Just after midday a red van drove into the town square and stopped. On its roof was a giant red teapot with the face of a white-haired old lady beaming out of a window in its side over the words, ‘Grand-mere’, in flowing white letters. The crowds gathered at café tables round the square hardly glanced at it. They were hardened against surreal interruptions. A loaf of bread had just gone through on shaky wheels with no visible driver – and no one seemed especially interested in a large motorised sausage that was heading up the street.
Giant pickle-jars and toothbrushes driven by eccentrically-dressed people were all very well but they were mere diversions. Even the ones with young girls dancing and waving fell short of expectations.
The crowd wanted something else.
Something swift, silent and razor thin, that would sweep into view at the far end of the street any time now and hurtle through town like a single organism.
The crowd wanted cyclists.
The Tour had been anticipated with reverence for days, its progress watched on TV in bars and homes all across France, all over the world, as millions of followers let their fantasies roll with the toiling heroes.
The last of the unlikely vehicles honked and hooted through the town, then a hush fell, as if everyone had suddenly picked up the beat of distant wings.
Helicopters appeared overhead, eyes in the sky following the race as it closed on the town like a frenetic millipede far below, as yet unseen by the watchers lining the route towards the square.
Distant cheering swelled on the air, coming closer. All eyes focused on the far end of the street. Suddenly the leaders were in view, only heads and shoulders visible at first, hurtling up with the roar of many voices, passing like a gust of silent wind in the time it takes to turn on your heels to keep them in view, and gone.
The roar subsided. For fifteen minutes all eyes were trained on the end of the street, then the pack was upon us, surging towards the square, past with a swish and away towards the bridge in pursuit.
The Tour de France had been to Cognac.
With zero planning and no stress.