Race with Champions for free. Le Tour de France, 2010
31 Jul 2010
|Suddenly, we can see sunlight.
Flight 484 from London to Barcelona has landed on time and the heat from the sun shoots through the plane. It feels good to be out of miserable, wet London.
After a quick check-in process at Hotel Jazz, we head to a crowded bar at the local food market for a feast of clams, shrimp, squid, asparagus and beer.
The following day we are due to collect the wicked camper at North Barcelona. Thirty minutes after the agreed meeting time, a young man approaches us.
“Hi, are you Mick?“ I ask.
“Nope, I’m Dave. Mick’s me mate and he’s in Edinburgh for a wedding. That’s where we met. I’m filling in for Mick. This is only my third rental so I hope I don’t forget to tell you something or get something wrong.”
I look at the van and let Dave know that it’s filthy.
“Oh, you reckon? It’s fairly clean isn’t it?” he replied.
“No, it’s filthy!” I add.
“Oh well, don’t worry about it, he says. We’re not worried about the dirt when you return it. We only worry about damage that stops the car being road worthy.”
I smile as I circle the van. Fair enough. This is a backpacking style camping adventure. What’s a little dirt?
The wicked camper is right-hand drive and every other car in France is left-hand drive, so I have to adjust quickly. As we head towards Perpignan, I repeat to myself, “driver always on the outside and never in the centre.”
An hour into the trip, we pass a very large, white woman with bleached blonde hair and a sun-baked body. She is sitting on a white beach chair under a floral umbrella by the side of the road. That’s odd, I thought. She was wearing short, tight, white shorts and falling out of her swimming top. There were three empty beach chairs next to her.
Two hundred metres further along the road, a very tall, dark skinned, large woman with jet-black hair is also sitting on a white beach chair with a floral umbrella.
Then I realised, “Prostitutes!”
For the next twenty kilometres we pass young, old, fat and skinny ones. These are drive-in prostitutes on a major freeway, in the middle of nowhere, on the way to Perpignan.
Around five o’clock we arrived at Mirepoix and found a camping site for 13 Euros per night.
Early the next day, after a camp-style French breakfast of coffee and long-life chocolate croissants, we begin the four hour journey from Mirepoix to the Col du Tourmalet.
The drive took us through the foothills of the Pyrenees with the most spectacular scenery of sunflowers and hay bails for over one hundred kilometres. My fingers could almost touch the Pyrenees through the windscreen. Heading towards Bagneres de-Bigorre the scenery changed to lush green rolling hills with the Pyrenees set as the backdrop. We pass spectators cycling tomorrows route. Three kilometres from the summit, the Gendarmerie close the road at La Mongie, a French ski station.
As we set up on the grassy flats at the bottom of the lifts, a Scotsman passes and asks, “Can I take a photo of the van?”
“Sure, why not,” I reply.
“Gypsies” are set up next up next to us with a large generator. The music is blasting out of the speakers. The noise is unbearable so we decide to find another spot. The great thing about a wicked camper is that if you get bad neighbours, you just drive away to find somewhere better.
Nearby, small children are kicking a football and old men play boules on the dusty road. We are surrounded by ski lifts, mountains, donkeys, cows and sheep. Germans hike with their poles in the mountains above us. We can hear hammers, air-beds being pumped up, birds singing, the rustling of grass and the sounds of languages from many countries. There are flags from Luxembourg, France, England, Catalonia, Switzerland, Germany, Scotland, Spain, Norway, and the Australian boxing kangaroo. A shepherd and his dog walk in the distant hills as families continue to arrive until late in the evening. Happy little children pass us wearing the team hats of their cycling heroes as smoke from nearby BBQ’s floats by.
We enjoy a beer, eat strawberries that taste like perfume and stare at a serious black run wondering what these mountains look like covered with snow.
The following morning llamas run wild and men with bare bottoms pee. Around ten o’clock, thousands of fans begin the three kilometre walk to the summit. The road is steep and the temperature is over 30 degrees Celsius.
The boxing kangaroo flag is wrapped around my body.
Everyone that glances towards us cries out, “Cadel Evans, Cadel Evans.”
My flag of the boxing kangaroo is popular.
“Yes, Cadel Evans,” I reply.
Young boys, old men and women of all ages who love Cadel wave to us. We feel emotional and proud. Occasionally, a familiar Australian accent from a rider going to the summit calls out as they pass, “Go Cadel.”
“Oh, tu es Australie?” a women asks.
“Oui, je suis Australie,” I reply.
She continues, “Oh Australie, un photo s’il vous plait.”
A small boy translates and explains that her daughter lives in Sydney and she wants to send a photo of us with the boxing kangaroo to her.
We reach the two kilometre sign to the summit, the one kilometre sign and then finally the summit.
The BMC official van toots us after seeing the Australian flag and the caravan of sponsors arrives to throw out giveaways of pens, hats, sausages, cakes, chips, water and cycling shirts. Everyone scrambles to get something.
Suddenly, we are deafened by the sound of helicopters above us. It’s the first indication that the riders are approaching. Lance Armstrong leads the first bunch of riders. Cadel Evans and Michael Rogers follow a few minutes later riding side by side.
“Go Robbie,” we scream as Robbie McEwen passes.
We get a good look at the English sprinter Mark Cavendish because he is going slow and being towed by a team member.
