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The Top Gun For The Top Dog

By Vratislav Šlapák

Having the best view out of anyone, helicopter pilots can see the whole race from above at once, including those breaking away from the pack and those trailing behind, while passing thousands of fans along the paved course below.

At La Planche des Belles Filles spectators line the track intently watching the next turn in anticipation of the approaching column of riders. Suddenly their attention is interrupted by a distant hum quickly approaching. “Les Helicos!”, called out someone from the crowd and everyone raised their heads towards the sky. Five black helicopters rush in and quickly land on the local football pitch ensuring that their passengers reach the finish line in a timely manner. After exiting their helicopters the pilots all gather together in a circle and appear to be enjoying catching up as one of them tries to do a pirouette. At first glance, the youngest of them all laughs and returns to his helicopter clearly sporting the Tour logo and the VIP Pilot’s name, Nicolas Dotto. To our surprise he’s flying around the man to whom every calls Le Patron, the Tour boss himself, Christian Prudhomme.

After exiting their helicopters the pilots all gather together. (Photo: WeLoveCycling.com)

“I’m twenty-eight and I‘ve had my pilot’s license for eight years,” said the elegant charmer. “I‘m flying for the Tour for my second year now and for the first time this year as number one.” When I asked him how it is possible at his age, he just amusingly shrugged and snickered, “I guess I’m just good.”

“I guess I’m just good,” says the young pilot. (Photo: WeLoveCycling.com)

Nicolas‘ typical day on the Tour starts with a morning pick up for his passengers at the airport in Lyon. During the day he is flying approximately 40km “spans” so that his passengers can watch the race at all the best places. Daily he touches down about five times. “I cover the same amount of miles as the cyclists need to ride, but I‘m just a little faster,” he chuckles while looking at his helicopter with a cruising speed of 200km/h. “We do encounter problems at times, but they’re generally precision or weather issues.” Remembering the rainy skies that have accompanied this year’s Tour I asked Nicolas, whether he pilots in such bad weather. “This weather? I only have one word to describe flying in this weather. Cool. Cool and as of tomorrow it should be beautiful, so absolutely no problem. ”

The helicopter’s cruising speed is about 200 km/h. (Photo: WeLoveCycling.com)

Even last year, his first year on the Tour, being a rookie was no big worry. “Of course I was nervous in the beginning, but I‘ll tell you what, the Tour is so well prepared, so well organized that there just isn‘t anything to worry about. Everything is allocated to the minute and if you follow the timetable, everything turns out as planned. If you want to ask if any of my passengers have vomited, the answer is no! No one was sick, no one complained,” he says laughing even as his colleague came running towards him clearly indicating five minutes are left. The five minute warning means that Le Patron is coming and Nicolas has to go back to work again.

Nicolas and Christian head for the next stage. (Photo: WeLoveCycling.com)

With exactly five minutes to perform their impromptu airport services for VIP passengers, dividing up into the helicopters, the engines then start, the grass flattens down under the air pressure and the helicopters take off, along with this year’s Top Gun and the Top Dog (Le Patron) of the Tour.

Text: Jan Hanzlík