Having just spent the best part of a month following the Tour de France I thought I should write up some of my experiences these past few weeks.
First of all, a bit of an introduction. I'm a Scotsman from the Highlands, but I now live in London. I've recently left my job to go back to university and study for an MBA. This change has given me the summer off. During a BBQ a good friend told me not to waste the time doing normal stuff and to make a plan otherwise the summer will disappear and you’ll have done nothing. I decided right there to follow this year's Tour.
There was of course, one hurdle. The wife. We only got married in the last week of April and had just returned from honeymoon. I thought my request may be pushing the boundaries of good husband behaviour, especially considering I just quit my job. To my surprise and eternal gratitude she thought it was a great idea and wished me good luck. The only condition imposed upon me was that I do lots of cycling and get fit again. I broke my hip a couple of years ago and have only just returned to cycling. The power is well down and the weight well up. There are still doubts over whether the bone has repaired properly. I guess I'll find out.
A quick look at the route told me the Tour started in the Vendee. I booked a campsite about 1km from the town centre of la Barre de Monts, hosts of the Grand Depart. I also managed to get a place near Les Essarts for the TTT. After that it was impossible to book campsites as they were already full. No matter thought I, I'll work that out later.
Armed with a pop-up tent, a road bike, a mountainbike and a car load of other junk I drove off to France to live the dream.
I left on the 30th of June and made it to la Barre de Monts, Fromentine for the Grand Depart. Having been to the Grand Depart in London I was excited about the festival of cycling that I was about to witness. I got up at 0445 to drive my preloaded car to an early ferry. I had set up in the campsite by 2030 and went for a walk into town to sample the atmosphere. On the way, an old guy asked me in French where I was going. I said ‘to eat and drink’. He shook his head, tapped his watch and said "It's too late. But good luck". I finished the walk to the town centre and found a small French sleepy village. If it wasn't for a few barriers beside the road you would not know anything was going on. I managed to find an eatery had a brochette avec pomme frites for my dinner (that sounds healthier than kebab and chips, right?) and went to find some Tour fans in a local pub. Expect I couldn't. There was nothing doing. Not what I expected. I went to sleep a little disheartened. It’s got to get better than this, right?
The next day I rode the Passage du Gois. Firstly on the mountain bike to assess the surface then a couple of times on the road bike. I had a nice 20km loop from the campsite, to the passage and around the Isle. The first time over the passage it was wet and nasty. However, on the next loop it had dried considerable. It's a pretty cool road. There were lots of people cycling over it, and even more taking advantage of low tide to go looking for shellfish.
The Passage, significantly drier than the first ride over it.
Back at the campsite I met a bunch of Aussies over from Tasmania. We talked cycling, and the guy said "Cadel, will never win the Tour". They were a nice bunch of guys. One rode for Praties Cycling team in Oz while another was over for the world yachting championships. Since I've done 50km of cycling in two years I didn't offer to ride out with them. That night there was a festival in the town. I went to have a look. It consisted of four local produce stands and a guy playing a violin while a guy on a microphone implored you to buy stuff. There were no more than 50 people there. It stopped after 90 minutes or so. There was nothing else on. To be honest I was a bit downbeat. I did expect a lot more from the night before the first day.
The next morning I wandered to the start line to watch the signing in. I got a spot right in front of the stage and didn't move. For an hour or two I was handed free stuff from the caravan while we waited for the riders. A little crown build up around where I was, but it wasn't really what you'd call busy. Once the riders started coming through there was a lot more buzz. Poulidor, Hinault, Virenque and a whole bunch of others I don't recognise wandered past and where cheered by the locals. Rabo were first to check in. They walked over as a team, signed in, lined up and waved to the crowd. Other than BMC all the others came on their bikes in dribs and drabs. It was a great opportinity to get pictures. The riders were mostly appreciative of the attention, but it was obvious who the locals liked and who the media wanted a piece of. Vino and Contador were mobbed by the journalists whilst Voeckler and Gadret got the most calls from the audience. Nicholas Roach was standing in front of me was was called Steven a few times. I laughed, but even more so when someone thought he was Gadret. When the found out he wasn't Gadret they asked when he was coming out. I bet Nicholas wasn't too chuffed.
Laurens Ten Dam before he got a bit bashed up.
Tommy V soaks up the adulation.
David Millar smiles for the camera.
Phil Gil ready to take the stage.
Evans. Already focused. He looked over and thanked me when I wished him good luck. Most ignored the fans, but he looked like he was enjoying it.
