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'WAIT FOR for the helicopters', the word went round. 'When you hear them you know it's all going to start happening.'

 We looked up into a faultless but windswept sky, straining our ears for the first throb and thrum of rotors, searchi

'WAIT FOR for the helicopters', the word went round. 'When you hear them you know it's all going to start happening.'

 We looked up into a faultless but windswept sky, straining our ears for the first throb and thrum of rotors, searching the eastern horizon for black dots approaching. And after a minute or two there they were, sure enough, five or six helicopters in a loose formation advancing slowly along the valley, occasionally one breaking off, circling and joining on behind the rest. We took up station and waited for the the sirens and flashing blue lights of the gendarmes to arrive.

* * *

NOW WHAT'S all this, then? The start of a polar, the French term for a thriller, a whodunnit? Could be, couldn't it? In fact I might carry on in a minute or two, after you've gone. But in the meantime I'll give you a few clues:

 1. Quite exceptionally, this year the same helicopters overflew two places I've had homes in, one in Kent umpteen years ago, the other here in the south of France.
 2. We - about twenty assorted alfresco lunch guests - were gathered like so many Humpty-Dumpties on the top of Indispensable William's garden wall. One push and . . .
 3. . . .we'd all have ended up in the ditch a metre and a half below, beside the main road out of the village, specially dollied up for the occasion with fresh white lines and neatly trimmed verges.
 4. Some of us were already in the ditch, not through having fallen off but the better to collect up all the freebies cast before us.
 5. The road had been closed to ordinary traffic for an hour or two, meaning that in order to reach Indispensable William's place Hector couldn't use the bridge but had to cross the river Paresse in a little dinghy he keeps in his cave (and please remember that cave is un faux ami, a false friend, because it doesn't mean 'cave' as you would expect it to, but 'cellar'. The French for dinghy, however, is dinghy, although sometimes they say youyou instead.)
 6. Enough of this persiflage. We're talking about one of the world's major sporting events. You've got it by now, of course.
 Yes, the Tour de France.

* * *

WE SAT near the top of the wall and waited. Presently a police escort of the size you might expect to accompany a middling-to-senior government minister appeared, announcing the arrival of what they call la caravane publicitaire. This is an immense convoy of wonderfully decorated sponsors' vehicles, some got up to resemble the products they represent. Pretty girls throw out free samples which the roadside peons scramble for. In a state of febrile over-excitement caused by this extraordinary largesse of trinkets and trumperies I'd collected -

A Skoda sun hat.
A Bart Simpson mask
An outsize jellybaby
A lanyard with an invitation to come to South Australia
A mini-saucisson, a sort of French cocktail sausage
A fluorescent armband marked Festina (the Latin for 'go fast', as it happens)
A sachet of fabric softener

- when Indispensible William came round his guests distributing Cornish pasties of his own superb baking.

Now Cornish pasties need mastering with both hands, and if you don't deal with them in an orderly and disciplined way the contents spill out, so it's not an eatable conducive to leaping about in a ditch collecting up little packages, stuffing them in your pocket and waving enthusiastically at the next freebie wagon. So questions had to be asked, values had to be weighed, decisions taken: pasty or freebies?

Luckily the next members of the cavalcade solved the problem. Both the Crédit Agricole and the Crédit Lyonnais (major French banks) convoys passed, complete with full bevies of pretty girls. Did they throw out bundles of bunce?  Some hope. Not a doit, not a stiver. A Gendarmerie cohort passed, but no flutter of Get Out Of Jail Free cards. Mean hounds. Still, I got my Cornish pasty eaten undisturbed.

A long wait followed, between the passing of la caravane publicitaire and the first distant drone of the helicopters, televising the race from above but also breaking off now and again to film features of interest along the route. Another police escort, lights flashing, and two cyclists appeared, heads down, side by side, seemingly deaf to applause and shouts of encouragement from Indispensable William's pasty-fortified guests. They turned out to be a Frenchman, Vogondy, and a Spaniard (who would probably prefer to be called a Basque) called Txurruka, who eventually won the overall Tour award for the most combative competitor. This is the nearest we came to rubbing shoulders with the mighty. They must have been in close proximity for all of 4 seconds.

Another wait, the best part of 10 minutes, for the main body of cyclists to appear, a close-packed battalion about 180 strong. This is what the French call le peloton, a curious word originally meaning a hank of wool. This was undoubtedly impressive, but I fell to wondering what impact the ambience had on all these people. What can they possibly have taken in of the splendid local scenery, the roadside banners and slogans, curiosities like the Danish staff of a local restaurant gathered on the roof waving their national flags, when all they look at are the white lines painted on the road and the sinewy backsides of the competitors in front of them? Unless, of course, they were Vogondy and Txurruka.

A final police vehicle came through displaying the message fin de course, end of the race, meaning that the road would soon be reopened and we could go home. We watched the rest of the race on television (neither Vogondy nor Txurruka came anywhere), and the next day I had to drive in the direction the Tour de France had taken. I was surprised by the number of slogans that had appeared, painted, sprayed and even stencilled on the tarmac, urging teams and individual riders on. So this is what all those heads-down, bottoms-up cyclists see. I hope they appreciate the messages.

But here and there among the slogans someone had painted dopés (dope, drug-takers) in large red letters. Oh goodness, not again. When will they learn? Never mind, I came away with grateful feelings of having been wonderfully close to something honest, unalloyed and unadulterated, something richly enjoyable that I never thought to see in our forgotten corner of the Languedoc. Merci, William: your Cornish pasties were superb, clear winners every time.