This is a bit of a travelogue about Stage 17 of the Tour de France. Skip to the end if you're not interested in reading it all.
Well, after years of dreaming and scheming about it, the Col du Tourmalet is now in the bag. I didn't think I would or could ever climb this beast. We didn't know when we planned this trip but 2010 was the 100th year of cyclists climbing the Col du Tourmalet. How they did it a century ago beggars believe as it was bloody difficult for us to get up it even with today's super light bikes and beautiful tarmac roads. The French Gendarmes added their own level of grief by putting in roadblocks all over the place, stopping cars, cyclists and even attempting to stop walkers from getting to the summit.
This idea started in October. As part of the plan, we got ahead of the crowds and secured a very reasonable mountain gite in December that was perfectly positioned at the foot of the Col - at a place called St. Marie de Campan - 18 km from the top. This afforded us a starting point to climb as well as see Stage 16 which went right through the village.
We're with our friends Vincent and Kulvinder and their kids. Vincent cycles so Fiona, Vince and I were going to attempt to climb the mountain during our stay. The idea was to pre-position a tent at the summit of the Col and drive up the night before the hill top finish on the 22nd with the kids and camp at the top, with Fiona and Kulvinder coming up early the next morning with Callum and food. This idea was scotched when a recce up the mountain had us stopped by the Gendarmes 4 km from the summit - blocked to all traffic except cyclists and walkers from the 18th -22nd. End of plan. But I digress.
As part of our preparations we arrived on Saturday, 17th and climbed the Col d'Aspin the day after we arrived, an 8km climb with amazing views and lots of lovely hairpins to practice descending. Short and not too steep which filled us with ill-placed confidence in our abilities. In our ignorance we also discovered this was the day of the Etape du Tour, where 10,000 amateur cyclists attempt to climb the same stage, Stage 17, as the pros, with a hill top finish at the Col du Tourmalet, but a week earlier. After descending Aspin we ran smack into an army of cyclists coming from the opposite direction. I have never seen so many cyclists on one set of road. From the look of it there were some very weary cyclists coming off the Col.
For the day of Stage 16 on 20th July, we climbed up the Tourmalet about a third up to test the gradient and see how packed it was, then quickly descended back before the Gendarmes closed the roads for the tour coming through. We positioned Vince's vehicle the night before at the tight curve in the town to get a spot and Vincent had set up a viewing platform on his truck where the kids could watch the riders coming through the village on their way to Pau - all the greats and retiring greats - Armstrong et al. Armstrong was in the a group near the front but only working for a stage win as he was too far down the peloton to be in contention. The kids got tons of freebies from the Caravan and were happy with their take but getting away from the crowded roads meant a long detour.
The weather turned that night. A tremendous thunder/lightening storm came down the valley, delivering multiple concussion waves as the thunder bounced from canyon wall to canyon wall. The gite shook like it was coming apart but somehow the kids slept through it. It didn't bode well for the next day as the rain was pelting down hard and the temperature plummeted.
Next morning the rain was unrelenting but after putting off the inevitable we finally put on our wet gear and were out of the house around 11am and started climbing to St Marie de Campan and the beginning of the Col start. There were few cyclists with most probably making the right decision to give this stage a miss as the weather was horrible. About an hour up the rain finally relented but the gradients increased and we were soon drenched in sweat and into our easiest gears as we disappeared into the fog cloud. I was feeling good but was worried about Fiona who was having hot flashes and pulling over to strip off layers to the approval of the few male cyclists passing her.
Finally, about 7km from the summit, we hit the snow tunnels where the gradient went up again and I was beginning to think this was too hard and too far, when I saw the hazy outlines of the first buildings of La Mongie, the ski station where the Gendarmes had set up a roadblock to stop bikes and cars and where the team buses were positioned for a fast departure. We were farther up than I thought, only 4km from the summit so I pulled over to wait for Vince and Fiona. By now we were wet through and shivering so we found a cafe, ordered some coffees and changed into warm clothes and waterproofs we brought with us, stored the bikes with a nice store owner and started walking the final 4km up to the pass, just in time to get hit by a heavy downpour.
