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Although I’ve been to see the Tour de France a number of times, I’d never really been to see the race in the mountains before.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I did once come to the mountains before to see the race but it turned out to be in tragic circumstances. As I’ve written before, I arrived on the day that Motorola’s Fabio Casartelli died. I arrived in the town of Lourdes – famous for its grotto, visited by thousands of Christians a year – and found myself watching the Tour in a small village hall. My rusty French meant that it took me quite some time to establish what had happened. There was a quiet mood in the hall. It was all very uncomfortable.
The next day was to be another Pyrenean stage, but it was neutralised. In any case, I didn’t know how on earth I’d get transport up a mountain that was closed to traffic from very early in the day. In the end, I watched the race come into the finish town of Pau, with the Motorola team allowed to cross the line ahead of the rest of the peleton.
That all took place in 1995. So I decided it was high time that I went to visit the mountains properly, and this year the second week of the Tour was going to take place largely in the Pyrenees.
Once again, I decided to base myself in Lourdes – it is centrally located and full of cheap hotels. The 11th stage actually came through the town, but all three Pyrenean stages were close enough that they’re within reach. Nonetheless, I decided that getting a hire car seemed the sensible option. But I’d also bring my bike out with me. My broad aim, without an enormous amount of forethought it must be said, was to get to somewhere near a climb by car, then ride some of the way up a mountain – possibly the last major climb of the day – before riding back to the car.
Rinse and repeat for each of the three stages.
Toulouse is probably the best served airport in the area. There are smaller ones in places like Pau, but Easyjet and BA amongst others fly to Toulouse, so that was the way I went. I was slightly concerned that my plane would be stuffed full of people with similar plans to myself. So I made sure that I turned up at Gatwick with plenty of time. I wanted to make sure my bike made it onto the plane. There are all sorts of smart bike bags you can get these days with hardshells and soft ones. However my bike bag is a bit cheaper – and was bought for a different bike and to simply bypass some train booking issues.
Nonetheless, it offers reasonable protection, and while I mightn’t trust it with a carbon fibre steed worth thousands, I’d decided that it should be fine with my aluminium machine. It was somehow comforting to see the bike loaded into the hold of the aircraft from my seat on the plane.
It made it safely to Toulouse, and once I’d established that I was a “prestige” hire car member (meaning that I could have skipped the queue I’d just waited in), I was soon on my way.
One thing that airlines ask you to do is deflate your tyres. Actually nobody precisely asked me to do this, and I ended up with one tyre marginally deflated while the other was full. Nonetheless, I hate mini-pumps, and I’d ensured that I did take out my compressed CO2 container (which were expressly banned by Easyjet), so on the way to Lourdes from Toulouse, I stopped off at a branch of Decathlon and picked up a cheap stirrup pump. I’d thought about bringing my pump from home, but it’s quite a heavy beast. This was a cheap and cheerful model made of plastic. I decided that it would happily sit at the bottom of my bike bag for the trip back.
Once I’d reached my hotel in Lourdes that evening, it was time to work out what I’d do the next day. I gathered together both a Tour route map, and a map of the Pyrenees purchased from Stanfords, and worked out my plan for the first mountains stage. I would drive as far as the village of Arette which was at the foot of the climb to the ski station at La Pierre Saint-Martin – a climb that the Tour had not previously used.
The best route was via some quite small roads, and I was clearly not the only person with plans a little like this. I saw lots of people on the road, including riding in the other direction. The road I was on would be used in the following day’s stage. One party in particular seemed enormously well equipped with a lead car with flashing lights, and a coach following behind. Could this be the Geoff Thomas “Before the Tour” ride? If so, then this was the group that Lance Armstrong would be joining in a few days.
I headed onwards, and was now passing groups of cyclists who were cycling in my direction to the foot of the climb. I should point out that the road climbed and fell away a lot. This was serious work. Some looked like local club riders heading to watch the stage, others were tourists – having been dropped off by a Sports Tours International coach.
Eventually I came to a village with some decent parking, and decided to stop there. I was still about 7-8km from Arette, but I knew that’d be busy, and wasn’t certain what the parking would be like (it turned out, farmers’ fields were turned over for this, but the traffic out would be awful). I could cycle from here without too much issue.
The first order of business was to replace an inner tube as I had a front wheel puncture. Quite how, I wasn’t sure. The tyre had been fine the night before, but in the morning it had deflated somewhat. I wasn’t going to trust pumping it up again. So I replaced it with one of my two spare tubes.
As it happens, the road onwards remained hilly, and first of all I had a decent ascent to cover before dropping down into the village of Arette. It was en fete. It was Bastille Day which means that France is on holiday, and if the Tour is passing through then you have one choice.
The day was beginning to warm up now. As I rolled through Arette, hundreds of others were heading onto the mountain. Many were walking, but a good number were cycling. I rolled through nice and slowly. The road was already heading upwards, although we’d not even reached the official start of the climb. All motorised traffic that wasn’t on official Tour business was stopped. But the Tour has plenty of “official” traffic, including dozens of buses ferrying guests and whoever up onto the mountain.
This was one of those roads that only had one way in and one way out – the same way.
