham that I realised the green was probably not supposed to be there. Simon took great glee in telling us that he had torn the green, mouldy fat off the edges while I had not and I started to feel slightly queasy.

We should have been a bit suspicious when we realised that not even the insects had been interested in landing on the ham. The insects were, however, interested in our legs and feet. At one point I looked down to see I was standing in an ants nest. The ants were biting me all over and it was starting to sting.

Every day on the Tour is a compromise. It is rarely possible to go to the start, then see the race on the road, and then make it to the finish. Two out of three isn’t bad, but it did mean we missed the final stages and had to catch them on television later.

CW’S DOMESTIQUE’S GUIDE

Where we stayed, and what we ate…

Citea Carcassonne

Tarif:
Not sure, the editor’s paying

Facilities: Citea is a new hotel chain to me and seems to specialise in apartment-style rooms. It was extremely modern and a bit like university accommodation

Room: Palatial, the room was actually a mini apartment on two levels, with a bedroom and bathroom upstairs, a living room with dining table and chairs and a mini kitchen with sink, fridge and microwave. I used to live in a flat smaller than this hotel room

Bed: Brand new

Staff: Bubbly

Ambiance: “Hi-di-hi campers” meets student Rag Week

Surroundings: A two-minute walk to the famous walled city

CW RATING:

Tour de France 2008EVENING MEAL

Le Trouvere, Carcassonne

Carcassonne offers a confusing array of choice for the cassoulet connoisseur. How do you choose where to eat? Do you judge by the style of the awning outside the restaurant, or the number of diners already tucking in? Do you take into account the typeface the restaurant has chosen for its logo, or the attractiveness of the menu board? Or do you do what I did and wander around for five minutes rudely gawping at people?s bowls and assessing the cassoulet within for colour, texture and size of potion?

Evaluation complete, we hit Le Trouvere, which offered for just nine euros a plentiful bowl of the stuff. A huge duck leg and meaty Toulouse sausage with beans that left me waddling slightly and in no need of dessert. Excellent.

CW RATING:

Tour de France 2008LIFE AT THE TOUR: PREVIOUS BLOGS

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TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: STAGE REPORTS

Stage 11: Arvesen wins

Stage 10: Evans takes yellow jersey by one second

Stage nine: Ricco wins in the Pyrenees

Stage eight: Cavendish wins again in Toulouse

Stage seven: Sanchez takes action-packed stage

Stage six: Ricco storms to win

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

Analysis: Tour de France rest day summary

Cavendish battles through Pyrenees

Evans suffers but takes yellow jersey [stage 10]

Analysis: Hautacam shakes up 2008 Tour

Ricco silences critics with solo attack in Pyrenees [stage nine]

Cavendish talks about his second stage win [stage eight]

Beltran heads home but doubts remain about other Tour riders

David Millar: the dope controls are working

Manuel Neltran tests positive for EPO at the Tour

Comment: How the Tour rediscovered its spirit

Doping back in Tour de France headlines

Millar: close but no cigar in Super-Besse [stage six]

Super-Besse shows form of main contenders [stage six]

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 11

Stage 11

Stage 10

Stage nine

Stage eight

Stage seven

Stage six

Stage five

Stage four

Stage three

Stage two

Stage one

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: BLOGS

Life at the Tour part three

Life at the Tour part two

Life at the Tour part one

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: GUIDE

Tour de France 2008 homepage>>

News and features>>

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

Day by day summary>>

Route & stages>>

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