There’s an odd paradox about being in France as the Tour plays out. We’re closer to it than we’ve ever been and yet over the past few days, we’ve had less information about it than if we were on the other side of the world, battling sleep deprivation to watch it on TV. That’s mostly because we’ve been riding and experiencing, obliquely, the history and culture of the Tour without being a part of it.
It has been something in the air, a presence all around us but not tangible. Today was our first day of direct contact with the Tour itself.
We climbed the Col d’Izoard winding through mountain gullies up to the bare shale of the summit. A tough climb made more magical by the presence of the Tour finally becoming palpable all around us.
We were climbing the side that the Tour would descend down hours later – but even on this side where the riders would be exceeding 80km an hour as they scream through the small villages and past fields of hay bales, families were picnicking, cheering us on, involved in an event they may have been planning for weeks or months.
Everyone was tied together by the event. White-water rafters negotiating rapids on the icy river below yelled and waved as we rode past, gaggles of school children cheered us on for no other reason than we were on bikes.
It started as a subtle frisson in the air, building as we climbed. We stopped for photos with gendarmes who looked all of 12 years old, begging we didn’t post the photos to Facebook. We paused at the Coppi/Bobet memorial a few kilometres below the summit, sharing the experience with cyclists from five different countries. Reaching the summit was a crescendo — even these many hours before the Tour arrived it was mad and glorious, a cocktail of passion and anticipation expressed in a hundred different ways by as many, if not more, cultures as are represented in the Tour.
We couldn’t stay long. Soon the road would be closed so we had to make our descent. As it stood the road was closed by the time we were a third of the way down. Yes, that’s right, we were belting down an iconic Tour descent mere hours before the race arrived, on closed roads. If you were going to be jealous, now is the time.
Just an aside about Stef. He is a brilliant photographer. What you may not yet know is that he’s carrying around 7kg of equipment on every climb we do. Not just that, but he’s able to gap all of us by a enough time to find a perfect vantage point, take astounding shots, and then do it all over again. It’s a mix of skill and strength that has us cursing in both envy and amazement.
On the descent we had a perfect playground. Amazing roads, free of traffic, about to be ridden by some of the toughest athletes on the planet. So with the excuse of needing to get Stef to a good spot we pushed a little harder, goading each other on with as many languages as we can pretend to have, playing at a breakaway. I left Stef before pushing on through the tunnels down to the base of the climb.
We were to stop and regroup in Rissoul at the beginning of the final climb of the day. I was the first to arrive in what I thought was Rissoul. After waiting far longer than would seem reasonable I discovered that Rissoul was actually 5km away and the race route would be closed at 3pm, meaning I would effectively be stranded in what I now know was Guillestre.
As with any trip it is the unexpected, the unknown, the dumb-arse mistakes that usually result in the real texture. It was 2:50 but the gendarm at the barrier made it very clear that the road was closed, no-one — not even on a bike — was going on the race route.
I rode through the back streets of Guillestre before finding an alternative entry on to the road; a back door. In the end I rode into Rissoul on roads lined thick with people as team buses pulled past me – it made the experience of arriving there all the richer.
The madness of the pre-race caravans coming through with old ladies knocking small children out of the way for another trinket thrown from a promotion float is the subject of another post. The first hint we have that the race is approaching is the helicopters.
As the race leaders come through there’s a wave we see building far down the slope which ripples toward us. The photos will do more justice to this than I can here but after days of anticipation and with a deeper understanding of what the riders have come through, it is electric.
There is no other sport where you can be this close to the athletes. Here, they are within an arm’s reach or a hand span — hard as coffin nails and desperately vulnerable all at once.
There are small moments that have more definition. Peter Sagan having a conversation with a rider beside him like he was on a cafe ride after 165km and hors category climb, Richie Porte riding between team cars, gold chain swinging from his neck — and faces, some clearly in pain, some placid, some unreadable.
It was a big day – watching Nibali attack within the final kilometres, clawing seconds back from the stage leaders and looking at some points like he was going to take the victory once again was more exciting. It was made all the more visceral having seen him ride past within metres only minutes before.
That’s why people will camp out for days for a brief tantalising point of contact with the race that may last just seconds. Because that few brief moments of fleeting colour and barely recognised features makes them a part of it.