I reached the sign telling me I was at the start of the climb. There were 15.3km to the top. As well as the Tour’s signs, the ski resort’s own signs were also at the side of the road, and they told a worrying story. They helpfully spelt out the percentage climb for the next kilometre. That was fine when it said 3%. But suddenly the next sign said 9%. I was already in my bottom gear, and I’d bought a bigger cassette for this trip especially. I’d changed from my regular 11-28 to an 11-32 – the biggest rear cog I could get.
The next kilometre’s sign said 10% average gradient. This was killing me. The sweat was dripping off me. It was really heating up. It felt like I had walked into a bathroom where someone has left the hairdryer on for an hour or two.
It was intense, and felt hard to actually get any air.
I had to stop.
I took a few minutes to catch my breath and drink some water. Quite a few minutes. Then I carried on.
I probably only made it another 800m before I was in pieces again.
I’d just been up a severly steep ramp. And it wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t turn my legs so much as the heat that was killing me. I was gulping down water, but it wasn’t enough.
So I found a nice grassy verge. I would have a good view of the riders coming up that really nasty bit of hill.
In fact, the road seemed to flatten a bit further on from me, and after a while I played around with the idea of continuing upwards. But I liked this spot. It wasn’t too crowded, and I had somewhere nice to sit.
“Somewhere nice to sit,” was a little misleading, as it became clear I still had hours to wait. The timings I’d ripped from my official Tour de France Guide back in the UK, had, I now realised, been adjusted for UK time (despite the fact that only people on the roadside really needed the timings of things like the caravan). I had a while to go, and it was hot and getting hotter.
One of the things I’d given serious thought to was how much liquid I’d need to take. I’d guessed that on a mountainside in the middle of nowhere there’d be limited drinks opportunities. So I’d settled on 2 x 750 ml bottles in the bottle cages on my bike, a 1.75 litre CamelBak in my little Deuter Race rucksack along with some other bits and bobs, and another bottle of water in the side pocket of that – a CamelBak Podium Chill bottle that at least keeps water cooler than most bike bottles.
This turned out not to be overkill.
The order of events on a Tour stage goes something like this.
More random vehicles
The publicity “caravan” – think sponsor led carnival floats
More press cars
Tour de France cyclists themselves
The bits you’re looking forward to are perhaps the caravan, and of course the cyclists. Everything else is just noise.
Finally the caravan approached.
It’s a bizarre concoction that goes someway towards paying for the Tour. Basically each advertiser gets a number of vehicles, usually bespoke designs, and they fill them with happy smiling young people who dance and wave to the crowds as they pump out pop music. Bearing in mind there are 21 stages covering thousands of kilometres, this must be a tough job, keeping up all that dancing and smiling.
But best of all, from the crowd’s perspective, is the vast amount of free “stuff” they throw at you.
Now last year I saw the Tour in Britain three times, and my haul was meagre. I think this may because only in one instance was it slow when it passed me. And I also think that some very French brands probably didn’t see too much advantage on giving trinkets to people who’d never be their customers. While there are international brands in the carnival, many are specifically French.
This time around I was on a hillside, a steep hillside, and I was very much in France. So let’s just say that my haul was much more impressive. I came away with three hats, a bag for life, Haribo, Fruit Shoots, assorted keyrings, “official” Madeleine cakes, money off Bostik, Disney comics, a Nivea beach ball, masks, some stirrers (?), some coffee and some temporary tattoos.
Many families near me collected their hauls together in the “bags for life” to carry them off the mountain!
As it was, this lot barely fitted in my little rucksack!
Then there was more waiting. Assorted members of the press. Team buses came through. I’d forgotten that the winners’ lion mascots get propped up in the front of the team buses as a proud indication of how well they’ve done. Etixx Quick-Step’s bus had three squashed in. I spotted the very smart Jaguar of The Cycling Podcast being driven by Lionel Birnie. I saw Greg Lemond in a Eurosport car.
At one point I saw a rider in full Tinkoff-Saxo kit, the new camouflage variant they were using for the Tour. I didn’t realise at the time, but this must have been Oleg Tinkoff, the team’s garrulous owner
The one thing I didn’t really have any idea about was the state of the race.
I’d brought my portable TV to France, but I’d had no luck with it in Lourdes. In any event, my spot in a valley would have prevented much in the way of TV pictures getting through.
I’d hoped to pick up a French SIM so that I didn’t run up too much in the way of data costs on my phone, but I’d not had a chance. In any case, to say that mobile reception was patchy really doesn’t do the work justice. I was getting 2G at best, and precisely no data at all. Twitter was a bust.
Annoyingly I’d forgotten to bring some headphones up the mountain, so I couldn’t try my basic French with the radio either.
In the end just ahead of the race, I learnt that the breakaway was four minutes clear. And that was all I knew.
Finally the helicopters indicated that riders were on the way. Because it was Bastille Day, it is basically a given that some French riders will make a go of it. And indeed when the first solo rider reached me, he was from Bretagne Seche. It looked like he’d just dropped a Cofidis rider who was alone a few seconds behind.
But this was all to be clearly in vain. The peleton was upon them.
Well I say the peleton, but it was clear that on those lower slopes of the mountain that I’d managed to climb, the peleton had basically exploded.
