The Tour de France finished yesterday and we’re bereft! Every night we’ve been watching an hour-long highlights programme on ITV4. It wasn’t the most fantastic coverage, as it tends to focus in on the last ten kilometres or so which it showed in one go, rather than show snippets of action during the day. But it was interesting and the commentary was good.

Here comes the Haribo car!

We saw the tour live on Bastille Day. It was our third experience of it in the flesh. The first was way back in Ireland in 1998, but that was a little disappointing. We specifically went to cheer on Chris Boardman but he had fallen off a few miles down the road at Dungarvan! And there was no publicity caravan. Now, going to the Tour is all about the freebies, as we found out on our second Tour, last year. It passed very close so we were able to cycle the 12 or so km to Chatelus Malvaleix to take in the experience. This year it was about a 20km journey to pick up the Tour at L’Embranchement in Indre. Owing to bad weather we took the car most of the way but walked the last few kilometres, a wise congestion-avoiding move.

The freebies are sensational. Tour veterans know to space themselves just the right distance away along from other people. This is to allow the person throwing the freebie from the publicity vehicle enough time to grab and chuck another item. Also, if they come in a group, then they’ll split up and station some members on either side of the road. This is maximise their freebie reception potential! Wearing cycling gear gives you an extra appeal to the freebie chuckers, but the trump card is a small child. Our little, blond haired Ruadhri works like a charm. He gets just about everything thrown at him.

And what sort of things are we talking here? Hats, keyrings, bottle openers, sweets, balloons, bags, comics, newspapers, savoury snacks, bottles of water, fluorescent armbands, washing liquid, dried sausage, fridge magnets … that sort of thing. You have to be alert as the goodies arrive at high speed, thrown from quite a height and some of them are fairly chunky. A pack of cards bounced off my shin last year, and a packet of Haribo jellies got me in the shoulder this year. But no pain, no gain, as they say! The freebies are generally very useful, so not too much frivolous waste of the earth’s resources there. And in our household, the not-so-biodegradable items like the huge PMU hands will be played with until they fall apart.

It’s not just the goodies that makes the publicity caravan fun. The vehicles taking part are brilliant too. This year there was a giant cyclist with a yellow jersey, huge horses on the roof of a car, tyres that drove down the road by themselves, a six-pack of Panaché, and the Vittel water truck hosing the spectators down.

Of course the cyclists are the main event. They’re preceded by another barrage of vehicles, but less peculiar than the caravan. Team cars start appearing, and more and more gendarmes on motorbikes. They ask you to step back onto the side of the road, which everybody does, but as soon as they’ve gone, everyone steps right back out again. Crazy. The media presence builds up with radio cars and motorcycle cameramen, and then the biggest gas guzzlers of them all appear, swooping from the sky. The helicopters! Some of them brush the treetops as they thunder by in convoy, half a dozen or so at least. You can feel the earth warming up a fraction of a degree!

And finally the world-famous athletes arrive. But they’re gone in seconds. It’s hard to pick out individuals – you’re just aware of a brightly coloured hurricane sweeping past. I did get to see some of the Astana team members and Benj clocked the yellow jersey. We think we saw Mark Cavendish too, but couldn’t spot Bradley Wiggins. However, we shouted for him. It was so exciting! Then the last collection of team cars and gendarmes streams by, with the broom wagon at the end and it was time to go home. We walked back to the car, the kids scouring the ground for any missed freebies (and found a few to their delight), and of course watched the telly that night after we got back. However, there wasn’t the merest glimpse of us. The programme just showed the start at Limoges and then jumped to the usual last few kilometres. Although we’d expected that, we still felt a bit disappointed! It’s nice to be on telly. We were all on last year when France 3 did a feature about our llama trekking. But that’s another story … (however, you can see the clip on our site if you go to www.llamatrekking.fr and click on the ‘pics’ tab).