TwoLegsTwoWheels

A record of my cycling trips in Britain and abroad

Sep
18

Thursday: to the Galibier

Today sees the tour riders follow a similar route to our Monday ride - they’ll climb Agnel from the Italian side, then over Izuoard, and then finish at the top of the Col du Galibier: the 9th highest paved road in the Alps, according to Wikipedia, and a new record for the highest Tour stage finish. Our plan is to set off, head through Briançon and then watch them somewhere up the final climb.

We set off over what has, by now, become a familiar route from Grand Parcher to Briançon, spinning easily as we warm up into the northerly head wind. It’s only Si, Vince and myself at the moment - Oli is nursing an old injury which has been causing him problems, so he’s driving out to the other side of Briançon - with his bike - and will join us for the Galibier climb itself. The air is cool and crisp, but the bright sun brings the promise of a warm day to come: lovely riding conditions. However our nice warm-up soon turns into frustration, just on the other side of Briançon as we hit a stationary traffic jam. We manage to wend our way through between the cars, but it’s hardly the fast ride along the valley floor we were expecting. At least we’re not alone: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of cyclists heading the same way, far more than there were yesterday going up Sestriere. We reach the head of the queue, and see the reason why the traffic is all stopped: the road is closed for the tour, already. They’ll be waiting quite a while! We haven’t seen Oli though, which is a good sign, and indicates he managed to get through earlier. We head on north, with the wind freshening to a stiff breeze. On reaching Le Casset, we see Oli parked up ahead - fortunately he did make it through ahead of the road closure. We take 5 minutes while he finishes putting his bike together (just the wheels etc that he’d taken off to put it on the car, nothing needs fixing) and we’re off again.

Soon, we’re out of the shelter of the villages and the wind hits us with a vengence. The road here is also starting to climb, not steeply, but enough to make it hard work. After a little while Si, Oli and Vince stop to take an early pit stop, but as yesterday I prefer to keep on at a steady pace; I’ve been wearing fewer layers in the mornings, it makes the warmup a bit chilly but I prefer that to having to stop early to change. I catch up with a large group of riders and sit myself on the back of their group, taking it easy as I wait for the other three to catch up with me again. They soon come past, and I tuck in behind. With the gradient and the headwind the going is pretty tough, and Oli and Vince are setting a punishing pace at the front. Even when I’m sheltering as 3rd or 4th rider it feels fast. I take a turn at the front too, though I’m not sure I’ll be able to mantain the pace for long. We pass single riders, family groups on mountain bikes riding side-by-side, and larger groups of riders in single file, like us, taking turns to lead into the wind; occasionally one of these groups will pass us too.

We climb higher, and our hopes of a warm sunny day are evaporating as rapidly as the clouds are descending. We’re riding through drizzle, just as the road starts to climb more steeply up the side of the mountain towards the pass. It’s obvious that the climb has started, not only from the look and feel of the road, but by the density of caravettes along the roadside. The caravettes here seem to be mostly french, in contrast to the other days. The dutch as ever on Le Tour are making their good-humoured presence felt, although here the entrepeneurs are selling bottles of Cote du Rhone instead of cans of Heineken. The road passes through an avalanche shelter which brings a brief but welcome respite from the rain. This is short-lived however, and as we leave its shelter the road also begins to climb in earnest with a sweeping zigzag up the mountain’s flank, and after a couple of turns we reach a fork: straight on descends to the north and the foot of Alp d’Huez, right heads up to the Col du Galibier. This junction is definitely the place to watch from, judging by the crowds, as people are thronging here by the hundred. There are a couple of restaurants, along with a few stalls set up for the day selling food, and it’s the highest place it’s possible to reach by car (the road is open up from Alp d’Huez, but closed at the junction). The biggest attraction, however, is the enormous TV screen showing the riders as they close in on the Galibier. It looks a little incongrous seeing all this out on a barren mountainside! We grab ourselves a quick bite to eat from one of the cafes, with an exceptionally annoyed and annoying owner - we’d have gone to the other one if we’d known in advance how unwilling to actually sell any food he was! - while we decide whether to stay put and watch from here or to try to make our way through the crowds and climb higher. Opinion is divided, with the option of descending back to the avalanche shelter also thrown into the decision pot (as we’d at least be out of the rain if we did that). We make an attempt to push on further up the hill, but soon give this up as fruitless, and decide to stay within sight of the big screen instead.

