Day 5 of my Tour de France adventure with Europeds was all about Stage 17. I was up early to catch a ride to Pau with one of our guides, Charly, to see what the chaos of the start of a stage is like. When I arrived, the weather was raw and rainy, and not many of the team buses were there yet. However the start line was already set up, and freebies were already being handed out:
And it wasn’t too long until the caravan started up their parade of vehicles, full of hats, keychains and food to toss at the many thousands of people they would see along the day’s route:
Finally the team buses and cars started to arrive (later than usual, because of the lousy weather). It was remarkable to see the amount of controlled chaos that comes with a Tour start. Gendarmes and Tour officials try in vain to control the crowds and traffic, and then the team vehicles make their way to the area near the starting line and just sort of make room for themselves in a less than rigorously organized fashion. Yet somehow it all seems to work out in the end, as all the assorted vehicles find a home.
What was really interesting was the way that team cars and bikes were set up for the day. Average fans can just walk right up to the team cars and bikes, and touch, photograph or otherwise ogle the equipment without any kind of barrier or even much hassle from the team. There were very few barriers erected to keep people out of the team’s way, but the riders stayed on board their team buses (for the most part) until they were ready to get on their bikes (here are the Astana and Saxo Bank buses parked right next to each other, a foreshadowing of the day’s action on the Tourmalet):
Of course this afforded me the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the teams’ bikes. Here is Team Fuji-Footon, with their infamous kits (which really weren’t that bad in person), plus their excellent gold SST bikes, casually leaning against the team bus:
And here are the sweet Focus Team Izalcos of Team Milram:
When it was close to the time of the stage start, the riders just hopped on their bikes, usually alone or with another teammate, and then head out, through the throngs of people, in search of the official sign-in before the stage start (sadly I was stuck on the wrong side of the barriers and missed this excitement):
Finally it was time for the stage start (at about noon). The riders lined up, with the jersey holders in the front row, and then rolled out at a fairly casual clip (so everyone could get a good picture of the action):
With the mayhem of the Tour start behind me, I made my way back to the little town of Argeles-Gazost, where our hotel was, as the town happened to be smack in the middle of this stage as well! The riders would descend the Col du Soulor (just like I had done 2 days ago when they were climbing the Aubisque) and would be dumped out right in the town center. The town was already hopping with people, so I scoped out a couple of spots, and made sure to grab a few more freebies as the caravan cruised by (after seeing the caravan early in the morning, I appreciated what long days these guys must have):
After the Tour caravan passed by, I only had about an hour to wait, so I went ahead and settled on a spot in the square in front of the town church, where there was a little chicane to navigate. Just like on the Soulor, you knew that the riders were closing in when you heard the choppers overhead. Then you wait for the roar of the crowd to build, and the lead motos and official’s cars to come flying through town. And then it was time; the lead riders came flying through the little square, braking hard to funnel through the corner and then accelerating away down the straightaway:
A couple minutes later the peleton came flying through, with all the favorites in the same group, and then the rest of the stragglers followed on in smaller groups (but without massive time gaps between them):
After less than 30 minutes, the last riders had rolled through, and the crowds started to disperse right away. Many folks headed to the town square (or a bar) to watch the rest of the race on the big screen, but most people just headed back to their cars, the excitement for the day over with:
Most of my group headed back to our hotel to watch the epic battle on the Tourmalet. I would have to say that everyone was in the Andy Schleck camp instead of Contador’s, but it was amazing to watch those 2 battle it out up the slopes of the Tourmalet, mano-a-mano. After descending the same slopes they were climbing just the day before, it was practically inconceivable to me to see how fast they were climbing. It was truly an amazing display of cycling talent from both of them.
So now the Tour basically comes down to the final individual time trial, from Bordeaux to Pauillac. And our group is perfectly positioned to catch this last gasp for glory, as we made the long drive from the Pyrenees all the way up to a beautiful chateau right outside of Pauillac (nestled in the famous wine country around Bordeaux–Chateau Lafite Rothschild is about 1 km away from our hotel).
On our way to the hotel, we actually drove down the route of tomorrow’s time trial. The road was already lined with fans in camper vans, but you can also expect to see some tricky corners and roundabouts to make this race exciting (plus some stunning vineyards and chateaux). And I can’t forget to mention the wind! If it is blowing like it was today, then this will be a true test of strength, both physical and mental. Whatever happens, I will be there to document the action first-hand, and report back to you soon!