A sleepless night
“Sometimes, you’re just too keen” muttered Álvaro groggily from behind the wheel, as we waited for the publicity caravan to clear the Stage 9 start so we could park. “I could’ve slept for another 30 minutes”.
I was the one that needed sleep, after tossing and turning all night in anticipation of what would surely be an explosive stage. I’d spent hours mapping out every possible option to maximize our cobble time, but was a little worried. If we missed just one spot, the entire plan could come crashing down.
There were a lot of unknowns waiting for us today. Stage 9 was one of le Tour’s best spectator stages, but just how crowded would it be? And would we run into another round of the route-rupturing road blocks that bamboozled us yesterday?
I tried to relax and enjoy Arras’ publicity caravan festivities in the meantime. No one could feel stressed for too long around my favourite little Madeline-shaped dune buggy – he’s the best! Until I started imagining having to drive him for the 800km transfer to Annecy tonight… I’ll stick to the ŠKODA, thanks.
I’m not sure whose birthday it was (although the Tour de France is 115 years old this year!) but there was an enormous cake in French blue, white and red which Álvaro mumbled was “très bon” with his mouth full. I would’ve rather had one of the beers they were handing out to calm my nerves, but that would have to wait until later.
Straight to hell
Our first stop in true ‘Hell of the North’ territory was d’Eswars à Paillencourt. It was baking hot, and dusty as hell. I was coated in it and the race hadn’t even passed yet.
When the peloton did thunder through, it was insane! Dust exploded into my eyes, my mouth, down the back of my throat – and – far worse – all over my camera. The riders must be hacking it up out of their lungs for days afterward.
As soon as the last rider was through, I tried to get back to the car, but the convoy of team cars completely filled the road. I had to wait it out while being blanketed in more dust.
I could see Álvaro consider refusing to let me and my dust dipped beard back inside the ŠKODA, but with some dire-sounding muttering he relented and we were on the chase again.
The cobbles weren’t just hell for the riders. We still had to bounce along the remaining sector, trying to avoid the drunken mobs of spectators now spilling out onto the road. The Don’s driving (and parking) skills are only surpassed by his horn skills – I’ve never heard such an enthusiastic use of it.
A bunch of team cars were pushing to get out the same exit as us, which was blocked by a truck. The pressure built up like a cork in a champagne bottle, and eventually – POP! – we somehow got through, miraculously with both wing mirrors still intact.
To reach the next spot, it was full gazoil on the back roads towards the highway. The riders were doing close to 50 km/h so this would be our only way to get ahead (as not even Álvaro can swing over 50 on the narrow country roads).
We could see the colourful race route weaving back and forth under the highway as we drove.
Fortunately, our exit was open, and we took a small dirt road directly to the cobbles. More enthusiastic use of the horn was required to clear our way through the spectators. Some of them took a decidedly dim view of being beeped at as they calmly walked to watch a bike race... I can’t imagine why.