Quentin is yelling out the window of his Haribo Croco-plastered Isuzu, Victor dos-d’âne! Victor dos-d’âne!
A dos-d’âne is a donkey’s back, which is what the French call speed bumps. Victor is a young man strapped to the roof of the Isuzu. Quentin is driving, and he just realized he’s going faster than he meant.
He takes the dos-d’âne and yells back to Victor, Ça va, poulet? A poulet is a chicken, and French youths use the word like Americans might call someone their dog. Victor is ça va, so we keep speeding along and taking part in perhaps the Tour de France’s weirdest tradition.
The caravane is one of the biggest pieces of the Tour, and it’s completely invisible to anyone not watching the race in France. Every day, two hours before the riders start each stage, a parade of Tour sponsors goes out in branded floats in a line that can stretch 15 kilometers as it rolls down a more than 200-kilometer course.
As much as I’d like to think I’m above naked commercialism, the caravane is fascinating. I saw it firsthand for the first time in 2014 and called it moronic, dangerous fun. The Tour claims that roughly 50 percent of the people who pack the side of the road each day do so for the caravane, which chucks out free goodies — like candy, and hats, and key chains, and sausage — to a voracious mass of French people.
I reached out to Haribo to ride with in part because they’re the stars. According to Quentin — a 25-year-old studying in Brussels who is driving for Haribo for a second year — the candy company is by far the most popular set of floats in the caravane, followed by Cochonou, a mass producer of saucisson sausage snacks. Quentin says that because Haribo is so big, the job pays well for a summer gig. He likes the team of Haribo employees, too, and getting to be a part of the Tour de France in some way. He’s a triathlete and a cycling fan.
I’m distracting him, though. His radio crackles with chatter from Haribo cars farther ahead, relaying road hazards, or instructions from the caravane’s commissaires. There’s an untold number of things to look out for while driving — speedbumps, chicanes, and stopped vehicles. There’s also a strict schedule to adhere to. The Tour wants the caravane to be done at least two hours before riders are due to arrive at the finish.
But the biggest concern is people — highly excitable, erratic, and fragile people. The Tour restricts caravane vehicles to a max speed of 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour, and tries to keep an average of 30 kph to minimize the chances that anything goes wrong on the road. There have been bad accidents in the past. In 2000, a 12-year-old boy was hit by a caravane vehicle and died. In 2002, it was a 7-year-old.
But in practice, those restrictions have to be fudged a little if the vehicles are going to keep time.
Around 1 p.m. — roughly three hours into our journey on Stage 4 to Nancy, and two-and-a-half hours before the finish — we take a nature break. Caravane cars try to restrict themselves to one stop, maximum, and only by necessity. Peeing isn’t written into the itinerary. If you have to go, you pull off to the side of the road and find whichever nearby bush or piece of fencing that you like the least.
Quentin tells me we absolutely won’t wait more than five minutes, and we absolutely didn’t. We zipped up, hopped back in our Croco-car, and began the dodgiest portion of our journey, hitting the gas to find our place within the rest of the Haribo crew. Other sponsored vehicles would move to the right side of the road when there was space so we could zoom past, but the coordination wasn’t easy, especially while navigating turns and paying mind to the narrow shoulders packed with fans yelling Les bonbons! Les bonbons!
A policeman on a motorbike pulls up on our front wheels to help us chase. We accelerate to 80, 90, 100 … up to 120 kph, and Quentin sees I’m looking at the speedometer and says “well, it’s sometimes OK if the police are with you.” Still he gives Victor a ça va, poulet? and Victor is still strapped to the roof and ça va.
Quentin hasn’t seen an incident in the caravane involving Haribo, and he won’t speak for other brands. There are a few disconcerting moments on our trip, though — a mother yanking back her boy by the collar as he lunges for something in the road, adults lunging and jumping back instinctively when they hear honking.
“I think this is totally stupid,” Quentin says as a man steps into the road with his dog on a leash. “Sometimes people are holding on to the dogs better than the kids.”
To drive the caravane, you need to be willing to submit yourself to a moment’s sobriety test — Quentin says he was breathalyzed four times last year. Everyone taking part is given safety training. Vehicles shut off their music and stop tossing if they’re in the process of overtaking, and they’ll never throw across lanes of traffic.
The biggest danger is freebies landing in the road, so the chuckers are told to either throw their goods at the ground on an angle so that they slide to the curb, or far over the heads of fans if there’s a space behind them. The second method makes people do a funny little hop to try and catch their freebie, and almost feels like teasing on the part of the sponsors.
The roadside passion for all this free stuff and so much hokiness is mostly un-ironic. Kids and adults hold upturned open umbrellas to give the people on top of the floats a place to aim. Some hold signs with targets on them. People get upset if a float doesn’t throw candy. I saw a woman who appeared to be in her 50s stamp her foot as we passed by without giving her candy. Quentin won’t keep the windows rolled down, he says, so that I won’t hear the obscenities people yell at the cars.
Bear in mind that only a few of the Tour’s sponsors are offering anything fun, in the traditional sense. They include Génération Pêche, a resource for information on fishing regulations, and a campaign to raise awareness against Hepatitis C using the hashtag #DuBruitContrelHépatiteC. That means #NoiseAgainstHepatitisC, and it’s pasted on a truck that’s hauling a giant fake megaphone behind it.
I ask Quentin to ask the veterans among the crew what the weirdest sponsor in the caravane has been. Didier, who has worked the last seven Tours, says that the workers’ union Force Ouvrière used to throw out condoms to the crowd that said “FO will protect you.”
The caravane’s favorite fans are the very young and very old. We see both in large groups. When the caravane has a heads up that a non-profit organization or a school has put a group of kids next to the road, the candy-chuckers will gather armfuls of the fun-size bags and shower them.
The worst fans interfere with the cars. Quentin says that on hot days, some fans will pelt the caravane with water balloons, which may seem like a favor to the people on top of the vehicles, but in reality makes riding in the open air frigid and miserable. Mountain stages are especially tricky to drive. The roads are narrower and more winding, and the fans tend to be young drunk men. Once, Didier says, his vehicle had to stop in the Pyrenees, and he was boarded by hooligans who tried to break into the candy reserves in the trunk.
Today is calmer, 213.5 kilometers, all nearly paper flat. It’s one of the least eventful days in an otherwise action-filled first week of the Tour, but it’s special for Quentin. He’s from the area of Nancy, and he has coordinated friends and family to stand along the course 15 kilometers from the finish. He lets the rest of the Haribo crew know about an hour before that he wants to break decorum a bit, and he gets the OK.
As we roll up to the meeting point, Quentin rolls down his window, sees the first of his people, and lets out primal holler while honking his horn. He yells Ayy Papa! Ayy Papa!, which means “Ayy Papa! Ayy Papa!” and may not have actually been addressed to his dad.
The stunt was a bit off-script, but it felt natural in the organized chaos that the Tour de France cultivates. Just like the Tour itself, the caravane is an awe-inspiring pain in the ass. And like the Tour, everyone who has a part is proud of it.
Quentin rolls up his window after the drive-by, muting the sound outdoors. He’s looking forward to the mountain stages where the driving is more interesting. He remembers going over the Col d’Aspin in the Pyrenees last year, nearly 5,000 feet above sea level. “We were above the clouds. They were tapping on the car, and it was crazy.”
Then he remembers Victor, and rolls his window back down. He yells Ça va, poulet? and Victor is ça va.