He might be small in height, but the imposing figure of a Belgian police inspector with magic hands could play a major role in Cadel Evans’ yellow jersey bid on the Tour de France.
For the last five years of Lance Armstrong’s seven-year reign on the race Serge Borlee became an all too familiar sight to fans, and a menace to journalists. Herding the American through the waiting media scrum and past screaming fans became his job for the summer and, until last year, he was even considered something of a lucky charm.
Ahead of this year’s race, Evans’ Silence-Lotto team have taken a leaf out of Armstrong’s book by bringing the shaven-headed Belgian – who is also a qualified physiotherapist – on board.
“Accidents can happen, so I try to make sure Cadel has as much of a hassle-free time as possible from the time he arrives at the race to when he finishes,” Borlee told AFP. “Before the race finish I go to the finish line, wait for him in my car and afterwards I drive him straight to the hotel. He doesn’t even wait for the other riders.”
So far, it’s been a comparatively easy week – although that could all change in the coming days as the race heads into the Pyrenees.
“It’s different from working with Armstrong, because there were sometimes hundreds of people trying to get to him. Here there’s about 20 people but if Cadel takes the yellow jersey that will all change,” he added.
Evans’ popularity is unlikely to lead to the kind of drastic situation in which Borlee found himself during Armstrong’s reign, when the American became a target for a number of threats.
“There was a lot more pressure during the Armstrong era. There were times when he received so many threats that we were in regular contact with the American and French embassies and the Secretary of State,” he added. “They came from all kinds of organisations, for example claiming that bombs were going to be planted. But all that happened in a certain context, Armstrong was American and it was during the Gulf war.”
After Armstrong’s retirement, Borlee came to last year’s race convinced that his ‘lucky charm’ status would rub off on Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov, the Astana team leader he was to protect throughout the race. But the Belgian’s Tour, as well as that of the entire Astana team, was cut short when Vinokourov tested positive and was ejected.
For some, Borlee’s presence runs contrary to the traditions of a sport which has always promoted close contact between the fans and riders.
The Caisse d’Epargne team of race co-favourite Alejandro Valverde admitted it is not an approach they are likely to take.
“We don’t need a bodyguard – we’ve got our press spokeswoman, who isn’t scared of pushing people out of the way if she has to!” team manager Eusebio Unzue told AFP. “Seriously, we don’t need one for Alejandro even if he’s wearing the yellow jersey. In fact, I think he quite likes the attention.
“Who knows, maybe if he were to win three yellow jerseys we would have to reconsider.”
But Borlee insists: “This is my seventh year doing this job, and people respect what I do. It helped Armstrong, and it helped Vinokourov up until he left last year’s race. I think it can help Cadel as well. It’s just one of the little details that you have to consider if you’re going to aim for the yellow jersey.”
© AFP 2008