In 2008 we fulfilled a long held dream to experience a mountain stage of the Tour de France, one of the world’s biggest sporting events.
So ok, half of them are doped to the eyeballs, cheats, and it’s a real shame that the sport has been put into such disrepute. But that still does not take away from the amazing athletes that these guys are. To get on a bike day after day and cover the distances and gradients that they do, makes for a fantastic spectacle.
We caught up with the Tour on the flat on the stage down from Toulouse which was great, and saw the finish at Bagneres de Bigorre. But the real attraction was the mountain stage from Pau to Hautacam in the Pyrenees. There are 8 parking places up the Hautacam mountain, and Mike and I casually thought we could get up early (read leave the campsite at 8am – early for us these days!) and make it to a parking place 3 or 4 from the top. Well sadly mistaken – these are staked out at least 3 or 4 days in advance by the fanatical supporters of the Tour and their monolithic campervans.
We couldn’t even get parking on the mountain!! We got a park at the bottom and that meant that was only one way up – which was up!! We walked 6km up the 14km mountain before finding our possy, next to loads of other excited spectators. Even though it was 10.30 am and the first riders didn’t come through until 4.45pm we had a great day people watching in the sun.
Part of the amazing spectacle is the literally hundreds of cyclists who do their own pilgrimage up Hautacam before the Tour comes through and you can’t help but admire them – 14km of sheer uphill pain. There were so many people gutsing it out – including little kids who all got a big clap from the crowd – that we felt guilty for only walking up the mountain!! As many of the fans have been camped out for days, they are in full party mode, singing, dancing, drinking and dressing up as you can see in some of the photos below.
About an hour before the first riders come through, the ‘caravanne’ comes through – basically a big sponsor’s parade where they biff all kinds of loot to the scavenging crowds. We also scored some good loot – Mike got a Boygues Telecom cycling shirt thrown to him, plus all kinds of pens, bottled water, lollies mmmmmm.
Finally the cyclists came through and it was just amazing. They are so fast and powerful and the great thing was being able to get so close to them. It was a fine balance between getting some great pics and actually being one of those embarrassing people that end up on worldwide television causing a crash. Oops.
Cadal Evans went on to take the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) that day, and as it was also Bastille Day we went back to the town nearby to have a spot of dinner and watch a band play followed by a firework display. What a great day.
The next couple of days were equally as great. We did a few big walks in the mountains, including a 4 hour trek to see Europe’s highest waterfall the Cirque de Gavarnie. The Pyrenees were absolutely stunning and we’re really glad we came down to this part of France.