Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Stalking the Tour de France part 1: Mont Ventoux

It was almost 1 am when our creaking car overloaded with 5 bicycles and camping gear pulled into the tiny town of Malaucène. A large truck and a group of men were out in the darkness, setting up metal barriers along the road. We drove back and forth for a bit, looking for a place to camp.

Down one side road was a sea of camping cars with names of various press organizations. Even in the quiet night, something indescribable was in the air. The Tour de France was here. The riders hadn't come through yet, but everything else was just the quiet before the storm.

The next morning I walked to the center of town, taking in the scene. Everywhere, venders were erecting tents to sell TDF t-shirts, water bottles and other brickabrac. The line out the local boulanger stretched out the door and far out on to the street, and I gave up the idea of a fresh croissant.

A hour or so later, breakfast ingested and all five bikes untied from the car, Roddy, Leyre, Maxime, Rafa and I followed the stream of cyclists out of Malaucène and along the route the TDF cyclists would follow. They would likely be going upward of 40 km/h, whereas we bobbed along at 15 or 20. Route-finding was easy - just follow the stream of other cyclists!

I have never seen such an absolute circus of people in my entire life. All along the road, camping cars, tents and other shelters to shield the piercing sun were set up. People were playing music, there were flags and posters. Up and up this continued for 30 km. (I was unfortunately have some camera troubles and so didn't get any pictures until later).

I wasn't feeling awesome. It was close to 30 degrees C, and I was still shaking my cold from earlier in the week. Basically, once the climb started in earnest, I got into my lowest gear and keep it pretty low intensity. Literally thousands of cyclists were headed up the mountain, and I was passed by plenty of long-legged men in Lycra.

The spectators were pretty crazy - some of them had clearly started to drink early and were noisily cheering on us cyclists as if we were Tour de France riders ourselves. Some were wearing crazy costumes. I even got pushed once!

As the road emerged from the trees higher up on the mountain, the air started getting noticeably cooler and I started to feel better, spinning rather than grinding on my low gears and even passing a few people in spandex. At 6 km from the summit, every km was marked, and this motivated me even more. Well over two hours from the start in Malacuène, I passed under the 1 km arch and a shiver of anticipation passed through me. I was so close!

Two hundred meters later a policeman stopped me.  "C'est fini pour les cyclistes", he said, "You have to get behind the barrier." And so I wasn't allowed to bike to the top.
So close!
I met Leyre, although we had lost the others, and we decided to walk our bikes the rest of the way to the top, just to have gotten there.

At the finish line
We found the others a bit later, and settled on a placed to watch around 800 meters from the finish. An hour or so before the Tour, the publicity caravan pulled through. The publicity caravan is a set of extravagant cars with giant plastic sculptures representing different companies that sponsor the tour. It passes through and throws freebies, mostly crap, but also snacks, to the crowd. Take these lovely attractive hats for example:

From the left: Leyre (spanish), Roddy (scottish), Rafa (spanish) and Maxime (québécois)
Example A of the publicity caravan: A car with a gigantic bag of Madeleines on top

After the caravan passed, the air became thick with suspense. Loud speakers boomed out commentary. Sylvain Chavanel was in a solo breakaway, reaching the base of the mountain. Could a Frenchman do it? On Bastille day? We didn't think so. A few minutes lead wouldn't enough against the pure climbers that would surge forward as soon as the mountain hit.

And we were right. Striving to here the radio, we heard Chavanel get lost in the pack, Quintana surge forward, Contador and Froome duel until Froome broke away, caught Quintana, and finally attacked to gain the lead, alone.

Froome, alone in the crowd
The riders passing by was all sweat and steel and forceful concentration. They seemed to be in a world of their own. Some were clearly in what is colloquially known as a 'pain cave'. Others were just working there way slowly but steadily to the top. The leaders, Froome and then Quintana, were absolutely cooking.

Quintana passes quickly
Contador passed by, all high cadence and dark determination. Voeckler came by, 'dansant' as they say in French, meaning he was standing up, tongue wagging in a characteristic Voeckler climbing face. Rolland, the previous owner of the polka-dotted climbing jersey, passed by, looking angry as he knew he was about to loose the jersey. They all passed, and a half an hour after Froome motored through, it was all over. (In fact, there was another straggler from the Sojasun team who arrived nearly 20 minutes after that. The police were pretty angry with us for trying to use the road then!)

So that was one of the 100th Tour de Frances most anticipated stages. A hundred thousand screaming fans on the mountain. One hundred and eighty cyclists. Craziness and love of cycling and excitement. I'll be back, TDF - see you in Annecy on Saturday!

- The Wild Bazilchuk


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