Twenty one bends. Any space that a camper fits is filled, many German, French and Belgians camped out, Dutch corner banging out euro pop at 9.30am, thirty six hours before the tour hits. Beers cooling in streams. A corner festooned in Norwegian flags quiet on the way up but will be belting out AC/ DC on the way back down whilst two fellas drink beer and play chess. Further up a lot quieter. Kilometre after kilometre of barriers. Overtake a street cleaning truck into the final hairpin. A long straight into the town, past the apartment blocks, in the drops, the Channel 4 Tour theme tune plays in my head, images of Lemond and Hinault in yellow and combo jerseys, hand in hand to the line. Through the tunnel, zip my jersey back up. Cap damp with sweat. Ride as high as I can until the tarmac runs out. Time to find a mid morning coffee and Orangina and some shade.
Yellow, green, white, polka dot jerseys flutter overhead. Thousands of people mill around town, all ages, many nationalities. The race isn’t due for hours yet but the atmosphere is already fizzing with anticipation and excitement. I wasn’t expecting to be here.
This morning I wasn’t sure that I wanted to have the six kilometre mountain climb back to my apartment after a day of loitering in the scorching sun on Alpe d’Huez all day. I’ve ridden up there the last two evenings in the full glare of the sun, heat bouncing back off the road, absolutely nowhere to hide, and it was a bit punchy hurty. Another option was to turn right at the bottom on the hill and ride up towards the Glandon and watch the race on the descent. Or I could watch on telly and when they hit the Glandon freewheel down to the reservoir to watch the race pass, then roll into Allemond for a Belgian beer and watch the battle on Alpe d’Huez on the big screen before staggering home.
I popped into the village to get a coffee after breakfast and discovered the cable cars to Alpe d’Huez are running today! That negated any need to ride anywhere. Knocked back an espresso and returned to the apartment to stuff snacks, cheese and pesto sarnies, kindle, headphones, chargers, rain jacket (unlikely I remember sitting in a bin bag on the Joux Plane a few years back), and bidons out of the freezer into a bag. Back into the village and joined the queue.
Meander around town looking for a spot to watch that isn’t too far from the cable car – it’s an extremely long hike in sliders or a very expensive taxi ride home if I miss the last one which is annoyingly early. David Millar passes by on his Brompton. Sit outside a bar with a cold Amstel and play a game of guess the country from how cyclists are dressed. Rule of thumb: northern Europe equals minimal design and neutral colours, the darker the better (Rapha and Pas Normal battling for top spot in the hit parade), southern Europe is all kinds of euro-fluoro mixed with team kits and very short socks.
Continue bar hopping and soaking up the atmosphere. Spot somewhere in the shade in the last kilometre but it’s still hours until the race will arrive. Pass a bar on the finishing straight but all the deckchairs and tables outside are taken, wander inside out of the heat, four locals watching the stage on telly. Order an espresso and Vedett and settle in for the afternoon. Pidcock attacks on the first descent. Oh this is gonna be good!
The bar fills as the riders climb Col de la Croix de Fer, locals, Dutch, Germans, a bunch of Brits who clearly rode the Etape last weekend, and a tipsy Italian fully channelling his inner Pantani – no jersey, bibs unhooked, sockless, bald, mahogany tan. An ad break just as the leading group turn onto the road to Bourg d’Oisans in the valley below, time to find a space on the barriers.
Final corner, about 700 metres to go, a view down the finishing straight. French commentary blasts from speakers and I open up the live tracker on my phone. Four groups scattered along the valley to the first hairpins of this climb. Within minutes an explosion of dots all the way up the twisting ascent. Pidcock out front on his own. Dots on the tracker continue to multiply, like watching cells split. The sound of helicopters and the commentary gets more excited, people lean over the barriers… Police outriders speed past, then Pidcock, people screaming and cheering. More motorbikes, another rider, then another, then the top three in a group together. Check time and estimate how long to walk back to cable car. There’s time to watch a few more before I need to head back up the hill but not too many. I suspect I’ll be swinging over a ravine in a box hanging from a wire by the time the grupetto hit town.
People line the barriers all the way into Bourg d’Oisans. Pop to the bakery for a pastry and then find a cafe for coffee and orange juice. Seems every table is a different nationality, English spoken opposite with American accents, Flemish next to me, German in the corner, French over there?
A crowd in red t-shrts with Danish flags on the barriers opposite the stage, they must have been here since very early. All the sponsors get their 15 minutes of fame to talk up their products/services whilst studiously ignored by everyone. A circus act gets a bit more attention but then what everyone has been waiting for… The caravan of tat sets off throwing out instant landfill, adults fighting little kids for bits of crappy plastic and sachets of washing powder.
Teams ride up a ramp and line up on the stage to be introduced to the crowds. Every rider waves when names are called out, some riders picked out to have a chat with the compere. Some get bigger cheers than others; Sagan, Gilbert, Van Aert, Bardet. The loudest reserved for Pinoy until the Danes go crazy for Vingegaard. Riders collect in front of me ready for the neutralised start.
Clip in and head down the valley towards Grenoble into a wind as warm as that from a hairdryer. Scan the verges for discarded bidons. Campers with pinched TdF direction arrows in the windows pass at regular intervals.
I watch a bead of sweat roll back and forth along the peak of my cap then drop onto my crossbar. Another bead of sweat appears. Squirt some ice cold Iced Tea into my mouth.
Two options to get to Valence today, follow the river Isere around the Vercors massif or up and over the mountains. Opting for up and over because it’ll probably be prettier and hopefully some cooler air higher up I left the hotel early, and followed the bike lanes out of the city, over the motorway and across the river and straight onto a fourteen kilometre climb gaining almost 1000 metres.
