12.49: Mijanes on the Port de Pailheres, the hors categorie climb that precedes the final ascent to Plateau de Beille on the 197 kilometre, 14th stage of the 2007 Tour de France. There are two hours until race time – if the race runs on it’s fastest schedule.
We’ve driven the course from the feeding-station at Quilan and the rough tarmac rises practically every inch of the way; not necessarily steeply, but always upwards – that’s around 40 K back.
• 13.10: It’s just a pity we haven’t got audio and ‘nasal’ on PEZCycling yet, the guy opposite is busy cremating sausages and burgers, so there’s an amazing barby smell, and a few metres away…
… a kid in a king of the mountains jersey is freaking-out with a bizarre hand-pumped horn.
First big-deal of the day will be the publicity caravan. The sun has made an appearance and the buzz is good.
The Danes start their road-painters young… and you gotta love the little girl already giving direction…
13.21: More-or-less on time, here it comes. No matter how many times you see the caravan, it still amazes you, as does the ingenuity of the people who design the rigs.
• This year, among the weird creations driving up and down the Alps and Pyrennes are ‘The Simpsons’, Kangaroos, horses dumpsters, car-sized coyotes, van-sized cheeses and truck-sized packs of mineral water. All manner of tat is dispensed, but the deal is that you have catch the eye of the dudes firing the stuff out.
PEZ-Man Ed Hood dreams of his next gig as a caravan driver…
Because we are standing beside the demented horn-pumper we’re getting piles of stuff – hats, coffee, sweets, toy cars, pretzels, key rings, washing powder and a whole host of other tat. In fact, it looks like we’re the top-dogs in the freebees stakes, other collectors eye our pile jealously.
13.50: The appearance of the break down truck signifies the end of the publicity caravan. Calm descends, but if you listen carefully, you can hear Bart Simpson’s voice, in the distance, echoing around the valleys.
14.05: The afficianados play; “spot the celebrity in the passing car”, we get Richard Virenque, ex-Belgian pro champ, Marc Sargeant and T-Mobile ‘saviour’, Bob Stapleton
14.15: A people-carrier packed with Rabobank VIPs zooms-past to a huge cheer; old “Chicken” is popular. And just to under-line the point, there’s a Danish pavement artist – I hope all that red and white paint dries in time. Maybe he should practice his chicken-painting, though.
14.35; We can hear the race helicopter and a cacophony of car horns in the distance; fastest schedule to here is 14.49, so not long to go. We caught site of a tv just a minute ago and there’s a break of five or six up the road with nine minutes-plus lead.
• 14.50: Police motor bikes hurtle past and we catch sight of the chopper in a fold in the valley wall, surely it’s not long now?
• 14.57: Official cars screech past and the ‘chop’ of the helicopter’s rotor blades is getting ever-louder. A motorcycle cop almost “gets his knee down” on the bend as he sweeps upwards.
15.02: That was the ‘medium’ time for the race, there will be no records broken today. The helicopter is at eleven o’clock as the fans crane their necks for the first glimpse of the break.
15.10: The announcer tells us that there are five clear and the gap is five minutes now as the chopper swoops impossibly close to the valley walls.
• 15.15: There’s the back of the race director’s head poking out of the sun roof of the Peugeot – race-on! First-up is an Euskaltel rider- number 78, Amets Txurraka, he’s not wearing just any number though, it’s the red dossard which signifies best “baroudeur” – the man who has spent most time on the attack. He looks relaxed and loose-limbed as he dances round the apex, even though that red number does clash with the orange of his jersey.
Just behind him are team mate and fellow-Basque, Ruben Perez with Spaniards Carlos Barredo (Quickstep), Toni Colom (Astana) and Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d’Epargne). None of them look too stressed at this stage but they won’t have forgotten that Plateau de Beille has still to be climbed.
15.16: Alesandr Kuschynski (Liquigas) slogs past, I wonder if they have hills like this in his native Bulgaria? He was with the break but slipped-off the pace.
• 15:21: Here they come – Saunier Duval are on the front, it’s David Millar, lime green shades stuck in to his crash hat and looking very cool, calm and collected – his legs are covered in a thick layer of cream to battle the sun-rash – but makes it seem as if he’s wearing ballet tights. There was no “additional rest day” for Millar in the time trial yesterday, he was full-on for 54 kilometres, and here he is today, riding tempo for team mate and “mullet-meister”, Iban Mayo, up an hors categorie. The little Basque looks very focused as he concentrates on his tall team mate’s rear wheel. David de la Fuente is up there too for Saunier Duval, Mayo must be serious today.
Rasmussen’s yellow shorts and jersey blend-in with the Saunier colours; the Dane looks stressed, but in control as the group wheels left and upwards. At the rear of the group the facial expressions are different. Gent-Wevelgem winner, Germany’s Marcus Burghardt (T-Mobile) has his jersey open to the waist as he swerves around the corner, he knows he can’t hold the pace and his face tells the story. Another classic-winner is going backwards too – 2005 San Sebastian surprise, Xavier Florencio (Bouygues and France). There’s a little bad news for Rasmussen back here too – Dutch Man team mate Grischa Niermann has found reverse; the Dane will need all the help he can get before this day is done. The team car convoy behind the bunch belches exhaust fumes just to make the air even harder to breath.
Those unfortunates who have slipped off the pace ride past in resigned fashion, they’ll ease-back on the gas and get with the grupetto. Juan Antonio Flecha is one of them – he’s wasted; Martin gives him a shout, the big Spaniard just shakes his head.
15.23: Pez diarist and former Italian time trial champion, Dario Cioni (Predictor) slogs past. He won’t be happy to have been dropped so early, his Aussie team leader, Cadel Evans will miss him today.
15.24: Here’s the bus! It’s nine minutes since Txurruka passed and here’s the gruppetto. They ride in neat rows of four, with Het Volk winner, Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas & Italy) managing grace under pressure at the front; team mate and countryman, Manuel Quinziato rides by his side. The atmosphere seems business-like; “we’re all in this together boys, so let’s get on with it.”
There’s another sting in the tail for Predictor; just slipping out of the rear-door of the bus was another Pez-fave rider, former US champ Fred Rodriguez, and there’s no one behind him – just the sag wagon.
15.25: C’est finis! For us it’s traffic chaos and a long time before we see Toulouse. For les coureurs, there are another nine kilometres to the prime line at the top of Port de Pailheres, a 33 kilometre descent then a final 16 kilometres of torture to Plateau de Beille – I’m glad I’m in the Renault and not the peloton.