I must admit that every year when the biggest cycle race of them all, the Tour de France is about to start, I get a special feeling of summer and afternoons spend on the couch, while looking at these extreme cyclists, that run day after day and mile after mile up and down the hills in the Pyrenees and the alps. For many years I’ve wanted to go and see the race, for real, in the mountains, and somehow I managed to persuade the family to spent a week in France, by promising a stay in Paris, where the race always finishes.
As much as I always look forward to the Tour de France, as much I get equal disappointed every year, when I realize that the peloton has to ride through the flat north of France for at least the first week. As exiting the mountains stages are, as boring are the flat stages, where the riders races for hours, a couple of unknown guys gets permission to ride a some minutes ahead and in the end everybody get to the finish line at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, the sprint for the winning is fantastic, but everything up til that I don’t get. Sure there is a lot of tactics and maybe some of the riders crashes, but other than that ….
A very VERY bad summer here in Denmark, that drove me inside to my couch in front of the TV, combined with a lot of boring first week stages, gave me a lot of time to investigate the Tour de France route and the weather report for the southern France, and it turned out that the Tour was riding three stages in the same area in the alps, where people in periods was warned to stay indoor, because of the heat. Uh great. With the weather report for southern France and the promise of a short week in Paris, I managed to persuade the family in to a Tour de France holiday.
After a two days ride by car we arrived at Le Hameau des Aiguilles, an apartment hotel in Albiez Montrond, just on the top of Col du Mollard, which the riders was gonna climb on stage 19. Normally these mountain villages lives of the tourists during the winter, but three days before the tour caravan was coming, the village and the surrounding roads was filled with people biking uphill and downhill, people running, people walking and people trying to get the best spots with their auto campers at the very top. The weather was beautiful.
After good night sleep we decided to stay in the mountain village doing some trekking in the mountains instead of going for a 1 1/2 hour drive out to and home from to the route for the 17th stage – even though it was on the mythical Alpe d’Huez. So much for the cycling enthusiasm. Instead we enjoyed the sun and explored the area, which is beautiful and we even found some calm spots away from all the bustle.
One more night of sleep and finally the big day arrived – stage 18 – where the riders were to climb a mountain side with hairpin turns up to Lacets de Montvernier, a classic difficult climbing route close to the finish line in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, which is just down the mountain from where we stayed. So after breakfast we jumped in the car and set out for our debut as Tour de France live spectators. It was a very hot day, so we were gonna buy something to eat and drink on the way, as we thought we could have a lot of waiting time in the sun.
ON THE WAY TO OUR FIRST TDF STAGE
On the way to the spot where we have decided to try to get a good view, we passes Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne where there is more or less chaos, because the entire city is involved in setting up the finish line for todays stage, why we decide to go on and do our shopping later on our way. But for different reasons we never get anything to consume as we drive up the road in the opposite direction of what the riders go later tn the day. For other reasons we do not have a map, but it should pretty straight forward, as it is one long mountain road, and there is yellow arrows attached to the lamppost all the way.
Up and up and up we go for a long time and suddenly we reach the top where there is a restaurant and a temporary tent ready to shelter cycling spectators, and we can get a parking spot – how lucky can you be?
A long story short. After drinking coffee, hiking in the hills and eating lunch it felt strange that people didn’t flock here around only two hours before the riders should cross the mountain top, a little investigation showed that we had driven past a very small side road on our way up the mountain and found us self on the next days route. Back in the car and full speed ahead down the same way we came up, until we come to a road block at the entrance to a village. Nothing to do but to park the car at the road side and hope for the best. Luckily we finally came to the right place and after som walking we ended up in a small town square with a big screen that seemed to attract every body with a direct television transmission from the stage of the day – YES we were in the right place, and did not miss the race.
OUR FIRST TDF STAGE – THE HAIRPIN TURN ROAD – STAGE 18
At this point we made, what at the time seemed like, a smart move. There was about an hour to the first riders would come by and while everybody was looking at the big screen we sneaked out and down towards the road. At this point you could have stolen half of the city as nobody paid attention behind them.
It was a smart move because we managed to get a spot in front row exactly in the middle of a hairpin turn. What seemed smart at the time, turned out to be not so smart. As you might remember, that we did not get hold of any water, we forgot to visit a toilet and in our hurry we forgot the sun tan cream in the car. So there we were, with the sun baking from a clear blue sky, with no water no shade no place to pee and no sun tan cream and in one of the best spots, why we could not move – just stand and getting toasted.
Then we waited and waited and waited and did som more waiting until the first motorcycle cop came and everybody was cheering. Then we waited and waited and then another motorcycle cop came, and everybody cheered again. Then we waited and waited and found out that the waiting part of being a live cycling race spectator is very much about waiting.
We waited a looong time. About 15 motorcycle cops an official Tour de France motorcycle and a bunch of VIP cars, until the first rider – the french rider Romain Bardet – who is in a break out, suddenly rides through our turn, which we almost misses, because of the crowds crying wolf for everything that had moved on the road until now.
