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Original Issue

Invasion On Wheels

Traversing the Channel Tunnel, the Tour de France caused more than a little culture shock during a two-day run in England

The motorized cans of corn came down the broad avenue in Portsmouth, England, where preparations for D Day took place 50 years ago. The cans of corn were followed by 10-foot-tall motorized boxes of Kellogg's cornflakes and bran flakes and Special K. The cereals were followed by motorized candy bars and by motorized papier-m‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢chè computers and by Coca-Cola trucks each the size of a small house and by gendarmes in their snappy uniforms and...gendarmes? Yes, gendarmes. The gendarmes were followed by the bicycle riders.

"Did you see that, Jim?" Tony asked Jim.

"A moving can of corn, it was," Jim told Tony.

Barriers had been placed along the esplanade, past Lord Nelson's HMS Victory and past the Royal Naval Museum all the way to the D-Day Museum, and stands had been erected beyond some of the barriers. An announcer screamed words in French through a sound system. The words were full of excitement, presumably about the bicycle race, but perhaps about the corn. A Royal Air Force stunt team, the Red Arrows, drowned out the commentary for a moment—seven jet fighters in formation, leaving clouds of red, white and blue exhaust that stretched across the sky to create a half-mile-long French flag.

"I went to France about a month ago," Tony told Jim. "Remember that? I had some cheese in a restaurant. Very good. Very expensive. I said to the waitress, 'This cheese is from sheep milk, isn't it?' She said, 'No, no, very expensive.' She thought I was saying that the milk was cheap."

"It's a problem, Tony," Jim told Tony. "The language and all."

The time was three o'clock in the afternoon. The two retired men—Tony Voaden, in his proper tweed sport coat and more than proper regimental mustache, and red-faced Jim Herbert, 30 years in the Royal Marines—were together as part of a park-bench routine. Every day at this time they meet, sit together, face the sea and talk about the weather, life, the world. Today they could not even see the sea. They could not even sit on their normal bench, which had been blocked off by the barriers. The Tour de France had come to England.

"Quite a bit of business," Tony told Jim.

"Quite," Tony agreed.

Nothing ever had happened here quite like this. Not even on D Day.

"We had meetings in all the towns along the route for over a year and a half," M. John Bagwell, one of the planners, said. "There was a lot of resistance at first, a lot of worries. People would say 'What if one of the spectators knocks over my fence?' or 'What if someone tramples my prize orchids?' There was some selling to do. About the fence, if there was a worry, we said we would station a marshal in front of it. About the orchids, we said we would string a rope around the garden. We had to convince people."

Two days. Two countries. Two languages. Two different sides of the road for driving. Never had there been such a sports visit as the one that took place in southern England on July 6 and 7. Teams and events might have been taken to foreign countries—Did you hear, the World Cup is being staged in the United States?—but never had a total environment been transported so dramatically from one place to another.

The traveling party for the 23-day Tour includes 3,000 people, 1,500 cars and small trucks, more than 165 large trucks—a carnival of advertising vehicles and logistical support, everyone and everything moving this year in a large counterclockwise circle around the map of France and finishing on the Champs ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö¢lysèes in Paris on July 24. In past years the circle has been extended to Belgium, Spain, Italy and Switzerland, but the English Channel—La Manche on French maps—had been a formidable obstacle against extending northwest. One stage of the Tour was attempted in Plymouth, England, 20 years ago, but only the riders and assorted officials and journalists crossed the Channel, on ferries, for what everyone deemed a one-day failure.

Now there is a working tunnel. Sort of. Linking Calais, France, with Folkestone, England, the controversial Eurotunnel—or the Channel Tunnel or le Tunnel sous La Manche or the Chunnel—was opened in May, hailed by the French as a 31-mile technological marvel but greeted by the British with more reserve. For centuries the British had cherished their island insularity. It was their foremost defense against invasion. Hadn't the first tunnel project been proposed by Napoleon, solely as a means to invade from France?

And here was the first invasion already. The bicycle invasion. The circus.

"It all works together for the Tour to come here," Agnes Pierret, director of Tour administration, said. "The 50th anniversary of D Day. The opening of the tunnel. It was a perfect time to tie the tradition of the Tour with the history from World War II and the technology of the year 2000."

