At lunch time my neighbour, Bernard, and I drove to the fairytale village of Castelnau-de-Montmiral to see the Tour de France go by.
The cyclists were a disappointing three-minute blur compared with the excellent entertainment provided by the warm-up act. This was a cavalcade of branded sponsors’ trucks that thundered through the village flinging freebies into the crowds. It is a Tour de France tradition, called the caravan de pub (short for publicité).
“It’s the only reason the Tour de France is popular around here,” said Bernard, who is a patriot but not a sentimental man. “It’s free to watch, it goes past the door and you get gifts.”
As we found a gap on the route among the jostling crowds strung out along the main street of this normally sweet, slow village, a van with a sausage on the roof whizzed past while invisible hands inside hurled packets of mini meat sticks at the onlookers.
People went crazy, some even shouting out the brand name as they scrabbled — and occasionally scuffled — for the little foil bags. Hard on the wheels of the sausage van came several giant root vegetables, a basket of nodding baguettes and a milkshake the size of a small building. “Nesquik!” I heard one man yell as he launched himself at an airborne sample of chocolate milk before the woman next to him could get it.
A police van appeared, blue lights flashing. For a moment I thought the police might be about to do a bit of crowd control — or at least warn us about the health and safety hazards of the unbridled pursuit of a Skoda keyring. But even they started throwing things at us. These turned out to be fridge magnets bearing the national police logo and silhouettes of fit officers in combat gear. People practically trampled the barricades to get at them.
Thanks to the speeds at which most people drive around here — fast or faster — the caravan de pub screamed through the village more like Le Mans than a traditional parade. Assorted products were now raining down on our heads — caps, insurance company notepads, sweets, hotel chain bandanas. These trinkets were snatched up in a manner I thought no longer en vogue since the ancien régime found out the hard way that tossing cakes out of carriages was a buy-in strategy with fatal flaws.
It was all quite shameless and totally exhilarating and eventually even I had an embarrassing near tussle for a bottle of Vittel with a minuscule madame of about 70, wearing purple skinny jeans and a mock-croc chapeau. I got it and had to swallow a triumphant woo-hoo.
Despite his convincing polemic about the cynical incentives used to get his countrymen out on to the streets for the Tour, I noticed that Bernard was nimbler than many when push came to shove on the tarmac.
By the time the TV helicopters came clattering over the church spire, signalling the arrival of the front riders, Bernard and I were too busy stuffing caps and pens into our raincoats to pay much attention.
As we inspected our bruises and the jewel in our crown, a giant foam rubber hand sporting the logo of a local bookie, Bernard clicked his disgust. Before the economic meltdown, he said, they gave away much better stuff.
“I once got a bag of really good coffee beans and they even gave away a racing bike.”
The thought of a bicycle being thrown off the back of a fast-moving truck into this crowd is definitely an incentive to follow the Tour next summer. Next time I’ll wear a helmet.
Charlotte Bauer is a former features editor of the Mail & Guardian. She now lives in France.