I didn't want to carry heavy sandles so I brought flip-flops - not a good idea 8,000ft up a flooded mountain road but we commenced to follow the steady stream of walkers that snaked up to the pass far above. The flip-flops didn't really work on the gradient so I walked up to the pass in bare feet. Thankfully it wasn't cold. There was a contingent of gayly dressed Spaniards who looked like they just walked out of a Mickey Mouse cartoon followed by poor Vince, with two metal pins and a plate in his ankle, leaning drunkenly on his good ankle and looking like he had a peg leg. Thankfully the fog cleared on our side of the pass and after an hour we neared the summit, a tiny cut in the spine of the pass, the narrow road crowded with TV trailers, support vehicles, an army of overly officious and pushy Gendarmes and thousands of hungry and tired tour followers, trudging in the narrow mud ditch left to them. Silhouettes on the ridge let us know there were thousands of people above us and on the other side.
We downed a quick soggy sandwich and a welcome beer bought in a muddy beer tent and found a spot above the road about 25m from the finish line to view the riders coming up the road far below. Great idea but the fog was so thick and fast you could barely see to the road 40 ft in front of you. The clouds cleared momentarily to show the mountains outlined in the distance and a ribbon of road flanked by motorhomes and people, dropping thousands of feet below, I was following race commentary on the iPhone and sending updates to the Norweigan guys next to us, their legs dangling over the cliff face. Vince laid the Welsh flag on the precipice. The atmosphere was electric and the changing fog and light made the whole scene surreal.
Directly across from us was the mobile blockhouse where the race commentator was rapid-firing French updates through the tannoy system, which can be unusually irritating to those not accustomed to loud rapid-fire French or any French, for that matter. My iPhone stopped giving updates so we gave up and waited to hear the crowds exploding as the riders went past. You could hear the struggle between the two contenders in the rising voice of the race commentator - 4km, Schleck, 3km, Contador indecipherable, 1.7km, ContadorSchleck some French words, 500m unintelligible French voices screaming at pitch level...
Fiona had used her powers of French and feminine guile to work her body between two guys so that Vince and I could lean over at the last minute, basically pinning the unwitting guys to the parapet, and get a view. With the helicopters grounded due to fog it was only the motorcycles offering video but we didn't have that either. Finally, about 5:20pm, the crowds erupted, professional lenses were aimed and everyone else pointed their cameras in a hopeful direction as Contador and Schleck flew out of the fog at an insane pace and over the line and gone.
Somehow I got them going by with the camera, Contador trailing Schleck by half a bike length, his arms in the air. The rest is a blur as crowds began moving in a sea of bodies. We followed the riders down to the area where the soigneurs gave them dry clothes so they could ride down the 4km to the team buses, saw all the favourites, Cavindish, Sastre, Cancellara, Casar, pulling over and donning dry kit. They looked haggard and grey, and old. After an interminable crush pinned to the barriers, we started walking down the hill with everyone else. Thor Husvold (sp?) went by us, held back by having to don the sprinters green jersey, amazingly, calmly balancing his bike between thousands of people walking down the hill.
Finally, about 7:30pm, we got back on our bikes and started the treacherous descent down the mountain, with screaming TdeF organization, media and team cars using their sirens to bully their way down the narrow, winding road. It was raining again, wet, misty and thoroughly frightening as the cars went by so close. It was also cold.
We got our own back lower in the valley as the cars backed up in the right lane. I opened up full throttle and charged down the open left lane mentally flipping off drivers that had driven to close to me. Within half an hour we were at St. Campan and riding up the lane to the gite where Kulvinder had prepared a wonderful Thai feast.
The next day I went to get croissants at the bakery in Campan. Waiting for my change I looked down at the local paper and spied Schleck on the cover, arms raised in victory, the crowds around him in mid scream as he crossed the line. Near his left helmet was a big headed boy in full face. Next to him was a guy with a grey goatee. It was me, camera raised, mouth open, screaming along with the rest of them.
All the best,