The Tour is massive, and sometimes it’s hard to remember that life still goes on. Leaving Saint-Gaudens this morning it was already scorching, and we took another pasting from the Factor-50 as we battled the sun. 11.20am, the publicity caravan is up ahead and it’s time to swing the trusty Toyota Auris onto the road for our final jaunt in this year’s Tour.
The plan – there’s always a plan, with a thousand and one potential flaws – is to follow the race over the Col d’Aspin, and nip off the road in Saint Marie de Campan for an easy getaway to Pau.
Most of the cafes are shut in the start town of Saint-Gaudens, as the majority head out to see all the hoopla and palaver.
Out of town and into the country. The city slickers have made some efforts to liven things up, but the country folk will outdo them. Pointis de Riviere flies into view – with the roads closed to all except Tour vehicles, there are still rules to observe, namely drive as swiftly as possible down the middle of the road, take roundabouts the wrong way and try not to hit anything.
The countryside is distracting and offers us a belated sunflower photo op., so here it is.
These little guys were getting totally into the spirit of things with their colorful display, and after this snap all the mums, dads, guardians, cousins, etc., all piled in front of the lens.
It’s glorious as we roll through Huos and Montrejeau. Whole communities by the roadside, barbecues blazing, flags waving, clapping and cheering. “Allez le presse!” is shouted through the window. I can’t imagine hearing that in the UK.
Everyone waves, young and old, and I’m sure these guys were old when Louison Bobet rather than Pierrick Fedrigo was the flavor of the month. There’s a spirit that you get only fleetingly at events like the Superbowl or the soccer FA Cup final in England.
The Tour is tradition, it’s heritage, it’s the soul of the country, a clichй but true. Banners welcome the race to every little village. We even saw one in French thanking Lance Amstrong for coming out of retirement!
Tuzaguet puts on a welcome from it’s resident Mexican, although the tune sounded pretty contemporary to me, rather than authentic old country.
Up ahead in La-Barthe-de-Neste, there’s a safe gap after the Credit Lyonnais vans scream past, and we stop to snap the beflowered bike on the roof and these girls jump in the way … hey-ho.
We’d had a chat with our pal Dominik at ASO yesterday and said we were planning the Col d’Aspin and avoiding the Tourmalet. “Absolutely! It will be crazy up there tomorrow.” Over the sprint line in Sarrancolin, through Beyrede-Jumet and into Arreau for the sharp right-hander that marks the Col d’Aspin’s start.
The climb was filling up dramatically when we hit just on 1pm, and there was barely a leisure, touring or amateur cyclist still wobbling on the road. They’d all made it already. The view down the valley was breathtaking …
…and the view up to the top reminded us of Robert Millar’s legendary quote describing the mountain stages as like being in a western, looking up to see the fans silhouetted, waiting to pick you off.
The mountains offer something for everyone if you know where to look. Here’s one for the ladies …
…and, quite by chance, one for the fellas.
Over the summit in glorious sunshine, the A/C set to Spinal Tap-style 11, and we career through the hairpins off the Aspin and into Payolle and La Seoube. We reach the feed zone and a little negotiation with the police allows us off the course and onto the road for Bagnиres-de-Bigorre, Tarbes and Pau.
It’s just gorgeous here and we’ll be back another time when the Tour frenzy is far away.
The riders are up on schedule as Fedrigo, Jens Voigt and Franco Pellizotti hurtle into view up the hill.
The soigneurs are busy preparing the musettes and getting the car ready for a swift take-off. Simone Rebellin was the guy getting things set up for the Milram boys …
…and the handover is so tasty that the Euskaltel rider behind is salivating at the very thought.
The souvenir hunters were out in force, with everyone on the scavenge for discarded rider goodies. Kudos to the team soigneurs though, for handing out a few full bags of food once the riders had safely passed. This little chap was thrilled and Francaise des Jeux now have a fan for life.
It’s not just the kids that got the goodies. This old lady had a prime view from a balcony wall about 15 feet above the action. Like the old guys we saw earlier in the day, she can probably remember more Tours de France than most of those on the roadside today.
And I guess that’s what I’m taking from the race experience this year. It’s not just the kids that are into it, it’s everyone. Three home stage wins out of nine so far helps, but maybe that and the new spirit on show from the likes of Cervelo will mean the youngsters on the roadside today will still want to look on from their balconies in another 80 years. Let’s hope so.
Ed Hood will be your guide from next week, as Valerie and I program the Sat-Nav for home. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of what goes on beside, behind, before and after the race.
Thanks for reading, and bigger thanks to my co-pilot, photographer and girlfriend Valerie. I couldn’t have done it without her.