The riders then left to start the stage and I went off to park the tent and head to the next town. Whilst I was happier that the tour had livened up a bit, I was sure there had to me more to it that this. It seemed like the French didn't really give a shit.
I got to my campsite and logged on to PdC. I asked you guys how long until the stage rolled through Les Herbiers and determined I had enough time to get there. Off I popped on the MTB to find a spot. As soon as I arrived I found a roundabout about 4km from the end that had a beer tent and friendly locals. They seemed genuinely amazed that a Scotsman would bother coming to the tour. They were very friendly and we shared a beer or two from the roadside stall that sold them in souvenir cups. My French isn't great and they had no English, but I spent a fantastic hour with those guys. This was more like it. When the peleton passed and then the following groups came minutes later there was confusion. We guessed at crashes, but had no idea until I got the story from PdC. At the roadside you've got no idea what's going on.
Me in the middle. The topless guy made me wear his Malliot Jaune for a photo.
Bozic racing past on his own. My goodness they were flying at this point.
The next morning I awoke early. Hopped on the road bike and headed the 10kms to Les Essarts. I got there about 0630 and was met by blocked roads and unfriendly police. However, I just walked around them and hammered around the course to get a feel for it. I took slightly longer than the pros. I got back to the campsite, put the kilt on and cycled back to the stage. I had a look around the start and finish but decided I'd prefer to be out of town. That's a walk I'll never forget. Every minute someone nodded, cheered or clapped the kilt. The general atmosphere in town was amazing. The place was packed and the level of excitement was a step up from the previous day. Once I got out of town I could ride a bit more, but every now and then a Gendarme would admonish me and tell me to walk. I eventually got a spot and awaited the publicity caravan. It past in it's unrelenting bland cheeriness. However, I did get a bottle of Vittel (official water of the Tour de France) and a half dozen packets of Haribo (official jelly sweets of the Tour de France). The kilt works.
The riders also came by on a few practice laps. Garmin were easily the fastest and the Euskies easily the slowest. However, when they are racing you've no idea who’s fast or not. They just hammer past you. What's great about the TTT is you get them in short bursts rather than one huge zoom. One thing I quickly learned that is during a race you can forget mobile internet. I guess there's just to many people in the area.
Fabian tows the hopes of Luxembourg.
Cadel hammering it in green.
Phil takes a tow. Not really his strong point.
For the next day or three I followed the tour on the TV. I needed to get some miles into my legs before hitting the Pyrenees otherwise they would be hell. My campsite hosts really took care of me and fed me very strange drinks. Picon biere being one of them. I also managed to play a round or two of golf between cycling, drinking and watching the tour.
I then spent a couple of days in Brive. It was my wife's 30th birthday, so I flew her out, booked a hotel and had an amazing couple of days with great food and travels through the Dordogne. I took here to la grotte de Lascaux which she was unsure about, but absolutely loved. We watched some of the tour together, but that was a disaster with VdB, Wiggins and Vino all leaving the race.
I then dropped her off at the airport and headed to the mountains. I managed to find a campsite for a few days but not for the day before or the day of the stage at Luz Ardiden. That was fine I thought, I'll camp on the mountain. The next morning I awoke early and climbed the Tourmalet. I left before 0800 in the morning and had a wonderfully cool ride up. It was a great, but hard, ride. The hip faired quite well. There was a little muscle pain due to under use, but no bone/joint issues. In the afternoon I drove up Luz Ardiden to have a look. Already the campers were lining the route. This was The rest day and the rave wasn't until Thursday. The following day I climbed Luz Ardiden. That was hard. I don't know if it was weather conditions or because it was the day after the Tourmalet, but I didn't enjoy it that much. Looking back, I've already forgotten the toughness, but I did suffer more than I like to at the time.
Luz from the summit with the best camper spots already filling up.
Wednesday was Hautacam day. I didn't ride to the foot of the mountain, which was a bit cheaty, but drove and parked near the river. The ride up was fine. I took it pretty slowly and didn't hurt much at all. They have a lovely picture on the road saying Hautacam loves the Tour de France. It was a nice climb. I was tempted to keep climbing to the refuge a little higher, but I needed to get back to the campsite before midday to check out in time. I then drove up Luz Ardiden and found a place to camp on the top. The weather was miserable, so I quickly set up the tent and went into the ski station. They had a very busy bar with a TV, so I got to see Cav win stage 11 and have a beer.
