A piper is playing an infectious and lively tune. Twenty middle-aged men in lycra dance merrily on a hairpin bend on the road. A colourful mob of Columbians are adorned in the bright colours of their national flag. Names of Quintana, Froome and Sagan are sketched into the smooth asphalt with white chalk. A helicopter is hovering low overhead. The tension is building. The peloton is coming.
This is Le Tour. The Tour de France. It’s been a life-long dream to witness the iconic 3-week cycling event. Le Tour, for me, is normally consumed through a television set on the other side of the world in Australia. I typically follow the event from a darkened lounge room in the wee hours of the morning in winter. This is three-week marathon of living in two very different time zones. Going from the edge of the sofa cheering some brightly coloured cyclists up a hill at 2am. Then turning around and doing full days work 4 hours later.
Getting to Andorra
Erin and I meet the 2016 Tour de France in person in an unlikely Andorra. A small, mountainous principality in the Pyrenees wedged between Spain and France. We meet the tour on day 9. The 180 odd riders having spent an arduous first week heading south from Normandy through the mountains. The summit of Andorra Arcalis the final summit before a brief respite in the flatlands of the south of France.
This 9th day of the tour has played a pivotal role in a three week European adventure. And, it all started with a gamble. Once the Tour de France route is announced, accommodation gets snapped up quickly by tour groups and the prices skyrocket. Vague hints were left by the route planners prior to the 2016 announcements and it was surmised that Andorra was part of the tour and rumoured to be before the first rest day. The first rest day being normally after 7 days of cycling. An Airbnb room was booked for the predicted 9th day and fortunately the route planners and I were aligned in our thinking!
Flying in to Barcelona, Andorra is an easy and scenic three hour drive north from the Mediterranean Sea into the mountains. Andorra La Vella is the capital of this small nation and sits in a ravine bordered all around by high mountains. We park within the downtown area in the narrow, one-way, grid like streets. Alvaro, our Airbnb host meets us for a beer in a cafe before showing us to our room. Alvaro has just finished his shift as a chef in a Japanese restaurant a few blocks away.
The tour arrives tomorrow so a reconnaissance mission is had to check out a suitable viewing location. The road meandered up through a number of larger towns which were all cleaned, polished and dressed up for the big day mañana. Continuing, there were now just small villages dotted at various intervals as the road got steeper. We were welcomed with lush green grass, brilliantly coloured flowerbeds set in the windows of stone cottages with the imposing granite cliffs as a backdrop.
Walking through town that evening it feels quiet, a little too quiet for the arrival of the word’s largest cycle race the next day. It was the calm before the storm. The tour is a rolling caravan of buses trucks, support cars and media. Getting everything moving a few hours ahead of racing cyclists is a phenomenal feat of logistics. We were unsure how far we could get up the mountain top finish at Arcalis the next day knowing that the convoy of support vehicles would start early.
Hanging on a hairpin bend
Andorra may not be known for it’s pastry items, however every little bistro in town stocked amazingly fresh array of croissants, apple danish and pain au chocolat. Washed down with a fresh barista coffee it was a great start to the day. We headed to the hills once again attempting to get as high as possible up the mountain to be close to what was looming as an action packed finish to the first week of racing.
We passed the familiar quaint towns from the previous day until the twisting switchbacks begun. Cyclists were ascending the climb as most do prior to stopping to watch the pros follow. Most roadside spaces had been taken so we begun to look for an opening to pull in. After 4 or 5 more hairpin turns a small gap appeared on a tight bend. Driving directly through the bend and on to some gravel and over a gutter and we were in! An amazing view back down the valley from where we’d just come. All manner of bikes and official vehicles clambering to the top.
It was fair to say we had some time on our hands. It was 4 hours before the peloton arrived. A small hotel had freshly made salami and cheese baguettes for sale. Inside a bar which was screening the televised coverage. The same coverage I would be watching from my darkened living room in Australia in the depths of winter. Here I am looking out across a vibrant green valley, the sun pouring in the window, a cold Stella Artois in my hand and a bar full of Europeans clad in lycra from their days cycling fixated on the screen.
A group of Serbian men supporting sprint legend Peter Sagan have kept the crowds entertained during our afternoon on the mountain. A melodic pipe has been blown at regular intervals with a now familiar folksy tune setting them into action. They dance with linked arms in matching cycling gear, heckling the passing motorcades and generally warming up for the arrival of the tour proper. These are joined in equal number by a Columbian cartel of Nairo Quintana supporters. They have painted the road with his name and have Columbian flags strung from every post imaginable.
The arrival of the Peloton
Recreational cyclists are cleared from the road. Sponsors have sprayed out free merchandise from heavily branded vehicles. The frequency of Police motorbikes increases. These are all tell tale signs that the Tour de France peloton is arriving. The peloton being the main group of riders grouped together for the purpose of buffering themselves from the wind and saving precious energy. A helicopter slowly rises up the escarpment with a pivoting camera visible beneath beaming the action to television sets around the globe.
Just as this simmering sea of humanity was to boil into action the heavens opened and one almighty storm hit. Torrential rain, hail and lightening causing a cacophony of chaos on the mountain. Nothing would quell the enthusiasm of the crowd. The cheering and dancing continued in earnest as the lead trio of riders emerged through the splashing raindrops pounding into the pavement. A narrow guard of honour formed naturally in the crowd allowing these athletes to push their machines around the bend. Their eyes fixed ahead in steely determination to reach the summit.
The crowds parted and then reformed once again ast the next set of riders came through. This time in single file, followed by what remained of the peloton containing the biggest names in world cycling. Each eyeing each others wheel to see who will make break for the the run for home first. Froome, Quintana, Nibali, Porte how much did they have left after 4 hours in the saddle?
The race for home
The throng of the crowd swayed towards a large RV which contained a small television set. Gathered with 50 of my now closest compadres around this tiny screen we watched the action unfold further up the mountain. Meanwhile the Grupetto passed. The Grupetto containing the sprinters who are not built for hill climbing yet must endure these insane inclines under a time limit to be assured of continuing the next day. So they group together to encourage each other to the end. No one wants to see someone leave the tour prematurely.
The finish on top of Andorra Arcalis is the anti-climax to the passing peleton in real life. As the rain eased the results were published and it became the spectators race for home. Most traffic having been ascending throughout the day now descended, all at once down a narrow single-access mountain road. It was a long roll down into Andorra Vella.
To think this happens everyday for 3 weeks across France and at the front of the peloton the intensity of the awaiting crowd on the passing cyclists must be extreme. Like riding a wave of constant euphoria. It is questionable what is more draining on the riders physique as they retire to their tour bus at the end of each stage? We certainly felt like we’d ridden through the Pyrenees after our long day on the mountain!
How do I follow the Tour De France on my own?
There are many tour operators who will give you a decent hassle free trip and camaraderie of fellow cycling fans. However if you want to do it on your own and be free to drop in and out of the tour festivities it is easy. Consider the following:
- Review the route map for the upcoming Tour de France
- Choose your desired stage you want to view. Mountain stages are best as they won’t all flash past in a minute or two. Hairpin bends will get you the most action.
- Book accommodation early! Like the day the route map is released. Try Airbnb as some owners might not be looking to cash in on the tour’s arrival as much as hotels. And, you could end up celebrating the arrival of the tour with them!
- Hire a car. The Tour de France covers 3000km of road so there is ample viewing opportunities but usually through small towns not easily accessible by public transport.
- Cycling the course? Of course cycling some key climbs is an option. Better off the day before the pros arrive.