The Tour de France is the biggest event on the cycling calendar, the bridge event between bike riding and the mainstream. Who hasn’t been asked (and not always in jest) if they’re planning to ride the Tour de France by a non-bikie friend or family member?
It’s a three-week carnival consisting of 22 teams, 198 riders, 390 support staff, 15 commissaires, 300 members of ASO staff, 12,000 gendarmes; 9,000 police and CRS (French police reserves), and 45 Garde Républicaine motorcyclists.
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Ensuring the safety and security of the whole Tour is the responsibility of one individual; Capitaine Pierre-Charles Grosse from the Garde Républicaine. He’s the guy who makes sure each and every one of the 9,000 police and 12,000 gendarmes is in the correct position and that the 20km long caravan, press motorbikes and cars, film crews, celebrities and of course the riders and their teams, all get to the start and finish of each day – ideally without incident.
That’s some job description, so we spent a day with Capt Grosse on one of the most challenging days of the 2012 Tour de France, the mountainous stage 16 – Pau to Bagnères de Luchon to see what really goes on behind the scenes in ensuring that the best known bike race in the world runs as smoothly as possibly.
07:00 Breakfast has long since finished and everyone is ready for the day. Unlike the pros, everyone loads up their own luggage on one of two Garde Républicaine support lorries, which also includes a washing machine. The other lorry acts as a mobile mechanic’s truck for their vehicle maintenance needs.
07:30 First meeting of the day briefs the 13 Garde Républicaine officers who will ride with the caravan. Two will be in a car for the day, the rest will be on bikes.
This briefing is vital as for most of the day they will be working alone – as the caravan can be spread over half an hour.
07:45 Capt Grosse departs in the control car to the race village ready for the start.
08:00 Arrive in start village for a series of meetings. First is an informal catch-up and coffee with the gendarme press liaison officer.
08:30 The most important meeting of the day takes place. It’s where any amendments to the final route are discussed and made. High-risk areas are identified for the Garde Républicaine to be placed with yellow warning flags and any possible security issues are addressed.
The meeting is attended by race organisers, Capt Grosse, road experts and local representatives. Key aspects of the day’s stage are discussed, such as complex street layouts and everyone makes notes in their own race manuals.
Today’s main concern is overenthusiastic and drunk fans on the mountains. It’s going to be a hot day and people will have been camped out for several hours drinking a fair amount of alcohol.
The condition of the road is also an issue. It’s going to hit over 30°C and the tarmac is at risk of melting, which is very dangerous for the riders and motorbikes, especially on the descents.
It is agreed to spray the roads with water to cool them down in advance.
There is a second meeting shortly afterwards, in which the race commissaires are informed of all the decisions.
08:45 Capitaine Grosse then meets with the local police commander to disseminate the information from the meeting.
09:00 The caravan rolls out complete with the morning shift of gendarmes. The gendarmes rolling with the race have free time so use the opportunity, much like the riders, to grab a coffee and meet friends and family.
Capt Grosse is obviously well liked and many people come over to say hello. Everyone from race organiser Christian Prudhomme to litter pickers are given a warm handshake and greeted by their first name.
11:00 And we’re ready for the off. Capt Grosse heads the front of the race in the control car, travelling just ahead of the riders.
As we depart, Capt Grosse is already in radio contact with an officer. One of the Movistar team cars has been involved in a minor road traffic accident en route to the stage start. As it is the Garde Républicaine’s responsibility to get all starters to the race on time, he sends an officer to escort them to the start.
11:15 The checking of radios takes place. Capt Grosse can speak to everyone on the race, either one at a time or all together at once. There is also an emergency phone which very few people have access to – it’s a direct line radio between Capt Grosse and Christian Prudhomme. Fortunately it doesn’t get used very often.
Capt Grosse uses his notes from the morning’s meeting to inform his team of motorcyclists about the positions for yellow flag warnings or other important issues they need to be aware of.
12:30 This is Capt Grosse’s fourth Tour and he has come to know some of the places that we pass through well. Pulling away from the riders, we quickly stop off at one of the mountain villages to say hello, accept a quick snack and have a comfort break. It’s odd watching the race unfold on the TV in a local butcher’s, using it to judge just the right moment to get back in the command car before the riders get too close.
12:45 It’s 31°C and a few Garde Républicaine take advantage of the race still being pretty quiet and pull up alongside the control car to grab cold drinks and snacks, exactly like the domestique riders in the race.