It’s all over so quickly so we return to the campsite. After lunch, we begin the three hour drive to Salies de Bearn.
The Thermal Salt Baths in Salies de Bearn were established in the mid 19th century. The temperature of the water is about 32 degrees Celsius. We soak in salt and enjoy the massage taps and bubbles. There is a fountain, a waterfall and geyser, a swan neck power shower, water bubble beds and you can amuse yourself swimming against the man-made current.
The following afternoon we drive to the Col de Marie-Blanque in less than two hours. Along the way we borrow a Le tour directional sign for the bar in Australia.
Tomorrow morning, the riders will pass through the Col de Marie-Blanque. It is necessary to camp the night before but with the hundreds of campervans already in place, there are limited spaces. The wicked camper is small so we reverse down a narrow road with large campervans on either side. It takes a bit of negotiation and a bottle of red wine to persuade the elderly French man to move his van forward a few inches so that we can squeeze into the last remaining spot.
The Col de Marie-Blanque is smaller than the Col du Tourmalet, however it has one of the steepest gradients in the Pyrenees so the riders will be challenged and moving slowly tomorrow.
Torrential rain starts after dinner and continues until 10 o’clock the following day. Thunder and lighting rages all night lighting up the skies and the mountains. It was a tough night sleeping but morning finally arrives and we discover that the elderly French man, his wife and his van have vanished. A small rock and mudslide has occurred during the night so I move the van forward to safety. The road is covered with fans riding their bikes to the summit. The Gendarmeries stop them from cycling the last ten metres which is disappointing to see.
The Col is misty and foggy with low visibility. The caravan of sponsors will arrive in about an hour throwing out gifts. The crowd swells and a media bike pulls up next to our top viewing spot to set up.
The roar of helicopters above is followed quickly by the first of the riders. The sprinters come across last and again, it’s all over in about 15 minutes.
Tomorrow, the race starts from the village of Salies de Bearn and our hotel is facing the route about 200 metres from the official start. It was 1939 when this race last passed through Salies de Bearn, so the locals are pumped. A start is always exciting for the villages selected as host. The place is buzzing and choked with fans and temporary bars are set up with local entertainment. There is an official stage where the riders sign on, merchandise stores, VIP entertaining areas and countless trucks and buses that bring the riders and their entourages. The riders gather at the starting line and came past us in a bunch within arms reach.
They are not allowed to start racing until they reach the open road, a few kilometres out of town. It gives the spectators a great chance to see the yellow, white, green and polka-dot jerseys as they slowly ride past together.
Within two hours, the riders are gone and the entire Le Tour infrastructure is dismantled and packed into semitrailers. They will head off to set up for the start of tomorrows race. This process continues every day for three weeks.
Thousands of people depart Salies de Bearn but we remain and party with the locals enjoying local food and beer. The night before, a popular French band “Sangria Gratuite” played to a large crowd.
On our last day, we make a snap decision not to travel to Paris for the final sprint around the Champs Elysee on Sunday. Instead, we head to Bordeaux to watch the Time Trial. When we are within 25 kilometres of the route, we navigate through local vineyards searching for a small road that might intersect with the main route. Today we get lucky and join other spectators for the next three hours watching the key Australian riders and the leaders of the overall race.
When the final rider passes, we head to a campsite on the beach at Lanacau Ocean. Every campsite is full, so tonight we’ll have to camp by the side of the road.
Lanacau Ocean is a great place to have a drink on the beach and watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean. It’s Saturday night and the town is buzzing. It’s a cross between Byron Bay and Bondi Beach. At 11 p.m., the roads are choked with people walking home. There are old people, kids, bikes, families, teenagers and young drunken lads who love the wicked camper. It becomes obvious that we’ll need to find another place to park, so, at 11.30 p.m. that night, we look for somewhere new. Five kilometres out of town, we find a camp site with no facilities. It’s close to midnight and we’re stuffed.
The next day we drive across the Loire Valley for five hours and find an amazing campsite with a lake on the Liore River. After two days, we finally get to shower before drinks and dinner in a fabulous setting watching the sun set over the lake.
On the final stretch back to London, we head to Boulogne-Sur-Mer on Sea. It’s hard work driving in a straight line on a freeway for five hours so when we finally arrive, I am ready for a beer.
An English gentleman arrives on a bike with a tent shortly after us and sets up next door. He visits for a chat and we learn that he was also on the Col de Marie-Blanque. We laugh about the “white wrist band” I have developed from wearing a watch.
“I’ve been out of London for eight days in the Pyrenees and I have managed to get a tan,” I tease.
“London’s not that bad,” he laughs.
“Yes, it is, I reply, it always rains.”
The next morning, the ferry takes us across the English Channel. Vera Lynn rings in my ears as I stare ahead at the white cliffs of Dover.
The Tour de France is one of the greatest International sporting events in the world where fans can secure front row seats to watch elite athletes compete. Millions of people line the course waving flags from all around the world in an electric, friendly and positive atmosphere.
It’s been a fabulous tour. None of the Australian riders made it to the podium in Paris but the wicked camper got us access to the top of the mountains and that’s exciting. We witnessed incredible French scenery, drank beer with locals in tiny French villages and cheered on our cycling heroes. Best of all, it didn’t cost us a cent to watch.