Now the action is on. The riders are coming in smaller and bigger groups like pearls on a string. The next smaller group after the leading guy is led by our own dane Jakob Fuglsang, who actually is racing for the polka dotted shirt with the guy in the break out.
Little dit we know that it had been one of the most dramatic stages in this years Tour de France. Romain Bardet and Jakob Fuglsang had been in a breakout together – racing man to man for the polka dot jersey and at a point Fuglsang was run down by a motorcycle official. That is why he was minutes behind now – and I realized that you can completely lose track of the bigger picture, when you are out on the route instead of lying on your back in a couch watching television.
Being on a mountain kind of prolongs the experience as the riders passes more slowly, and for a longer period, as some of the worst mountain riders can be up til 20-30 minutes behind the best.
We had to wait for the last car to pass before we could go back to the car, which did not matter as we were parked in the wrong end of the village, and therefore had to wait for about one and a half our in our car, before the Tour de France crew had cleaned up the roads and we could drive home.
OUR SECOND TDF STAGE – COL DU MOLLARD – STAGE 19
Back in our hotel we were looking forward to the next days stage, because it was literally outside our door, so we could enjoy the village and do some hiking, before the show came through. And so we did. I guess Col du Mollard is not regarded a high profile mountain top, as there seemed to be lesser people here, than the day before on the hairpin turns. The people here was also much more relaxed – until the caravan showed up – – oh my!!
The caravan is sponsor cars, many of them rebuild in very resourceful ways, which drives an hour in front of the riders, giving away all kinds of merchandise, by throwing them out while they pass in high speed. The quality of the goodies is almost not existing but that does not keep grown ups to go completely mad in the fight for getting most.
Because of the lesser amount of spectators, we dared to go to the grocery store, after the caravan had passed, to get some to eat and drink instead of just waiting an hour standing on the roadside. Actually we were already feeling a little more confident about it all, which made us dare to stay away from road until the riders was almost here.
The action seemed very much like the day before. A guy in the front – the italian rider Vincenzo Nibali – a smaller group behind him, and then bigger and bigger groups, until the large group of slow riders who just wants to make it to the finish line, ends the peloton. Nothing wrong with that. That is how a mountain stage runs most of the time.
After the race we were going to Semur-en-Auxois to make a stop over on our way to Paris. It was a little to far to go, but it was the first vacant hotel on the road to Paris. But the fact that it took us more than three hours to get down from the mountain top had never been in to our considerations. We arrived in Semur-en-Auxois at two o’clock in the morning.
OUR LAST TDF STAGE THIS TIME – PARIS – STAGE 21
We had decided to skip a stage, even though it was raced very close to the other two stages we saw, so we could arrive in Paris in comfort which we did. That gave us a day where we could find out how to find a good spot while we walked the town. It is amazing how little the Tour de France fills in Paris until the race is actually there. Sure the fences, to keep the crowd away from the race, is already grouped around the Champ Elysees and there is a few yellow stands around the Triumphal Arch – but that is about it. Very nice actually.
Finally the final day arrived. It is very hard to find out a good spot to watch the race from, and in Paris the crowd is just enormous. I found a tip from a guy on the internet, that around the “norwegian corner” – which is at the east most corner of the Tuileries – it should be possible to get a look, without having to be there hours in advance.
So we went out in Paris, and planned to see some of the city and then end up at the “norwegian corner”. But shortly after we had taken the Metro way up north, and a long way from our hotel, it started raining. Nice with a little summer shower after the tremendous heat in the Alps, we thought. But the summer shower turned out to be a long long shower with a big drop in temperature which made us all cold and wet, even though we bought each an umbrella.
The weather got a little better and we managed to stay out until the riders arrived in Paris, shortly after 6 pm, where they go round and round on the route ten times before it is all over.
We managed to get a good spot all the way up to the fence from where we had an excellent view, but being cold and wet and the fact that it takes around ten minutes for the riders to make one roundtrip it kind of got boring when we had seen them pass for the seventh time, why we decided to go to Starbucks to dry up and get something to heat us up. That was the last saw from Tour de France 2015.
There is no doubt in my mind that cycling sport is a television sport. You follow the riders hour after hour, you see when somebody breaks out, somebody crashes, how much time there is between riders and you get a great look from the finish line. When you are actually there, it is hard to keep up with the race facts, you get just a short glimpse of the riders and you never see who wins – unless you are at the finish line or can get back to a television.
That being said, you get other experiences. For one you see new places, you would not have come up with by your self, you get very very close to the riders which is very intense and you are a part of one of the worlds biggest sports event. Without the spectators on the route the television experience would be very boring.
Would we go again? I am not shure – but maybe if our ways crosses the Tour de France route in the future.
TOUR DE FRANCE OUTRO
I have just seen the Vuelta a Espana from the sofa, and man is that a race. It is far more exciting with far more difficult stages and far more riders to compete for the win. Maybe I will go there next time ?