Movistar were driving things, with Valverde and Quintana. But Sky were right on their tail, with Peter Kennaugh, Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas and the yellow jersey himself, Chris Froome, as well as at least two other riders. BMC and Astana were also in evidence. And it was good to see Adam Yates up there. But the peleton was actually pretty small, because riders were already all over the place in drips and drabs.
The sprinters were beginning to struggle, and Cav was in pieces when he came by. I didn’t get a good photo of him because I felt it was more useful to shout some support for him. Daniel Teklehaimanot didn’t look likely to retain his polkadot jersey, and Michael Kwiatkowski was struggling too.
And then it was over.
The riders still had another 11-12km to ride upwards. But once the race traffic had cleared, I headed downwards.
Back in Arette, I stopped at a house that had a massive screen in their garden showing the end of the stage. Froome had blown it all apart and was alone up front with Quintana chasing. Van Garderen was in another group, but Richie Porte managed to overhaul Quintana and get himself a second on the day. It was still too early to say that Froome had won – you have to get to Paris. But he was mighty impressive. And it’s good to learn that Geraint Thomas had moved well up the order too.
While I was watching the stage finish, standing astride my bike alongside a number of other cyclists, we all heard a sssssssssss sound. There was a bit of concerned looking around at tyres. Who was it?
It was me.
My front tyre had somehow blown while I was stationary.
So before I cycled the last leg back to my car, I had to repair my second puncture of the day. The rip looked like it may have been a pinch puncture probably a consequence of my fix earlier in the day. In any case, I could find nothing in the tyre. But this now had me worried. I go months without any punctures, then suffer two in a single day. And that accounted for both my spare tubes. Later I patched one tube, and tightened the valve on the second as it looked like that was the cause of the slow leak. I made a mental note to buy more inner tubes.
I cycled out of the village and back to my parked up car. The village had a fountain with a tap. There was no sign saying that it wasn’t fit for drinking. As I filled my bottle with much needed fresh water, another cyclist came around the corner and asked me, in French, if the water was drinkable. “J’espère,” I replied.
Finally it was a drive back into Lourdes and time to find a decent restaurant. Last night the choice had been limited with seemingly everywhere closed on Mondays.
France TV seems to do its Tour wrap up programmes quite early in the evening so I didn’t manage to see much in the way of additional footage. Instead I saw their Bastille Day Concert from near the Eiffel Tower. Think “Last Night of the Proms” mixed with “New Year’s Fireworks” and that’ll give you a good idea.
The following day and this time the stage would come straight through Lourdes on the way to two massive mountains, the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmelet.
I’d thought long and hard about where to go. Either of those mountains was cycle-able from Lourdes. Well, I say “cycle-able”, but I mean cycle-able by some people. The easier way up the Tourmalet from Lourdes was the side that they came down. A longer route was needed to go up the side that the riders go up.
For me, after yesterday’s difficulties with the “Haute Categorie” (i.e. “outside category”) mountain at the finish, I would instead ride to the foot of the final climb of the day up to Cauterets. It was a very reachable distance away, and the climb seemed more attainable. 6.4km at an average gradient of 5%.
That’s still some climb from my perspective, easily beating anything I’d done before in a single go. But the 5% part of that made it seem like a realistic goal.
I programmed Cauterets into my Garmin and set off. The first thing I knew was that the Garmin was determined not to route me via the Voie Verte des Gaves, a cycle path that I knew ran at least part of the way.
Sod the Garmin. I’ll still to the pan flat old railway line that has been tarmaced into a lovely cycle path that runs along the valley floor.
I thought I knew that I had to veer off at Argeles-Gazost, about halfway along. So at that point I let the Garmin take over, and quickly I found myself climbing out of the valley floor. While I knew that my ultimate destination involved a climb, I was surprised that it was happening so soon, especially since I seemed to running parallel with the flat valley, just higher up on the hillside. But I was rewarded with some stunning views from the village of Saint-Savin.
And I wasn’t the only rider up here. A club looked like they were enjoying a coffee break in the bar before heading on to either Cauterets or the Tourmalet.
From Saint-Savin it was downhill all the way to Pierrefitte-Nestalas, the town at the foot of the climb. Once I reached the town centre, the Tour’s route became clear. As ever, it was already close to be closed to traffic, and anyone driving up to Cauterets must have set off early in the morning.
I dropped down through my gears and started the climb out. It was still relatively early, and most of the signs had not been erected yet. So I didn’t see a sign noting the precise start of the climb, but from my perspective it began with the town itself.
As was the case yesterday, it was clear that most of the road had been resurfaced in advance of the Tour. This was a beautiful tarmac that looked like it had only been finished days earlier. I suspect that a major plus in your region getting a stage of the Tour is that the council will come out and resurface a road that would otherwise be way down the list of things the municipality would be spending money on.
The gradient wasn’t too bad, and I carried on climbing. I was pleased to overtake some families and kids, but keener club cyclists were leaving me behind. At one point a guy came sprinting past me with a boxed satellite dish and decoder strapped to his back! Chapeau!
The climb slogged on. It would flatten out a little, and then climb some more. At the start there had been switchbacks, but now we were heading up the valley. At one point we entered a covered section, and I basked in the shade that it offered. I thought about resting up there, but I still felt good. Unlike yesterday, the heat wasn’t getting to me. I didn’t feel the need to stop.
