It all started so promisingly. The peaches were falling from the roadside trees in supermarket quantities and spirits were good as we hit the N-11. The sun was out, it was a comfy 24° Celsius and we were making good progress west from Perpignan.
The trip was scenic, and the Sat-Nav was giving us what turned out to be wildly optimistic predictions … two hours to our destination, it reckoned when we set off, but the sultry voiced temptress telling us to turn left, or right or make a u-turn was still going long after we decided Arcalis would have to wait for race day.
The scenery was starting to turn more luscious green as we pulled closer to the Pyrenees, but the nearer we got, the more articulated trucks seemed to career towards us and loom in front of us. There seemed to be a road building and repair programme of pioneer proportions going on the whole way and traffic was snarling up.
Heading to Saint Louis, the speedo was straining ominously to reach 20 kms/h and the road arteries were constricting from too many diesel-fumed vehicles. When this guy nearly came to grief just yards ahead, we knew we just wouldn’t make Arcalis in any sort of decent time.
It turned into a day for being a tourist and not much more. Still, looking down from the Aire Gisclard made up for it.
Into the Tunnel de Puy Morens, a five kilometre-long route smashed through the mountain which we entered from brilliant sunshine …
… and emerged in thick fog. Then we knew we’d really got no hope of seeing Arcalis. Traffic just came to a crawl, and even the Harley Club guys weren’t overtaking like maniacs.
Still, the cows didn’t seem to mind, and their bells clanged as we waited to progress, wondering how the stage we’d skipped was turning out.
Another tunnel and we were back into brilliant sunshine, such are the micro climates from one valley to another here, and the road crews are putting up barriers in Ordino. The flowers are on show and the Pyrenees are ready to welcome the Tour.
Five hours in the car, and we finally navigated the spaghetti-like one-way system of Andorra La Vella, the financial heart of this beautiful, tax-free haven, and into the hotel sitting on the Valira river.
Into the bar for a coffee, and a silent prayer for David Millar as we see his ambition for the day thwarted.
Watching the TV and seeing Boonen limp home, shorts shredded, we hit the streets of Andorra La Vella to see who we could find that was waiting for the Tour to come through, but it took a bit of asking. Andorra is a shopper’s paradise and even Lance’s poster comes second to retail therapy.
If you’re looking for brand names, they’re all here …
… and you’re constantly reminded that money-spending is encouraged. It’s kind of weird to drive for hours through the beautiful Pyrennean landscape and then hit a giant tax-haven slap in the middle of it.
A pitstop for camera supplies brought us to the door of Ischia, where we had a chat with Borja. He very kindly cleaned our lenses as we got his predictions for stage seven. He reckoned it would be a very hard day, with Armstrong edging out Contador, maybe Sastre in the mix … but he couldn’t see past Contador for the overall title in Paris.
And where else could we seek out an opinion but in the local bike shop? Manuel was behind the counter when we headed into Triatlу, with it’s signed posters of Melchor Mauri, a former Vuelta champion, and where Miguel Indurain has been a visitor.
Manuel reckoned Contador would beat Armstrong, but there wouldn’t be much in it at the top of Arcalis. “It will be very difficult tomorrow. A very long, hard stage. But nothing will be settled because we still have three Alpine stages after the Pyrenees.”
Have you ridden the Arcalis climb?
“Yes, many times!”
Will you see the race tomorrow?
“No … I will be in the shop.” Manuel makes a sad face, then bursts out laughing. “Maybe Felipe the boss will go to see it.”
And, of course, before the end there’s still Mont Ventoux …
“I’ve ridden it just once. There are a couple of roads in and this year the Tour has taken the hardest, the longest and the windiest. Of course, that’s what the name means … the Mountain of Wind!”
Who’s going to win in Paris?
“Phew … well … it could be anyone. Maybe Contador maybe Armstrong, why not? If it is Armstrong, I hope it will not be like the other years when he won, because when one man is so much stronger than everyone else, it is not so interesting.”
Just then a customer walks in. “You should ask him, he’s a pro!” says Manuel.
“No, I’m just fit,” laughs our new pal, Dot Benet.
Dot’s a modest guy, and shrugs off Manuel’s claims. “I cycle a lot but not for racing, for fitness and fun. I’ll definitely be cycling up Arcalis tomorrow, but I’m going back home to watch on TV. There will be so many people up there, it will be crazy!
“The year Ullrich won, 1997, there was hardly anyone in the streets of Andorra La Vella, they were all on the mountain!
Dot also reckoned it would be either Armstrong or Contador, but he didn’t have a favorite. “But the thing about the pros is that they tend to be nicer when you meet them out riding, they say ‘Hello’ when you meet them.
“I met David Clinger that way. He had come to live in Andorra to improve his climbing, and we actually met on the last part of Arcalis. We exchanged numbers and then met up to go training afterwards. He was a nice guy.
Then Dot calmly announces that Manuel is really the guy to talk to as he’s the president of Bici Sн, the local leisure cycling club. “It means … ‘Bike, Yes!’ A play on words, because we love the bike.”
Tomorrow, hopefully we’ll see what Arcalis is like in the raw for ourselves, and we’ll also see whether the opinions of our new friends are correct – Alberto or Lance for the win.