It's been a long time coming, but the world's greatest cycling event finally swept into London yesterday. 189 lycra-clad blokes, most of them French, pedalled their hearts out on a five mile circuit round the centre of town. Half a million people came to watch them speed by. And, what do you know, even the sun finally came out.
I avoided the start down Whitehall and the finish up the Mall, and headed instead to the open green spaces of Hyde Park. Here I had a look round the People's Village - an enclave of cycle-related exhibits coupled with un bon marché français. This was the perfect spot to learn about sustainable transport policy, or to have a go on an under-16s obstacle course, or to buy some garlic sausages. I wasn't quite tempted to convert to two-wheeledness myself (I'd rather keep my body in shape by not falling under the wheels of a lorry, thanks) but the focus was appropriately positive throughout. The 2012 Olympic bus was in attendance, with that much-loved logo on its side, overseeing some have-a-go sporting sessions. And the must-have freebie du jour was the Orange Broadband periscope, which just everybody was queueing for, but only one of which I actually saw being used.
Wherever the Tour goes, the Caravan precedes it. This is a long procession of the Tour's sponsors, out to make an impression before the main event begins. Furry lions parade past, grinning girls hurl promotional goodies out of the windows of their converted cabs, and giant washing powder packets wheel by. Most surreal of all yesterday, however, was that all the sponsors were French. There was no nod whatsoever to the native British audience who were instead treated to publicity from bottled water brands they can't buy, and supermarkets they can't shop at, and police forces they'd never want to be recruited into. But that didn't stop the spectators from trying to grab every plastic freebie thrown their way. Skoda sunhats, Haribo sweeties, cheap plastic wristbands, even pointless shiny silver discs - all were grappled for with a vengeance. I failed miserably to collect a single item, beaten even to the shrink-wrapped cardboard fan in the shape of a pizza slice that fell at my feet. Ah well, the child who wrestled it from me looked suitably delighted.
Before the official start the riders made practice laps of the track, just to check where all the bends were and how best to take them. This was good, because otherwise there'd have been nothing to see for nearly an hour and a half, apart from the backs of the heads of the people standing in front of you. I'd taken up position by the Serpentine, inside the western loop of the cycle circuit, where by 2pm there was little chance of escape over a woefully inadequate pair of pedestrian footbridges. Nearby spectators rang their friends attempting rendezvous, only to discover that it might be hours before they could all meet up at the same location.
And then the first rider appeared. You could tell he was on his way by the ripple of applause spreading across the park from West Carriage Drive, and by the gendarme outrider on his official French police motorbike. Whoosh! That was a man in head-to-toe lycra, beneath a plastic teardrop helmet, pedalling like the clappers on his vélo rapide. Behind the anonymous cyclist came his team car with a pair of bikes on the roof (presumably as spares, in case of mishap, although that seemed rather pointless on a circuit lasting less than ten minutes). And then a final police outrider. And then a minute's gap. And repeat 188 times.
Some might call the Prologue repetitive and boring, especially for the spectators. The atmosphere was great, but we had no idea who was passing and no idea who was winning, neither did most of us care to be honest. We were there for the 'event'. Our role was just to watch, and to applaud, and to make up the numbers along the circuit. The endless stream of passing cyclists gave all the photographers in the crowd the opportunity to repeatedly practice their camera technique ("damn missed him, but never mind there'll be another one along in a minute"). But for some the excitement paled as the novelty value wore off, and the less stalwart spectators drifted away well before the three hours was up. It'll be more exciting at the Grand Depart this morning, along the first stage of the race proper. Oh you lucky people of Greenwich, Bexley and Kent, you have it all to come. Just don't blink as the peloton charges through, because you've only got the one chance for a decent photo.