It’s still only nudging 8.30am and it’s already hot. The sun still low it appears to be the same level as me. Long shadows stretch across the tarmac allowing snatches of flickering shade. Grenoble sits far below and the Alps rise across the way. It’s a nice climb, even gradient never too steep, just tap it out. A father and young son pass me and hover just ahead for the next two hairpins. I pass them when they stop for a drink in the shade of the next bend. They pass again a couple of kilometres further but this time the dad is gently pushing the kid.
Oy my oh my! This road is stunning, carved deep into the rock alongside a fast tumbling river. Very quickly I catch a camper van ruining the flow on this lovely smooth tarmac. Mutter under my breath, road a bit too narrow and curves a bit too blind to pass. Crossing a bridge on to a less busy road and the brakes need to be dabbed a little less frequently. Rock arches over my head and I plunge into cool dark tunnels every now and again. Looking across the gorge I can see the road I left, a groove chiselled into the side of the mountain. Damn, that looks good. I check the map and see I could have continued along that ledge and then taken a set of tight switchbacks to drop me in the next village. I’ve lost too much height to turn back now. I’ll have to come back another time and have a proper explore in these mountains.
Slice of pizza and a cold drink in a pretty village wedged into the lower end of the gorge. Soft pedal to the Isère and follow it for a while. Coffee, water and fruit juice in the shade outside a strip mall patisserie next to a dual carriageway.
New Fast Automatic Daffodils and cross/tail wind for the final 20km to Valence. A kid in a car shouts Allez! Allez! and gives me a thumbs up. Air con and the last 80 kilometres of today’s stage.
Three rest days. Museums and restaurants, hanging out with old friends, chatting, eating, drinking, swimming, walking in the mountains. Mostly eating and chatting.
A beautiful cathedral sites atop the hill overlooking the town, a stopping off point on the St Jacques pilgrimage to Santiago. Later this evening there is music and dance from Galicia on the market square. Steep narrow cobbled streets radiate and stumble away from the cathedral.
Oh, that Le Puy! That explains why everything on every menu in town comes with lentils. Order a glass of wine and decide what to have with my lentils. There’s a lot of calories to replace. Today was harder than it looked on paper and it didn’t look that easy on paper. A detour due to a closed road didn’t help, adding ten kilometres and maybe some extra climbing. A glorious day though, climbing from the Rhône into the Ardèche, More mountains but not Alpine, heading into the ancient volcanos of the Massif Central.
Crisscrossing the Saint Jacques pilgrim trail all day, the road never flat. The sun and the views dazzle. Twisting in and out of the hills and between villages perched up high.
Why is it so damn hot? I thought today was supposed to be cooler. I order a coffee whilst pulling a bottle of water and a Capri Sun from the fridge. The final climb of today’s stage on a television in the corner. Why is it so hot? I knew I should have ordered two burgers in McDonalds earlier. Yeah, yeah, I know but Maccy D has air conditioning and stick loads of ice in their drinks, half of which can be tipped into a bidon to keep water cool for a few minutes longer. Why the hell didn’t I order two burgers.
This road is shit. Fuck this. Let’s revert to the original plan, this short cut doesn’t cut off much distance or height and it’s not worth the trucks and people in a hurry. I’m going to regret not ordering two burgers.
Oh heck, this is a beautiful road, spectacular views. I know this pass but not from this direction. I’m running out of kilometres to the summit and I’m not high enough so this road is going to ramp up at some point… ah shit this is steep… no, no, don’t cramp… Jeez when will I learn to eat more on days like this.
“Coke, s’il vous plait. Grande. Merci.” Feel faint, shaking. Should eat but I’ve spent the last five kilometres craving an omelette and there are only sandwiches and a couple of burgers on the menu. Yep, two hours ago I wanted a burger. Not now. I want an omelette. The fickleness of exhaustion. Three thousand metres of climbing in the 142 kilometres to now, it’s given me a bit of a spanking. However I’ve ridden then next 38km before and I know it’s all downhill, the first ten fast and squiggly, then the rest gently tipping down along a valley road. An hour and a bit at most. The sugar in the coke with get me that far. I hope.
Whack up the air con and collapse on the bed. Shower and stroll a hundred metres for dirty fast food tacos on the corner. Set alarm for early train and pass out less than 90 seconds into the podcast about today’s stage.
Helicopters buzz overhead. A policeman whistles, waves people out of the road. Police motorbikes pass then another rider, team car behind helpfully displaying his name, more police bikes. A name ticked off a list. A group of lads play cards on an ice box, bottles of beer next to their stools. Official photographers mill around by the hotel bar looking for interesting shots. Another rider passes. The sound of very expensive carbon fibre slicing through the air, the hum of high pressure tyres fizzing past on warm roads. Flashes of colour, more whistles. National champs jersey, world champ stripes. Picnic chairs in the shade. Entire families in polka dots. Another burst of colour and sirens. And repeat…
You can tell who is making an effort and those that just want to get to Paris. Some scrape the apex of the corner, others barely lean in. Pinot! Pinot! Pinot! chant the French. We’re getting towards the pointier end. Excitement is growing. The helicopters loiter overhead, more urgency in the outriders. Card games are stopped, newspapers folded away, bars empty, more people line the street. Into the top ten. Riders now followed by television cameras. Geraint Thomas appears almost immediately after David Gaudu, he’s has almost caught his two minute man. Pog in white, Vingegaard in yellow, a swarm of photographers and VIPs trailing, then the broomwagen. Chairs are folded up and people stroll off. A cold Orangina in a busy bar to watch the final few riders climb to the finish in Rocamadour on the TV in the corner.