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Top Gear does the Tour de France

  1. This is the unseen side of the Tour de France. I’m only a few yards behind the riders, and, from here, I can see their backs twisting, their thighs churning, as they slog, buck, heave and grind their way up another monstrous Alp. I’m in the car, a Jaguar XF Sportbrake. Now, getting into Jag’s new estate is a world-exclusive in itself, but, today, that is rather overshadowed by the fact this is TeamSky’s lead support car, the nerve centre of the whole team, so they say.

    Words: Ollie Marriage

    This feature was originally published in the September 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Up front are eight riders, most sporting the same black ‘n’ blue colouring as the XF. One of them is Mark Cavendish. Another is Bradley Wiggins, and he’s dressed in yellow.

    They all rely utterly on this car - it’s literally their lifeline. They each have a spare bike on the roof, a spare kit bag in the boot. There’s a portable fridge full of water, specially blended drinks, energy gels and bespoke food parcels. The back seat is a mobile workshop, four wheels balanced precisely, if precariously, atop a full toolbox. Diego holds it all in place. He’s the mechanic.

  3. A chap called Sean Yates is driving. He’s a bona fide British cycling legend, a rider turned team manager. Lean, tough, tattooed and with a decidedly DIY haircut, Sean’s main job isn’t driving at all. He’s the directeur sportive, the tactician in charge of processing info and organising the riders, telling them when to attack, what breaks to let go, which to reel in. He offers support and encouragement on a stage where everyone is out to attack TeamSky and Wiggo from the word go.

    And then there’s me. I’m in the front passenger seat, the spot usually reserved for the doctor. I barely know which way round a sticking plaster goes. I didn’t expect to be here and can’t quite believe I am. All I’d asked was to find out how the XF Sportbrake was faring as a support wagon for the world’s biggest cycle race. I expected to have a guided tour of the car in a hotel car park but little else. Instead, Top Gear has got… involved.

  4. It’s 12 July, and stage 11, a sod of a mountain route, just 92 miles long, but with 5,000 metres of vertical ascent. Five thousand. It’s widely regarded as the toughest day of the whole three-week race.

    Not for me in the car, clearly. The closest I’ve come to working up a sweat was chewing a baguette. I’ve had a fiddle with the aircon and shown Sean how to engage Sport mode, but otherwise my job so far is chiefly to pipe down and stay still. You might imagine this is all very pleasant, a gentle jaunt through some stunning scenery. Nothing - nothing - could be further from the truth.

    Imagine a bunch of family estate cars, normal ones, not sporty ones. Diesels. Imagine them packed so full that the self-levelling suspension sags at the sheer effort. Imagine them on a perilously narrow, spit-and-sawdust mountain road. Imagine each is driven by an overly competitive ex-pro cyclist with a point to prove and a need to win. Getting the picture? This is absolute bedlam, a wailing circus of horns, lurching bikes, screeching tyres, squawking radios, burnt brakes, rubbed paint and waved arms.

  5. We crest the Col de la Croix de Fer, and everyone nails it. But we’ve got a 3.0-litre diesel, against their 2.0s, and we belt through a completely non-existent gap between rock face and a couple of brightly liveried Skoda Superbs. Ahead, a Passat is practically run off the road by yet another Skoda, dust kicks up, a Laguna jousts and duels with a Nissan Qashqai, and we rub wing mirrors with a Volvo V70. At 60mph. On a single-track mountain road riddled with fresh-air corners. And spectators.

    Yesterday, Sean punted a rival team car from behind, cracking the Jag’s grille - par for the course. And I haven’t even got to the motorbikes yet. They duck and weave around, some mad lens-wielder dangling off the back. Then, in the midst of this melee, a skinny chap in brown Lycra, exhibiting bravery worthy of a military medal considering his tyres are only 23mm wide, tears past us all. It’s not just going uphill that counts in the Tour de France.

  6. And it’s not just the driving that occupies Sean. Three radio mics dangle from the rear-view mirror, speakers chatter with race information, live race footage flashes on a TV monitor, there’s a map taped to the centre of the steering wheel. Another to the dash. Yet another on Sean’s leg. I never see more than one hand on the steering wheel and frequently see fewer. He was interviewed earlier, a bloke on the back of a motorbike shoving a microphone through the window at 40mph. And all the while he’s marshalling his troops, orchestrating, cajoling, making sure both car and riders are where they need to be.

    A crackle over one radio as we hit the bottom of the Col du Mollard: “TeamSky, TeamSky.” It’s from the race director, and it’s our cue to get forwards again: one of the riders has raised his hand and needs help. If it had been anything crucial, he’d have used his radio to talk to us. The rider drops back, and we zap fast forward, Diego holding tinkling wheels steady in the back while reaching into the fridge for bottles. With colour-coded caps for each rider, they’re passed forward to Sean who hands them out the window to rider Richie Porte. “You OK?” Sean asks, as Richie slots the bottles down his shirt, “I’m f***ed” comes the reply. “OK, stay there as long as you can, but don’t kill yourself.” Too late, I’d have said.

  7. A minute later, we’re rummaging for a profile map of the Mollard so we can pass info on the steepness and length of the climb to the riders. Only we can’t find it. So Sean turns to me: “You rode this the other day - what’s it like?” I tell him what I can remember, that it’s steep to start with but slackens for a couple of kilometres before kicking up at the top. My ‘knowledge’ is passed straight to Bradley Wiggins. I gulp and hope in hell I haven’t got it wrong.

    Success! Wiggins & Co. don’t misjudge the ascent due to wonky info, so Sean asks me about the descent. This is a literal sore point, as my face still bears the scarsI collected down here. But, once again, my memories of patchy road surfaces, some new tarmac and a straight run-out at the bottom are radioed forward.

  8. With one mountain left to climb and Sky seemingly in control, I ask Sean what he’d change about the car. “Better rear visibility, and I can’t get on with the paddles. We had to disable the electric boot thing too - that’s a total waste of time.” I can’t help wondering if Jaguar realises what this car is being put through; how, er, unmerciful Sean’s driving is. It’s done well over speed bumps, though - Diego might have whimpered once or twice, but, on one occasion, the back wheels of a Superb ahead bounced clean off the ground.

  9. The last climb, and other riders are on the attack. In the turmoil, Sky rider Chris Froome mishears an instruction and zips off, leaving Wiggo stranded and struggling. The first we know about it is on the radio, but Sean’s on it immediately: “Froomey, Froomey, I’m hoping you got the OK from Brad for that.” No reply. “Wiggins en difficulté”, chirps the race radio. “Froomey, Froomey, Bradley’s hurting - get back.” It’s a tense few moments, the yellow jersey seeming briefly in jeopardy - as the TV has frozen, we’re not even sure whether he’s heard. On the press coverage later, with Brad safe in yellow for another day, everyone is asking what was said between rider and team manager. To have had the inside track is fascinating, listening to Sean call the shots, seeing the riders react, watching TeamSky dictate race pace. One of the best things I’ve ever done in a car, in fact. And I wasn’t even driving.

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