The Big Tour – le Tour de France (part 1)

A month ago yesterday (July 11th), I landed in Paris and started my assignment with Thomas Cook Sport… to cover their inaugural TdF travel trips. And what a couple of trips they were!

I’ve written about the couple of days in Belgium getting ready, a little about getting to the Tour, and about the days in Paris afterward. So here’s the story everyone’s been asking me to finish…

We came, everyone saw, Cadel conquered… there you have it.Not enough? ok, well…

It was an amazing trip, an impressive TdF and seeing Cadel win was something. He’s an odd hero, I gather he’s a Tin-Tin fan and I think that it suits him. Not what you’d look for in someone to dominate at an event like this, and yet…

Cadel winning at the 2010 Fleche Wallonne

I’ve seen Cadel race, including some of his strongest moments like the win he took attacking Contador on the final climb up the Mur de Huy in 2010. Seeing the World Champion’s jersey attacking and winning is always memorable. The 2011 Tour included that… a different champion though. Still as thrilling to see. Winning the rainbow jersey is an accomplishment, then getting to win while wearing it, well!

The moment it was clear this was Cadel’s year to win the Tour was the final time trial… I’ll get back to that later though, I’ve barely begun the tale so I won’t jump to so near the end.

The early 2010 season showed Cadel Evans to be capable of winning. The injury he sustained in the 2010 Tour showed he was still vulnerable and human. And that perhaps his team wasn’t up to the challenge. 2011 was another story…
The first week has some crashes (everyone remember a spectator looking the wrong way and being in the wrong place?). Some of the key combatants were affected (Contador is the name that comes to mind) while others got through the always nervous first week without incident (Cadel being one).

Johnny Hoogerland, the day…

Week 2 is where the fun begins, where I get to begin seeing the Tour first-hand… and I’ll start with this “fun”: a France TV car, a moment few who saw it will forget. Least of all Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland who must still be wondering WTF happened.I won’t post any of the photos I saw, it was horrific and I’m amazed no-one was killed in that bizarre incident. No, I was not there. No I did not see if first hand. No, I was not in that car!!! No, No, No.

What I did see was the beauty of the Pyrenees, the wonder of this part of France where it meets Spain and the caprice of the cycling fates and weather gods / goddesses when it comes to mountains. That caprice is a thread that carries through the entire story (if you’ve followed the blog you know about snow already). And I saw a lot of great racing, in a lot of great places.

St Girons

The trip from Belgium down to the Pyrenees is already online so I won’t go through that again. I will say that the hotel Wim had found for the group to stay in was wonderful. It was a sprawling little building, with hallways that went around and back and forth and then found yet more rooms. The rooms themselves were comfortable, a little rustic, filled with antiques. The view out the window made up for any shortcoming… it was soothing and inviting and it dominates my memories of the hotel. After we arrived everyone gathered in the bar for a little social time to unwind, to get the trip itinerary, and then to get dinner. The group was made up of a Dutch couple, 7 Belgians, two drivers and “the Canadians” (first just me, and then both of us).

The group had gotten to see the stage finish in Lavaur on that first day, the next was to be a highlight for the trip though with an early part of the race on the agenda followed by a trip up to the top of the Tourmalet. The race would go over the Torumalet and then finish at the summit of Luz-Ardiden, so it was a great choice.

The early stop was near Rieumes, and was on a small climb entering the town so the riders were spread out a little and not going to quickly. It made for some great shots, including of the town itself.

Thomas Voeckler, in yellow

The next part of the trip was amazing. Winding through the French countryside, heading toward a legendary climb, surrounded by the buzz of le Tour. The closer we got to Sainte-Marie de Campan (where we would connect with the Tour route at the bottom of the climb) the more intense the buzz. Until we finally came to “the” point; the gendarmes would either permit us on the route based on our credentials or they would turn us away like all the other cars trying and failing to “get there”. Magic! It was a magical thing as they waved us through, and there were we were on the climb up the Tourmalet.

On the way up the Tourmalet
Grazing Goats

I put my main camera on the dash and next to it I set up my little Lumix to take a video of the drive… I think it may be a once in a lifetime thing so I wanted to get it all. The last 5 km up the climb were surreal, and I will post that video someday (I haven’t confirmed if Thomas Cook wants to use it so I’m hanging onto it). The shots I got speak volumes though… picture the TV feed in your mind as they drive up through the crowds with all the campers along the side of the road and you know what it was like. Being there in person… well 🙂

Race action on the descent of the Tourmalet

When the race passed, we all hopped into the bus to watch the finish on TV and then it was a long, slow drive to get off the mountain. There is no such thing as rushing away after a stage, there are just too many people with the same idea so everything moves slowly (and the pace is further dictated by the gendarmes).

