This day had been looming for a while. And not just for the GC contenders.
I was facing the prospect of driving through the mountains to get anywhere near the ski-resort finish at Peyragudes. The possibility of having to park far away and walk for miles, possibly straight up the side of a mountain. The challenge of getting across to the right side of the track in order to pick up my pass and enter the VIP area. Getting off the mountain again along with everyone else, and driving back to Toulouse, hopefully still leaving some time for sleep that night. Doing all this without my tour chase buddy Liz, as the awesome Tour Team of previous days parted ways.
There were nerves. There was a contingency purchase of a topographic map in case of unexpected mountain-side orienteering. And there was a very early start.
As it often does, being up before the sun proved worthwhile. As I drove out of the cloud in the valley and up the Col du Tourmalet, I was rewarded with spectacular views of the sunrise over the Pyrennees, and almost deserted roads. In fact, for most of the drive, I was only sharing the roads with a few cows, the odd campervan, and the municipal cleaners – walking the roads behind their trucks to clean up all the detritus left by yesterday’s tour crowds. I drove over the Tourmalet, the Col d’Aspin and up towards the Col du Peyrasude, following almost exactly a section of the stage 16 route. My respect for these riders continues to grow. Those are some big mountains. And fun roads to drive when I relaxed enough to enjoy it!
Reaching the final approach before all the roads were closed, I chanced my luck and drove up the mountain. I thought I’d made a terrible error when I found myself driving between the barriers in the final kms (visions of attempting a 20 point turn in front of unhappy officials on a steep slope… should I have tried to park in that one tiny spot on the side of a sheer drop between campervans?), but found salvation in the form of a helpful marshal towards the top. I asked him if I could turn around in the driveway he was guarding, and he told me I could drive right in there – it was a carpark about the size of a small airfield, hidden over the side of the hill! Hooray!!
Bleary eyed campers were emerging from tents and the ubiquitous campervans, a variety of flags and bunting was hanging from the ski lodge balconies, and all kinds of encouragement was painted on the road… Clearly the Tour was coming to town at Peyragudes.
As the cloud rolled across the mountain top, periodically obscuring and revealing the surrounding vista, I walked the final few kilometres to find the finish area and check out the layout for the day. They were just taping down the finish line and measuring where to paint the ‘SKODA’ logos on the road. A tech guy ran cables to the finish-line commentary box, and erected speakers. Another team worked behind slow-moving vans to stretch the sponsors’ advertising banners over the roadside barriers. A jovial mob of about 50 tour roadies held their morning briefing on the track. A group of Japanese fans with Europcar flags spread groundsheets and took photos of each other as they staked out a spot by the finish line to cheer home their countryman.
After asking a couple of marshals, I decided I had sufficiently precise instructions on where to pick up my wristband for later access to the VIP area, and headed back to the village to absorb the atmosphere and watch the organised chaos unfold.
There was a roving band of minstrels, a lot of people wearing orange, sweaty amateur cyclists sporting more shaved legs than you’d see at a girls high school, the installation of the flamme rouge and the mountain points banner, and a young gendarme struggling to maintain control of his entry to the restricted area as the trickle of officials and absolutely-not-officials gradually turned into a torrent. The official merchandise shop did brisk business, as did the sausage sizzle.
News that the GreenEdge rep with the VIP passes was running late due to TdF traffic jams threw a small spanner in my carefully laid plans. I now had to get myself to the VIP area gate on the restricted side of the track in order to pick up my pass. Sadly though, you needed a pass to get to the gate where I was supposed to pick up my pass. Difficult. But not insurmountable. It turns out that standing on the other side of the track, wearing an Aussie flag, and waving your arms about while yelling “Shane! Help!” is effective in these situations.
I teamed up with a couple of other groups of Aussies heading in to the VIP area and we eventually formed a crew of about 10 as we staked out our spot on the barriers at the final corner, about 70m from the the finish line. They were a good bunch and we passed a pleasant afternoon watching the caravane, watching the crowd, watching the action on the big screen in the distance, watching the marshalls try valiantly to keep the track clear of frustratingly slow-moving official cars, and, at last, watching the riders arrive!
After all that climbing, they still came flying in to the finish. Because of space restrictions, the team buses were parked back near the flamme rouge, and all the riders, after crossing the finish line and running the media gauntlet, simply turned around and rode back out along the edge of the track to get back to their teams. And so, we got to see them all again, at low speed, and right in front of us! As Cadel came past, sweat dripping from his chin, I gave him a big wave of the flag and a “We love you Cadel! You’re awesome!” (just utilising the royal ‘we’ there, or cheering on behalf of all Australians perhaps, except the haters), and he saw me and smiled and waved!!! Huge highlight! And all this after I’d met Robbie McEwen earlier in the VIP zone! Brushes with Australian cycling royalty all round.
The day wasn’t over though until I’d gotten myself off the mountain, which I expected to take quite a long time given the nasty snarl of team cars + press motos + official skodas + caravane vehicles + gendarmes that formed almost immediately after the last rider crossed the line. There was a system though, and, fortunately, two roads off the mountain – one being used by everyone official, and the other for the punters. I only sat in the snaking line of traffic for about an hour, which was better than I expected, I made it safely back to Toulouse with only a couple of minor disputes with the Paul-the-SatNav-voice, AND found a spot to park in the same street as my hotel. A winning end to another super day.