The campsite and mountain side was full of Basques. This was a step up in terms of atmosphere from what I had seen elsewhere. However, it wasn't very inclusive. It really felt like a celebration of all things Basque for Basques. Outsiders were tolerated, but I definitely had the feeling that this wasn't for me. Of course, I could have tried to blend in. They have a uniform that's easy to copy. Firstly, you need to wear orange. Secondly, you should have hair like an 80s student, preferably with a mullet or a few long dreads at the back. Multiple hooped earings are essential, these should be make from wood but metal is acceptable. 2L bottles of coke and red wine mix are to be carried at all times. Finally, anything Spanish gets shouted at in harsh guttural tones.
After a noisy night, I awoke, got the kilt on and headed down the mountain. I found a quiet spot just after the barriers where you could see quite far down the mountain. I was joined, randomly, by the Aussies I met at the depart. After Evans' great start, I joked with the Aussie about his comment that Evans would never win the Tour. He agreed that it had been a great start, but still though he had no chance. Just as the Caravan arrived we were swamped by Basques. I was a little disappointed as I wanted a quiet spot to take photos, but hey, the fans are what make the race here, so any frustration soon dissipated.
When Samu came by in the breakaway the place erupted. When he won it went mental. For the first time the guys in orange opened up and started hugging all around. It was joyous. The rest of the peleton came and went. Bertie was booed but every Euskie got a heroes welcome. They even stopped the team cars on the mountain. I had to sleep on the top again that night as it was dark before the tour left and they don't let the public off until they're on their way.
Basso, Evans, Rolland and Voeckler (with tongue out) come hammering past.
Morning on the top of Luz Ardiden.
The next day I went to Les Cabannes at the foot of Plateau de Beille. After setting up the tent and having a much needed shower I went straight up the hill. I'd had a rest day, and found the climb enjoyable. No abnormal suffering, so a rest day on the mountain really helped. One thing to note was that the amount of supporters here was a level above that the previous day. Being Bastile Day, the French had a day off and they were making the most of it. The last few kilometres of the climb was full of campers and there were massive parks full of them. People had set up bars on the road with inflatable seats. This was the tour I came to see. The French were now invigorated. Voeckler was on the front page of every news paper. Thomas the Lion Heart had captured the French imagination and the country had once again become tour crazy.
The following morning the sun was out. I rode from the campsite to the mountain. I had a bag with my camera, kilt and water for the day. I bumped into the Aussies again briefly as they descended. The caravan passed and as usual I got loads of crap thrown at me. By now I'm really quite bored of it. However, it seems the French has an unlimited appetite for chasing free stuff. Nothing moves as fast as a 60 year old french woman chasing down a free sample of Extra (official washing liquid of the Tour de France) or a packet of cakes from St Michel (official madeleine baker of the Tour de France). No internet means I had no idea what was going on so was unaware of road positions, crashes or Cavendish getting dropped from the grupetto. However, my own pictures helped me understand a bit of what was going on. I did get a picture of LTD's face though after he'd kissed the road and Jens with post crash bandages. Cavendish also passed me after the grupetto. However, he had three HTC guys with him and looked good. There was no hint of a sticky bottle or leaning on cars. In fact the car beside was Saxo, so no help there anyway.
I headed back to my campsite and bumped into the Aussies again. They graciously gave me a tow 6kms out of town before I dropped off the back. Kilts and mountain bikes are not made for chaingangs!
Cav working back to the grupetto with no help from team cars.
Laurens a bit bashed. Didn't notice I had that shot until I was reviewviewing the photos. Chapeau LTD.
Bourg d'Oisans was my next target stop. There were no more mountain finishes until the Galibier, so I thought I'd take advantage of he mini break to head north and do some riding. I quick look at the map showed that Ventoux was kind of on the way. I got the very last camp spot in Bedoin municipal campsite and immediately got changed and went to climb the Geant de Provence. I've done this hill many times and decided on the Bedoin route up as I love the twisty S bends on the descent. All went well on the climb, but goodness me the top was hard. This was the Sunday that people though there could be cross wind echelons on the sprint stage as the morning weather was so bad. When I reached the open section the bitter strong wind was something I'd not experienced before. Every turn left I was sheltered from the wind, but on each right turn I was slowed to a standstill and was freezing on the bike. My lips and feet were turning to ice. The last 2km was the hardest riding I've done. At the top I stretched off my knees, took a photo and quickly started my descent. The start was miserable. It wasn't too cold, but the cross winds meant that cornering was dangerous. For the first 6km I rarely went above 40km/h. However, I let rip a bit on the bottom section. Whilst my top speed was only around 70kph, some of the corners were wonderful fun. I kept the hammer on all the way to the campsite before changing and heading out for a well deserved Leffe. I went to bed thinking of a run from the easier Sault side in the morning, but when I awoke I found out that my legs were no longer talking to me. They were on strike. So instead I continued up to the big Alps.
