Flat, long straights, a light breeze – but huge green masses begin to appear in the windscreen – this is the calm before the storm.
The Col de Portet-d’Aspet, cat. 2, short at 4.3 kilometres but savage at 9.7% average gradient – the steepest climb on le Tour.
A great way to start the day.
We stop to pay our respects to Fabio Casartelli; a beautiful memorial sits where the Italian Olympic road race champion lost his life in a crash.
The climb isn’t spectacular, but the views from just over the summit are – the ranges stretch away into the haze.
Dave is watching the stage back in Scotland and sends a text message to tell us that there was a ‘mad breenge’ at the start – that’s Scottish for, ‘the start was somewhat animated.’
Portet-d’Aspet, cognac time; there are two TVs in the bar, live music, mama is frying mushrooms in the kitchen – maybe we should just stay here and watch the stage?
Millar is in the break, so is Chava, he looks great in his tricolore jersey astride his matching Merckx.
Dave confirms, ’20 clear with three minutes’ as Martin drags me back to the car.
In the digs this morning we came upon l’Equipe from two Saturdays ago, the issue listing the favourites; Van Den Broeck, Wiggins, Brajkovic, Horner, Kloden – all gone, with Gesink at 21 minutes – it certainly hasn’t been a dull Tour.
Col de la Core, 1rst cat. 14.1 K at 5.7%, wide, well surfaced, edging up the valley wall through the trees – stunning views down the valley.
One positive about the Core is that the top is the top, the descent starts immediately – fast but not too horrible or with too many unsettling shadows.
A text comes in from Dave, ‘break now 24 strong with 5:30.’
Al adds to that, from Spain; ‘the 4 chasers have caught the break before the climb of the Col de la Core.
Now 24 up front with 121 k’s to go, 6:06 to the peloton.’
Down, down we drop to the valley floor and the feed zone.
Aldis is on duty at the feed for HTC, he’s worried about the time cut for his boys; ‘it’s possible we could lose three riders today, the time cut is tight and it’s worse if the break stays away – and the commissars say there is no negotiation.’
If it’s not rain, crashes, saddle sores or illness – it’s time cuts.
No rest for the wicked, Col de la Trappe, 2nd cat. 5.6 K at 7.2%, similar to the Core but the temperature gauge is creeping up – we’re up to 24 degrees.
Behind us, they top the Core with an advantage of 6:05 over the peloton.
The ViP’s catch us at the top of the Trappe; the big gleaming white, air conned Skoda Superbs hustle past our little Toyota in a show off blast of air horns.
The descent is more technical than the Core, long straights hurtle into tight hairpins – easy to over cook.
There’s zero flat at the bottom, immediately the Col d’Agnes rears, 1rst cat. 10 K at 8.2% – brutal.
And the Mad Dutchman is up here; hard to miss in his orange suit.
Dave texts, ‘Millar, Casar and El Fares have gone clear on the Core descent and taken 1:45 from the break – the peloton is at 7:23.’
Meanwhile, back in the PezCar; Agnes isn’t a nice girl – steep, hair pinned and nasty as we chase the skyline.
‘Nine minutes’ says Dave as we chug upwards to the banner.
There’s a three K descent and it rears again, the Port de Lers, 3rd cat. 3.8 K at 5.5%.
Off the top there’s around 30 K of descent before the biggie – Plateau de Beille.
This will be the fifth time le Tour has climbed to Plateau de Beille; Pantani won in ’98, Armstrong in ’02 &’04 and Contador in ’07.
There’s debate about start and finish points but one of the fastest ascents to the Plateau was by English man Jamie Burrow, riding for his Italian amateur club – he spoke to PEZ about it, last winter.
Albeit l’Equipe attributes the quickest ascent to Pantani, 43:30 for the 15.8 K.
The descent of the Lers is horrible, steep, bad cambers, narrow, bad surface, shadows – a real video nasty.
Dave updates, ‘Riblon joins the leaders on the Agnes, but Millar is lache.’
Valley road now, gently dropping, smooth and fast.
It’s arguable that the Plateau is the toughest climb in the race, longer than l’Alpe d’Huez but just as steep.
Dave texts; ‘Break re-grouped, but sans Millar, 12 in the lead as Chava rejoins.
The lead is 7:18 with 62k to go.’
The Europcar bus is parked up in Cabannes, at the bottom of the Plateau – will Tommy add to his collection of Credit Lyonais lions, today?
The climb doesn’t mess – straight into it, HC, 15.8 K at 7.9% with big crowds on the lower slopes, but they thin a little in the mid part of the climb.
The climb is evil, no respite as it carves up the valley wall.
Stephen Roche is in the car in front, ferrying the ViP’s; and there’s Didi – the original ‘crazy’ but ‘common or garden’ nowadays.
Dave updates, ’20 to go and Millar is back on the break.’
Time to pitch up – just inside three to go, it’ll soon be barriered and we’ll never get a spot for the car.
‘Leopard drive hard into the climb, the break has 2:30’ says Dave.
A group of Spaniards stare intently at a tiny TV which the baking sun makes very difficult to see.
‘Casar tout seulle’ says the SMS.
Gianni Meersman did tell us that this was Sandy’s day – but the gates of Hell will have opened behind him.
We can hear Radio Tour, Voeckler’s hanging in and the ‘heads’ are playing poker.
It’s over for Casar; Vanendert (Lotto & Belgium) takes it up, Sanchez attacks, we knew he would, he’s taking advantage of the ‘heads’ marking . . . .
And before we know it, they’re on us.
The flotilla of motorbikes ahead of the leader is crazy; it makes it very difficult to get shots – it’s Vanendert, looking good.
Sanchez is in hot pursuit, but the Belgian looks well on top of it to us.
The contenders are grouped together, Voeckler is at the front, that maillot jaune sure works wonders.
No surprises; Basso, the Schlecks, Contador, Evans; but Uran is in there for Sky – on the way to the white jersey it transpires.
Cunego is next, then Danielson, not huge gaps but time lost, nonetheless.
Then the plane crash starts, one’s, two’s, little groups; and a top ten is gone for Levi – and probably Nico Roche, too.
Stage winner Sanchez hurts; the first autobus is way down – Julian Dean dangles off the back.
Riders are on the way down by the time the main autobus arrives – with a wasted Cav off the back of the group, chaperoned by Bernie Eisel.
William Bonnet is stone last, but a ‘sticky bottle’ from the team car helps.
The radio blares that Vanendert has taken it from Sanchez and Frank Schleck; Tommy stays in yellow.
We caught a quick glimpse coming off the mountain – he looks tranquilo to us.
Now the hard part of the day begins – we have to get off this damn mountain !