Archived General DB Blogs
The Tour de France Experience
Posted: Jul 12 2009
Andy, Mo and family from the DB team have been spending some time in France (see Velos Differents blog here) and including cycling experiences like this one where they can.
Finding ourselves in France during July meant that getting to see a Tour de France stage was an essential. The 2009 version had a unique itinerary, including a Monaco start, a visit to Spain, and a penultimate day trip up Ventoux. Comparing to our own stops and schedule, we decided to see the riders as they went over a classic – the Tourmalet, in the Pyrenees.
This year, the Tourmalet was part of a stage where it was unfortunately unlikely to be a key factor in the outcome – although tough and following the Col d’Aspin, riders would crest it with some 70km left to the finish, enough time for the group to come together. However, what we were after was more than just seeing a deciding stage – it was to live the experience of being on a famous climb during the Tour. And the Tourmalet delivered!
First, some background on the Tourmalet. It was one of the first major climbs included in the Tour when it first came to the Pyrenees in around 1910, it has featured in nearly 75% of all tours since, and is also used often in the Vuelta d’Espagne. It is also considered one of the most challenging in Europe. Climbing from Sainte Marie de Campan side (as in this year) it is 17km, with some 1265m of climbing and an average grade of around 7.4%. However, the first few km are relatively easy, with the final 12 km rarely going below 9%. It also happens to traverse some incredibly scenic Pyrenean countryside of quiet villages, pastoral farms and postcard views. I had a chance to ride it the day before the Tour went up, on a gorgeous sunny mountain morning. It was tough, indeed. This year I’ve had the good fortune to hit some classics – Telegraphe, Galibier, Glandon, Alpe d’Huez, Ventoux. The Tourmalet ranked strongly among them, not as brutally long as the Ventoux, but every bit as challenging or more so than the others. A classic climb in a beautiful area with many more roads and climbs nearby – regardless of the tour, I can strongly recommend a visit to ride in this area.
The Tour experience.
Our goal was to live what it was like to be one of the thousands of people lining the roads on the Tour. And the day in the Pyrenees certainly delivered! It truly is a sporting spectacle unlike anything that can be experienced in North America. The sheer numbers of people that make significant efforts to come out to see just a brief flash of the peloton go by is remarkable. I had the chance a few years ago to see the Tour finish in Paris, but that somewhat ceremonial day in a large and already busy city just doesn’t deliver the same close-up feel for this event.
I started our experience with my ride up the tour route on the day before the race. The lower parts of the climb were still quiet, only the occasional camper, banner and some freshly painted cheering on the pavement. But the last 10km of the course was already becoming crowded with tents, cars, camping cars and people. The final few km above the ski station of La Mongie to the crest of the col were simply packed. It was like a 4 km long, switchbacked town – every flattish space within about 300m of the road was occupied by camping tents and vehicles. It was mid morning, so the atmosphere was relaxed, but there were thousands of people around – sitting, standing, setting up flags, playing cards. Just waiting. Some 30 hours before the race, on a major climb yes, but one that was unlikely to be decisive in the stage or tour. Wow.
My pre-ride experience told us that we would need to get an early start on race day to give ourselves time to get partway up the mountain, find a place to squeeze the car and then hike to the roadside somewhere. A local told us that the road up the mountain would be closed by the gendarmes approximately 2 hours before the race caravan was due through. We arrived at the climb some 3 hours before that deadline to find the road already closed! So much for local knowledge… so we quickly crammed the car into a lot already plugged with RV’s and other cars in the small village of St Marie de Campan at the base of the climb, loaded our backpacks and started the hike. This is where the carnival atmosphere started. We were walking up this long road climb, as a part of a continuous parade of people. Young and old, from all over Europe and the world (especially many of the ubiquitously orange-clad Basque supporters from that nearby part of Spain, and no one complaining about the long, hot walk, everyone enjoying the day. Cyclists were allowed on the road, so there was also a continuous parade of riders heading up to find a good watching spot. Thousands of riders it seemed. We wished we still had all of our bikes (all but one were shipped back to BC already) as we trudged up the Tourmalet. After nearly 2 hours, the kids had done enough walking, and we found a rare unoccupied spot on a slope just above the road. We put down our blanket, arranged our provisions for the day and settled down to enjoy the show. And to wait. It was still hours until the race was due, but sitting on a sunny and beautiful mountainside soaking it all in was enjoyable in itself. In the km or so of road that we could see, it was filling up fast. Many had been camping for some time, many more were walking and riding up to fill in the space. So many people!