I received in good grace the “Allezs” I got from passing riders, including a couple of Brits. They stopped at the next corner though, and I took pride in carrying on upwards. I found it better not to stop. Plus the CamelBak was useful for getting cool drinks of water when I needed them without having to break my rhythm in any way.
Looking back at the climb from my Garmin’s stats, I know that I took about half an hour to get up the climb in total. I knew it was slow, but I was pleased that I didn’t need to be in the lowest gear all the way.
Finally a straight section revealed more switchbacks ahead of me. And because there was already a good crowd up there, it somehow made it look all the more daunting. The switchbacks formed an amphitheatre of sorts.
But then I passed a “Sommet 1km” sign. That was very doable. Most of that last kilometre was that series of switchbacks. A good humoured crowd egged me on. I was smiling. This was doable. I passed ex-sprinter Robbie McEwen, working for Australian broadcaster SBS, doing some vox pops with the crowd. I headed on.
Finally I came around the last bend and stopped under the finish point of the climb.
Category 3 done!
The actual stage finish was another couple of kilometres up the road in the resort of Cauterets itself. Indeed, there was a small descent before that finish.
I decided that I’d seek out a good vantage point overlooking one of the switchbacks. But first thing first. I headed to a pop-up bar and bought three cans of overpriced Coke, one of which I drank immediately. Cool and full of sugar. Just what I needed.
I eventually found a spot to view the race. Not right by the roadside, but a little higher up looking down on proceedings.
One thing that I totally forget about and is very much worthwhile for future reference, is bringing some alternative footwear with you if you’re riding with clipless cycling shoes. I’d already battered my cleats, and ended up spending much of the day in socks (there was a lot of gravel where I was standing, so going barefoot wasn’t really an option). Chucking a light pair of flipflops is not a bad idea at all. I now needed new cleats again (set number three or four this year?). Invariably I ruin my cleats not through too much cycling, but wearing shoes in inhospitable environments – the Dunwich beach for example.
A proper cap might have been a decent idea too. There is only so much sun that a cycling cascette can block. I had the sun largely to my back for the rest of the day, and despite having brought some factor 50, I still ended up with a red neck.
Finally, something to sit on is a good idea – perhaps a small towel. I found that a copy of L’Equipe worked OK once I’d had an attempt at reading it. They had pages and pages on Le Tour – at least half the paper. I had a bash at trying to understand what they were saying. And I wasn’t clear whether the cover – “Frappant” or “Striking” as Google Translate said to me – was in some way a barbed criticism of Chris Froome. I don’t think it was. Certainly from catching up from my cycling podcasts the previous evening, there seemed to be a general disappointment in the press room that this Tour already seems “over” such is Froome’s ability this year, and Sky’s overall domination.
By now I was in place and faced another long wait.
There’s an awful lot of waiting with Le Tour, and in the hot Pyrenean sun, that begins to take its toll.
Yesterday, the torn pages from my Official Guide had been converted to UK times, but today they seemed to be in French times. In any case, I deferred to L’Equipe on the basis that things change at the last minute, and L’Equipe was probably in a better position to know what’s what.
While in theory I could have delayed my ride, the fact is that the police don’t like you riding the roads to close to the Tour coming through. I’d noticed that the steady stream of riders up the mountain had stopped. Any new riders now were walking their bikes up the footpath/mountain bike route. So you have to get up early if you want to ride the whole way, even though that means a long wait at the top.
And I was also in another information blackspot. Despite getting texts, emails and even the odd “love” for my Instagram pictures, which seemed to get posted, the Twitter app refused to work one jot. Obviously there were a lot of people on the mountain, and I suspect the small cell tower doesn’t usually have to cope this much traffic.
Fortunately, I’d remembered my headphones and had a radio.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any race commentary at all. There was nothing on FM except music stations. And AM was basically completely dead. I did find something that mentioned “Nibali” at one point, but it was so faint as to be unlistenable. I gave up. Maybe I should have brought my own satellite dish up with me? (And some kind of powers supply… and a television… Perhaps not then.)
The day wore on. Even the caravan was slow in getting up here. From my vantage point, it was clear that I was going to be getting no tat myself today. But I did delight in the verve and efforts made my the crowd to collect as much as possible. You’ve never seen someone get up faster than the possibility that a van coming up the mountain might have free stuff to hand out.
Then there’s the disappointment when you realise that it’s an official merchandise van selling “kits” of Tour tat for €10 or €20. In all the Tours I’ve watched in recent years, these vans seem to offer the same packages. A one-size fits all sun-hat, or an umbrella (genuinely useful today it must be said, for keeping the sun off). A magnetic wristband? A pen? A t-shirt in an indeterminate size. And not a nice t-shirt either. Why they don’t try and flog the Le Coq Sportif stuff they’ve licenced I’m not sure. And you can’t break up the “kit” – it’s all or nothing. Yesterday I saw an American woman attempt to negotiate with the girl hanging off the back of the van for about five minutes until she eventually came away with her polkadot “Grimpeur kit.”
The caravan finally appeared and I took great delight in seeing a couple of middle-aged Brits come running out into the front of the road, going on opposites to maximise their chance of getting “swag.”
At one point I did see a child nearly put their hand under the back wheel of a van that had inadvertantly dropped a t-shirt too close to the vehicle. Nobody was hurt fortunately.
