Friends In High Places
“Drive to the Alps on the Sunday, big ride on the Monday, ride to watch The Tour on Tuesday, drive home Wednesday. Up for it?” So went the e-mail from a friend that has a holiday-home in the Savoie region of The Alps.
Two seconds thinking time, click reply - "Yes" - send.
Several months later and four friends and their road bikes are intimate in the sweat-box of a car with intermittent air-conditioning, empty Fanta bottles, ham and cheese baguette wrappers and crisps packets acquired along the French péage network heading to a house somewhere on a hill above Cluses. A long hill that the Bongo wheezes up something akin to the way we guess we're going to on bicycles sometime in the next two days, with each switchback turn we get progressively more excited.
Monday starts as all good days should, a sunny 25º with a view of a great big mountain to eat a breakfast of freshly bought croissants in front of. The plan is a big ride taking in the Col de Romme, Col de la Colombiere, and thence home through Le Grand and Petit-Bornands. That'll do. Out the door and the warm tarmac is liquid smooth, pot-hole free and a good 5kph faster than anything at home, how do they do it? Spirits are giggly high and there's girly whoops in the corners as we contour the road round the hill before dropping down towards Cluses. Sqeaks of joy are exchanged for smirks of joust as we spot a few riders up ahead and the pace is kicked for the chase. Thinking they're locals we blindly trust their lines into corners, and thinking they're local riders feel incredibly chuffed when we overhaul them with ease. At the junction where we've stopped to re-group we discover they're English riders who thought we were fast French riders until they noticed the Brighton Mitre kit one of us is wearing.
The main road down to Cluses is rammed with rest-day Tour traffic retreating from the previous day's Avoriaz finish; herds of Dutch motor-homes, Tour team vehicles and trucks, migrating streams of cyclists and even the odd bunch of Pros stretching their legs. We slink down the middle of the road, laughing at the novelty of cycle-savvy continental traffic moving over into the gutter to ease our passing, and at the bottom we've lost one of our party already. According to Rule #1 of any cycling holiday someone must get lost, but I think that under 15 minutes might be a record. After 'some time' searching up and down hills we all find each other and instantly stumble again into Rule #2 of any cycling holiday; there must be an esoteric mechanical. We'd already suffered a snapped gear-cable adjuster thanks to clumsy packing and now we had a seat-clamp having an argument with the saddle. Only time would tell if we'd visit Rules #3 and #4 - you will ride your road bike down a dirt track and you will end up sprinting home in the dark along a dual-carriagway, shitting yourself.
We live the dream of French cycling by riding through the scenic and romantic industrial estates of Bonnieville before cruising up to the Le Petite-Bournand, a steady steady and pretty climb with an impressive rock-face to the left and a river to the right that gently disappears beneath us. It's a thoroughly pleasant way to climb a hill despite the headwind, and it's only halfway up the road that I realise I've ridden this road before, riding a loop from Annecy with an Ullrich überfanboy in full Telecom kit, which tells you how long ago it was. Memory had the climb less steep, it's only the Tabac on the left where we filled our bottles up on a similarly oven day that jogs the snapshot back. We detour away from the Colombiere and head a bit further up the hill to St-Jean-de-Sixt for much needed Fantas and cheese-on-toast, or croque-monsieur as the French like to posh it up as. As the Tour will be coming through here tomorrow the place is a buzz with cycling, flags and bunting hung everywhere, yellow Tour direction arrows are on all the lamp-posts, you can't look anywhere without seeing some sort of bike. It's great.
We reluctantly shun the shade of the cafe for the heat of the day and burp down the hill into Le Grand Bournand to start the climb of the Col de la Colombiere. It's one of the most picturesque climbs I've ever done, gently weaving up the mountain on a very pleasant gradient, it's so conducive to a relaxed state of mind that we stop halfway up to look at some shoes. At the top the cafe is infested with cyclists, American cycle-holiday vans hustle about supporting their euro-fetish riders cleat-waddling about in the gusty wind, you can tell they're American by their helmet-mirrors that would make any self-respecting scooter Mod blush. We've come up the Colombiere the opposite way to the Tour route and it seems it's the 'easy' way. The waves of struggling cyclists attempting the climb towards us is testimony to the steepness of the 'right' way, as is the fear that grips our brake levers when we descend.
At the bottom of the Colombiere there's the simple matter of nipping over the small bump of the Col de Romme, dropping down into Cluses and making it up the last hill to home. Easy. The sudden quiet of the Romme is quite unnerving after the chaos of the Colombiere and it's an atmosphere that thickens as the muggy and brooding weather breaks around us with thunderclaps ricocheting around the surrounding valleys. Eeeep. It's a steady climb that goes on for longer than map suggests and imagination hoped, with the forested slopes protecting us from an increasingly argumentative wind.
The summit is an unassuming gentle bend in the road but the true majesty of the climb is revealed a little further down, after an easily missed right through a village, so easily overshot there's a man seemingly employed to sit outside his house and say "That way" to any over-keen and rapidly braking cyclists. Out of the village and the hill opens out into fields giving a stop-and-stare panorama of the ring of mountains around Cluses with thick dark clouds crashing noisily into the tops. The blustering wind blows leaves and twigs off trees sprinkling the already stuttery tarmac, the roughly hacked rock-face on the one side and steep drop the left to the flat valley floor on the other, the heavily bruised sky threatening with rainspots makes it all tingly Gothic. Skitting across the road and almost bouncing off oncoming cars taking the racing-line round hairpins just adds to the charged frisson.