Another thing that strikes you while waiting for the race is the constant flow of official and sponsor vehicles. Police on motorcycles, endless Tour de France logoed cars and vans, occasional sponsor vehicles selling newspapers or giving out promo items, service trucks and more. Hours before the race, constantly up the road, through the masses of people. The sheer infrastructure of this rolling show is impressive and almost surprising that it all works. Then, about an hour before the racers are due, the show that most of the kids are waiting for begins to arrive. The “caravane publicitaire”, consisting of delegations of vehicles from all the major sponsors of the race flows by like a speedy, noisy parade. Vehicles of all sizes, blaring music or sponsor announcements, tossing promo items like hats, jerseys, free soap, magazines, and more into the waving crowds. Performers and staff strapped into their spots on the float-like vehicles, as this parade covers the whole 3000 plus km distance of the tour, at average speeds of around 50km/h! There were some 200 vehicles in a 25 km long parade that took some 30 minutes to pass by. Rolling beer cases, mini’s made up to look like giant tires, huge helmets, there was no end to it! The kids loved it and sported their free cycling hats and other chintzy items for the rest of the day. Then the flow of official vehicles seemed to intensify, now with the occasional team car mixed in scouting the route.
Still an hour to go before the first riders would appear but the excitement was clearly building!
The first sign of the approaching riders was the helicopters. At first distant, their sound became clearer as they entered the base of the valley. At one point I counted 7 in the sky, 5 up high and 2 down close to the road. The progress of the lead group and the chasing peloton was easy to see way down the valley, by watching the two helicopters pacing each group at treetop level, often below the level of the mountainside road. The pitch of the crowds lining the road (remember we were some 9km from the summit) was now intensifying. We lined the road on either side as the big show approached, waiting for our shot. The lead group came upon us, surprisingly quickly given the 9+% grade. They were working hard, it was obvious. They seemed smaller somehow that when seen on TV, and yet also bigger as they laboured by less than 3 feet away! Only 2 minutes later, the main group appeared, all the big names at the front, grimly set faces, the chase on in earnest. Just a few seconds to look, to snap a photo or two, cheer and yell and then they were gone.
No dramatic attacks were happening (or ever happened as it turned out) on the climb. But everyone who had been there for days or hours at least seemed happy, satisfied, and excited by these moments of proximity to the world’s biggest sporting event.
The next 20 minutes or so were occupied by an incredible number of more cars (team cars, official cars, motorbikes etc), a few batches of the slower groups including the “gruppetto” (slower sprinters and other riders just helping each other over the mountain) and eventually the lonely “lanterne rouge” or last rider in the race, who was followed by the “Voiture Balai” (broom wagon) and another big batch of service vehicles. One thing is clear – the vehicle to rider ratio in the tour is about 10:1 in favour of the vehicles!
Then, the reverse exodus began. Even as we could still see the helicopters indicating the lead groups crawling toward the summit, the fans from lower down were heading back down the mountain. It was chaotic. Those hundreds and hundreds of cyclists were whistling downhill now on a narrow mountain road through crowds of walkers, a mix of cars and RV’s, and even the occasional slightly insane driver trying, salmon-like, to ascend the mountain against this stream. After an hour of walking, we caught up with the vehicular traffic jam that was forming at the bottom, and passed a lot of it at walking speed. But through it all, I never once saw a temper lost or even angry words. Not only had people spent hours or even days getting up the mountain to see a race go by in the matter of a few minutes, and were now spending hours leaving, but no one seemed to be anything but happy. Remarkable this in a country where emotions are not typically held in check and rules of the road are generally considered only approximate guidelines. Hard to understand but somehow all explained by the reverence held in Europe for this event.
Going to see a stage of the Tour is a special opportunity. When I do it again, I have learned some lessons – ride, don’t drive or walk. Bring a book for the wait. Maybe bring a radio so you can tell what is happening before the race arrives. Or not, it may distract you from the book. Maybe bring some big crazy wig or silly hat to fit in better. But most of all, relax and enjoy the show, as well as the race when it briefly arrives. Sitting on the side of a famous climb in the Tour is definitely not the best way to see how the stage plays out. But it is the best way to experience the scope and scale of the Grand Boucle.Read more Archived General DB Blogs »