We had no team buses today, and there was also a lack of press cars. It was later obvious that the area to gather was down in Pierrefitte-Nestalas.
Finally a bit of information. A “Velo” car told us that there was a Saxo-Tinkoff rider who was five minutes up the road from the main contenders. This was the Polish rieder Rafal Majka, and he was well ahead of most of the field. Majka later said that his win was for the morale of his team. They probably needed it with Ivan Basso having abandoned after discovering he had testicular cancer (and was getting operated on), and Daniele Bennati pulled out with a suspected broken leg!
Dan Martin was a minute or so behind him, and once a few other riders had come through, we waited for the main GC contenders including Froome and Contador. As they rounded the bend I was on, I couldn’t help noticing that Nibali was off the back again. He would go on to lose another 50 seconds to his rivals. In other words, he’s no longer going to retain his title.
Although this was only a category three mountain, the riders had come over a category one and haute category climb to get here. So the riders were spread out all over the road.
They came by in dribs and drabs, often forming groups. Finally the big “gruppetto” arrived, but even that wasn’t the end of things.
Chapeau to the riders who were really struggling today. Sadly Alex Dowsett has to be included in that number. He did not look like he was enjoying coming in slowly up the mountain, third from last rider on the course riding alone.
The final rider came in a full 45 minutes after the winner. You had to feel sorry for Bora rider Zak Dempster who was obviously ill or injured in some way. I saw more than one member of the crowd run along pushing him up some of the steeper gradients by my corner. As far as I can tell, he wasn’t excluded by the time cut-off.
As I mentioned, I stopped at the summit of the climb, but there were still a couple more kilometres to the stage finish itself. Clearly there wasn’t a great deal of space up there once you’ve got the full caravan parked up. So the team buses didn’t make it up the mountain today, and instead were parked at the foot of the climb. That meant that once riders had completed the stage and taken on a recovery drink or two, they turned around and headed back down the mountain. So strung out were the riders, that they often met others on the way back up.
Once the final riders had finished, I started to head down the mountain on my bike. This was a joyous experience. No work (well I’d done that earlier), and a lovely surface with no traffic – just spectators. Oh, and some professional riders for company. Well I say for company, they sped past on the left, chatting to one another, while we spectators stuck to the right. Andre Greipal in his green jersey was just one of many riders who passed me. Pretty cool. The police were keeping cars off the course too, so we got a really good ride down.
You know that cycle track I mentioned earlier? Well closer examination of the map showed that if I’d have continued on it, I needn’t have climbed up to the village I did get to earlier in the day. Still, it was a nice ride, and gorgeous view. But at the bottom of the drop from Cauterets, I found the cycle track and headed back to Lourdes without diverting up to any picturesque villages. I reckon that the ride was very slightly downhill, because I found myself absolutely flying and was averaging in excess of 30 kph the whole way. Mind you, three cans of Coke had probably helped somewhat.
Back in Lourdes I showered and thought I’d try to catch some Tour coverage before I went out for some food.
I’m a little perplexed by the coverage of the Tour on French TV. They produce some incredible coverage with expensive helicopters performing practically stunt work to get the angles they use. Then there’s the miracle of sending HD signals up from about 5 “Motos” to helicopters and a plane above (those are on top of the camera choppers). But this is almost all for the live coverage. Come home from work and want to watch the equivalent of Gary Imlach et al on ITV4? Well you’ll be doing well.
The local news did have a number of “features” on the Tour in the Midi-Pyrenees region, but it was the kind of stuff that local news does – vox pops with people on the course, and interviews with people from Tours past. Indeed the local sport coverage of the stage seemed to be some bloke reminiscing about Thomas Voeckleur winning stages in years gone by. There was no actual footage of the race itself, or anything in the way of reporting what had taken place in the mountains today.
France 3 does run “Le film du Tour” which runs for a grand total of TWO minutes at 20:10! But that was all I could find in my EPG.
Now I know that if I’d had Eurosport, they’d probably be running a solid 90 minutes of highlights in primetime, and perhaps that’s the deal the ASO has struck with France 2/3 and Eurosport. But it still seems strange. A bit like not running highlights of Wimbledon in the evening for those who’ve missed the matches during Wimbledon!
The next day the Tour would continue for its third and final day in the Pyrenees, but I decided that I’d do something a little different.
I decided that I wouldn’t do what I’d done for the previous two Pyrenean stages. That is, head out on my bike somewhere hilly and wait many many hours in the sun for the Tour to arrive.
There were a couple of reasons for this.
– Firstly, I can only take so much standing/sitting at the roadside uncomfortably waiting for something that goes by in less than half an hour (at its best)
– Secondly, the Tour was heading much further east than I was. To get to one of the big mountains, and bearing in mind that I’d need to take a roundabout route to get there, would involve many hours of driving, and therefore an especially early start.
So instead, I thought I’d do what I’ve never done before for the Tour, and go to the start town. Lannemezan was about a 50 minute drive from Lourdes, and I thought I’d go and have a look at the start of a stage. To be honest, I knew that there wasn’t a great deal that I’d be able to do. The “Village Depart” would be fun, but that’s only open to guests, journalists and riders. And given the way the ASO lock down things, it wouldn’t be easy to just wander up to team buses and see what’s happening (I can compare and contrast the free and easy access at somewhere like Het Nieuwsblad, and the locked down tightness of Paris-Roubaix).