We settle down with a few hours to wait and watch the riders approach. It’s great being able to watch them riding over the same roads we did ourselves, and recognising the turns and scenery as they come up on the TV. As we make ourselves comfortable, the peloton is over the Agnel with the lead group of about a dozen a mile or so out in front. We watch them flying down the long descent from the Col and then up the Izouard under a bright sun. Suddenly, Andy Shleck makes a break from the front of the main pack, and noone goes with him. This is a big moment - Thomas Voeckler, the current yellow jersey holder and race leader, is in the group, and Shleck is his nearest challenger. Shleck storms up the rest of the Izouard - rather faster than I went up it on Monday! - and you can feel the change in the atmosphere around the screen as people start looking up and paying more attention. At this point, the race is something like 50 km from where we are. We watch them descend from the Izoard at hair-raising speeds, and some of it looks pretty dangerous; I didn’t have my speedometer on when we rode on Monday, but the race is going down a lot faster, with tyres inches away from the edge of the road on the outside of the hairpins.

Shortly after, Shleck caught up with his teammate who had been one of the leading group earlier (having made a break precisely in order to be there to help Shleck, in case he could get away, almost certainly). Shleck didn’t have his teammate’s help for very long however, sheltering behind him along the long drag from Briancon before pulling clear into the lead. At this point in the race the gap was up to a few mintues, putting Shleck into overall lead. However, he had about 20km now to go to the finish, and would have to work alone into the wind all the way while the main group behind could take advantage of each other’s slipstream. Could he hold his lead? The tension was rising around the TV screen, as the feed from the helicopters switched alternately between Shleck and Voekler, with a constant timer in the corner showing the ever-closing gap. As he came into the avalanche shelter just out of sight it was clear that Shleck would win the stage, but had he done enough to secure the coveted yellow? As he came into sight around the bend below us a huge cheer went up from the crowd, following him in a wave along the road. Whether or not he made it, it had already been an incredible ride. A few minutes later, the next riders came through, and then in smaller or larger groups most of the rest. By this point there was no more peloton, the wind and the hills having done their work and broken the race up into small groups. The only sizable group was right at the back, ‘the train’ as it’s called, with the sprint specialists and others with nothing to contest on the mountains saving themselves for the time trial or the Champs Elysees. From our vantage point we could see the hairpins going back and forth across the side of the mountain almost all the way to the finish (about 5km away) and it was possible to track the groups of riders by the crowd’s waving, which from such a distance looked exactly like a giant mexican wave weaving its way up the road. A huge cheer went up from the crowd as Shleck finished, and another as Voeckler crossed the line a few mintues later; the chasing group had made up enough time on the leader, and Voeckler retained his yellow - but by a mere 15 seconds.

We got back in the saddle, and pointed our wheels downhill for the payment for our morning’s work. The real enjoyment in the trip, for me, is cycling ourselves, not the watching, but even so I’m glad we saw such a phenomenal contest, one which may yet pass into the annals of Tour legends. On the way down we were treated to another phenomenon of quite a different nature: I have never seen anything close to that many cyclists in one place, and I doubt I ever will again. An entire mountainside of people got on their bikes within the space of a few mintues to do exactly the same thing as us. I wouldn’t even like to guess at the number of cyclists on that stretch of road then, but if someone told me it was 10,000 I could believe it. One of the great things about the tour road closures is that they are maintained long enough after the race to allow cyclists to get back down the hills without any traffic. As well as the obviously much nicer and safer ride, it means the whole road is available, and the sight of such a huge number of cyclists packing the full width of the road and all descending at speed is spectacular. I’ve yet to see a migrating herde of wildebeast or zebra but I imagine it must look similar!

Once down, it was back home, taking a different route this time, to another hearty meal and a well-earned sleep.