A bell of a noise
Why does every town in France have to ring the church bells first thing in the morning? Stage 20 would be our longest day of the entire Tour de France, and we could have done with a good night’s sleep at least. But true to tradition, the bells of Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle got started at 7am, with 7 bells to strike the hour. Then, in case we didn’t get the memo, 3 sets of 3 bells to remind everyone in the community that it’s time to wake up, then 32 bells for the morning prayer. Later in the day would be more bells for the midday prayer and evening prayer, not to mention bells for death, birth, weddings, baptisms, Easter, Christmas and special alerts.
It was almost enough to make me glad of the 800km drive to Paris waiting for us after today’s individual time trial – at least we’d be getting the bell away from that noise!
Bending the rules of physics
Álvaro’s friends had ridden from Spain and were already set up at the steepest part of the timetrial course, the Col de Pinodieta. They gave us a heads up it was packed with people so I decided after a brief visit to the start we would head straight there.
Getting there was easier said than done. Today we couldn’t drive on the race course so we had to navigate around. And if I know anything about Basque Country, it’s that the roads are as small and windy as the locals are passionate about cycling. The two are a bad combination for trying to drive places when le Tour comes to town!
The road was closed 3km from the course, but fortunately Álvaro somehow bent the rules of three dimensional reality, and squuuuueeeeeezed the ŠKODA past the roadblock. We then slowly wove through the crowds of people walking to see the race.
I now know another fact about Basque people: they like to party. The vibe rivaled Dutch Corner, except instead of orange there was the red and green of Basque flags everywhere. I wriggled my way into the middle of the madness to claim a photo spot.
The rowdy spectators were waving flags out in front of the riders, then ripping them away at the last possible moment, like a toreador fighting a bull. The riders looked like they were enjoying the game about as much as the bull usually does. But on the steep gradient they had no choice but to grip the bars and play along.
The game provided hours of entertainment - at one point there were so many people leaning on the barrier that it started to tip onto the road! Lucky the crowd managed to grab it before it completely fell over and blocked the race course.
Strangely the Gendarmes didn’t seem to interfere, perhaps they were Bullfighting aficionados.
As the race went on the excitement escalated. Spectators started to climb over the barriers and run up the road, resulting in more cheers. Just as the yellow skinsuit of Geraint Thomas came into view, a guy climbed the fence to run up the climb next to him. After the near miss of Stage 17, I could hardly watch. With the Tour win almost in Thomas’ grasp, getting taken out by an idiot spectator would be devastating!
We chased after the convoy of cars following Thomas and drove across the finish line in Espelette, somehow scoring a perfect spot just in front of the podium. Thomas’ third place to Domoulin and Froome solidly secured his maillot jaune on the eve of Champs-Elysées. You could see the mingled relief, happiness and exhaustion on his face as he raised his arms into the air.
The perfect shot I managed of Thomas’ yellow jersey moment had me wanting to hold my hands up in the air too, but the race wasn’t over for us yet – we still have 800km to drive to Paris!