Thursday, 12 July 2012
Etape du Tour - Day 4
The Big Day arrives.......
Up at about 04:00 and out of the apartment by 05:00, to drive to Albertville for the start of the Étape. It was dark and wet when we left, and the drive over the mountain passes was 'interesting'. I got as close to the Parc Olympique (starting point of the Étape) as I could and dropped David and Tony off.
Yes, it was that dark and wet just before the 06:45 start! That's the van in the background.
I struggled to get away from the Parc as there were thousands of cyclists coming the other way using both sides of the road. The Étape had about 10,000 participants, and they all seemed to be coming down a street towards me at the same time! I eventually got out of town and found an off road area where I could stop and managed a couple of hours sleep in the van (extremely uncomfortable!)
Once the nearby supermarket opened, I went in to buy some breakfast (had no time that morning), and headed south to La Toussuire-Les Sybelles, where the Étape would finish. The weather was clearing up, and it became quite sunny as I headed down the road avoiding the Autoroute. At one point, the Étape route went over a bridge over the road I was on and there was a constant 'string' of riders.
The 'main' road into La Toussuire was closed due to being part of the course, so traffic was diverted up what was probably the windiest, tightest, and narrowest road I've ever driven on. Challenging (and scenic) enough on a bike, but a bit of a struggle in a van. Eventually, I got to within 1km of the finish, where one of the organisers got me to turn round and park. As this was on a very narrow road with an unfenced sheer drop at one side, I had to do about a 17 point turn and put a lot of faith in his directions!!
By this point, the sun had come out and it was unbelievably hot (c. 30 degrees?). It was bad enough just walking about, so I can't imagine what it would have been like cycling uphill.
I had a few hours to kill until David and Tony were expected to finish, so I had a wander round the town, and had a good look at all the stuff set up in the town centre for the event.
Saw this wandering jazz band entertaining the crowd, inexplicably dressed in tabards printed to look like fruit!
There was also a huge television screen set up that was showing live coverage of the Tour de France, and I also saw that wheel manufacturer Mavic had a couple of 'support bikes' carrying wheels to competitors.
Eventually the commentators announced the immediate arrival of the first rider and a huge roar went up from the crowd. After that there was a steady stream of arrivals, and I walked down the course to watch riders of the last couple of climbs and hairpin bends. The last km or so was lined in spectators who cheered and clapped as every competitor passed to encourage them. Some random pictures of riders near the finish:
The commentator then announce the immanent arrival of the first woman, mentioning that she had finished second the previous year, but had won the year before. As she approached, the crowd let up a huge roar and she sprinted towards the line with a wide grin on her face – she knew she had won!
By this time there was a steady stream of finishers, and it was heartening to see riders who had obviously ridden together, join hands as they crossed the line. I saw one rider, an older man, wobbling about 50 metres from the finish line, not looking as if he could go any further. Suddenly another rider came up from behind, grabbed his seat post, and pushed him over the line. I thought that the line in Kraftwerk's 'Tour de France - 'Camarades et amitie ' - ('Comrades and friendship'), was neatly summed up in that gesture.
Eventually David finished despite losing a contact lens (which slowed his descents due to difficulty judging distance), a broken saddle (the titanium baseplate had snapped forcing him to stand on the pedals), and a seriously painful knee (he could hardly bend it when he stopped), but he had made it.
I also saw a one armed man finishing (image how difficult it would be for him holding the handlebars when standing, let alone using brakes and gears), and later a one legged man! He didn't have a prosthetic leg, so rode entirely using one pedal. He must have had someone to help him start and stop, as I can't work out how he could do that by himself.
They had the presentation of prizes for both men and women:
David got a phone call from Tony saying that he had run out of time at the bottom of the last climb and would be collected by the 'broom wagon'. We found out later that only about 40% of the participants had finished, so about 6,000 people and their bikes had to be collected from the route and taken to La Toussuire in a fleet of buses and trucks. Needless to say, this took some time, but I'm more surprised that a feat like this could be done at all.
This route is the hardest in this year's Tour, and this is the one that the professionals will be doing today. (Watch for it on television to see how difficult it is). This coupled with the very hot weather explains why so many riders ran out of time. David also reported seeing an unusually high number of people suffering punctures, which in turn would have cost riders time.
Eventually we were all reunited, loaded into the van, and headed back to the apartment. For some reason, we had all underestimated how long this would take (nearly 3 hours!) which meant that we got back about 00:30. I went to bed, but David stayed up to about 02:00 packing his bike and luggage back into the van, as we had an early start to get to the airport..........
David finished the course in 7 hours, 16 minutes, 27 seconds, an average speed of 14.5 km/h. He's posted some photos here.