I think that was probably the most exciting day of the Pyrenees trip, and everyone in the group was totally impressed. My excitement wasn’t done for the day though, this is the day that Andrea landed in Paris and took the train down to Toulouse where I was to pick her up. On the way back, we stopped on the highway and everyone got into the main bus leaving me with the empty Traffic to pick Andrea up. I was running a little late so I told Wim to expect a call from Andrea. It turns out her train was late too, so when she called it wasn’t a big deal. Wim gave her the # of the cell phone he had lent me and she called just as I was about to get into the city… the GPS said I’d be at the train station in around 15 minutes.

What the GPS didn’t know was that it was Bastille Day in France. It also didn’t know that the entire area around the train station was closed for the concerts and fireworks that would happen. And I couldn’t for the life of me find where the detour signs led. I circled around for over an hour without getting any closer. Finally Andrea and I tried to find a way for her to walk from the station to where I could get to, I don’t recommend trying that in a city you’ve never been to. After another hour of trying, I parked the Traffic in a spot I knew I could find and that was a close to the train station as I could get and started walking, looking for a way to get to the other side of the barrier. Eventually, I found the secret passage (it was through the underground metro station) and popped up in the train station. Andrea had given up trying to find a way and also headed back to the train station so when she called I was able to wave to her… what a relief! Then driving out of Toulouse… the street I had parked on was a big 4 lane road up a hill and it had turned into the viewing area for thousands of people. Driving the Traffic through that was unreal… kind of like driving up the Tourmalet earlier!. We finally made it back to the hotel around 1AM… and found a delightful dinner waiting for us. What a day…

A late night feast after a long day

The next breakfast, everyone welcomed Andrea to the group and then we settled into the bus to head to the start of the stage in Pau. Along the way, we stopped in the city of Lourdes… I have to say, the place freaks me out a little. We had been there in 2006 and once was enough so we didn’t do much more than walk around a little. Back on the bus, into Pau and dropped off at the stage start… it’s always exciting to be at a start or finish and there are always lots of folks around.



After the start, it was a fast drive to get to the Col d’Aubisque before the racers. We sped along the race route, making our way up the race route to a great spot around the middle of the climb. It was a bright and hot day so lunch for the group included a lot of cold beer. The publicity caravan showered us with more goodies, and eventually we heard the sound of the TV helicopters signaling the arrival of the leaders. This climb was the last of the day and the race would then descend into Lourdes for the finish so the people in the lead group had a good chance of staying away until the finish. We had heard and seen on the TV that Thor Hushovd was in the group, when the leaders finally reached us they were all spread out and riding up at their own pace. And Hushovd was still there, close enough that he had a chance (and he took that chance and won).

Col d’Aubisque

Again, we watched the finish in the bus and then made our way back to St. Girons for the group’s final night there. Andrea wasn’t very comfortable on the drive, the roads are very narrow and as is usual in that part of France there are no barriers at the edge of the road…

Col d’Aubisque

The Saturday morning was a time for everyone to pack up get ready for the last day in the Pyrenees. This stage would go fairly close by and it was finally a chance for us to use the bikes we had. Earlier in the week, Wim and Rudy had reserved a spot on the Col de Portet-d’Aspet by parking the Transporter and the trailer in a spot very close to the monument to Fabio Casartelli so we knew roughly where  to find them (about a 50KM ride). We headed out early and enjoyed riding in the rolling countryside. We made it to the town of Aspet just before the publicity caravan, and had to wait for it to pass. Then it was a 6KM game of “ride until a gendarme makes you stop, walk until out of site, ride until…”. The entire time it was climbing, we expected to see the sign marking the start of the actual climb. When we did see it, there were so many gendarmes that we had to walk. Fortunately, the group was parked just a little ways up so we didn’t have far to go.

We got to watch the ceremony honouring Casartelli and then watch the racers as the came through. Then it was up and over the mountain with the hopes of getting to another spot on the route. That didn’t work out for a number of reasons, so it was off to a bar in Foix to watch the last part of the race.

And then we watched the bus drive off into the sunset with the Belgians on board… leaving Andrea and I and the Traffic (with Wim’s wallet in it!) on our own for a few days.

I think this post is getting a little long so I’ll save the Alpes for a separate post. If you want to jump ahead, you can look through the full Picasa TdF gallery I have online.

I’ll be back with more! Whew, hope you enjoy the tale…

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