A record of my cycling trips in Britain and abroad


Wednesday: the Tour goes to Italy

Bright sunshine this morning - the weather was definitely trying to make up for yesterday! We decided to have a relatively easy day today, and head over to Sestriere in Italy to watch the Tour come past. We actually followed the same route as today’s stage for much of the way, into Briancon from the south and then heading north-east towards Montgenevre and the Italian border. The ride to Briancon was pretty busy this morning, presumably with people coming to watch the tour come through the town. However, once out on the other side we were out on an open road up to the village of Montgenvre, a relatively low pass at 1860m (about 500m above Briancon). DSCF4569.JPGThe first few miles were slightly downhill, and with the wind behind us along the straight road we were flying along at a nice pace in the company of plenty of other cyclists - it seemed like half of France had come to watch this stage! Or more accurately, half of Europe, since there was a huge range of nationalities - to the point where the default language was English, something I found rather disappointing; it’s fun speaking another language when you go abroad! Otherwise it doesn’t really feel the same. Oli, Si and Vince stopped off as we passed a car park to grab a quick drink and take off jackets etc (despite the sun, it had been cold when we set off, but with the sun and with us working hard it was now pretty warm). I’d only just got into my stride really, so shouted to say I’d keep going, confident that their mini-peloton would soon overhaul me. Shortly after, the climb began, and there were plenty of cyclists to keep me company. I was feeling fresh and was climbing well, overtaking most of my fellow riders, until a Belgian of around 50 came past. I picked up the pace slightly to stick with him - it’s always easier following someone afterall - and the two of us were soon well above the valley, looking back down at each hairpin to see the morning sun lighting up the pine forest. I wasn’t too concerned about speed at this point as I was ahead of the others, and could take it easy until they caught up; however, the Belgian chap ahead was a lot older than myself, and he was going up the hill DSCF4561.JPGwith ease, so I wasn’t about to let him get away! I’d mentally set myself the goal of sticking to his wheel: a goal I soon regretted as I stood up out of the saddle, forcing the pedals down as he nonchalantly pedalled away as casually as if he’d been out for an afternoon spin round Cambridge. I was only too glad to reach the top and let him keep going into the town while I waited for the others!

When they arrived, we found ourselves a cafe beside the sprint checkpoint and sat down in the sun for a drink. I ordered the drinks this time, and consequently fell victim to that peculiarly French disease whereby a native speaker takes offence at a non-native speaking their language, and endeavours to correct their pronunciation. Perhaps it reflects a deep insecurity about one’s language; anyway, translated into English, the conversation went something like this:

Aidan: ‘Good morning, I’d like two coffees, please…’
Waiter: ‘Yes, anything else?’
A: ‘Yes, a coke, and a pear juice.’
W: ‘We don’t have pear juice.’
(Cue suppressed laughter on the part of Si, for reasons that shall become clear; but the coke appears on the bar, this is a promising sign.)
A: ‘Ok, apple, then, please; and I’d like a waffle too.’
W: ‘A what?’
A: ‘A waffle.’
W (affecting offence): ‘I don’t understand.’
A (clearly enunciated): ‘A waffle.’
W: ‘You’d like a waffle?’ DSCF4565.JPG
A: ‘Yes please.’
W: ‘We don’t do waffles.’
A: ‘But you have them here on the menu.’
W: ‘Ah, you’d like a waffle’
A: ‘Yes.’
W: ‘Ah, you want a waffle. I thought you asked for a waffle’

So, after all that when my waffle arrived it was dry, tasteless, and utterly diasppointing.

After this, Vince, Si and myself set off for the border town of Claviere, a mile or so downhill; Oli decided to take the day as a rest day and wait for the tour in Montgenevre. We, or at least I, hadn’t realised there was a steep descent from Montgenevre all the way down to Cesana Torinese - the border here, running through Claviere, runs well below the watershed. We flew through the town in a blur, and then found ourselves descending through Alpine snow shelters. The semi-open walls on the downhill side made this very dangerous, and not in a fun way - the wind would catch bikes going past each gap, but then they’d be sheltered behind the walls, and descending at speed set up a sideways vibration that made it difficult to keep control of the bike.

DSCF4572.JPGOnce we were through Cesana we were on to the closed section of road. It’s always much nicer to cycle without traffic! And there were plenty of other cyclists to keep us company. The photo above shows the climb up from Cesana to Sestriere; even at this point, a few hours still before the riders were due, the route was lined with spectators, some with caravettes who’d parked overnight (or perhaps for the week before, like on Alpe d’Huez!), many, like us, on bikes. ]After reaching the top of the pass at Sestriere we descended a little to a point where we would get a good view. We picked a hillside with a view both of the road beside us and a long way back down the valley, next to two big groups of South African and Dutch supporters. One of the Dutch supporters was very dedicated, wearing overalls to literally paint the road orange, with a lightly suicidal disregard for any bikes or cars that might be going past. We sat down in the sun to wait, and it was sunny - I’m definitely glad I put suncream on! DSCF4568.JPGSi and Vince both had a better idea of what to expect than I did; I knew there was a carnival-style procession in front of the riders, and that lots of people would turn out to watch, but I hadn’t realised quite what a cutural event the whole thing is. We arrived perhaps 4 hours before the race, and it wasn’t long till the whole road was thronged with people as far as we could see. With a couple of hours to go, the first carnival vehicles arrived. The carnival isn’t a particularly organised affair, it’s just a general mishmash of official vehicles selling t shirts, race programmes and the like and sponsors’ cars and vans giving away everything from t shirts to bottled water. Some of the lorries are properly decked out as carnival floats with dancers and music, some are just painted cars with continually beeping horns.

DSCF4564.JPGAfter the carnival had passed, a definite sense of anticipation hung in the air; one of the Dutch caravans had a TV showing the progress of the riders up the road from Cesana, although we were sitting too far away to watch ourselves. The first indication we had that the leaders were getting close was the sound of press helicopters just beyond the ridge. They came into sight round the spur of the mountain, shortly followed by the riders themselves. A group of about 15 riders had broken off the front of the peloton, and was starting to split up into smaller groups as the climb took its toll. I managed to get some videos of these groups:

The leaders (apologies for the lack of sound on this one)
Second group - I’m not sure if these were a pursuing group, or if they’d originally been with the leading break and dropped off
The peloton
And a guy cheating - this is someone who’d dropped off the back of the peloton, perhaps because of a mechanical problem, and he’s grabbing his team car to help pull him up the hill. Although it’s cheating, it’s pretty common practice, and I can’t say I’d relish the thought of tackling a Tour stage on my own!

That’s all from today - tomorrow, the Galibier!