It’s the dead of night somewhere in rural France and I’m hauling myself up an ivy-covered wall as quietly as I can. My plan is simple: find a way onto the grounds of this estate, get inside the house, and confront the shadowy tech mogul who owns the place. I’m wearing a hidden camera and if I can manage to broadcast his murder confession to the world, live, it’ll be a story for the ages.
You know, just another average day covering the Tour de France.
I pull myself up and over the wall then drop silently to the ground on the other side. Padding slowly towards the house I’m surprised at my own stealth, but it’s then that I hear a sound behind me. I turn to see a massive Doberman right on my heels, its giant white teeth glistening in the moonlight as it growls menacingly.
Dropping all pretence of stealth, I sprint towards the house, searching for something to put between myself and the ferocious beast. I scramble up another wall, just managing to pull myself out of reach as the Doberman’s jaws snap shut where my foot just was.
Perched atop the wall I breathe a momentary sigh of relief as the hound barks and froths below me. When the house floodlights come on I’m caught by surprise. I lose my balance and fall off the wall and into the darkness beyond.
I’m not expecting to land in water, but when I make it back to the surface, I’m again overwhelmed with relief. Sure, my cover is blown, but at least the dog can’t get me here.
That’s when I notice the giant shark swimming towards me.
I arrived in Paris a few days earlier. I’d flown into town with our video guy, Jake, and we’d met up with our colleague Eddy at our hotel. We’d barely arrived, jetlagged to hell, and Eddy was already throwing her latest conspiracy theory at us. All I wanted to do was get some sleep and there was Eddy going on about some plot to kill the Tour’s pre-race favourite, Marcel LaPelle.
You know, LaPelle. Winner of the past three Tours, darling of French cycling, national hero? That guy. Anyway, Eddy’s theory? That crash LaPelle had in the Dauphiné – that wasn’t your average racing incident.
Eddy was there and reckons she saw “the cuts in the brake”. It wasn’t the most convincing description I’d ever heard, but the way I figured it, what did we have to lose? Why not spice things up by digging into an attempted murder plot?
I gave LaPelle’s team a call to request an interview but they weren’t having a bar of it. No need to panic though – the race was due to start down the road in Versailles in the morning so I figured we’d mosey on down and chat to him at the start. How hard could it be?
Turns out, pretty hard. Not so easy to get access to the defending champ at the start of stage 1 of the Tour and casually ask him “so, who’s trying to kill you?” We couldn’t even get near the guy before the race began. We’d have to chat later.
LaPelle went on to win that first stage, beating Oswald Hinckley in a sprint. He’s a pretty versatile rider, that LaPelle – a three-time Tour winner taking out bunch sprints? Eddy Merckx eat your heart out.
But the day wasn’t without controversy. Hinckley’s team leader, Shaun O’Steen, lodged a protest post-stage, claiming he was pushed by LaPelle in the sprint. You might recall that O’Steen and Hinckley are riding for that new and mysterious Team X. They’ve got that all-black kit with no sponsor names on it, and they’re supposedly backed by some mysterious philanthropist. It’s all a bit strange.
After the stage, it was back to getting a word with LaPelle; back to the whole “someone wants to murder the Tour champion” story. Eddy had found out where LaPelle was staying that night and so we figured we should head over and have a word.
Now, if I was doing this whole journalist thing by the book, I would have gone to the hotel, said I was a reporter, and asked for a chat. But I figured I’d have a better chance of speaking to LaPelle if I, well, lied my way in. And so I dressed up as a courier and scrounged up a basket of fruit to take to LaPelle as congratulations for winning the stage.
Somehow the ruse worked and LaPelle’s people let me into his hotel room. I wasn’t surprised when I saw that LaPelle was getting a massage – that’s perfectly normal after a stage of the Tour – but I was surprised that the masseuse was literally up there on the massage table, walking on LaPelle’s back. It was all very weird. And it was about to get even weirder.
LaPelle got angry when I confronted him about the murder plot. Or maybe it was because I’d lied my way into his hotel room and interrupted his massage. It’s hard to tell. Either way, the next thing I knew the window to his room was exploding and a stick of dynamite was landing at my feet.
Thankfully the bomb never went off. Once we’d all calmed down, LaPelle explained the situation to me. Apparently he’d received a phone call two weeks earlier saying that if he tried to win the Tour, accidents would start happening. Then came the issue with his brakes at the Dauphiné, and now the bomb scare.
As we spoke, the phone rang. When LaPelle hung up a short time later, he explained to me, graven faced, what he’d just heard: if he didn’t help his rival O’Steen to win the Tour, LaPelle’s family would pay the price.
We got to the start of stage 2 the next morning and LaPelle was wearing yellow as race leader. And then suddenly he wasn’t. O’Steen’s protest from the night before was upheld and LaPelle was handed a one-minute penalty at the last possible moment, just before the riders set off. The yellow jersey was literally pulled off LaPelle’s back and given to O’Steen’s young teammate, Oswald Hinckley, the bloke who took second on the opening stage.
