It’s the greatest free show on earth… and I’m so pleased I finally made it across the Channel to watch Le Tour

Where is the best place in the sporting world to be every July? You might wish to be on Centre Court for the climax to Wimbledon, or somewhere on Britain’s coast for The Open. But for millions of sports lovers, there is only one treasured sporting ticket. And it’s for something they call Le Tour.

Only you don’t need a ticket of course. The Tour de France really can lay claim to being the greatest free show on earth.

There is a chance that at least one of you reading this had hundreds of pounds taken out of your bank account recently for handball and weightlifting tickets. That’s all well and good, but for this special event all you need to do to catch a piece of the action is to jostle your way to a suitable spot by the roadside.

I’ve been lucky to see most of the great events in my time, but had never yet made the short trip across the Channel to watch the grandest cycling race of them all. I’m delighted to say that I have finally put that right.

They told me that I would be amazed by the sheer size of the whole business. And partly they were right. The Tour de France really is a gigantic circus. The whole thing carries on in an atmosphere of controlled chaos. Glorious chaos, really.

The entire shebang arrives in town, or sometimes village, and provides the locals with a spectacle that must surely leave them sated for months to come.

When I was in the small town of Les Essarts for the second stage, I couldn’t help but ask myself: What will be the second biggest event staged in this town in 2011? A summer fete maybe, perhaps a sheep shearing contest?

That’s one of the many joys of this special sporting event. It doesn’t take place in one city, like an Olympic Games, but is constantly on the move. From town to town, region to region, it carries on travelling. The circus goes north, south, east and west, all over France. It sometimes dips into other countries too. Remember the excitement and vast crowds when the Tour came to London in 2007? Nobody can doubt that despite its undoubted Gallic flavour, Le Tour is a seriously international event these days.

The hosts don’t tend to be begrudging very often. More like massively welcoming. Full of pride. No doubt enjoying their five minutes in the sun. It’s pretty wonderful if you think about it, that a television audience of millions from every corner of the world are watching an event that for one day is staged in a small town that has a population of less than 5,000.

There isn’t long to sit back and wallow though, not if you’re following the whole thing. The Tour simply goes on and on, through the prettiest of towns, across beautiful mountain ranges and taking in some truly spectacular scenery.

And then it all culminates in that glorious spectacle on the Champs-Elysees in Paris at the end of July. The climax of a three week marathon that leaves people in a kind of exhausted state of happy delirium. And that’s just the fans and journalists. It’s hard for those of us on the sidelines to imagine what the Tour does to the true stars. You know, the cyclists. Can there be a tougher, more gruelling test of endurance than this?

I was lucky enough to break bread with Sean Kelly one night on my trip. Even those with only a casual interest in cycling should remember the name. The Irishman enjoyed a quite magnificent career, one that lasted more than 20 years. His name was written into Tour de France history books when his brilliance in the mountains won him the green jersey four times in the 1980s. Kelly is now a commentator with Eurosport, the television sports channel seen by fans as the home of cycling, and the hosts for my French adventure.

Even just spending a couple of hours with Kelly gave me a little understanding of the determination of the man, that single-minded conviction that comes easily to champions. He was the fiercest of competitors in his day, hard as granite, and he rightly remembers his achievements with pride. But he’s full of humility too. Many of the top cyclists are still like that today.

On past summer visits to France, I’ve delighted in seeing crowds of people gathered in bars watching the race. It took this trip to get a little closer to understanding how deep the bond is between this peculiar piece of theatre and the French people. It truly is a love affair.

They were there nice and early in Les Essarts on the first Sunday of the 2011 Tour. Make that nice and very, very early. People were gathering six hours before to secure their prized places on the roadside. I’m pretty sure that I could never do it, but then I thought about my lifelong love affair with sport. I tried to imagine hailing from France myself. I would just love Le Tour with all my heart. It would probably be my favourite event of the year. Three blissful weeks every summer. They’re lucky aren’t they, the French? To have such an event.

The sun was shining brightly enough on the morning of the second stage, but by the afternoon it was simply stifling out there. The farenheit counter read 80 something and rising. The kind of weather that has any self-respecting pale Englishman crawling breathlessly towards the shade, anxious to slop on some more of the factor 50.

It was from said shady position that I watched the crowd in more detail. I have always believed that a good way to judge the quality of a sporting event is to look at its crowd. This lot were enthusiastic to a fault, generous to all. You do feel that as much as the French public would love their own Tour hero, it will always be the event itself that is the true star.

I turned to Eurosport’s head of cycling Stefano Bernabino to try and explain the appeal of this unique race. ‘Cycling is free. In cycling the actors go to the crowd,’ he told me. ‘The people watching get so close and feel part of it all.

‘The Tour de France is like a permanent moving show, we’re always on the move. It’s such an international event now, and it’s getting bigger all the time.’

The action continued for several hours on that boiling hot afternoon in Les Essarts. Britain’s Team Sky, with Bradley Wiggins leading the way, sped past in pursuit of a stage victory. Blink and you miss these guys. Sky’s time around the 23 km circuit was a good one, but not quite good enough. The Garmin-Cervelo team stormed to victory, leaving Thor Hushovd as the proud wearer of the yellow jersey. Garmin’s winning time was under 25 minutes, with third placed Sky just four seconds behind. These are the fine margins of sport at the highest level.

I sneaked off before anyone asked me to lend a hand packing up. The opening weekend had already thrown up some fine drama, with the time trial coming 24 hours after an almighty scramble of an opening stage, which featured two significant crashes and a splendid dash to the line from the Belgian Philippe Gilbert.

And then before you knew it Monday’s stage from Olonne-sur-Mer to Redon was under way. And that wasn’t half bad either, with an emotional American success for Tyler Farrar on Independance Day, and news that Britain’s big hope Mark Cavendish was being stripped of 10 points following a clash with Hushovd. That’s the Tour for you. The next story is only just around the corner.

Have I properly caught the bug? I’m not sure, but I have found myself looking up random French train times since my return.

And the Tour is of course a permanent companion in the living room. Where you get a nice view all day long.

British Eurosport and Eurosport HD broadcast LIVE coverage of every stage of the 2011 Tour de France

LIVE coverage is also available via the Eurosport Player at www.eurosportplayer.co.uk

British Eurosport Sky (Channel 410) Virgin Media (Channel 521), Eurosport HD Sky (Ch 412) Virgin (Ch 522)

Source : www.dailymail.co.uk