Jul 22, 2009
|It was always going to be an interesting tour of the Tour de France given that our group of six unruly couples were joining a flotilla of other Tour devotees all of whom had handed over a significant number of Euros to Sporting Tours (www.sportingtours.co.uk) who claimed expertise and Tour de France accreditation. This was supposed to give us punters a Tour de France experience that we could otherwise not gain. It turned out that indeed this was true however, not at all in the manner in which we would have expected.
It was an inauspicious start to our Tour experience which we had been looking forward to with some excitement. When expecting dinner at 8 pm at the hotel in the pretty town of Cluses where we were to be based for three nights having travelled by coach from Geneva, dinner was delayed and delayed because ‘not all the group were there yet’ according to our tour ‘guide’ after being pressed by many unhappy punters. This so called guide – or should I say ‘impediment’ – came wrapped in the form of a male human but was clearly from the planet Zon where taking responsibility for anything is against their culture. Another trait of this life form from Zon is that they are incapable of introducing themselves – thus everyone of our number individually finds out over time that the Zonian is named Donald. A further characteristic is that if things can simply be explained in three sentences then it is far better to resort to many convoluted phrases in order to create confusion, chaos and near revolution amongst their charges. These extra-terrestrials also can’t remember their own phone numbers, don’t mind putting down a client in public and confuse taking up space in a group as rendering help. Hence Donald, unbeknownst to him, is renamed Heathrow (after the airport where chaos and confusion).
Despite Heathrow’s endeavours to confound his clients, we of course were determined to have a good time.
Our first view of the Tour was on the Col de Romme during the 17th stage. The supermen who undertake this gruelling task were doing a mountain stage of 168 km with the Col de Romme being the 4th and steepest of the five of the day. The riders in our group would head up the mountain and beyond whilst those like us, the walkers, were offered transport to the base of the mountain to walk up as far as we could before the road closed. We chose to walk from the hotel and as it turned out, Heathrow as usual had no clue because our coach driver gained no special privilege and had merely transported a few walkers about 2 km from the hotel.
As we got to the base of the mountain a convoy of about 20 Gendarme (national police) vehicles passed us to deposit control on the route. Hundreds of amateur cyclists were tackling the climb ahead of the Tour and cars and campervans and tables and chairs and flower decorated bicycles and BBQs lined the route. The walk to the top took a good 2.5 hrs from the base although it is only about 9 km because the average gradient is 10%; and the Tour de France riders were going to race up this after already completing 125 km and then go on to do more!
At the summit the weather turned rainy and cool for a while but the atmosphere was electric. The number of people increased by the minute and the excitement grew. We took up a position overlooking a series of hair pins a little down from the high point and awaited the arrival of the ‘Caravan’ that preceded every stage of the Tour.
Now the ‘Caravan’ is an experience not to be missed. Lead by a giant float consisting of a giant yellow cycle mounted by a giant yellow cyclist, hundreds of vans and cars follow over a period of an hour or so. The convoy is supported by a host of police as it passes by with a cacophony that could blast the side from a mountain. Riding jerseys, bottled water, caps, shirts, giant rubber hands, snacks, key rings, funny umbrellas and a host of other items are flung from this enormous promotional machine as it passes by. We all become dedicated cargo cultists trying to catch our share of the spoils.
Once passed we are then entertained by the nutters; a guy running around with no shoes wearing several cow bells of various sizes whilst singing; another waving huge flags on a pole whilst dancing down the road. Our party joined in, dressing themselves in the finery obtained from the departed Caravan or draping an Australian flag around their happy selves. The atmosphere is one of carnival and excited expectation.
Then the Tour leaders of the day arrived, preceded by gendarmes on motorcycles clearing the road and then official car after official car. The excitement is pushed to a crescendo and the clapping intense as they flew by at a speed most of us can’t do on the flat let alone at this gradient and after a 100 plus kilometres today plus 16 previous gruelling stages. The team cars carrying bicycles galore on their roof-racks, the mechanics and carers within, also flashed by tracking their particular riders. Soon the overall Tour leaders arrived; the Schleck brothers, Contador and the incredible Lance Armstrong.
It took a good half hour before the stragglers pass and we gathered up our souvenirs and headed down the hill back to Cluses passing a very long snake of near still vehicles filled with enthralled spectators as they attempted to quit the mountain.
About 2 hours later hot, tired and elated we headed into the first bar we find in town to enjoy a couple of cold ones and reflect on an incredible day that we will never forget.