Ventoux is like no other mountain on the Tour. Amazing.
Bourg d'Oisans was already packed. I managed to get a camp spot in an old ladies garden for the week. Within an hour of me getting there it was full. I timed it just right. I would have washing and toilet facilities. When camping and cycling, I prefer them in that order. I can 'go' anywhere, but unless my 'bits' can be cleaned before and after a ride, I ain't going. The carpark was mostly full of Dutch with a few Belgians and Norwegians thrown in for good measure. The Belgians seemed to have the larger motor homes and also seemed to spend a large amount of time sitting outside them on deckchairs looking at the road. They do this for days before the Tour arrives. Whilst they really seem to enjoy it, I fail to see the attraction. The Dutch folk seemed far more interested in getting up the mounntian on the bike and then getting drunk and listening to bad techno music. I felt more affinity to the Dutch if I'm honest. The Norwegians were very easily the best looking bunch of Tour tourists. Generally they were quite reserved until race day. Then they got all dressed up with horns and flags and had a great time.
On the first morning in Bourg, the rains fell again. Not a great start. I did laundry whilst following what may have been the best day of the Tour so far, the descent in to Gap. Never has laundry been as exciting as that. In the early evening I was walking to get food when I heard a familiar voice. It was the Aussies again. We met up for dinner and discussed Cadel. THey were beginning to think he had a chance now and had decided to go to Paris if he was successful.
The next morning again had a rain start, however it cleared soon enough and I managed to get a chance at l'Alpe d'Huez. I love this climb. It was the reason I took up cycling up hills. It was the reason I originally got into shape. I lost 1/2 my body weight to do this climb the first time and until I broke my hip I'd done it every year since. It was just as I remembered. It took a lot longer than last time, but with the mountain already filling up with Orange people it was great. The legs were definitely OK. Just need to rid myself of my belly again.
The next day was again overcast and showery with a bad forecast (temperature wise) for Galibier. I got on the bike and headed that way. The climb up to the Lautaret is a long old slog from Bourg d'Oisans and I was fairly tired when I got there. It’s always talked about being a gentle climb, but it’s tough, believe me. The police were not allowing cyclists on to the Galibier, but I managed to sneak by a few and climb a fair old bit up there before I gave up. It was too cold for me to hang about and with no camera I decided to go back to the campsite and watch the race there. The descent back was brilliant. The roads were closed so corners could be taken however I liked. I was flying. It's not very steep, so the speeds were not massive, but more or less constantly above 50kph with 70+ bursts.
That night the Tour rolled in to town. My campsite was about 100m from the foot of the Alpe beside the road. The Dutch of course wanted to party. They waved and cheered every truck through and received loud blasts on the horns in thanks from the drivers. I wasn't going to get any sleep, so I joined then. There was a makeshift bar, so a few beers later I was thoroughly in the swing of things.
A strange thing happened the next morning. The sun came out. Woo hoo. After breakfast I got the kilt on and wandered up with a crowd of newly made Dutch friends and stopped at bed 17 - that four from the bottom. This was Luxembourg corner and there were huge flags up on the cliff face and all over the road. A guy had a TV and we had coverage, albeit in German, so we knew what was going on. There were a great many characters on the Alpe that day. A Nacho Libre dude in speedos and a mask that ran after Contador and some massive red Luxembourger thing that ran after Andy.
Contador, Rollands and Nacho Libre.
Chava working hard.
Grupetto turning Luxembourg corner 17( or 4 from bottom)
The next morning I didn't know what I was going to do. In the end I decided to leave Bourg d'Oisans and went to Grenoble for the ITT. I missed most of the early riders and saw maybe the last 30 or so. I left as soon as I could and started the journey north. I had a free pass for the month in France, but it had become obvious that my wife and I were missing each other, so I decided to drive as far as I could that night. I got an hour or so north of Paris where I booked a ferry ticket and stayed in an A1 Hotel. Never again. There should be a law that says that Hotels must warn you if you are not getting an en-suite. This was my first bed in two weeks and it was terrible. Even though it was only €40 I still felt ripped off. The next morning I got up at 0500 and drove home. The wife did not know I was coming and was at Yoga when I arrived. There was only an hour before our reunion and a lot of hugs. However, that initial burst of hapiness was short lived and I'm now getting grief for the state of the car, my beard and the mountain of washing that’s been dumped on the kitchen floor.
Finally, a shot of me in the kilt. If you read this far, I'm sorry it ended so badly for you.