The cyclists and the traveling party accompanying the Tour were the first "civilian" passengers to use the tunnel. After Queen Elizabeth and French president François Mitterrand, each accompanied by small entourages, met in a ceremony on the French side of the tunnel on May 6 and traveled in a Rolls-Royce loaded on one of the tunnel railway cars, the tunnel was closed to passengers. The tunnel has yet to be granted certain operating certificates, the latest in a series of bureaucratic difficulties, and travel under the Channel has been restricted to freight trains. Thus the Tour was a virtual first passenger test.

Some travelers waited as much as four hours at the terminal in Calais before driving into the train "like so many sardines jumping into the can," according to one passenger, but once everyone was on board, the trip had a definite science-fiction magic. Car radios, set to an assigned frequency, played a disco version of Don't Go Breaking My Heart by Elton John and female impersonator RuPaul. The crossing is a time-travel sort of experience, drivers cautioned to STAY LEFT when they come out into the traffic-circle roundabouts of Grande Bretagne and to DRIVE ON RIGHT SIDE as they enter France.

"It is very difficult," said Maurice Maurin of Paris, driver of a minivan with a statue of a bucking red bronco mounted on the top advertising Poulain chocolate. "I'm driving and I come into the...[he moved his finger around and around in a circle] and I have a lot of problems to know where the people are coming from. On the left? On the right? Where?"

It was as if Lewis Carroll had been stood on his imaginative head. The characters from Wonderland appeared, straight out of the rabbit hole, in Alice's British backyard. Speaking French. The course on that first day of racing in England—the fourth stage of the Tour (which Miguel Indurain of Spain was leading as of Monday)—began at Dover Castle atop the white cliffs with a flourish of trumpets from a group dressed as Beefeaters, and it snaked for 128 miles through the small towns and rolling fields of Sussex until its finish along the coast at Brighton. The second day, a 113-mile loop through Hampshire county, began and ended in Portsmouth, Charles Dickens's birthplace.

The local radio stations answered questions about such curiosities as why the racers shave their legs. (It makes the daily applications of great gobs of liniment easier.) Schools were dismissed early, children grabbing for the Coke racing caps that were thrown off the backs of trucks. The organizers in Brighton shut off the entire town for two hours, their planning so extensive that each pregnant woman in the city was monitored because travel to the local hospitals was impossible. Bobbies worked with gendarmes. Tea was served with cured-ham sandwiches. Pimm's was sipped. The course was enough of a test to push three-time champion Greg Lemond of the U.S. to retire the day after the stage in Portsmouth. The crowds were huge, a conservatively estimated one million people each day.

"These were the biggest crowds ever at the Tour," Jim Ochowicz, manager of the American Motorola team, said. "It makes you wonder about what's possible. What about a couple of stages in the U.S.? The Tour comes to New York. Who knows?"

British opponents of the Chunnel have insisted that it would be a prime target for terrorists, but the one bomb threat was a hoax. The one major protest, by English fruit growers against the importing of French products like golden Delicious apples, was confined to signs. A Sussex brewery did prepare a garlic-flavored beer called Frog-Off, but mostly as a joke. There were letters to newspapers suggesting that authorities "send the whole thing home and cement up the Chunnel," and one paper editorialized that maybe the best way to start Chunnel traffic was not with "human posters with shaved legs and skin-tight shorts," but most comments were much kinder.

"There will always be an England," Michael Calvin wrote in the Daily Telegraph. "Whether the Tour de France, which has crossed the Channel for the first time in 20 years, can be integrated successfully into a distinctly different culture remains to be seen. But yesterday, with the rain clouds scudding over the South Downs and Sussex self-consciously adopting the strangled vowels and tortured syntax of Franglais, the two worlds collided with remarkably little fall-out...."

"It's all about the future, about being part of Europe," Tony told Jim, as Nicola Minali of Italy won the Portsmouth stage. "You can't stop the future."

"You can't stop the future," Jim agreed.

The 185 racers were scheduled to fly later on Thursday afternoon to Cherbourg to continue their ordeal for the next two weeks through the Pyrenees and the Alps. The rest of the caravan would take six ferryboats across the Channel overnight, landing in Cherbourg in the morning. Tony and Jim, next day, same time, would be back at their usual bench. They were asked what they usually did.

"Sometimes we just watch the sea," Tony said.

"Sometimes we bring down a big bag of golden Delicious apples," Jim said. "And we throw them at the French. Hah."

He was asked why they hadn't brought the apples today. There would have been a lot of targets.

"We take one day off a year," Jim said. "We decided it would be today. Hah."



The Chunnel passage (opposite) provided a respite before the next day's grueling competition.



[See caption above.]



The field passed through Dover Castle oblivious to gripes about shaved legs and alien apples.