The 198 riders taking part in this year’s Tour de France readied themselves for battle on Thursday as they were paraded like gladiators in front of a 7,000-strong crowd at an extremely entertaining – and at times surreal – presentation of the race’s 22 teams.
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The Roman amphitheatre at the mediaeval-themed Puy du Fou theme park in western France played host to the world’s top cyclists as they were presented to fans and the media team by team amid a backdrop of chariots, sword-fighting musketeers and swashbuckling pirates.
The park made its last appearance on the route as the venue for the 1999 Tour prologue – when Lance Armstrong won both the stage and took his first overall win that year in Paris.
This time, the only lances were of the jousting kind, and Armstrong was notably absent from the RadioShack line-up paraded on the central stage. The American team may have come with four riders sharing leadership duties – Janez Brajkovic, Chris Horner, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer – but they may miss a definitive central figure, and could miss Lance a lot.
But there was no doubting who Europcar’s main man was, and as 2010 French champion Thomas Voeckler swept into the arena with his team-mates in chariots, the crowd went berserk. Europcar is the main sponsor of manager Jean-René Bernaudeau’s team, based here in the Vendee, where the Tour starts on Saturday. It meant that many of the fans seated around the amphitheatre were wearing the team’s green jersey, showing their support for their local heroes.
But possibly the biggest cheer of the afternoon came when newly crowned 2011 French champion Sylvain Chavanel strolled into the centre of the stadium in his blue, white and red jersey with his Quick Step team-mates. The announcer revealed it was Chavanel’s birthday – the Frenchman turned 32 – and so the crowd was only too pleased to sing him ‘Happy Birthday’.
Lampre-ISD were brought in in a horse-drawn carriage, a Bradley Wiggins-led Sky team were accompanied into the arena by a gaggle of Spanish dancers, while BMC turned up in the back of a vintage van, and promptly sent an inattentive TV cameraman flying as he leaped backwards to avoid getting his feet run over. And the crowd loved it.
Bradley Wiggins steps up to the stage
The cheer for Andy Schleck as he led his Leopard-Trek boys onto the stage was almost as loud as the one for Chavanel, but the most surreal moment came when the Garmin-Cervélo squad emerged on a platform rising up from under the stage, with world champion Thor Hushovd joining in the fun by dressing up in a long-haired wig and clutching a hammer to impersonate the Norse god Thor. It got a good laugh, but whether the Norwegian sprinter knew how much he looked like 1997 world champion Laurent Brochard was never established.
Saxo Bank-SunGard were saved until last as the team containing the defending Tour champion. But as he was presented to the crowds, Alberto Contador was greeted by boos, jeers and whistles, although they just about stopped short of giving him the thumbs down and sending in the lions.
The Spaniard had no choice but to put on a brave face, just as he had at the Saxo Bank press conference earlier in the day in response to the questions as to whether he should really be at the start of the race having tested positive here 12 months ago.
How spectators will react to him out on the roads remains to be seen, but he may need to be shielded as much as possible by his Saxo Bank team-mates. Round table discussions failed to reach a verdict prior to this race, but after his newly scheduled hearing in early August, can Contador yet emerge again as a knight in shining armour?
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Thomas Voeckler arrives in Europcar’s latest chariot
Crowds pack the colosseum
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