Fabrice, the press communicado for Le Tour de France, sent out an email last night explaining the transport situation for the end of today’s 9th stage. There would be no parking on the final 4km of the climb and the hors course (off-course route) would be 300km+, meaning those wishing to take it would need to leave at 9:30am - straight from the start. Alternatively, the race route for stage 9 would be open as usual, with the TdF caravan leaving at 10am.
We left at 10:30.
The first 20kms of the course were amazing. The convoy was moving quickly, the asphalt was fresh and the corners were tight and plentiful. However, the next 160km were, by contrast, excruciatingly slow and stressful.
At every town we passed, we checked to see the estimated split times between the riders and ourselves. It was looking like we would just make it, so long as one of the fibreglass-encrusted monstrosities the the Tour caravan didn’t break down en route.
When the traffic was flowing, Speedy seemed to always somehow get caught behind his nemesis - a silver Ford Focus with the car handling skills of Hans Moleman (a Simpsons reference for those of you playing at home). After each mountain pass, a brief moment of relief was had before the caravan was caught again and the speed returned to a crawl.
We made it to the parking lot at the 4km mark and was told to try our best or park someone in - the lot was full. I was dropped off while Speedy went to find a park - then, together, we raced up the looming mountain as fast as we could. The switchbacks would have taken too long, so we took the straightest line possible, clambering up steep, wet and loose grassy inclines - grabbing whichever plant we could whenever we lost our footing (which was fairly often). There may have been a few thistles and nettles amongst the grass…
After yesterday’s raucous experience inside the last few hundred metres, we headed straight for the 1km marker - but were bitterly disappointed with the miserly crowd assembled. Time was ticking, so we headed back down to the switchbacks where the previously spread-out crowd had suddenly convened in full voice.
The photo-motos coming up the pass would yell out how far away the riders were. With only a couple of minutes before the first riders were expected, the heavens opened. At first it was just a few fat drops, then it just got heavier and heavier. The drops soon turned into hard, white pellets of ice, pelting us as we waited.
The crowd took shelter but didn’t disperse; they had made the long journey to get there and weren’t going to run at this point. We were in the same boat.
The hail eased, the crowd cheered, the riders came into view - and then the rain came again. As each rider got closer, so did the wall of people, adding to the drama and the theatre of the spectacle. The crowd were getting right behind the riders - genuinely appreciative of the effort they were going to in such treacherous condition. Then, after each rider or bunch passed, the road would become a sea of people celebrating, yelling, dancing and pretending to swim in the road which had quickly become a shallow river.
Fortunately my camera gear is built to survive a bit of damp, so I stuck it out as the weather got worse and the number of remaining riders dwindled. Looking down the pass, I could see the beginnings of the exodus from the mountain. Amateur riders were cautiously descending next to the pros who had crossed the line and were ready to go home. Those on foot were trudging down, trying to shelter themselves with umbrellas, coats, signage and/or camping tarpaulins. Everyone else, who wasn’t in a rush to escape the deluge, either made friends with those who had campervans, or otherwise stripped down to almost nothing and ran alongside the riders for as long as the Gendarmes would allow...