So the day has finally dawned and today saw the Tour de France head to Provence for an epic stage, which would see the riders tackle the ‘Giant of Provence’, Mont Ventoux twice in a day’s stage.
As I started writing this, it was 7.15am in Devon, and I got my first message from Andy at 5.15, letting me know that he was awake and that it had been raining all night, and still was. Happily I was already awake, waiting to hear from him, looking forward to living the day vicariously, through his messages and photos.
It certainly wasn’t the best of starts to the day weather-wise, but that wouldn’t put Andy off heading up to watch the race near the summit of Mont Ventoux.
Over the last week or so, it has almost felt as if the world was conspiring against him going up the mountain, with first a dental treatment being booked for the day (which we managed to cancel) then his second vaccination appointment, which we were told had to be done today. We had managed to move it to late in the day, which would have enabled him to perhaps head up to Saint Saturnin, but wouldn’t have allowed him time to get back from Ventoux.
Then, out of the blue, he got invited in for his second jab on Monday morning, not only freeing up today, but also giving him time to recover from the worst of any side-effects he may have too. So the die was cast & come hell or high water, he was heading up the mountain, and to be honest, I don’t think I would have forgiven him if he didn’t.
Friends had even offered to have Millie for the day, so that he wouldn’t be worried about leaving her for any length of time, so she was dropped off for a doggy sleepover last night, and I have a feeling she will be so pampered and spoilt with her retriever friend Boris, that she won’t be too keen to come back!
The weather first thing was not really what we expect to see in July, more closely associated with long, hot days, vivid blue skies and screaming cicadas, than a grey and cloudy start, with the soundtrack of gentle rain, but if I’m honest it’s probably better conditions for the riders, as no-one really wants to ride twice up Mont Ventoux in the baking heat. It did mean though that taking just a small bag, with snacks, drinks and sun-cream, wasn’t an option. This called for more clothing and a much bigger bag.
Pusscat clearly felt that something was afoot, and sat on the table, whilst Andy packed everything he thought he may need, from food, to warm clothes and even a charging pack for his phone. By the time he finished, it was much heavier than he imagined, and he did a quick check, just to make sure that Pusscat hadn’t sneaked in when he wasn’t looking. But as he said carrying that weight on his back will be ‘good for fitness’, so with everything loaded, he hopped in the car and headed across to Sault.
On the way across the Saint Christol Plateau, he got his first view of ‘The Giant’, its summit visible below a heavy, grey cloud. A glowering presence sitting above the horizon, a sight that always makes me smile, yet gives me butterfiles at the same time. I can’t imagine what the riders will be thinking as they see it towering above them as they approach for the first time, let alone their second!
In Sault, when he arrived (7am UK time) the car parks were already busy, camper vans taking up large areas of spaces, with bikes and people spilling out of cars. It was very clear , even over 4 hrs before the first pass of the ‘Caravane’ that the slopes will be packed with supporters, keen to see the teams take on this epic stage, especially after the drama and excitement of the Tour so far.
The boulangerie and shops were already doing a steady trade, and with croissants finally added into the bag, Andy set off across the lavender fields to make his way up.
He wasn’t alone, and passed people walking, carrying flags and food, as well as cyclists, flowing like a river, heading in the wrong direction up the road. An eclectic mix of people, bikes and kit, all set on finding the perfect spot from which they could watch the race.
I remember going up to watch the finish in 2016, and being amazed at the efforts people were going to, to get themselves and everything they needed up to Chalet Reynard. Passing groups of people, walking up, pulling trolleys packed with food boxes and crates of beer, knowing they still had over 10km of uphill climbing to go. The pull of this race and the draw of this mountain really is something quite special.
By 9.15 he’d found his spot, just opposite the Tommy Simpson memorial, with an incredible view in both directions, having sight of nearly the entire last 6km. By this time the clouds had cleared and the vivid blue of a provencal summer sky was back, making the summit’s moonscape glisten white in the sunlight.
It was finally time for a well-earned breakfast, and to start the long wait in advance of the race arriving. It seemed strange for the top of the climb not to be contained by camper-vans, parked on either side of the road, but apparently they had been moved off and it actually opened up the route and the wonderful views, creating a much safer final approach for the riders.
Settling down to wait, he was ideally placed to watch thousands of other riders making their way towards the summit, simply people-watching to pass the time.
With Andy safely placed on the mountain, I started my day’s viewing, glued to the laptop, and TV, not even leaving it whilst I went to make coffee..
By now I was starting to recognise the places that we know so well, looking out for the landmarks that we love and just enjoying the sight of our little part of Provence from the air.
Each road has so many memories for us, and as the riders took on the climb towards Gordes, I remembered that first time we had ridden it, over 30 years ago, when I thought I’d never get to the top. In fact it was reassuring to see the pent of the limb showing as up to 9% in one place, making my exhaustion after my efforts all those years ago (when I really didn’t ride at all) a little bit more understandable.
By this time though, Andy was now looking more the part, having managed to get a promotional KOM, spotted cap, although the clouds were rolling in and the vibrant blue had been replaced with a heavy wave of grey, drifting in front of the iconic tower. A far cry from the heat of the valley below, where the riders were heading up the first significant climbs of the day.