13:30 At Argelès Gazost, radio warnings are given out to the team of motorcyclists regarding how busy the town is and of the tight turns they will have to negotiate.
13:40 Safely through the town and the riders begin to climb the Col du Tourmalet. The temperature reaches a scorching 34°C.
14:00 It’s so hot now climbing the mountain that Capt Grosse thoughtfully hands out cold drinks to the time-gap girl and press motorbikes.
The climbs allow time for Capt Grosse to be sociable. Throughout the hour-long ascent, a variety of press, VIPs, race officials and Garde Républicaine appear. It’s a rare opportunity to catch up with people, so a quick hello through open windows is welcome.
14:50 One kilometre from the summit of the Tourmalet and the control car rapidly pulls away from the riders and flies down the mountain at speeds which don’t seem possible. This ensures the control car is not in the way of riders when they descend even faster. While we’re hanging on and I’m trying not to shut my eyes, Capt Grosse has been on the radio reading out instructions to his team of riders.
15:31 Climbing the Col d’Aspin, Capt Grosse receives news that the Peyresourde is extremely busy and that caution will be needed to ensure the riders can pass safely.
Pressing on again, we gap the front riders and manage to pull over and grab a couple of espressos courtesy of the Rapha coffee van, much to the surprise of some of the fans. Others are concerned that we’re going to spoil the view they’ve spend hours protecting. We assure them that we’re not sticking about for long, and we swiftly hop back in and drive off 50 metres in front of the riders in the break.
16:00 The Peyresourde is packed with fans – getting through the tunnel of people is a feat in itself. Capt Grosse has ensured that the riders get as much protection as possible from his team by giving them all plenty of warning in advance.
16:10 After another hairy descent the control car pulls away from the front of the race one final time and speeds to the stage finish some 20 kilometres away.
16:30 Capt Grosse hops out directly on the finish line and meets with various officials. As word reaches us that the race leaders are getting close, he and three other Garde Républicaine position themselves at the side of the finish line.
After 20 minutes, Capt Grosse hands over his role to another officer and heads over to their temporary office in the press centre (shaking the hand of every gendarme or Garde Républicaine officer on the way).
17:00 At the temporary office, debrief meetings are held with other Garde Républicaine and gendarmes and ASO (the organising officials) about the stage. Incidents have been minimal today.
There are only a couple of speeding infringements to issue sanctions for. The main headache is at the Spanish border where everyone is being held and told to await the whole race convoy before they are allowed to cross in order to get to the hotels for the night.
18:00 It’s well after 6pm before they finally pack up and head to the border.
18:30 Crossing the border means that for now, Capt Grosse hands over the security reins to the Spanish police. The French also hand over their guns.
19:00 Arriving at the hotel, the two full-time mechanics look over all the motorbikes, and carry out any maintenance needed, such as changing discs and brake pads following the mountain stage.
20:00 Finally, everyone sits down to their first proper meal in over 12 hours. It’s been a long day.
22:00 Washing and other admin finally carried out, it’s time for bed as it’s another early start for the next mountain stage in the morning.
Who are the Garde Républicaine?
While part of the wider gendarmerie, the Garde Républicaine play a slightly different role. Their main remit is to escort VIPs such as the French president and heads of state, working mostly in Paris.
However, they also have a diplomatic duty, representing their country abroad and supporting big events in France, including looking after several other big French races throughout the year – Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné, along with a few car and motorcycle races, too.
The gendarmes are in turn part of the wider French military, whereas the police have a civil role, carrying out criminal investigations, traffic duties etc.
The Tour is the most important race on the French calendar and it involves significant planning. Part of Capt Grosse’s role is to liaise with the police in other countries that the Tour visits as although the Garde Républicaine will travel over borders, they will no longer have jurisdiction over the race.
Dividing and policing
The Garde Républicaine are split into two groups at the Tour. One rolls out with the caravan, the second with the riders. They are responsible for anything that moves along the route.
The police and gendarmes that line the roads for the Tour are local and are responsible for anything stationary or that stays local. When there’s an incident such as the one on stage 14, when tacks were thrown onto the road, causing several riders to puncture, the Garde Républicaine begin investigations before handing over to local police. Four motorbikes also punctured.
Fortunately they were able to carry out some repairs using spare wheels carried in the mechanic’s van while larger jobs were carried out in the mechanic’s truck.