From Bruges we are going to Ieper (Ypres). I do a quick google from our room in Bruges just to see if there’s any last minute things I need to know about. This is when I discover that the Tour de France will be starting its fifth leg from Bruges. The Tour de France? But this is Belgium. What?
I know people who would think this a fantastic coincidence. I know some people who might even plan for this. I’m not one of them, but what’s to be done? I’ve paid for the hotel room now. Tour de France it is.
We have no idea what to do in Ieper, but we follow the crowd and stand for some time on the barrier from the cyclists’ village up to the square. Felix starts to take selfies. The Skoda mascot walks by and stops. ‘I’m gonna get heaps of likes for this,’ Felix says. Then he adds, ‘I’m hungry.’
We find a Panos and order a scant meal of the closest thing to sausage rolls and a donut. I have been trying to explain the imperative of keeping costs down. We are nearly one week into our trip and I am starting to panic about spiralling costs, especially as they pertain to the food. So far we have not stayed in any self-catering accommodation and the lads won’t get it through their heads that I won’t just be paying for meal after meal after meal. Anticipating that Felix won’t like the food anyway I don’t order myself anything.
I notice that people are walking down a side street and we follow the signs to the outside course. The crowd is thinner here, but there is still no space against the fence. We keep walking until finally we find a space. Behind us is a frites shop and a fibreglass cone of frites with enormous goggling eyes. Felix takes a selfie.
We wait. We have no real idea of how long we will be waiting or what we are waiting for but it seems the right thing to do. Around us people wait. The sense of camaraderie builds as it always does in waiting crowds. And as the rain shifts from a drizzle to light rain, people join their umbrellas to form a makeshift canopy. Then it gets a little heavier still, and when I hear the announcement for the merchandise I go to the nearby truck and ask how much for the rain poncho. Ten euros. Okay I think I’ll leave that.
Back at the barrier, the rain falls more heavily and the breeze grows a little stronger, a little colder.
‘I’m freezing,’ Felix says. We have invested enough time and energy that it seems pointless to leave now, and besides we can’t check into our bed and breakfast until four.‘Here you are.’ I give him ten euros and he goes to buy a poncho returning with an enormous yellow sheet of plastic that it is nothing more than a series of plastic bags sewn together. Ten euros.
Cars begin to drive past us, some with television crews inside, others with racks of bikes on top. One cyclist who has skipped the barricade rides past to cheers. He is stopped by a pair of police officers. And still we stand. We wait. Behind us the crowd grows thicker. The lads are standing at the barrier, but I am behind them. And then a man taps me on the shoulder, points down at his child.
‘Bien sur,’ I say and we make way for him, ensuring I can see nothing really and probably the child can see not much more but almost as soon as the last child is jammed into place, the crowd begins to cheer. I have been waiting for the sound of the bikes, but I can’t hear them through the crowd. The colours flash. I see a blue helmet, bright splashes of lycra. There is an intensity about them and they travel, a self-contained bubble through the waiting crowd. There is no indication that they notice us or care that we are there.
And then they have passed us. The bikes have gone. The crowd loosens. The rain begins to fall, it feels as if it is heavier now, but perhaps it is just because the canopy of umbrellas has broken up as people walk away.
‘Ca, c’est tous?’ I say.
The man next to me shrugs, and says, ’Oui.’ He smiles and I smile back at him.
‘What did you say?’ Felix asks.
‘I just said, Is that it?’
Felix shrugs. ‘I guess so.’
‘I didn’t really see anything,’ I say.
‘Don’t worry. You can look at my photos. Can we get some chips?’