While Bradley Wiggins was sewing up his Tour de France victory, I was knitting together some of the best photos from last week, when I was able to see a couple of stages and linger around hotels on the rest day.
Last Monday I was in the town of Samatan, which was hosting the start for stage 15. I found a place behind the barriers away from the busy start-line area where I would see the cyclists ride from their buses to the sign-on podium, and it proved to be a good spot for photos.
The riders were able to enjoy a lie-in with the départ fictif unusually late at 1:40pm, with the added relief that the next day was a full day off. Some riders sign on early and at first you can mentally tick them off as they go, but as the start approaches, the final rush ensues and you often don’t know which way to look.
The following day I went off to Pau to mooch around some of the hotels the teams were staying at, though I wasn’t at any of the hotels early enough to see a great deal (the riders get their ‘gentle’ rides out of the way in the morning and the rest comes later). Having had a look round some of the team hotels in Pau two years ago, I noticed that several of the teams had booked the same hotel as in 2010. It wasn’t surprising to find that two of the richest teams, Sky and BMC, had treated themselves to the luxurious Parc Beaumont Hotel, just up the road from the Casino. Definately no plastic chairs there, Cav.
There wasn’t much going on outside the Sky/BMC hotel other than crowds of people waiting with only a faint hope that a Cadel Evans or a Bradley Wiggins might appear, but equally scared of leaving just in case the unlikely did occur. At one point the race director Jean-Francois Pecheux made a surprise appearance. He looked lost. Maybe he was.
The final day topped the lot. I was in Bagnères-de-Luchon for the conclusion of the mythical mountain stage over the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde. At under 150 metres to go I would not only get a good view on the finishing straight in a perfectly shady spot (this was the hottest day of the Tour), but the big screen that was erected on the final bend would also be at my disposal. Watching the action unfolding as it happened in the mountains made the long wait bearable. The crowd cheered in anticipation as the French favourite, Thomas Voeckler, crested the Peyresourde alone. It was Déjà vu, for Voeckler was the last winner in the spa town when the race visited two years ago.
Voeckler, once again, was sweeping down into Luchon for a solo victory, this one even more spectacular than the last. It was a truly magnificent victory and a pleasure to witness. The crowds were delighted to see Thomas, and Thomas beamed back. Having cruised around the final bend, he held his arms aloft, and was gone. It was a special moment. The French love Thomas Voeckler, and it is not hard to see why.
The other escapees dragged themselves over the line, some of them scrapping for the minor placings. Then came the top three classification riders of the day, and the eventual podium: Nibali, Wiggins and Froome flashed by at blistering speed. Gradually all the riders trickled by and the grupetto rolled in, but there was still one man left. Finally the Cofidis jersey of Jan Ghyselinck emerged, the young Belgian sprinting to the line with the Broom Wagon in pursuit. Voeckler was the hero of the day, but Ghyselinck a strong second, I think. It turned out that he had missed the cut-off by four seconds, yet the race jury was mercifully merciful and allowed him to continue.
Sometime after Ghyselinck had hit the line I wandered down and saw the crowds outside the Sky bus. The Tour winner-in-waiting Bradley Wiggins was riding back from the press area, whilst Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome wandered amongst the fans, giving autographs. It reminded me, as if I needed reminding, why cycling is such a wonderful sport. The Tour de France is ultimately just one race in the world of cycling, but it is a very special one at that. I was glad to be part of it.
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