After all my grumblings about last night’s half-star château, last night’s accommodation ahead of stage 14 wasn’t much better - maybe even a step down. Our room at the Welcomotel was more akin to a prison cell and came complete with lino floors (making it easier to mop up blood), all hooks removed from the walls, and the smoke alarm covered up. But hey, it was under 50 euro a night – and best of all, there were two separate beds.
Now on my fourth lap of France, I feel like I’m starting to learn the roads and today’s stage was the perfect example. I could recall the picturesque gorge road of Pont d’Arc as if it were yesterday, having featured on stage 13 of the 2016 Tour, an individual time trial won by Tom Dumoulin.
I could also remember a section of the road carved out from the overhanging cliff. With any luck, we could nab the small ŠKODA-sized car space in the cave, and kick off my stage 14 outing with a bang. I told Álvaro to floor it as we didn’t want to be left without a space – like he needed any encouragement!
Luckily for me the spot was free, and thanks to the large time gap between the breakaway and the peloton, I rattled off a couple of different shots. I think I might have scared a few of the motorbike riders in the tunnel though, who beeped their horns at the bearded figure emerging from the darkness. Can’t really blame them.
Motion sickness central
The Massif Central is geologically the oldest part of France, its volcanically-formed landscape carved out by rivers, lakes and not too many roads. It was going to be a struggle just to make one stop, with Google telling us that the 90km diversion would take nearly two-and-a-half hours.
I’m just going to put it out there: the Massif Central has also got to be the motion sickness capital of France. On the winding, rollercoaster roads, it was impossible to edit photos, make a sandwich, or do anything other than focus on not vomiting – even with my iron stomach.
The finish today in Mende was on an airstrip at the top of a very steep 3-kilometre long climb. It wasn’t until we were halfway up that I realised I had been there as well: for Stage 14 of the 2015 Tour, which was won by the plucky Brit Steve Cummings . I think it was also the stage where spectators had thrown urine at Froome, with one of the Sky riders climbing off the bike and threatening to punch the offender. Would we see something similar today? Or was the only nutcase in France – who tried to punch Froome on Alpe d’Huez – already locked away in the Welcomotel maximum security prison?
There were a lot more barriers lining the road than last time, but for some reason they had missed a section of road around halfway up the climb – and that was precisely where the party was at. After parking the ŠKODA at the top, and with the riders still 40km away, I had time to walk back down and ready myself for the arrival of the peloton.
I’d planned for Álvaro to pick me up on the drive back down the hill, but in a stroke of luck, I instead found myself in the one place where no rider ever wants to end up: the broom wagon. After the last rider came past, James Startt, one of the veteran Tour photographers – with more races under his belt than I’ve had hot breakfasts – flagged down the ‘broomstick bus’ (the wonderful result of a bad French/English translation). I’d never been able to make it stop before – looks like I’ve still got a few things to learn.
My partner in crime was surprised to see me back at the top; I found him already in the car, waiting in the enormous queue to drive back down the climb. Note to self: in Mende, park at the bottom.