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Matt Stephens: How The Tour de France Inspired Me

By Matt Stephens

It’s highly possible that without the Tour de France, I might not be sitting here in my spare room at home, typing this article for We Love Cycling. By that I mean it was the Tour de France, in all its ridiculous glory, that inspired me to want to be a pro cyclist in the first place, way back in 1986.

So, let’s rewind a bit. Well, a lot, actually, as 1986 was 38 years ago. That is a lot of rewinding! Leading into that year, I had always been conscious of the existence of the Tour de France from an early age; my parents went to see the race a few times in the 1970s in the era of Eddy Merckx and my dad had a large collection of cycling magazines with images of the great race. I remember him sitting me down as a very young kid and showing me photos of the peloton and impressing me with all the riders he could pick out and name. We had the Tour on TV too, but only a half hour each day, which we’d all excitedly wait for.

My first real interest and proper awareness came in 1984 when Robert Millar won a stage and the King of the Mountains title, with Laurent Fignon winning the overall race. At this time, I was just riding my bike to school and playing football, not even thinking of racing, but the images coming from France every summer of this almost mythical, epic bike race definitely stirred something within me, I just didn’t realise what at that point, as I was too busy being a kid.

Matt Stephens
Matt Stephens at the Tour

So, to 1986. By now, I was into running at school and doing quite well. I also rode my bike a lot, to and from my running club, and also to school and back. My bicycle back then was a Peugeot, the same as Robert Millar and Stephen Roche, and I pretended to be them on my rides to school. I even commentated on my exploits in my mind, just like I’d heard the famous commentator Phil Liggett do on the TV. This was way before I decided I wanted to race. Looking back, it was clear that the basic foundations for the rest of my life were already being laid down.

At some point in the spring of that year, my dad asked me if I’d like to go and see the Tour de France in the Alps. The plan was to drive down through France and camp in a tent as we went. It sounded like a real adventure so without hesitation, I agreed.

The drive itself was worthy of another article (which I’ll spare you from right now) as we navigated our way towards the Alps, choosing to opt for the smaller country roads, since my dad didn’t want to pay the tolls, towards a region I had never seen in my life. It was to be a voyage of real discovery and is still one of the most treasured and enjoyable times of my life.

The plan was to see five stages of the Tour, a couple in the Alps and also three down near St. Etienne. We camped near Gap, close to Briancon, cooked all our food on a stove, and drank and washed in the fast-flowing, icy river. It was wonderful.

After our first days of racing, where we rode up the brutally steep slopes of the Col du Granon (used in the 2022 Tour de France for only the second time), we headed to the iconic Alpe d’Huez. Early in the morning of the 21st of July 1986, we left our campsite to tackle the epic climb so we could find ourselves a good vantage point near the top. I remember being cheered on nearly all the way up the mountain; I’d never experienced anything like it before. The raw, pure energy of fans from all over the world, encouraging little me, was utterly invigorating. Needless to say, with all the extra adrenaline, I soon dropped my dad and had to wait for him several times. (I don’t think he minded.)

Matt Stephens
It was the Tour de France, in all its ridiculous glory, that inspired me to want to be a pro cyclist in the first place, way back in 1986.

In the blazing hot summer sun, we found a place about two kilometres from the finish, about 50 metres before a sweeping right-hand hairpin bend. Surrounded by other fans, we made camp and waited.

Hours passed. We watched the famous caravan and then finally the race itself. Police motorbikes, numerous lead cars, helicopters buzzing overhead, a spectacle so magical, strange and marvellous that I had difficulty comprehending it. Then came the riders. I stood my ground, clutching my little disposable camera while I peered down the road as the fans gradually parted, eventually revealing the final lead motorbike and just behind it, two riders, still partially obscured. As the moto passed me, just centimetres away, I saw them; Greg LeMond, in the yellow jersey, alongside Bernard Hinault, clad in the magnificently glorious Combine jersey. That moment for me is now frozen in time. I remember looking straight into the hollow, tired, focused eyes of Lemond and somehow I knew this was what I wanted to do. In that very second, the course of the vast majority of my life was decided.

Within the few moments it took for that pair of cycling’s greatest Titans to pass me, I managed to take a picture, which I treasure to this day. I have to thank my dad for taking me there all those years ago, although I don’t think he could’ve remotely realised where it would ultimately lead.

Fast forward. And here I am, writing this. Okay, I haven’t ridden the Tour myself, but I have no regrets. I have a Giro, an Olympics, multiple World Championships and many more fantastic experiences to reflect on, all of which have led me here. Importantly, to me, I’ve returned to the Tour to work where I get the privilege of reporting the action, conveying the emotions and feelings, as well as trying to give a sense, to all of you at home, of who these people really are, as they ride their hearts out through the sunflower fields and over the mountains of France each July.

I was inspired by the Tour, which led to this life and career in cycling, so I feel an overwhelming obligation to share the essence of the Tour with as many people as I possibly can.