24 July 2012

Stage 17 on Peyragudes

The setting was perfect and it had never been used before
I hope it is used again, because Stage 17 of the 2012 Tour de France had everything. We sat perched on a hillside watching the fog cover and uncover a distant mountain. The Port de Bales was around the corner, the riders would be climbing it shortly and then heading our way. We sat waiting 150 meters from the finish line after managing to get ourselves to the top of yet another mountain. This time we were in the Pyrenees at the mountain top finish of Peyragudes.

The climb was steady and cyclists lined the road turning their pedals upwards through a large crowd of fans. I entertained myself guessing the accents overheard – Spanish, Australian, Norwegian, Swiss, Italian, German, British, hmm not many Americans. The campervans became thick as we wend our way to the Col de Peyresourde and it’s famous Creperie, where we had a coffee and a piece of local cake and enjoyed the atmosphere of being at the Tour de France.

The crowd and especially the waitress at the Creperie were great fun. The creperie is a traditional stop for cyclists and they were lucky to have two big business days this year since the previous day’s stage had passed in the opposite direction. We joked and laughed with the waitress who was incredibly jovial, then rode down about 2km to the juncture of the road to the ski station at Peyragudes. There we said hi to Peter Thomson who had a very nice location and set-up for his pack of clients with Thomson Bike Tours. Remember I did an interview with Peter last winter? (An Interview with Thomson Bike Tours). It was great to finally get to say a brief hello.

We had another 5-8 km to ride to the finish line at Peyragudes. I don’t remember exactly how long it was because the riding went by very fast. We were entertained by the roadside activity and the growing crowds, the Tour was still hours away. Tents were scattered across the hillside, camper vans squeezed in so tightly I imagined that groups of men had gathered to guide each one into it’s place on the green hillside.

Any place would have been a good place to be on Stage 17. We found a nice spot on the hillside near the finish where we could see the road below as it snaked among the camper vans and into the first village then traversed a long road to our right and finally passed the second village and to the finish line in front of us. I had always considered most ski resorts in France as not particularly attractive, but Peyragudes is new and felt like Vail Village in Colorado. The setting was spectacular. The weather absolutely perfect.

We spent hours on that mountain but I was never bored, it was worth coming early. Sponsor carts and staff handed out constant free items to the gathering fans before the caravans arrival – Skoda and LCL caps, Haribo candy, Vittel water, Bic pens, Le Coq Sport jersey keychains. It was fun watching kids and adults collect and share the swag. The French kids next to us shared their candy, we offered duplicate hats to the swiss couple to our right. We laughed at the Aussie’s who held handfuls of snack crackers. The Skoda yeti character came by, the Festina character came by flipping caps off of unsuspecting fans laughing through a loud speaker. It was delightful and we giggled out loud.

When the official LeTour.com website claims that 46% of fans come “first and foremost to see the caravan,” this is exactly what they mean. There was no way one could take anything seriously in the midst of such playful fun. TV announcers may convey the intensity of the sport of cycling (even though this year was less suspenseful) and cameramen try hard to present the beautiful landscape of France, but being at the Tour is a combination of mischief, relaxation, and silliness. There is a lot going on along the roads at the Tour de France.

We could watch the big screen TV from our spot on the hillside and listen to the French announcer's booming voice. We saw Valverde was in the lead, we knew to expect him first. We could see Wiggins in his yellow jersey approach on the road from far below, the helicopters whirling overhead. We did not see or know that Cavendish had fallen just down the road because we were busy cheering the lead group and the peloton as they raced for the finish line before our eyes.

Before the mid-pack of riders arrived, the lead riders were already descending down the same road. Suddenly we were watching riders coming and going in both directions, recognizing them easily as they passed. The finish was to the left, the exit off the jammed-pack mountain to the right, both seemed equally important to the riders. The infamous Tour de France traffic jam would start within minutes of the finish, and oh what a traffic jam it was. I always thought someone should have warned me that cycling off of a Tour de France mountain stage is like trying to ride a bike in and out of a Rolling Stones concert.

Traffic is expected when the entire caravan, team cars, fans cars, campers, walkers and cyclists attempt to descend at the same time. We later met a French cyclist in the town of Arreau, at the bottom of the mountain, waiting for his friends, he asked us what was taking so long. Many many cars up there, we explained in our 1st grade French. If there was a sport for descending after the TDF – it would be my #1 sport. I love it! I cannot explain it other than to say it is totally thrilling to be around thousands of people who just had a super great time and are now headed home to tell stories of their day.

Down the Col de Peyresourde we rode at high speeds when suddenly two cyclists passed us pacing behind a car. I came across them later along the roadside and commented that it looked like fun. Next thing I knew we were joining their group of traveling Aussie cyclists guided by Tony of Diamond CycleTours (www.diamondcycletours.com) for a drink at the Hotel de France in the town of Arreau. They were great fun and a perfect ending to our fantastic day. Thanks for the drinks and laughs.
Alright time for some photographs of the day – Stage 17 2012 Tour de France, the day I wished would never end.

All photos by Karen at PedalDancer.com and Monica B. (click any image to enlarge)
Creperie on Col de Peyresourde
Really funny waitress
Thomson Bike Tours' set-up
Campervans on road to Peyragudes
Monica and the Red Kite

finish line

Skoda Yeti
Aussies, and Phil Liggett's love child - or so he claims
Lots of free stuff
We are really at the Tour de France
Impressive caravan
fans waiting
caravan entertainment
PMU podium girls
Our views
Alejandro Valverde arrives to win the stage
He really wanted the win
Wiggo arrives
Froome and Wiggins
Vincenzo Nibali
Tejay van Garderen
Chris Horner
Here comes Cadel
There goes Cadel
Immediately the riders headed back down the hill
Ivan bundled up and heading downhill
A jacket, a coke and they were riding again, down this time
Edvald Boassen Hagen
Thomas Voeckler
The chase group
Chris Horner, already eating
The peloton arrived

singing songs
having drinks in Arreau after the stage
My human interest observation from the day: I noticed as the riders approached the finish line a few of them were looking back to the large bend to see who was coming, many others had an agonizing expression on their face, but a good chunk of riders were looking out across the spectacular landscape across the view down the mountain. These men had just ridden 143.5 kilometers and were probably consumed with the pain and pace and getting to the top, and yet instinctively they couldn't help but look down the road at the spectacular view off Peyrugudes and wonder where they had come from. We all do it.
The look back
 The grimace
The wow look at that view
Glad we weren't the only ones enjoying the views on a beautiful day in France. Even Mark Cavendish enjoyed the view (or maybe he was just tired of looking at Bernie's back).
Simon Gerrans threw his bottle, we didn't catch it. (bottle mid-air)
Peter Sagan came in smiling ... of course, he had a lot to smile about.
We went home with smiles as well. What a day!