I headed out onto the Autoroute, and very quickly came across a sight that you don’t normally see at the Tour – the team trucks. These are dull things that don’t show themselves at the start or finish of stages. I assume that they’re mostly parked up at hotels dispensing “stuff” that the teams don’t carry on their buses – lots of spares and the like.
I expect Team Sky has at least one more truck than any other team.
I passed the trucks for Europcar and IAM, before I came across an Etixx Quickstep convey. This wasn’t their truck, but their full team bus and team cars. Because they were going in convey, I was actually travelling faster than them. Perhaps more worryingly, I thought that I was cutting things a bit fine myself, given that I’d not got the vaguest idea where to park in the start town or how easy that might be. We were about 90 minutes away from the start time, and they were still on the Autoroute.
As we came off the Autoroute to pay our tolls, I found myself in something of a queue of traffic trying to get in Lannemezan. The Etixx Quickstep convoy was now right behind me, while in front of me was an NBC Sports vehicle. Ahead at the toll booth, the IAM team bus seemed to be held up for some reason and wasn’t being let through the toll barrier.
Suddenly from behind there was a police siren.
“Aha!” I thought, “They’ll be rushing the team buses through and past all the rest of the traffic!”
But no. Even the Etixx bus had to pull over. A couple of police motorcycles sped past leading three unmarked but undoubtedly very smart cars through. They had unusual flashing lights I noticed. Clearly some “V”-VIP.
I got through the toll barrier, and pulled aside to let the IAM team vehicles proceed in convoy. At a roundabout they were sent one way while I was instructed to head another. Everywhere I went cars were parked in that especially “French” manner. That is, on pavements; on bits of grass; anywhere really. I foolishly actually looked in a small car park I found. Then I just decided I’d drive a couple of streets further out of town, and there was easy parking.
It was then a short walk back to the centre of town, which was of course, en fete. There were stalls, and crowds, with lots of hats from the caravan that had been through at least ninety minutes before. I was able to peer into a cordened off area where some riders were already signing on and being interviewed for the crowd. Dan Martin was speaking in French when I arrived. Most of the rest of the riders the host interviewed were, of course, French.
I headed back to the first corner, where I quickly found myself surrounded by Brits. Then there was a massive pulaver. Someone very famous was at the front of the race. Who was it. I peered, but didn’t recognise him. I was pretty sure it wasn’t President Hollande. He’d be sitting in a room discussing Greece somewhere. And it wasn’t some Hollywood actor trying to score some cheap publicity for their summer blockbuster.
Then someone identified the man in the crowd. It was the French Prime Minister.
No. Me neither.
He was going to be riding in the back of the lead car alongside Christian Prudhomme, the Tour Director.
Before we knew it, the race was underway. The regular photographers on motorbikes were up front. I recognised the American photographer I’d seen on the mountain the day before. At least I assume that’s what his Stars’n’Stripes helmet implies. I’d noted that he pasted a route map on the back of his pilot’s helmet!
The first few kilometres of a stage are neutralised, so tend to be very relaxed. The “jerseys” are up front, and riders chat to their mates. I saw Richie Porte smiling in his polkadot jersey (worn because he’s second to teammate Froome). Cav was having a chat with Luke Rowe, and then they were gone.
And that was the 2015 Tour finished as far as I was concerned.
I headed back to where I’d parked the car, stopping by way of a Lidl for supplies. My plan was now to head back to where I’d been on my bike yesterday – Cauterets. I’d head on up from there to Pont d’Espagne – high into the mountains. From there, there was a good walk I’d heard.
As I drove back up the road I’d cycled up the previous day, I was quite impressed with myself. It took a good few minutes to get up the road, and those switchbacks at the end involved me dropping down into first gear in my car.
Cauterets was actually much larger than I’d realised, considering this road was the only way in and out. There are a couple of minor roads, but they’re for the really adventurous.
I carried on climbing up to Pont d’Espagne. Here there was a massive car park – and it was quite busy too. All the “good” spots under the shade of trees were gone. My car would be like a furnace when I returned later, I feared.
Then I had a choice. I could walk up from the car park, or get a bit of a head start and ride the relatively short cable car. I chose the latter.
At the other end, a short walk took me to a chairlift. This was a longer ride – perhaps 15 minutes. I was now a fifteen minute walk from the beautiful Lac du Gaube. A bar and restaurant were by the water’s side, but now my walk began in earnest. I walked around the lake following a rocky route. And then I was climbing higher up the valley. This was still the same valley I’d been following since the foot of yesterday’s climb!
Beyond the lake, things got tougher. The route got rockier, and the hot sun made me thankful I was still carrying a full CamelBak along with an additional bottle and a can of Coke. That was all on top of food.
But water wouldn’t be a problem since there was a river thundering through falls alongside me most of the way. This was water coming down from the glacier way above me.
Up and up I climbed. This was hard going. I was mightily impressed by returning families with young kids who’d clearly been where I was going.
Finally, after something like an hour and forty-five minutes, I was in what I can only describe as a meadow. This was somewhere around 2000 metres up, and there were actually cows up here.
I carried onwards, but wasn’t sure where I was actually heading. The groups I’d been walking amongst had now really thinned out, and I was conscious that the chair lift and cable car would shut sometime after 6.00pm. I didn’t really want to get stuck up here.
