The magic of the Tour De France not only captivates but fascinates millions of people from all corners of the planet. Some of them will be cyclists themselves, men and women who have felt the pain and the pleasure of riding the exact same roads as their Tour heroes. Though for the vast majority the chance to visit France, let alone ride a bike on the hallowed tarmac of the French roads is nothing more than a dream.
The Tour is the most televised annual sporting event and is screened to every continent on Earth. Everyone will have their own personal reason as to the allure of this sporting feat. Many of us enjoy the “sprint” stages, 200km of cat and mouse racing where the breakaway, or escapees are given only so much time before they are reeled in and the sprinters teams take over. Five hours of dangling forlornly off the front only to be caught , sometimes just metres from the finish line. This is where the sprinters, who have remained hidden and protected by their loyal team mates, pop out in the last 50 meters to claim their prize. The ultimate prize of a Tour stage victory. The escapees, having been caught, often face the ignominy of nothing more than winning the day’s ‘most combatative rider’ award. The prize often as meagre as a lump of cheese provided by the day’s sponsor or a crate of wine to be washed away with their dreams of a career changing victory. A victory so cruelly quashed for another year at least.
For some fans they would watch for no other reason than to share in the beauty of the French countryside. France is after all one of the most visited countries in the world. With its vast contrasts in geography, it’s easy to see why millions of us fall in love for its rich culture and heritage. From the rollling countryside of the Brittany coastline to the flat roads of the West coast. Great vistas of sunflower or lavender fields, deep gorges, ancient hilltop villages and magnificent chateaux.
Unarguably one of the most awe inspiring and iconic sights of the Tour is when it reaches the mountains of which France has many. These huge pieces of rock, thrust in the path of the poor souls partaking. Almost like some cruel game that is being played out, not by Greak gods in the heavens, but race organisers, sponsors and fans alike. The cyclists themselves nothing more than mere pawns. The harder, longer or steeper the road climbs, the more agony the riders have to endure and the louder we cheer. We cheers from our bar stools, our front rooms and we bellow and applaud from the road sides. Millions of us watch from the mountainside, whether it’s the Tourmalet, Madeleine, Ventoux or L’ Alpe D’Huez.
Some have camped out for days high in the clouds but so many more will walk or cycle up. Walked or cycled up to watch with their own eyes the greatest sporting spectacle in the world. Huge swathes of supporters shuffling up the mighty cols stripped down to their shorts and often much less. In 35c heat this too is arduous. Laden down with cool boxes, hampers, umbrellas, cowbells and newspapers. Oh and we must not forget the flags. French, British, Australian, Norwegian and Dutch and so many more. This only scratches the surface of myriad of nationalities lining the roadside. But make no mistake this is no football match. There is a mutual respect , adoration and sometimes sympathy for each and every rider that toils upwards.
The preparation for the organisers of the Tour is of mammoth proportions. This is a three week event spanning the whole country and often dipping over neighbouring borders to add to its international flavour. For the fans planning a visit to a Tour stage, this too requires almost military precision planning. The Gendarmerie (French police) will close the road the race passes many hours in advance. Depending on the logistics of the day a mountain road can be closed off to non Tour traffic as early as they decide appropriate. Once that road is closed, that is that. There is no scope for negotiation and no amount of eyelash fluttering or hundred euro bribes (that that I’ve tried either) will make them relent. Woe betide anyone who tries to ignore or sneak through a back way. This is the Tour and like no other bike race in the world. Culprits won’t face the guillotine or be exiled to St Elba but the police take their responsibilities extremely seriously. Seasoned spectators will simply abandon their vehicles in the valley and start the walk up to where they feel is a good vantage point. As a rule of thumb the most exciting racing takes place on the higher slopes meaning spectators will make huge efforts to gain elevation. As some Cols are 30 km in length this can be a daunting undertaking. With the Tour being a cycle race is quite reasonable to assume that thousands of cyclists will actually cycle up the mountain themselves. This is the purest way of seeing the Tour. Along with the appreciation of the professional exertions only hours away the applause and encouragement by the thongs of already situated supporters is hugely uplifting. The mutual sharing of the occasion is a win-win situation. The rider gets a massive boost for their efforts and the roadside spectators get light entertainment to relieve the boredom and anticipation until the main event. Only at the Tour can words of encouragement be heard in 30 different languages.
