Today’s stage loops out of Belfort and over a fistful of classified climbs before turning back north to finish in Porrentruy. Our plan is to set off from Mulhouse, France, and cut onto the course at Boйcourt and see the Cфte de la Caquerelle. Then we’ll reach the last climb of the day, over the Col de la Croix. The Tour’s weekend mountain stages are the spectators as much as the racing, so there’s a lot to see.
Like the best laid plans, it went screwy. We found ourselves in an endless loop of tunnels on the A16. We couldn’t get off that road; every exit we wanted was coned off, barricaded and not a police officer in sight. We spent so much time underground I thought I was a coal miner.
We only escaped by going in the opposite direction to the official ‘Deviation’ sign, and by chance found a minor road with a suspicious number of cyclists. Bingo …! It’s the back way to Les Rangiers. The access to the course is wide open. We implement Plan B and make for Sainte-Ursanne – the arch there is beautiful, but not if you’re driving an oversized food-stuff shaped publicity caravan vehicle.
Through the pretty town square, past the overflowing cafй terraces and onto the Col de la Croix. The countryside is gorgeous; we’re in the Canton of Jura, and it’s starting to look properly Swiss.
We thread our way to the summit and park about 100 yards over the back of the descent. The Col de la Croix is a bit of a beast on the way up; it’s only two miles but the average gradient is over 9%. There are pitches of 17% at the top. It’s going to hurt.
Strolling back downhill, everyone is in a great mood. It’s a bit of a carnival and cheers me up after my brush with Swiss officialdom. This is what cycling events are about. The Dutch fans are belting out karaoke classics and hamming it up for their national TV cameras. The waft of wood smoke and barbecues is teasingly glorious. People lounge in deckchairs.
I’m not sure if it was the Peter Weening Fan Club that had been out correcting the spelling inconsistencies, but it got me laughing. Even on the roads of the Tour, you’ve got to be grammatically (and politically) accurate with your spray can.
The Norwegians, as usual, are the life and soul of the party. Singing their hearts out, serenading the Tour traffic, waving their battle-axes and generally entertaining everyone with a running commentary on the race. A Vacansoleil car grinds past. The Norwegians start chanting: “I AM DUTCH! I AM STU-PID! I AM DUTCH, I AM STU-PID!” The occupants laugh with them.
It’s approaching race time and the helicopters are starting to buzz overhead. Opposite me, one of the skyhawks looms over the horizon and drops low, rotor downdraft flattening the grass on the hill beside the race route.
First into view is the Swedish Tour debutant Fredrik Kessiakoff. The Astana man is wrestling with his bike. The cheers funnel up through the trees.
The cowbells have been a constant clang all afternoon, getting closer and then falling away. It turns out that this young lady is responsible and has been traipsing up and down the slope. Is she knackered? “Yes, I’ve been carrying this bell since morning!”
Next up, it’s the Tour’s Benjamin (the youngest rider) Thibaut Pinot, closing up on the Swede. The fans are going nuts now – a French rider in with a shout of a stage! Moments later the Norwegians are telling everyone he’s won, then cautioning: “Well, not yet!”
Evan is totally in the spirit of the day. “Alright! Pez! Two wheels, not four, drive less, ride more!” We saw him about half an hour later and he’d managed to make about 200 yards’ progress uphill as he was speaking to everyone, discussing his poulet and mourning the fact that Ryder Hesjedal has gone home.
The heads of state are closing in on the escape now. Jurgen Van Den Broeck sets the pace, Evans hunched like a sprinter behind. Nibali, Wiggins and Froome are in attendance. They’re shifting.
Up near the summit, Patrick from Belgium, and his daughters Sophie and Alice, are visiting the race with their English mate Simon. They both work in Basel so this is like a home event for them. After Froomey and Wiggo’s big day out yesterday, they’re hoping for a repeat performance.
Just shy of the summit, it’s still Van Den Broeck pulling Evans, Nibali, Wiggins and Froome, but with a fast descent to come, surely only Nibali can hope to get away?
I ponder gatecrashing my way through an electric fence to get a better photo op., but I don’t fancy my chances with the border patrol if I get into trouble. Time to pick my way past the discarded picnics and empty bottles, and onto the roadside.
Eddy Boss got a massive roar from his compatriots when he muscled into view. Job done for the day, it was all about getting home safely. Once EBH was faded from short-term memory, the Norwegians started singing about Sagan: “ I want to see Sagan, I’ll wait for Sagan!” Sagan’s already gone past, you missed him. “NNNnnneeeeOOOOOOOO! But I LOVE Sagan!” Everyone’s in fits of laughter.
“OK, now I’ll wait for Cavendeeesh! I love Cavendeeeeeeesh!”
Blel Kadri gave us a classic old-school cyclist’s expression as he powered past. Grimacing, gurning, but still going way faster than we could manage ourselves. It wasn’t the Alps or the Pyrenees, but it was a fantastic show for a Sunday audience.
The Col de la Croix was a perfect venue for what’s great about bike racing: awesome scenery, good racing, proximity to the riders and a terrific atmosphere. A massive all-day party.
The former leader Cancellara, not surprisingly, is the main draw. It’s a genuine thrill to be present when he arrives as the noise is breathtaking. Lord knows what it was like when he went past the camper vans below, with their Fabian disco songs belting out. The Fabster is flanked by his team-mate Jens Voigt, who’d been out on the attack earlier.
Vancasoleil’s Rob Ruijgh eyes the camera as he takes on his first ever first-category Tour climb. He’s comfortably ahead of the laughing group, but there’s pain on the faces of others with him.
The sun is starting to slope round behind the tops of the trees on the skyline. It’s gone five o’clock as Grega Bole and Marco Marzano push through the crowds and out of sight on the way to Porrentruy.
There are fans of all shapes and sizes out watching. One fella has a full head of tattoos just visible under his crewcut. We chat to a Swiss who has driven from Zurich to watch Cancellara; he sports a rather nifty illustration on his calf.
The final groups on the road are clawing their way skywards. The sprinters are huddled together for safety.
A Swede took the King of the Mountains jersey today (Kessiakoff) but his pal Gustav Larsson was feeling bad, coming in with the final group. Hopefully a better day to come in the TT for Gustav tomorrow. The cheering goes on, until Matthieu Ladagnous goes by and the end of course vehicles appear.
For some, it’s been a long, long day. The partying, singing and cheering was all too much. I reckon some of those guys will be waking up still on the Col de la Croix tomorrow. But the headache will have been worth it.