Zagan the motorhome’s engine-braked his way off Le Grand Colombier, with just a brief pause on the way down to cool off heated brakes. Our brush with 2017 Tour de France is over, it was a great experience and we’ll hopefully get another go at it, another year. The riders have headed across the country today towards the Pyrenees by ‘plane, and our ferry in 10 days calls us away from them. We’ve rolled a short distance north, and are in a shared parking area (N45.961825, E5.832639) alongside the mighty Rhone at Seysell (Ain), looking across the fast-flowing green waters to Seysell (part of the town seems to be in another French department – Haute-Savoie). The place has a pretty, Rhine-like feel to it, and is lifting our spirits after the slight downer of having ticked something off a life-long bucket list.
In the end we spent four nights up on the col, along with a community of maybe 50 other motorhomes, and another 40 or so just down the hill from us. While the weather allowed on the first couple of days, we had a stupendous view of Mont Blanc and miles of hulking massif either side. To get that spot, we needed to arrive when we did (on Thursday, for a Sunday race day), but there were other places available the following day. If you weren’t fussed about the views and were happy to walk a kilometre or two up the mountain, you could realistically have arrived on the hill the day before the riders arrived, or even the day of the race.
In contrast to the ‘huge speakers, banging tunes, buckets of beer’ atmosphere we found in the Dolomites when we saw a stage of the Giro d’Italia, it was more of a ‘snifter of wine, bon appétit, retire to bed’ low-level party on the col. I’d be a liar if I said we weren’t a tad disappointed with the build-up, but the day itself made up for it, and then some.
If I’m honest again, neither of us are cycling fans. But the experience of Le Tour, and similar events, is something which draws people like magnets, aficionados or not. The riders are world-class. The organisation is world-class. The stage we were on was world-class in terms of multiple enormous, endless climbs and eyes-wide madness of narrow, wet 50mph descents. And all of this takes places within inches of you. The biggest aspect of the whole spectacle for me was seeing into the eyes of these men. Skinny-muscle-and-bone they may be, but gladiators they are too, and the determination shone through in their eyes.
A day before all the madness happened I got chatting with Marcus, a German chap who was following the first stages of the tour in his car and tent. He turned out to be fascinating to me. He’d been born and raised in the old GDR, the communist eastern part of Germany divided off from Western Germany after WW2. He was 12 when the Berlin Wall came down, and his parents had both been staunch socialists and teachers, a talent which had rubbed off on Marcus. He was thankful his father, a local communist leader, had passed away four years before the system collapsed, as he told me his dad wouldn’t have coped with the change. The East Germans, he said, were so sure of their system that when it collapsed and capitalism was adopted, large numbers of people felt suddenly lost, leaderless, the basis of their entire lives brought into question. He himself has turned to God to find a new frame of reference in his life, a new leader. He’d chosen his own version of the Christian God though – he didn’t believe in miracles for example, so had opted not to follow any of the individual branches of Christianity, an interesting and unusual perspective. He put me to shame with his knowledge of history, not just of the Prussian state which used to include his homeland, but of English history too. And what’s more, he came over and gave me his final two beers, brewed near where he lived, light hoppy ales with a slight tinge of grapefruit. What a hero!
Back to race day, the whole event kicks off with a stream of white vans, fitted with a balcony at the back doors, each of which has one or two men or women stood on it, held in with a harness as they flog merchandise at machine-gun pace. The driver has a loudspeaker system which he makes maximum use of to drive the gathering crowd into a frenzy of T shirt, hat and umbrella buying. Ju’s eyes went wide and she legged it over to collect a fetching (ahem) yellow hat. No, I like it. I do! You should see what I’m wearing later on…
Next up is the caravan. How to describe this? Nope, I can’t but to say it’s a steady stream of sponsor vehicles in all sorts of weird shapes and sizes, decked out with enormous models, blaring out music and chucking bits of free merchandise (some might say tat) at anyone dancing about enough on the side of the road. Ju danced about like she was on fire, and collected a small mountain of merchan-tat. I can honestly say her look of glee rivalled our wedding day.
Another hour or two later and the riders finally arrive, heralded by the pressure-building thud-thud-thud of a stream of helicopters swooping about grabbing impressive mountain landscape shots and tracking the bikes as they haul their way up miles upon miles of 10%+ ascent. By this point we were stood right alongside the ‘finish line’ marking the top of the col. The Tour is a race made up of weeks of races, each of which is made up of smaller races at mountains tops etc, and the top of the col marked the end of one of the in-races races for today (following this?). As the leading rider appeared a whole bunch of voices started to yell. ALLEZ ALLEZ ALLEZ!!! Arms beat out a booming rhythm, like a hundred drums on the barriers. Hairs on necks raised and we all screamed the bloke past us, winner of the climb but he would be later caught.
Being the second of three BIG climbs on this stage, the riders were spread out by maybe 30 minutes, so we got to do a lot of ALLEZ shouting and fence whacking. A while back we saw a stage of the tour in Yorkshire, which was just as exciting as here in France, but there the riders were well bunched up and came and went in seconds. Here we were about exhausted from belting on the barriers and yelling! Ju managed to spot the King of the Mountains spotted jersey (two of which we’d blagged and were wearing without a hint of irony), Yellow Race Leader jersey (Chris Froome, three time tour winner riding for Team Sky who came in third on the day and continues to lead the tour) and Green jersey, the Sprint Leader, who I only know as Lidl man! I only saw Chris, blurting out FROOOOOOOMMMMEEE!!! as he sped past partly hidden by his team.
The last rider was a long, long way back. Folks started walking home before he turned up, being told off by spectators and the gun and taser-toting gendarmes as they strode along the track (or tried to, they were all turned back and had to go behind the fences). In a very British fashion, the shouts and banging were as loud for the last man as the first. Once he’d gone, we headed back to Zagan with Marshal and Julie, another motorhome couple we’d met on the hill, and watched the end of the race on TV. A gruesome crash on the descent of the third col had us all looking a bit peaky for the poor bloke, but a moment where the riders refused to race away from Froome when he had to swap bikes was truly an honourable thing to witness.
After an evening chatting with another motorhome couple, David and Gill, which we were a bit bleary-eyed throughout (sorry guys), we left the mountain this morning in thick cloud, with still 20 or so motorhomes behind us. Down at Seysell we first attempted to get into the town’s aire to use the service point to find around 40 motorhomes in the ‘6’ places available, and were heading a bit reluctantly out of the pretty river-side town when we saw this place with a few vans in it, and rolled in.
One last thing to say after our tour experience: Vive La France! This is one varied and beautiful country. The way in which it embraces and supports cycling and motorhome culture is a thing of wonder, something we remain very grateful for. France, we thank you.