Some hardy climbers were obviously in it for the long haul and would be camping.
I think I must have stopped just short of the Refuge des Oulettes de Gaube, somewhere that hikers can stay in overnight.
Still, I made a good decision to turn around. It was beginning to cloud over. While on the one hand, that would mean an easier journey down, that also threatened rain. Although I came to France with a rain jacket, it was safely in my room back in Lourdes. The best I’d be able to do would be to keep my stuff dry since the slender rucksack I was using had a built in rain jacket.
As I quickened my pace downwards – at one point trying to match a French “fell runner” before realising I was likely to turn my ankle if I did so – I felt drops of rain on me. Oh good.
It didn’t rain heavily, but it felt like I could be in for drenching at any moment. I hurried on, wary that the rocks I was walking over were now wet and becoming more treachourous.
Above me I could hear rolling thunder. The tops of the mountains were less visible and photogenic. I headed on down.
Back at the lake, I’d initially promised myself a drink at the bar, but now I was fearful that I was either facing a chair lift in a rainstorm or a much longer walk because they’d taken the chair lift out of commission.
I stayed ahead of the rain, and got the chair down. As I did so, more thunder rolled around the tops of the mountains.
The chair lift did lead to a problem. When I got back to earth again, my feet having been hanging in the air for fifteen minutes, they now killed me. My shoes were very general ones – not in any way hiking boots. Good enough, but you’d ideally be wearing proper boots for a walk like this. I hobbled on to the cablecar and back to the car.
As I set off down the valley, it’s fair to say that the heavens truly opened. By the time I reached Cauterets, the roads were awash with water. I felt sorry for the cyclists I’d just past slogging their way up to Pont d’Espagne – at least the same again as the route from the valley floor that I’d taken yesterday, but quite possibly steeper.
As I came out of Cauterets and passed the now familar roads of yesterday’s stage, the water was doing its best to wash away all the chalked riders’ names that had been written on the road. There was a chalky scum in places where Tony Gallopin’s name was being washed away in front of me.
The rain continued unabated all the way back to Lourdes accompanied by flashes and lightning and more thunder.
That evening, for a change, I actually managed to catch France 3’s “Le Film du Tour.” It was actually longer than the promised two minutes – more like five. And it showed how the GC contenders were unchanged but that Joaquim Rodriguez had won his second stage of the Tour. But he’d done it horrible weather – basically the same storm that hit me some hours later. It was probably as well that I didn’t try and ride up a mountain in that weather!
The next day, the only cycling going on anywhere close to me would be strictly the amateur kind. Not least my own.
Having checked first that last night’s storm wasn’t still going to be lingering first thing, I did a bit of Googling to find a reasonable ride for the day. When I say “reasonable” I mean one that didn’t go up any mountains.
I stumbled on what looked like a decent route surrounding Lourdes, and for the first time in days, I set off without a backpack, reliant solely on the water and drinks I could carry myself. As it turned out, that presented something of a problem.
Even a relatively “flat” ride still saw me dropping into my smallest gear and crunching my way up into the hills. While the gradients were reasonable, the high heat and humidity were not. I was dripping wet. Added to that and my Garmin was annoying me, wanting me to turn around and head into the middle of a farmer’s field where I’d inadvertently placed a way-point. Leaving that place behind it was constantly attempting to reroute me back to where I came from.
In the end, I had to cut short my ride a little. Lack of water (and places to get water), and the humidity were doing me in once again. I rolled back in Lourdes.
Showered and refreshed, I decided that I’d head out for the funicular railway. I’m a sucker for these things, and always wonder about the incredible amount of work that must have gone into building something that goes straight up the side of a mountain.
The Pic du Jer funicular takes travellers up to the top of the mountain where you can hike on up to an observation point at the peak of the mountain. They’ve also tastefully installed an illuminated cross. And there’s a mobile phone tower up there. In spite of all this, the views are spectacular. You can look out over Lourdes and beyond, seeing how the flatlands suddenly rear up as the Pyrenees burst into the landscape. Lourdes is very much at the foot of the mountain range, and you can see clearly this point.
I then went on a guided tour of the cave system at the top. The tour guide was very insistent that everyone wrap a blanket around themselves to keep warm. Despite it being well north of 30C outside, it was less than half that inside. It was incredibly how quickly the temparture dropped. Nonetheless I didn’t bother with the blanket reasoning that this was both the temperature back home, and the temperature I keep my room in Lourdes at when I max out the air conditioning (It won’t go cooler than 16C!).
While I was out visiting the funicular, I noticed more posters for what must surely be the event of the season in Lourdes.
Patrick Sebastien is coming to town!
I’m not sure why I find this such an exciting prospect. But it’s really down to the show he presents on France 2. Le Grand Cabaret du Monde is a uniquely French show, and it’s oddly become part of my New Year’s Eve regime.
Let me explain. The show is a variety show, as its name suggests. You get magicians, acrobats, dancing troupes and so on. The acts come from far and wide, but since they have basically no dialogue, the show is as watchable regardless of your understanding of French.
Between the acts, Sebastien interviews various French celebrities who usually have something to plug. The studio audience is arranged around tables as though they’re in a caberet venue. And that’s really the show.
