Tales from the Tour. Part 1.

Lawrie Jones follows the race through the Pyrenees

After another tortuous commute, I sat down to work at my desk on a cold and wet Monday in Bristol I received the following text message:

“So, the plan is we’re going to drive from Bristol to London in the morning, and then from there to the Pyrenees to watch the Tour. Do you fancy it?”

Considering my work, responsibilities, marriage and existing plans there was naturally only one response: Yes.

I’d visited the Pyrenees a few times and – unfairly as it turns out - considered them the rough and uncouth countryside cousin to the refined and cultured Alps. The trip was an opportunity to reacquaint myself with these incredible mountains, enjoy three days of the Tour as it traversed these exceptional climbs and, if things worked out, get a chance to tackle a couple of them.

A drive to the Pyrenees isn’t something to be taken lightly. Google maps has the distance as a cool 899 miles, but with stop offs, missed turnings and navigational problems we managed to knock off over a thousand miles. An impressive distance, made slightly easier by the smooth and quick ‘peage’ routes that traverse France.

In total, our journey took around 16 hours, and ended as we pulled into the small town of Arette, located in the foothills of the Pyrenees and a healthy 143km into the Bastille Day stage of the Tour.

Bastille Day is a big day for patriotic France. We may smirk, but it’s actually a lovely spectacle to behold. On Bastille Day France comes to a standstill as seemingly every man, woman and child takes to the streets to cheer on the Tour, many of them lubricated with a steady flow of local beer and wine. It’s hard to convey just what they Tour means to the French. Wandering through the town and taking every caution to avoid the junk thrown from the Tour’s caravan of promotional vehicles it became apparent that it’s an event for everyone of any age. Every shop in this usually bustling and busy town is closed. There are parties on every street corner, music blares out everywhere and people from the town and the surrounding area line the streets all keen to enjoy the Tour. But it’s more than that, it’s about being sociable. Meeting old friends, making new ones.

It being Bastille Day, and rural France, there’s only one place to watch the Tour – and that’s a bar. The hustle and bustle of the bar was incredible, with patrons from the UK, the Netherlands, Columbia and Australia all nestled amongst the regulars. On a day nudging 36 degrees we were all huddled closely together, enjoying the Tour and momentarily flicking to our printed route maps. As the riders got closer, the excitement became palpable with maps ruffled and calculations done to find the precise time to see the riders go by. The Tour brings out some odd characters, but perhaps none more so than the legendary Didi the Devil. A crowd favourite and a fixture at the Tour and Giro, El Diablo provided the rallying cry to the bar and dragged us all out in to the radiant sunshine.

Explaining to the unitiated the allure of viewing the Tour in person is difficult. On paper driving 1,000 miles to watch 200 very small men cycle past you at 30mph as you capture a fleeting glimpse of them seems ludicrous.

But when you’re there, it makes perfect sense.

As the race approached the bar emptied as we all jostled or position on the roads. The first thing you hear is the gentle thump of the helicopters swooping overhead. A matter of seconds later a cacophony of Gerndarme horns is sounded as the road is cleared. And then it’s silence until the doomed members of the breakaway appears to a chorus of cheers. Every one cheers, but it’s the French who are the loudest; proud to have – for today at least – someone at the front of the race. Then we wait for the big boys of the peloton to arrive. We chose a spot on a corner allowing us to see the riders for a split second more than on the flat. At 30mph it’s hard to discern anything, even more so as cameras and phones are raised above heads obscuring your view. As the riders shot past at literally inches from the crowd we decided to relax and enjoyed the spectacle as they shot by, nominating one member of the group as our cameraman.

As soon as they were there, they were gone. And then the cars started rushing through. It’s only when you see a car travelling by trailing the peloton that you realise just how fast the peloton is while cruising.

Moments later the cars had passed, leaving us with almost 25km of uphill racing for us to enjoy. Seemingly every member of the town had the same idea as the bar filled to bursting. The breakaway was reeled and the contenders took to the mountain to battle it out. French hopes were dashed as the heads of the peloton caught up with and passed the breakaway. The disappointment passed and the bar erupted as Froome rose from the saddle and put a few seconds (enough to eventually win the Tour as it turned out) into his rivals.

It wasn’t the French victory they so badly wanted, but was a great introduction to the Tour. As we sipped our beer, we plotted our course back taking in the first of our first mountain – the Aubisque. Tomorrow would see the riders – and us – tackle the Tourmalet. We needed some sleep, not that we got much on Bastlille Day. It’s OK, it’s the Tour – it’s to be expected.