They say the maillot jaune gives you superpowers but apparently it also makes you forget how to race bikes. As soon as the flag dropped, Hinckley, wearing yellow, was attacking on his own. The leader of the Tour, attacking solo on stage 2, as soon as the race began. Let’s be kind and call it “youthful exuberance”.
He built a lead of five minutes with ease, and then, when he crested the first climb of the day, he started celebrating. It’s still not clear to me what that was about. He was leading the Tour but was somehow more interested in the KOM jersey?!
A moment after his celebration, Hinckley fell from his bike and started twitching on the ground. Moments later he was dead. Pretty eventful 24 hours for the young guy.
Because I’m a Very Clever Journalist, I decided to do some digging. That evening Jake and I headed to the TV production truck and watched the replay of Hinckley being handed the yellow jersey at the start of the stage. In the background of the shot I could see a limousine and in the window of that limousine, a man with an eye-patch, talking into a cell phone. He looked sinister. Cartoon villain sinister.
The lab technician explained that Eye-Patch Man was none other than Poli Kako, president of Kako Electronics, a company known for its rather ‘creative’ approaches to advertising.
We lined up the footage of Kako in the limo at the start of the stage with some footage taken at the top of the hill where Hinckley would soon die. Sure enough, on the hill, we could see someone talking on the phone at exactly the right moment. A lip reader helped us confirm that the two were having a conversation. “Stop him”, Kako said to his accomplice. “Too late,” replied the man atop the hill.
It all started to click. LaPelle was supposed to be the one wearing the yellow jersey; a jersey that had seemingly been imbued with a slow-acting poison of some kind. LaPelle had been warned not to try to win at the Tour, but won the first stage anyway. And so someone had tried to kill him.
It all felt far-fetched and more than a little surreal, but I was on a roll, so why stop there?
Kako, I surmised, was the man behind Team X. He wanted O’Steen to win the Tour, so he could reveal Kako Electronics as the team’s sponsor at the opportune moment and generate some exposure for the brand. And so he tried to … dissuade LaPelle from winning the Tour, and ultimately tried to kill him. But the last-minute decision to dock LaPelle some time meant LaPelle was no longer in the poisoned yellow jersey at the start of the stage. Kako had just killed a man on his own team. Whew.
I hatched a plan. Confront Kako, get him to confess to the murder, and make a hero out of myself in the process.
If I was smarter I would have gone back to the hotel to sleep first. I would have lined up a proper interview for sometime in the days ahead. Better still, I would have dropped the story entirely and focused on the bike race, what with that being my job and all. Instead what I did was head back to the hotel, attach a hidden camera to my shirt, then found my way out to Kako’s estate. I was going to confront Kako there and then, get his confession, and broadcast it to the world.
Which brings us back to Kako’s swimming pool and the giant shark that’s gliding towards me. I can’t help but laugh – a cartoon-like villain with an eyepatch, a giant Doberman, and a shark in their swimming pool?! Come on.
The humour of the situation disappears when I feel a tingling sensation where my leg used to be. It’s then I realise that I’ve covered my last story as a journalist.
When my old friend Matt Smith told me there was a Tour de France-themed Choose Your Own Adventure book, I knew I had to get it. Printed in 1992, it’s the first in a series of “Passport” books, written by James Becket.
I found a used copy online and ordered it in. When it arrived on my doorstep I could barely contain my excitement. I jumped in, keen to see what sort of hijinks I could get up to.
As you’ve read, the book is bonkers. Believe it or not, getting eaten by a shark isn’t the craziest thing that happens in the various branching storylines.
There’s one storyline where you try to save LaPelle’s wife and child, and you end up being chased around France by someone you think is A Bad Guy, for literally days, with LaPelle’s wife and child with you. Inexplicably, you end up in the middle of the LeMans car race, in a taxi, being chased by the baddie who’s also in a taxi. Only it turns out he’s not really a baddie; he thought you were abducting LaPelle’s family and rather than, you know, calling the police, he just chases you. And then, after working that out, you and the would-be baddie become friends in the space of two sentences.
It’s all incredibly silly and more than a little over-the-top. But then again, who would want to read a Choose Your Own Adventure book about what covering the Tour is really like? A book where your biggest decision is something like: “Which awful roadside takeaway joint will you get dinner from at 11pm when you still have 45 minutes to drive that night and a story to write before bed?”
Covering the real Tour de France is less of a murder mystery and more a case of doing the best job you can, one day after another, all while battling the cumulative stress of long days and nights, boiling-hot press rooms, dire coffee, thousands of kilometres of driving, and daily logistics that require more energy than actually reporting on the bike race.
It’s a privilege to be there, of course, but reporting on the Tour isn’t nearly as glamorous as it might seem from the outside. Still, it’s better than being eaten by a shark I guess.
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