Chasing the Tour de France

Roving wine man Riaan Smit reports from Le Tour.

,I have spent countless hours over the last decade watching the Tour de France on television. It is not everybody’s glass of wine, I will freely admit, but I have been enthralled by the battles on the slopes of the Alps and the Pyrenees where the three-week long race every July is won and lost ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ often in the space of a mere half hour ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ on the most brutal inclines imaginable.

,It must be the ultimate endurance test of body and mind in any sport.

,I am a Le Tour addict and a Lance Armstrong fan. He won the race seven times in a row from 1999 after beating testicular cancer. He retired from the sport after the seventh win and last year ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ after two races in retirement – made a comeback at age 36. He came third. The 2010 Tour, he said, is his last and the faithful, believes he can win it again.

,I wanted to be somewhere in the mountains in 2010 to watch a brief part of the 3 642 kilometer Race, to have a glimpse of Armstrong, to experience the spectator madness next to the road that I have seen over the years on television. I had to be there.

,The closest Mountain top finish ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ usually the most dramatic finishes ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ to where I am working at Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent in Burgundy, was about 200 km away, high up in the Jura, close to the ski resort town of Les Rousses, on the border of Switzerland.

,I set off Saturday morning in the Chateau’s Citroen Berlingo van, loaded with a mattress. I had a vague idea how to get there, but I was not so sure how I was going to get out in the traffic after the 17h30 finish.

,I also knew the best tactic would be to approach the finish line from the back, but I was prepared, at least, to get to any spectator point on the last part of this mountain stage.

,Somewhere approaching the route, I passed through Poncie, in the Jura, with its steep mountain slope vineyards and made a note to try its wine.

,And then suddenly I saw a clutch of Gendarmerie (French police) at an intersection and spectators camping out next to the road. Excitement turned to panic. This is not the spot where I wanted to be. A grim-faced policeman ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ it was about 30 degrees in the sun and he probably had been there since early morning ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ waved me through when I was just about to stop. And then the next one waved me through. I thought I would just drive on the stage route until I could go no further, relieved just to have found the route.

,I drove through a little town and found it odd that nobody was out in the streets in preparation for the passing of Le Tour . The race route changes every year and the inhabitants of little towns burst with pride when they have the Tour passing through.

,Then another town a few kilometers further, somnolent in the afternoon heat. Merde, I have lost the route. I pulled off the road. Fumbled my large scale Hertz map. I had come this far. I drove on the route of the Tour de France. No, not this. I did not want to go back. I wanted so much to be at the finish line of the stage.

,The map showed the biggest and closest town to the stage finish to be St-Claude and I remembered seeing the name at the ubiquitous round-about at the exit and entrance to almost all French towns. From there, it seemed, I could get to yet another little town, Morez, which was close to Les Rousses, which was closed to the back of the finish line. Yes! Just where I wanted to be.

,It was a detour of about 30 kilometers, but turned out to be a pleasant drive through twisting, tree-lined Alpine roads. I have seen these roads on television countless times on Alpine stages. It felt unreal.

,I arrived in Les Rousses expecting to see the finish line, but all I could see was thousands of spectators, many on bicycles. A quick “where is the?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-+?-+” – an essential couple of French words, prefaced by your friendliest “bonjour” ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ and I knew the finish line were eight kilometers away.

,The only useful thing I learned during two years of compulsory military service was to do whatever you want to do, until somebody tells you not to do it. Off I went in the Berlingo. Within sight of another group of French police ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ this time definitely blocking the road ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ I saw a P & R sign with a picture of a car and a bus. Although the French can be almost anal about their language, it does contain a fair number of “English” words, such as “parking” (but it means: car park) and, surprising, Le weekend.

,After parking and riding a bus I was at the finish line. It was opposite a ski lift with typical ski lodges with long sloping roofs all around. Here I was in muggy, 30 degree heat and in my minds eye I could see skiers hurtling towards the jumble of commentator boxes, familiar metal Tour barriers, and sponsor festooned team busses.

,After all those years of watching the Tour on television, I was here. I thought I saw legendary Tour commentator Phil Liggett and heard his familiar voice.

,The hour before the riders arrived was taken up by a cacophony of sponsor’s vehicles throwing goodies into the crowds lining the barriers. I almost unseemly scrambled for two caps and a packet of madeleines, delicious French sponge cake cookies. Water I had to buy at Euro 2,50 for a 500ml bottle ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ about R24 each.

,While thunderstorm clouds were massing in the distance, I followed the last 25 kilometers of the race on the big screen at the finish area. French cyclist and past national champion, Sylvain Chavanel, took the lead ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ and the leaders iconic Maillot Jaune (yellow jersey) it turned out – up the last climb, the category 2 C^ote de Lamoura.

,The locals were politely exicited ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ the last Frenchman to win the Tour ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ their Tour ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ was five-times winner Bernard Hinault, 25 years ago. But this was only the first mountain stage and not a real, brutal mountain stage, and in any case, Le Tour, is not won on the first mountain stage, I thought one wrinkly old Frenchman told another next to me.

,I was jostling for a good view on the barrier when Armstrong and Contador flashed past ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ much faster than it looks like on television – in the main pack of about 30 riders.

,I have a very blurred photograph of the moment. But I was there.

,As thousands of sun-baked spectators made their way towards the P & R pick-up point, it quickly became clear that it was useless to wait to get on one of these busses back to the Berlingo. Thousands others also wanted to, but the eight kilometers of road back to Les Rousses were jammed by official vehicles and spectators bicycles.

,By now it was completely overcast and pleasantly cool. It would be fun to walk back with a couple of thousand of like-minded spectators. Rain was not on my mind.

,About halfway back it began to thunder and rain. Not a polite Cape Town drizzle, but a full-blooded High Veld thunderstorm. We quickly became drenched. As the wet kilometers dragged on it rained even harder.

,A continuous throng of half empty media, sponsor and official vehicles passed old men, woman, and young couples with babies in prams. Somebody fainted next to road; none of these vehicles stopped. It became cold, dark, and I started to shiver.

I hope the important, dry occupants of these official vehicles took a good look at the thousands of bedraggled spectators trudging their way back to their cars.

,It should have dawned on them that these hordes are Le Tour de France. They will be back next year ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ come rain or sunshine – to once again celebrate a national institution.

,PS. After I wrote this on Sunday, I watched the last 10 kilometers of Stage 9vup to the mountain finish of Morzine-Avoriaz on television. Armstrong lost more than 5 minutes on Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, and Cadel Evans in those few kilometers and is now more than 10 minutes behind. He lost the race right there in those few kilometers. Although five mountain stages remain, he now needs a serious miracle to win. It is an unforgiving contest and the strongest rider will ride up the Champs-Elysees in the yellow jersey as the winner. I hope it is Andy Schleck or Cadel Evans.

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One thought on “Chasing the Tour de France

  1. Sjoe, my heart is pounding and I am out of breath, your writing style really pulls the reader in! I have never followed the tour de france before but after reading this I feel I have missed out.
    Enjoy your time in France, Viva la France !!

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