There is often a lull in proceedings for an hour or so when pitches have been claimed, picnics eaten and beers consumed. Focus then will be on the distant buzz of the helicopters. Aside from the hideous spectacle of the Tour caravan, the muffled hum of helicopter blades is the first evidence that the race is coming. It’s is from these helicopters that the wonderful ,aerial images are taken and beamed all around the world.
Oh yes , I almost forgot the Tour caravan! If there was one spoke in the Tour wheel which I openly hold in contempt it is the “caravan”. The caravan is a procession of sponsors vehicles that proceed the riders by several hours. Within the caravan are vehicles of all shapes and sizes carrying anything from twenty-foot plastic sausages to scantily clad girls strapped onto the roofs spraying water or launching tat into the crowds, who scrap and battle for cheap key rings or cotton caps emblazoned with whichever sponsor. A necessary evil perhaps in this modern corporate era but an ugly one all the same.
Once the helicopters are in sight the apprehension is palpable. The lead cars cut through the crowds like modern day chariots. Around the cars are motorbikes both police and press followed by even more cars containing the great and the good of world cycling and French politics.
Then finally the curtains are raised for the showpiece. The crowd getting noisier and noisier and sometimes the only sign that the main event is upon us. Often hard to distinguish between the roadside supporters and the riders as they finally appear out of a deep mist of bodies. They travel uphill at a speed unfathomable to most making it it almost impossible to pick out who is who. The race leader resplendent in yellow often tucked away amongst his domestiques, or helpers. The whole theatre a frantic mix of colour, shouting and fumes until the shouting reaches a crescendo and then they are gone. The wall of noise rises up the mountain in a wave, like a tsunami it climaxes at the summit where it can go no further lapping at the top. It then subsidesas the riders hurl their bikes down the other side of the mountain. The wave of riders and noise isn’t quite over yet though as small pockets of ridersbattle up the incline. These are the riders who have maybe given their all to help their respected leaders and that physically can give no more. Some of whom have pushed the pace for mile after mile until their tanks are empty. Riders who have suffere mechanical issues, crashes or simply victims of what the French call ” jours sans” which literally means “days without”- that inexplicable feeling when body and souls have nothing else to give.
Just when thoughts turn towards the long walk down to the car, that evenings BBQ or worse tomorrow back in the factory, the last group of racers come into view. This last group I’d referred to as the “autobus”. Here are the riders who have banded together to try and evade the daily time limit. It’s not enough to merely finish each Tour stage but to finish within a designated time determined by several factors including the stage winners time and the severity of the stage. This band of brothers of different teams and different nationalities share the same goal of finishing the race. This group will allocate a rider, often one of the Tour veterans, who will calculate the speed needed to avoid the dreaded cut. Here we have the sprinters, the lions of the flat stages who pounced and devoured the escapees but now paying the price for their often weightier frames. Heavier men who’s weight is of no benefit over thousands of metres of mountain. Here they ride beside champions past and present. In the autobus reputation counts for little where only survival matters.
Very occasionally and heart breaking to witness are the few riders that sometimes lag behind even the autobus. Maybe a serious crash or illness has forced them back. Here we see the injured antelope of the Tour and its a mere question of when rather than whether they will be bevoured by the lion of the Broomwagon. The Broomwagon is the final vehicle of the Tour which sweeps up riders that really have reached the end of the road. Once defeat is admitted, race numbers are removed and the rider faces an often tearful and depressing drive to the finish shared only with poor souls whose Tour is also over.
After the excitement and frenzy has died down and the riders, cars, motorbikes and entourage have disappeared across the mountain, the hordes descend. Pedestrians, cyclists, cars and motor homes all heading the same way, down. Sunburnt faces talk of the day’s events, talk of who looked strong and those that didn’t. Transistor radios blurt out the on-going progress of the race and eventually reveal the winner of that day. Which riders will face the cameras and limelight or which face the pain of obscurity.
The whole day goes by so fast, the actual action condensed into just a few minutes. Far better coverage could be had from the comfort of that setee or barstool. That though would be to miss the point entirely. Watching the Tour from the heat of the roadside or the chill of the mountain top is the experience, a shared experience of suffering but also of abject respect for the heroes of the Tour. This experience is what will always draw you back to mountains time and time again.