Monday, July 16, 2012

Tour de France up close

It was down to breakfast sharp at eight o'clock this morning. What a spread! There was a beautiful fresh fruit salad plus bowls of fresh pineapple, strawberries and melon. Atop this display were little fruit tarts. I sampled a small coconut milk and pineapple drink that was delicious. There was every kind of nut, yogurts, cheese and bread alongside croissants and cereals. You could even make your own nutella crepe or choose bacon, eggs and sausage. Needless to say we fuelled up for a long day at the Tour de France.

Instead of taking the very twisty road to the Andorra border, we opted for the tunnel right by our hotel. Once in France we admired the grassy mountains that were obscured by fog yesterday. With the sun shining it made the drive through the mountains even more lovely. We decided to stop at Ax les Thermes for bread and ended up buying a ham, cheese, egg and tomato sandwich on a fresh baguette and two raspberry infused pastries. Ax was our first point of today's Tour de France route and it was evident by the French television crews leaving their hotel for their trucks. As we drove towards Tarascon the side of the road was already full of cars and caravans many sporting their country's flags or just decorated in someway to support the Tour. At Tarascon the traffic slowed down considerably as the Carrefour arches were being raised.

By now we were crawling along but there was such a festive air we didn't really mind. The gendarmes were stationed along the route with more caravans and cars. Many people had set up their picnic tables and were sitting enjoying the show. We knew we had to reach Vicdessos, the start of the stage one climb before the road was closed at 11:30. We made it in lots of time but the narrow road to the start of the climb was already closed to traffic. The few cars that were there must have arrived very early or even last night. Luckily, we parked right by the turning. I asked one of the gendarmes how far it was to the summit of Port de Lers....11 kilometres. That is farther than we wanted to go so we lightened our load and set off up the hill. After walking not too far we found a spot that overlooked a turn and a climb. Perfect.

It was only 11:30 and I had forgotten my book but it didn't really matter. There was lots going on with people passing by, all carrying baguettes, cyclists going up and down the mountain, gendarmes whizzing by on their motor bikes and Tour souvenir vans selling their wares. Nestle ice cream vans did a good trade. Then girls came by giving everyone Tour trash bags. Now there were more souvenir trucks and official cars. Vittel vans came by and if you were lucky you got handed water.

The sun disappeared and the sky began to look quite dark. Maybe we should have bought a Tour umbrella. At last the Tour caravan appeared. All the sponsors have floats in the Caravan. First of all there was a huge yellow jersey cyclist float followed by cartoon characters. This went on for a long time with floats and then vans from the same company throwing souvenirs to the crowd. We ended up with quite a haul including 5 hats -- three of these the red and white polka dot jersey Carrefour hats -- a variety of candies, madelaines and even little sausages. We didn't get the big green hands but we did get key chains, a magnet, a pillow, cards, a yellow nylon Tour backpack, three Bottles of Vittel and some detergent. It was all good fun and kept the crowd entertained as they waited for the riders to appear.

More official cars passed after the caravan, as well as media, gendarmes and team equipment cars. Finally, a race car came by with the news that the Tour would arrive in forty minutes. People were still arriving and by now everyone had eaten their lunch. Another wait and the news that the first riders would arrive in twelve minutes with the peleton in half an hour. Lots of media cars from France, Australia and Russia passed by. There were more and more photographer motorcyclists -- one person driving and the second perched behind taking pictures -- passing by to get in position for the race. A helicopter hovered over the town and then passed overhead. We heard the beep of the gendarmes and suddenly the first riders are coming up the hill with Sanchez, Sagan and Casar in the breakaway group. What chaos! There are team cars, Tour officials, media motorcyclists all in this small space following the first group. Then they\'re gone. Usually, the peleton is three or four minutes behind the breakaway group but we knew that we would be waiting longer this time. Had there been a crash? Finally, the peleton. Everyone was in this huge second group, Wiggins, Evans, Frome and Nibali. All the Brightly coloured team jerseys just kept coming and coming. Suddenly, I saw a coveted water bottle coming in my direction landing a few feet in front of me right at the verge of the road. If you have watched the Tour on TV you will have seen riders discarding their empty water bottles throughout the race; they are a popular souvenir. There were four media motorcyclists coming towards me. I made a split second decision and grabbed the water bottle from a Saxo Bank cyclist. The peleton finally passed once again followed by team car after team car topped with all the bikes, more media, gendarmes and sadly a van that said, "Fin de Tour". As we walked back down the hill I was pleased to hear people commenting on my Saxo Bank water bottle.

Back in the car we made good progress for a while on our return journey but then crawled for many kilometres into Ax. We decided on a break and stopped for a coffee in a bar which just happened to have three televisions tuned to the Tour. What a bonus getting to see the end of the Tour, although I don't think that the French patrons were overly impressed with Sanchez' stage win. We walked around Ax and I ended up soaking my feet in the 77 degree centigrade Leper's pond, which was originally built for people returning from the Crusades who had leprosy. Ax has about sixty thermal springs that now make up much of their industry.

Once again it became very foggy on our drive back to Andorra but once we came out of the tunnel there was bright sunshine. By the time we drove the kilometre to our hotel, the weather changed again. We stood in the parking lot watching the mist roll right down the mountain before making a left turn and continuing on at some considerable speed.

Finally back in our room, we learned that just before the peak of Port de Lers someone had thrown tacks on the road causing a number of riders, motorcyclists and team cars to have flats. The peleton slowed right down throwing a lifeline to these riders, including defending champion Cadel Evans, so that they could catch up with the main group. This is the first time this sabotage has happened and really is quite disgusting, especially when you see the effort that everyone puts in to the Tour.

It was really special to experience the Tour first hand. We would definitely do it again. In fact we are checking out the stages in the Vuelta a Espagna that runs in the last two weeks of August and the beginning of September. I wonder if it would be as much fun as the Tour?

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