Pedal party of a lifetime in a Pyrenees mountain meadow
Critics out there would say that watching the Tour de France in person isn’t worth it. That it’s just a battle to push past the crowds, narrow roads and heat stroke all for a moment’s satisfaction when the peloton passes a toenail in front of your feet and that it leaves you with nothing more than searing sunburn and a bad case of whiplash.
They were watching the wrong road race. The entertainment begins long before the peloton passes through, and if people-watching was a sport, then the Tour de France would serve as its world championships. Here I give you the Tour de France Fan Character Analysis.
Our study starts at the bottom of the Col de Peyresourde, one of the toughest mountains of the Tour, in scorching 35 degree weather. There’s not a cloud in the sky, and as we approach the summit, not a tree in sight. My husband and I ride to the top on hacker 20 year old mountain bikes, borrowed from a friend of a friend of the owner of our hotel. If Thomas Voeckler saw us he’d hand us the polka dot jersey out of respect.
I apologise if you fall into this category but let’s be honest, we all know someone who does and my husband is one of them. Cycling is the new midlife crisis. Forget the Harley Davidson, it’s the Giants, Cervelos and Pinarellos that are in hot demand in the mid fifties, forties and even thirties.
For cycling geeks, the Tour de France is the ultimate pilgdrrimage. Decked out in all their lycra, you can’t help but feeling it’s more about looking the part than the actual ride.
There’s a snail trail of white vans littering the landscape of the Pyrenees. It’s hard to imagine there could possibly be that many campervans in the world as thousands descend on the Tour de France. They park one by one on the side of the road and in every carpark along the way.
Most of them are seasoned pilgrims and are the envy of us first timers. The green grows strong when, exhausted from our ride, with no shade in sight and hours still to go, we look over and see them in the comfort of their vans, beers chilling in the fridge, lunch cooking on the barbeque, as salads are prepared in the kitchen. Some lie on the couch and bed watching the Tour on television - sourced from the satellite on the roof - as others eat on the table outdoors.
Baguette Bygones - French Retirees
They’re pretty much the equivalent to our grey nomads and if you had one of the world’s biggest sporting events in your own backyard, you’d take three weeks off from your daily Sudoku ritual to follow it around too.
As we head up the mountain in first gear at a snail’s pace, the Baguette Bygones yell words, which I take as encouragement, at us. They clap and I don’t need to understand French to know they’re yelling “you can’t be serious climbing Peyresourde on that”.
A couple of 80 year olds run up behind me and give me a push along my way as the crowd cheers.
Feeding Station Scabs
If you couldn’t be bothered hiking up the , then this is your next best position. After the riders receive their musettes (bags) with their food and biddons (drink bottles) there is a designated spot, usually just a hundred metres long, where they can dispose of them.
This is where the Feeding Station Scabs hang waiting for that moment when one of the riders throws away his biddon in your direction. I was one of them too on stage 14. The biddon is like the ultimate souvenir of the Tour and you tend to think that it’s going to be the envy of all those in your office when you get home. In all likelihood, no one will care that you have your water in a “Saxobank” or “RadioShack” bottle.
It’s incredible how many different countries are represented at the Tour. They’ve come from all parts of the Google map with the same purpose, to experience and see the most gruelling and famous race of them all. It’s hard to believe that with stages over 100 kilometres long it’s hard to find space, but thousands pack the roadside. Some have camped out in their cars, tents and swags for days in order to bag the best spot on the mountain.
Often you can’t speak their language and they can’t speak English but you communicate through the Universal language that is the Tour, which is usually a combination of rider names and charades, but works a treat. You cheer, support and shout together, building up the excitement and anticipation from the moment you find your position for the day.
Norwegians - Eddy fans
They have one competitor in the race “Edvald Boassen Hagen” but they still come out in their droves. Thousands of them everywhere all draped in their flags and national colours writing “Eddy the Boss” in paint along the road. About 50 of them are grouped together 1km from the summit, a sea of red white and blue gathering around a massive Norway flag. They form a tunnel along the road for passers-by to run and ride through. They sing, shout, cheer loudly and provide entertainment for those around them.
Frenchie Rugby Guys
These overweight French rugby fans are staying in a 80s style caravan fully equipped with a 50cm wide blow up swimming pool by the side of the road. They cheer enthusiastically “Allez Allez” (which has become the soundtrack to our stage) and run up beside every person who rides, drives or walks past. There’s still 6 hours left before the race passes and these guys are sure to run out of energy by then, but they continue to sing and chant merringly and even practise their rugby lineouts which just end in one massive wedgie.