On New Year’s Eve, Sebastien presents a live (well sort of live – it might be “live” like Jools Holland is “live” for the early December recording of his Hootenanny) version of the show which runs a solid three hours. Invariably it ends with Sebastien – who is something of a crooner and has released approaching a dozen albums – sings the same song set to the music of the Can-Can. Alongside him, dancers from the Follies Bergere high kick. Much fun is had in a France 2 TV studio.
And the good news is that this all happens at 11pm UK time. You can watch on TV5 on Sky, and then put a film on or go to bed avoiding all the forced entertainment of New Year’s Eve. (Have I mentioned how much I dislike it before?)
Sadly I won’t be here to see Sebastien in the flesh, as I’ll have left before he arrives. I would have been sorely tempted, although the poster shows a 61 year old man with at least two too many of his shirt buttons undone. But if the poster is anything to go by, it’ll involve a live band and lots of confetti.
The clouds were rolling in Lourdes by now, and I retreated to my apartment for a spot of late lunch and a chance to see how France 2 covers the Tour. The day’s stage was something of a “transfer” stage – across the hot and humid centre of France. It was a bit too hilly to be a proper sprint, and classics specialist Greg Van Arvermaet just beat out Peter Sagan.
French TV was mostly concerned with the fate of Jean-Christoph Peraud who crashed badly at a seemingly innocuous point. They treated his arrival in heroic terms having had both arms taped up, as well as suffering significant “road rash” on his thigh.
One thing I’d forgotten, because it was never really available on the global feed, was that French TV does a few interviews with team managers during the stage. Last season they introduced a little microphone icon to show that they were talking live to a manager. Except that only French TV was getting it. The rest of us just saw an icon that meant nothing to us. It would be nice to hear a bit more from team managers in the race. Eurosport has done bits on occasion, although it always felt as though the presenter sorted that out themselves.
The stage over and I headed out into a now quite stormy Lourdes. So far this visit, I’d avoided the part of the town that it’s most famous for – the area leading to the “Grotto”. Grotto isn’t the right word for what is in fact a large church and garden, but that has all come subsequently. A peasant girl was said to have seen apparitions of Mary, and now there’s a massive industry in pilgrims coming to pay their respects.
Well if I thought it was just paying their respects, then that’d be one thing. But the industry has grown and there is a decidedly tacky element to it. Shops full of tawdry “Marys” and all sorts of other tourist tat – but with a religious overtone. In particular you see far too many people wandering around with large containers of what I assume is holy water.
Now without getting into religious rights and wrongs, I do know that any water can be made “holy” by a priest. So carting 10 litres of water back across Europe is just a waste of time and baggage allowance. Your local priest can provide you with as much water as you like.
More concerning is perhaps the hope being sold to some of these people. Again, faith is your own business. But this feels like an industrial process, and perhaps more is being promised than can possibly be delivered.
I suppose that if you “get” something out of visiting a religious site, then that’s great. But it’s the idea that somebody is doing this for personal gain rather than any higher purpose that sticks in my craw.
Anyway, this was to be my final day in Lourdes. I would be heading back to Toulouse an onwards home the following day.
I took a roundabout route back into Toulouse, avoiding the dull Autoroute and taking a back country route, passing through dozens of small and very French towns. Eventually I arrived in Toulouse and navigated my way to what turned out to be a pretty expensive city centre car park. Mooching around Toulouse, it was clear that the heat was still very high. As the day wore on it was getting hotter.
As I strolled around the city, taking in some of the sites, I found myself drinking ever more fluids. I thought it might be nice to sit in a bar somewhere to watch the end of the day’s Tour stage. This was to prove quite difficult. Searching Google for “sports bar” didn’t really help, and gave me a few false leads. A lot of places were shut in mid-afternoon on a Saturday. I’d almost given up hope when I passed a bar with a TV on. They catered to a tourist crowd who wanted to sit outdoors. But I headed for the air conditioned sanctuary of the back, and even though we had no sound from the TV (they were playing music), I was able to watch Roman Bardait and Thibot Pinot foolishly play cat and mouse at the stage’s finish, only to have Steve Cummings road past them in the last few metres to stage an epic stage win for his wildcard team, MTN Qhubeka.
Out at the airport, I began to realise that it probably wasn’t the smartest idea taking the last Easyjet flight out of Toulouse. While it was only 20 minutes late getting in, a storm was forming over Toulouse. By the time we boarded the plane, it was in full swing, and the plane was actually shaking on the ground. We sat there waiting out the weather for an hour and a half.
In the end it meant that I didn’t get back to Gatwick until midnight. I retrieved my bag and bike, and raced to a Gatwick Express train, getting me into London at an ungodly 1.20am. That meant a cab home (Uber isn’t good for bike bags), but it was actually a reasonable price, and the cabbie had done the Tour d’Etape in the Pyrenees the previous year. So it was cycle chat all the way home.
In summary, it’s well worth doing what I did. A bit more preparation wouldn’t go amiss, but overall a successful trip.
Photographic note: I only took my small Sony RX100 III with me for this trip. While it’d have been great to have a big telephoto lens, the practicalities meant that this wasn’t really possible. Many more photos can be found on Flickr – Stage 10, Stage 11, Stage 12 and Pont d’Espagne.