Another day, another beautiful morning here in south-central France. I’ve been lucky with the weather so far during my time here—the skies have been clear, the temperature warm but not unbearably hot, and sometimes even a bit of breeze to freshen things up.
Our plan for the day was to rocket straight out of Argeles-Gazost and head right up the Col du Soulor, the precursor to (and a much harder climb than) the more famous Col d’Aubisque. No, it’s seriously one bear of a climb—just check out the elevation profile. There were definitely sections that were way steeper than what’s on this graphic:
The plan was to camp out at the top somewhere (for about 5 hours) and then watch the shattered remnants of the Tour roll by. This being probably the hardest stage of the 2010 Tour, we were excited to head up the final climb of Stage 16, just hours before the Tour riders would come charging through (of course, they would have already ridden up and over 3 categorized climbs by that point!)
Now if you don’t feel like reading on today, you can just check out the video I made of my day watching Stage 16 from the top of the Soulor:
But for those who want to read on, here’s a GPS plot of our route for the day:
A cool part about the start to our morning was the chance to chat with Ed Hood from Pez Cycling News, a great photographer and cycling journalist who knows everything about pro cycling (and just happened to be staying in our hotel). As an aside, Ed was not worked up over the whole Andy Schleck vs. Alberto Contador dropped chain controversy—to Ed, those were the breaks in sports, and you just have to deal with these things and move on. By the way, if you haven’t checked out Ed’s Tour de Pez write-ups for each stage of the Tour, definitely give them a look.
Ah, but the ride. The rode tilted skyward right outside of town, a rude awakening for slightly tender legs (but things would only get harder). After some relatively flat kilometers and a few twists and turns through tiny little villages, we finally turned onto the Col du Soulor, along with just about every other rider within 100 kilometers. The road was jam-packed with riders of every size, shape and ability, plus those walking up to the summit (since the road was closed to cars, with the exception of the odd VIP tour bus or police car). In addition, every available spot on the side of the road was lined with tents and camper vans, and everyone was out and about, getting ready for the Tour. And I can’t forget to mention that I saw the Nike Chalkbot yet again, and this time I got a picture:
A cool thing about Dave and Europeds is that he lets everyone find their own pace on our rides. You can go as hard or as slow as you want, and he and his crew will support you in whatever you need. In my case, that was a pretty slow ascent of the Soulor! Like I said, this climb is really steep, averaging 8% for the last 8 kilometers (there are handy road signs that remind you of the grade and distance left), but there a sections that felt like you are climbing up a wall. Luckily I had a ready-made cheering section, since the folks that were camped on the side of the road would shout words of encouragement for the struggling rider.
Up and up I climbed, along with the rest of the throngs, heading up the mountainside. You could tell when you were approaching the summit of the Soulor because the density of campers and spectators increased dramatically (along with the odd horse or 2):
Finally I wrestled my bike up to the little plateau that is the Col du Soulor, to be greeted by an amazing mountain vista all around. Here I am posing for a shot with the altitude marker (sadly with my jersey unzipped, a rookie mistake):
And here are some shots of the view, and the people, that you could see on the top of the Soulor:
And then we waited. We had a few hours until the Tour caravan arrived (the flotilla of advertising vehicles that precedes the Tour riders on every stage). Luckily there was plenty of entertaining people-watching to be had, along with an array of shops and cafes to frequent:
By the way, did I mention that the setting was absolutely spectacular?
Most of our group decided to stay here at the Soulor instead of pushing on the Col d’Aubisque proper, but a few folks carried on to that more famous Col. We definitely weren’t alone in making the call to stay at the Soulor, however, as you could see from the fleets of bikes stacked haphazardly against anything and everything on the summit:
But finally our long wait was over, and the publicity caravan arrived. Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the caravan is a parade of funny advertising vehicles that blare music and fling little trinkets into the crowd as a warmup act for the Tour riders. It’s a pretty remarkable sight to see grown men and women fighting over keychains or really ugly hats, but you learn quickly to stay out of people’s way if they really want that freebie! The caravan vehicles came in all shapes and sizes:
But all I could manage to snag, of the flung freebies, was this goofy foam hand:
Once the caravan finishes passing by, the tension in the crowd mounts, as there is only another 45 minutes or so until the first riders will pass by. The sure sign that lead group is approaching is the sound of helicopters overhead. When you hear the impressive din of 4 or 5 choppers close by, you know that the Tour is finally here! First we saw the relay choppers high in the sky, and then the camera chopper came into view around the shoulder of the mountain! You could feel the excitement ratchet up as the camera chopper finally came level to where we were standing. Up the road roared the lead official’s car, the camera and gendarme motorcycles, and finally, the first riders! And wouldn’t you know it, Lance was in the first group, much to the delight of the crowd, who let out a roar as he passed by (only a few feet from where I stood):
Next up were the requisite support vehicles:
And then a gap, with a few riders strung out in between, before the main peleton rolled in a few minutes later, led by Schleck and Contador side-by-side:
The rest of the peleton was strung out over about an hour, as the day’s hard summits had shattered the main bunch, and left many riders just struggling to make the time cutoff for the day. The final grupetto was mostly made up of sprinters, including Cavendish and Petachhi, who wanted nothing more than for this stage to finally be over:
Once the last riders were finally through, it was time to clear out and head home, but not before getting a snapshot with my buddie James, a young rider from Guernsey who I hung out with as we waited for the riders to finally arrive:
Finally the gendarmes gave the all clear and it was time to hit the roads for the harrowing descent back into town (made infinitely more so because you had to pick your way through tens of thousands of cars, riders and people, all of whom were going at a different speed)!
But I made it home safe and sound, and even had time to watch Lance lose out in his bid for a final stage victory. Tomorrow is a rest day for the Tour, but for me it will be the hardest day of riding during my week in France (assuming the weather cooperates), for we are off to tackle the Tourmalet!