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Tour de Pez: The View From The Pailheres
Roadside St. 14: The choppers are the first warning, like bees in a perfect blue summer sky, the crowd stands, and way, way down below us we see them – a white jersey and a red jersey, moving steadily up the ribbon of hot tar which unwinds up the valley…

But the day started much earlier, it wasn’t much after 08:00 when we nosed the SEAT out of Toulouse, headed for the start in Revel.

Gas up, take the ‘route avance’ – in front of the race – and in front of the caravan too, today.

The first glimpse isn’t clear through the heat haze – it’s only mid-morning but already there’s an intensity about the sun on your skin – but as we drive on, through the fields of sun flowers and barley, they begin to fill the windscreen – the Pyrenees.

They reign from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, separating Europe from the Iberian peninsula.

They have their own languages, Basque in the north, Catalan in the south.

And they’ll decide this Tour – Contador, and Sanchez especially are close to home here and will be well supported, not just by rabid roadside fans but by domestiques who still have gas in the tank.

Schleck is a long way from gentile Luxembourg Ville and his team is running on fumes, the fuel tanks are empty.

By late this afternoon, there will be no need to speculate, the first Pyreneean stage will be won and lost.

We’re on the hard, hot road from to the Port de Pailhиres, a brute of an HC climb, 15.5 K @ 7.9 % where we’ll ’embed’ for the day.

The early kilometres gave no clues about what was to come, long straights across neat farm land crossing quiet canals and always the hill top forts.

But as the kilometres click by the trend is inexorably upwards – into the foothills.

Chalabre, the village is ‘en fete’ and the armagnac is smooth.

Noon, the sun is high in the sky and has bullied the clouds away, it’s hot, damn hot and the crickets rattle in protest.

There’s a lovely vibe in the air, despite the heat, or maybe it’s the armagnac – you don’t get short measured in France.

The Commodores slide on to Sunradio, ‘Night Shift’ – perfect.

We’re running into the gorges of the foothills now, and still the road drags upwards, ever upwards.

Axat and the scenery gets really ‘spiky’ – deep gorges lure us into the heart of this kingdom of rock, torrents and trees that defy gravity.

Strongholds from long gone days cling to the crag tops.

Dave has to pick the best line through the cycle tourists; hair pin follows ramp, follows hairpin – a swine of a climb.

Every time I stop to take a picture I get the shout; ‘Monsieur ! Photo !’

Remarkably, we find a parking space inside the last kilometre and head out into the blast furnace to await the caravan.

Dogs, lions, horses and even dragons make their way up the pass.

Not to mention huge bottles of water and juice, biscuits – and definitely not forgetting the guy in the Etap hotel bed.

And there’s Vincent Barteau in his role as the Vittel team manager.

There’s a lull, time to sit in the sun and catch up with L’Equipe.

And then that chopper appears – by the time the lead rider gets to us he’s alone, an AG2R, not the fragile Gadret as we might have expected but rather Christophe Riblon, this day will end with him grabbing the best win of his life.

Next up is his erstwhile companion on that brutal ascent, we had him as Cofidis’ Amiel Moinard but it’s difficult with the noise, the crowd, the motor bikes and the cars.

A QuickStep next, Jurgen Van de Walle, but he’s on his last legs.

The Spaniards go wild – Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) with one of the race surprises, his country man Rafael Valls (Footon).

Breakaway specialist Kiryienka grimaces past for Caisse and then the man in the polka dots, Anthony Charteau, ‘cherchй les points’ as the man on the radio says, later.

It’ll be huge for BBox if he can hang on to that jersey.

Time for the ‘heads,’ they’re all there; one of Bert’s boys heads the group, the Astana leader looks well within himself, but so does Schleck.

Basso doesn’t look too comfy, Levi looks intense – but where’s Lance?

A little way back in a group with British champion, Geraint Thomas (Sky) – who held the white jersey of best young rider, before Andy started his charge.

Geraint’s team mate and Sky’s big hope, Bradley Wiggins is just off the back of the lead group and digging deep. And Cadel is doing the same.

There are ones, twos, half dozens, they zip up and grab newspapers for sticking up their jerseys on the descent to keep the chill off delicate chests.

But the main gruppetto is way, way back – there they are, many hairpins below us.

We start to head back towards the car, we have to jump on the back of the race convoy once the sag wagon and breakdown truck pass or we’ll be stranded up here with the ‘civilians’ until spring.

The autobus is big, the auto focus picks out Cav and a wasted Stuey O’Grady, that man would have an easier life on a slave galley.

And then they’re gone, pedaling the last few hundred yards to the K o M banner before sweet gravity takes then down to Ax-les-Thermes and the final grind to Ax-3 Domaines.

But we have our own race to Ax-les-Thermes or we’ll get stuck in among the camper vans, boy racers and granddads coming off the mountain.

Dave only loses the odd place in the string as we jostle with Saxo, Sky and BBox as the long drop bottoms out.

Only three hours to our hotel, the satnav tells us.

As we pick up the auto route, the Pyrenees tower to our left, range after range – they’ll still be there for le Tour and PEZ, tomorrow.


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