The views almost made me homesick. The sight of the villages, the vivid lavender fields, and even the sound of the cicadas providing a backdrop to the commentary from the bike. It was lovely to see it all, but at the same time made me feel so far away.
By now the excitement was mounting for Andy, with the Caravane passing by – the totally mad, noisy marketing floats that precede the main event.
This year there has been a real effort made to reduce the amount of plastic thrown to the crowd, with recycling and sustainability being a big theme. It doesn’t matter though, whether you are 5 or 55, there is always something fun about seeing what you can catch & gather, and once it had all passed, Andy found himself with a big pile of bits to carry back home.
Now wearing a polka dot T shirt and as well as a cap, he obviously looked the part – in fact so much the part, that he was interviewed for an American TV channel, when the reporter pulled in next to him. He certainly wasn’t expecting his 15 mins of fame to come today!
Even before the riders arrived, the temperature had plummeted, and Andy was grateful that he had packed a pile of clothes in his bag, from tracksuit bottoms to his waterproof coat. Togged up, he was at least warm, whilst others who had arrived rather less prepared started to shiver in the chill wind.
I was doing my best to keep him updated with where the riders were, and soon he had his first sight of the breakaway group, on their first ascent of the day, the sun making a brief appearance, as Julian Alaphilippe came into view…
Followed shortly after by the peloton…
Even by this first pass, the riders were well spread out, with Mark Cavendish, surrounded by his team, smiling across when Andy called out to him.
It didn’t seem that long before he was seeing the action again as the riders came around for their second ascent, and whereas first time around there had been some spacing between the groups, this time there were minutes between them.
First came through Van Aert, an incredible sight, hardly showing any tiredness, turning his legs, as if he had recently started the race, rather than having covered nearly 150km and having done over 4,500 metres of climbing…
I just got a video through from Andy with the comment ‘The Speed!’ and I know what he means. The few times that I have ridden to the summit, I am like a snail by the time I get to this point, each turn of the pedals being an effort, willing my legs on, with the final bend in sight, knowing that I have nearly made it and that the end is in reach. And I am like that after only having done one ascent!
Seeing the riders tackling it, powering on towards the summit at the end of the second ascent is incredible to watch and I’m not sure I ever really appreciated it until now.
Whilst I then watched the coverage of the final descant to Malaucene, Andy was watching the remaining riders snaking their way to the top. Whereas on his first pass, Alaphilippe was riding hard, on this second ascent he seemed to be enjoying the ride, chatting as he rode. Andy said it was almost like a ‘mexican wave’ of cheering, as he passed each section of supporters, on the approach to the final bends.
I suppose, by now, the pressure was off for some of the riders, no worries that they wouldn’t make it into Malaucene by the time cut, but equally no need to push themselves as they had nothing to lose. It seemed to make for what sounded like the atmosphere of a club group ride at times, rather than an epic stage of the Tour de France.
The big worry though was for Mark Cavendish and whether, after what has been the most incredible few days for him, he would make it over the finish line before the vicious time cut.
Andy watched as he came up the second time, shepherded by his team mates, helping protect him and giving him the support to get up that sapping, exhausting ascent. He did it with true Cavendish style, launching his cap onto the steps of the Tommy Simpson Memorial , paying homage as he passed.
If I’m honest, one of the biggest joys of this year’s Tour has been seeing how the Deceunick Quickstep Team have worked to support Cav, their joy in seeing him succeed. Then his interviews, where he has seemed to choke up, when explaining how humbling it is to have riders like Alaphilippe (world champion) putting in every ounce of effort to help him win the stages.
It is easy to think that cycling is all about individual effort, but that is far from the case and the way the team surrounded him on that final approach today was a case in point. He may not have won a stage today, but I am certain that Cav will be just as grateful, and they will be just as delighted that he lives to race another day in what is proving to be the most exciting of Tours.
Once the final riders had passed, Andy called me from the summit, wrapped up in his layers against the increasing cold. It may have been a long day on the mountain, but he was so animated about the experience of watching a truly epic stage in a beautiful place. The proximity to the riders, serving to only enhance his respect for what they do.
He waited long enough for the majority of the crowds to make their way down, the road looking like rush hour in Amsterdam, with a snake of riders making their way off the mountain. Then he had a peaceful descent to Sault , back down through the woodland and lavender fields, at a much more sedate speed than the 99kph the riders had achieved on their fast descents to Malaucene.
I’m so delighted he made the effort to go up to that final part of the road up. He had worried for so long that something would get in the way, but in the end everything came together beautifully.
Although I have been watching from the warmth of the sofa, nearly 1000 miles away, his videos and little updates have meant that I have felt much closer.
Of course I would have loved to have been there with him… but it just wasn’t possible this time. In the end over 11 hours disappeared between him leaving the car in the car park in Sault and finally getting back into it again. A long day, but worth every moment.
Merci Le Tour for another incredible day …. time for a glass of wine and to get over today, before getting ready to watch again tomorrow, for what I am sure will be another amazing stage.