A quick bit of rush-hour traffic pinball through Cluses and we creak up the long hill home with rain cooling tired thighs towards well earned pizzas and a deep sleep to the sound of the mountains being blasted fresh by thunderstorms.
We have to be up early the next day for Stage 9 of the Tour as it passes close by on the Morzine-Avoriaz to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne stage as we need to ride to our spectators spot on the climb of the Aravis before they shut the road and as is the tradition paint names and genitalia on the tarmac. We team-time-trial it to Sallanches and what was thought to be a quick blast along the valley bottom to Megeve is instead a steady 13km climb. Ah, slight map-reading error. This puts a spanner in our timing calculations so by the time we get to La Giettaz half-way up the wrong side of the Aravis we're turned back by the Gendarmes. We make the best of a bad job, retreat 100 metres to a bar on a corner, order coffee and beer and wait for the Tour to arrive.
The village has made a real effort, bikes of every sort decorate every lamp-post and are tied to every fence, the town square is roped off for a party, and while we're waiting an old man meticulously tends a flower-bed on the apex of the corner. No-one in any of the Tour entourage will see it, the riders won't even notice it, and it will pass by in a millisecond on the television, but that's not the point. It's Le Tour.
Random Tour related vehicles no doubt full of VIP's and dignitaries cruise through the village and a lorry selling yellow Tour merchandise stops and screams it's message through roof-mounted speakers marking the start of the Caravan Publicitaire, or the Caravan Of Crap; the procession of wacky promotional vehicles that precedes the peloton. Sponsors cars, motorbikes and trucks in a variety of levels of stupidity, plastic cladding and flags all make it round the corner we're sat at with frightening speed, all the while blaring brash euro-pop with strapped-in pretty girls throwing free gifts out to the frantically waving crowd. Hats, pork-products, sachets of detergent, cake, key-rings, it's all tatt you really don't need but are still at the side of the road gesticulating like a spastic muppet trying to catch some. Although the packets of little sausages are really very nice, I can't remember who made them though. Publicity fail.
There's a relaxing pause after the Caravan has gone past, more team and official cars squeal past, press and police motorbikes skerf round the corner, a sturdy gendarme dismounts his motorbike and swaggers into the bar for a ham-and-cheese baguette that he stuffs into his pannier before throttling off again.
Then a series of team cars, most likely heading off to the feed-zone.
Then it's quiet.
Then we hear the clatter of low-flying helicopters from over the other side of the hill, excitement tingles and a ripple goes round the spectators.
It's the television choppers that stalk the riders.
A pair of motorbikes comes down the high street at vast speed and whip round the corner without touching their brakes, their panniers kissing the tarmac, and a small group of breakaway riders follow in their wake.
Blimey, that was fast.
Several minutes later more motorbikes announce the arrival of the main peloton and the whole blur of colour and speed and squeal and noticing a cycling hero and shouting their name as they flash past and trying to take photographs and cheering and the smell of brake-blocks on carbon rims stinging our nostrils.
Blimey, that was fast.
There's a short wait for the autobus of sprinters to go past, and they're not slow either.
Eventually a final lone rider shadowed by his team car and then the Broom Wagon.
And it's all gone.
And there's Silence.
The highlight of the village's year is over. People drain their drinks, pick up their garden chairs and quietly melt back into their homes. Within a few minutes it's as if nothing has ever happened, only the bikes strapped to lamp-posts and the freshly lain black tarmac with the tyre marks of the Publicity Caravan on the corner mark the passing of the biggest sporting event in the world.
And the freebie hat that I left on the table by mistake.
Being sat in a mountain village on a descent has been an interesting experience, and I would argue more fun than standing on the climb as part of a baying crowd waiting for the riders to squeeze past. Far more exciting to see how fast, smooth and graceful the whole entourage makes it round an alpine corner than to watch them climb, no matter how swift they may ascend. Awe inspiring. It's also gently engrossing to be in the portrait of a village scene that's repeated several thousand times over the famous three weeks in July.
We pay the bill, put our cycling shoes back on, click in and continue up the hill. Bored gendarmes are still posted every 200 metres by the road waiting to be relieved of their duty, we say hello to each and every one, the Tour de France branded rubbish bags tied to fence-posts swing empty in the hot breeze while riders silver-foil sandwich-wraps and energy-gel wrappers dot the road. The summit is still awash with cyclists and spectators by the side of the road en picnic but things are definitely warming down, and we drop into La Clusaz and you can tell this was the climb as the road is messy with Tour graffiti all the way down. I'm glad I've carried a large can of spray-paint shoved up the back of my jersey for 100kms and not had the chance to use it. Next time.
We race down the Le Petite-Bournand road that we'd plodded up the previous day, out-sprinting Dutch motor-homes, finding gaps between cars, just, sketchily undertaking motorbikes and comply to Rule 2 and then Rule #2a of any cycling holiday - all broken things must be bodged. A howthehelldidyoudothat snapped pedal that refuses to hold onto a cleat is fixed with a Velcro strap that was securing a saddle-pack to it's saddle and wrapped around shoe and pedal to lash the two together. And so we hobble up the final climb for celebratory beers to a brief holiday well done, watch the day's Tour on the TV and promise to remain friends for another year at least.