For 3 weeks each year everything in our house slows down, the TV is on all afternoon as we all get our annual hit of two of our favourite things – France & cycling. For us the Tour de France is just compulsive viewing, not only is it fantastic to watch, but it’s an incredibly tough event for the riders and a great travel programme, giving us a birds-eye view of some of the most beautiful parts of the Country we love.
Over the years we’ve seen images that have led us to visit places on our travels, most recently the spectacular Les Baux de Provence, which I have to admit was just as stunning as the helicopter images we saw during the Tour.
We have only managed to stand by the roadside to watch the Tour pass by once. Then we hadn’t really got our act into gear and cycled out, arriving just as the publicity ‘Caravan’ was hurtling past, much to the horror of the boys who missed their chance to grab any of the goodies that had been thrown.
The arrival & quick passing of the cyclists though was certainly worth the ride out. The excitement grew as the helicopters came into view like a swarm of flies above Gordes and within minutes the first riders were hurtling past us faster (it seemed) than I would normally drive along that particular stretch of road. It was great fun spotting our favourite riders in the Peleton as it too passed in seconds. Then as soon as the cyclists had passed the crowd quickly walked away & it was as if nothing had happened, leaving us to hop on our bikes & head back to the house to watch the finish on the TV.
So you can imagine my excitement when I realised that this year I would be in France for the iconic summit finish on Mont Ventoux, due to take place on Bastille Day. This I could not (and would not miss) so had been arranging my day on the mountain for weeks!
A quick look at the web-site for the local Sault Tourist-Office http://www.ventoux-sud.com/ showed me that the road up would be closed to all but pedestrians & cyclists from the day before the actual event, so for me the only option would be to cycle up from Sault & get as high up the mountain as possible. With that in mind last Monday, I took Miss Daisy across to Sault & cycled to the Summit, just to see where would be a good place to aim for on the day itself.
It has to be said I don’t think there are many bikes sporting wicker baskets, being ridden by a lady wearing strappy sandals seen on the way up to the summit & we certainly got a few strange looks……. but despite all that we made it & as ever the views were incredible, with a sense of achievement like nothing else I know.
What I hadn’t bargained for was the sheer number of Motor Homes already in place in the roadside on the way up. Some people had already been there for days, happy that they had plenty to watch in front with the constant stream of cyclists and outstanding views at the back when sitting with a glass of wine in the evening. It certainly gave anyone cycling up an incentive not to stop, but also a great atmosphere on what is usually quite a solitary ride.
So everything was in place, I’d decided where I would head to & started really looking forward to Thursday. However I didn’t bank on the change in weather & the powerful winds that would batter Ventoux, leading the Tour organisers to change to route so it finished at Chalet Reynard instead, protecting the riders from the worst of the winds on the higher, exposed slopes.
It was certainly a shame that there would be no summit finish, but understandable – I just felt for the people in the vans who had been in a prized place for nearly a week and would now have to change their plans.
I knew it would be busy anyway, but with the shortened course there was a good chance that the area around Chalet Reynard would be packed, so I left home at 7.15 and drove across to Sault, watching the temperature gauge drop as I got closer. By the time I got to my parking spot it was a rather chilly 11 degrees ( certainly unseasonably cold for Provence).
After buying provisions from the Boulangerie I started the ride up the mountain. It seemed really hard going, the wind was blowing but not too badly, perhaps it was just that my legs were still tired after Monday’s ride. It was only when I stopped at the sign showing the Col as open that I realised my front brake was seized on! After a quick repair & managing to free it I hopped back on & surprisingly the bike seemed to fly up the mountain – what a fool!
Clearly I wasn’t the only person who’d made the early start and as I pottered up I saw many other cyclists & hundreds of people walking from the point where the road had been closed 12km from the finish.
One thing is certain & that is that the French know how to picnic & I was astounded at the amount of kit, food & drink people were carrying or pulling up the 12km route. It made me, with my sandwich, banana, chocolate & bottle of water feel very inadequate!
Arriving at Chalet Reynard I realised I was perhaps a little early as they hadn’t even started unloading the barriers that line the last part of the route, but it did mean that I managed to get a perfect spot right on the road 25m from the finish line, which was also only just being set up across the road.
Now the race was due to arrive at about 4.15 so there was nothing else for it but to stand and wait & amazingly the hours flew.
There was so much going on as the area was turned into the Finish Line that we’re so used to seeing. From the barriers being set in place…..
……. To the timing clock being moved into position
……. And even the photo-finish line & Skoda markings being stuck to the road For the hours I watched, there was always something going on – Young cyclists arriving, a handful of beautiful vintage bikes leaving
– even the high excitement of a Press car breaking down directly in front of us, only for an immaculate sponsored recovery wagon to arrive soon after & remove it in seconds. It seemed every contingency had been covered.
Then there was the crowd that just kept growing, people moving down the road or up into the bank to get a better view, filling almost every possible inch of space behind the barriers . There were regular renditions of La Marseillaise, which got louder as the day passed.
About an hour before the riders were due to arrive the Caravan passed by, much smaller than normal with only the smaller vehicles taking part due to the weather and road restrictions on the mountain. Sadly no chance for me to grab any bits again! Once the Caravan had passed the commentary team picked up the race from the bottom of Ventoux – and at last the riders were nearly with us. It was clear there was quite a battle going on in the race, although I think it’s fair to say we didn’t get information on everything that was happening, bearing in mind what I saw after!
Then, as before the first riders came into view & along with everyone else I hammered my hands against the barriers cheering every rider as they passed. Although I, together with all the other Brits near me, was saddened to see Chris Froome crossing the line shaking his head with a face like thunder minutes behind other key contenders.
The confusion that then followed about who would be given the Yellow Jersey was bizarre, as we really had no information about the dramatic scenes that had taken place a few hundred metres below the finish. The commentators seemed convinced and I have to say rather happy that Chris Froome would be losing the Yellow Jersey, so it was with some surprise and delight that I watched as he was presented with it again.
As soon as the presentations were over and all the team buses had been allowed off the Sault road & on up the mountain the road was reopened and the crowd started to clear. I hopped back on Miss Daisy, battling the wind on the way back down to Sault & the car to drive home, finally arriving back at 8.30.
All I can say is that I had a fantastic day – In the end I stood with thousands of other fans for over 8 hours in a cold wind to watch a group of cyclists cycle in front of me at the top of a mountain – not once did I get even slightly bored or even start clock watching – I didn’t even finish my sandwich!
The spectacle of the Tour de France is certainly worth seeing & I’d do it all again tomorrow if I could. I suppose though I’ll just have to wait to see next year’s route & start planning my next day out as soon as possible…..
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