Half Naked Aussies
We’ve met so many Aussies after our week following the Tour, all hoping to see Cadel successfully defend his title. But passing me by is a group of young Aussie guys in nothing but their budgie smugglers and a flag cape. They’re from Melbourne and are pumped for the race. They’re looking for a spot by the side of the rode (prime real estate which is scooped up early on in the day). I tell them to go see the Frenchie Rugby guys.
Aussies + Frenchies
So now they’re teamed up and providing all of us with pre-race entertainment. The road zigzags up to the summit, providing an amphitheater of an audience as the three layers of crowds watch them, cheering and yelling in support. They lap up the attention, singing and dancing, the Aussies can’t speak French and the Frenchies can’t speak English but they find a form of sign language which works. They all try to cram into the swimming pool without much success and continue to shout “allez allez” to all who pass them by. The Aussies show them cricket and with a make believe ball they spread out across the road as the crowd of hundreds stretched right up three levels to the summit start slow clapping the bowler towards the wicket.
Aussies + Frenchies + Norwegians
Ok now they’ve all teamed up as the Frenchie and Aussies race through the Norwegian tunnel.
Suddenly a five year old takes to the game, with his free polka-dot hat and “King of the Mountains” jersey which reaches all the way to his calves he runs at the Norwegians, high fiving the red, white and blue faithful who tower over him along the way. Hundreds in the crowd cheer the kid on as he runs back to his parents elated.
Publicity Caravan Groupies
Now if your “Fellow Foreigners” “Baguette Bygones” and “Aussies + Frenchies + Norwegians” haven’t got you excited yet, then the caravans will. It’s a mardi gras-like parade of trucks and floats, advertising the Tour sponsors. There are giant “Haribo” lolly packets and cartoon characters with people throwing lollies into the crowd. There are floats of giant baguettes, and the company St Michels has 5 metre high baking tins with bags of flour and jugs of milk with people in them throwing packets of cakes into the crowd. There are dancing guys in nothing but tight shorts on a float advertising washing detergent.
They all have their goodies they throw into the crowd and like a pack of wolves to fresh meat, the fans scramble to get them. Usually they’re useless keyrings, hats and samples they’ll eventually throw out, but it’s more the thrill of catching the goodie than the giveaway itself as grown men fight kids for the honour. Vittel water comes past, they have cars in the shape of water bottles and a massive bottle on a float which has a person with a high pressure hose spraying the crowd with water.
Living the Dreamers
These guys are pretty much the “Cycling Geeks” on steroids. After the pubicity caravans and 20 minutes before the riders are due to pass, these guys live their dream and start riding up the mountain to the summit as fast as they can.They long to be that guy in the breakaway, trying his best to stretch his lead further and further from the peloton, imagining that moment he too will be crowned “King of the Mountains” and earn the polka dot jersey. The crowd cheers them on as enthusiastically as they would any Tour rider.
The “Living the Dreamer” passes the Aussies + Frenchies who run up beside him and push him from behind, the Tighthead Prop sized Frenchie runs with his goon bag, offering the “living the dreamer” refreshments along the way. They push him into the Norwegians who take over and push him another 200 metres up the climb. The crowd laughs and cheers as the anticipation and excitement grows.
Then comes the moment we’ve all been waiting for. You hear the helicopters first, like a warning bell and soon there are six flying around you. The roar of the crowd kilometres ahead can be hear and you sense they’re close. Everyone creeps onto the middle of the road, both sides creating a tunnel. First the motorbikes pass through, then one by one, the fans file out of the way and you see the first rider. t’s usually never who the Chinese whispers which whip around the crowd say it is, but you don’t care, it could be your countryman or his enemy, you just cheer, shout and clap as loud as you can.
There’s no other event in the world where you can get up as close to a competitor as this, you can see the sweat drip, the pain in their muscles and the determination in their eyes. It’s exhilarating and exhausting. The peloton passes through and again the crowd roars, some signal for the crowd to part wider while others receive a push from the fans. Two Belgians push their hero who has dropped off the peloton about 100 metres, he hands them his biddon as a sign of gratitude.
It’s all over in less than 40 minutes but the experience has lasted for hours. And for our reward for the day? A cruisy 12km ride down from the mountain on our hacker bikes without needing to pedal once, as the cars, campervans and caravans cram onto the narrow road of Peyresourde, in gridlock as they race to get to the next stage.
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