Gendarmes, French wi-fi, Mickey Mouse and mankinis... you've got to love the Tour de France haven't you? Although the Beast and I had some slight problems...
TDF: Day 14: July 13: Stage 12; Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne / Annonay Davezieux
Me: Foyer of Etap Hotel Chambery
“Attention!” “Oi!” “Hey!” “Arrete!” “Attendu!” And other urgent international words of warning.
It’s approaching midnight and I’m at the top of the Col du Grand Colombier, ready for stage 10 the next day, parking the car at the side of the road. Having been warned that the Gendarmerie have just moved on people who had previously been in my spot I’m paying careful attention to make sure that the wheels are on the grass and there’s not a millimetre or less on the road, when there is a sudden lurch and I can’t go forwards or backwards. Why is made immediately clear by the people gathering round. One of them tells me that my back wheel is in the air. Shit! That’s why the car lurched down to the right. The front wheel has dropped over the edge and the car feels that it is about to roll over and tumble down the mountain with me in it. Time stands still and in the silence that follows I shit myself – metaphorically of course. A thought flashes through my mind. I should have taken out that extra collision damage waiver insurance. I’m sure that would cover it.
After three days of pissing around, The Beast was finally fixed (ignition sensor, if you’re interested) and I finally got to leave Belgium. Suffice to say not long after the same bloody thing happened again. So, after doing some rough calculations in my head, decided it was as cheap to hire a car than go all the way back home, get in my other car, and come back. Plus I was sick of paying tow truck fees and repair bills and I still hadn’t actually seen any of the race. So sadly my and The Beast’s short relationship was over and I abandoned it at a service station on the Autoroute, unlocked with the keys in the ignition. It’s probably still there if you’re interested. I’m being deliberately vague as to where exactly, as although I didn’t have time to register it in my name (and neither had the previous owner apparently), I’m paranoid about the Gendarmes and as I’ve been in and around TDF road closures for the past ten days the buggers are everywhere. So I’m now avoiding rolling down a mountain in a Ford Ka rented from TDF team sponsor Europcar. ‘Allez Tommy!’
The tour finally came alive on the stage to La Planche Des Belles Filles, so named because of all the pretty girls who drowned themselves there rather than be pillaged, way back when. Nice.
I must apologise for the huge gap but this has been bloody difficult. Much more difficult than I imagined. The first three days were spent going back and forth between tow truck depots and garages and since then it’s either been my laptop running out of power (I’m taking that in-car charger back to Halfords by the way), not finding any WiFi, or WeeFee, as the French call it, or getting stuck in massive traffic jams before trying to find a campsite, with power and WeeFee. Hard. And then repeating the process the next day. Mind you at least I’m not on a bike.
Highlights of the first week of sprint stages were Griepel really deserving his Gorilla nickname, what a strange style;
The ‘Massacre of Metz’ where seemingly most of the field came down in a high speed crash including all the Garmin team apart from Captain America; and The House Brick went home.
Plus the dominance of the Slovak Wunderkind and his annoying – for some – victory salutes. I don’t know if you saw but on one of the stages he had a bell mounted on his bars. What a joker eh?
The tour finally came alive on the stage to La Planche Des Belles Filles, so named because of all the pretty girls who drowned themselves there rather than be pillaged, way back when. Nice.
Cuddles tried a couple of annoying and predictable attacks but Wiggins and Froome dominated putting Wiggins in yellow. I was watching in a bar at the top of Col du Mont de Fourche and had kept my mouth shut and thus kept my nationality secret until Cuddles attacked and then the expletives that came pouring out rather gave the game away. Exciting stuff.
And then the time trial. Simply wow. But, three thoughts.
Firstly, Wiggins warming up. Those oval chain rings look so odd. They make the chain bounce around. Now I’m sure that wiser men than I have thought about this but please don’t let your chain come off Bradley! Not today.
Secondly, he rode his bike from to the start house across gravel! Couldn’t someone have carried it?
Thirdly, talk about marginal gains, stick his number down properly!
Not that it mattered. He and Froome dominated again and Cuddles lost another minute.
I also catch up with the news of ‘TwitterGate’. At the daily press conference a reporter from AP had asked that since people on twitter were alluding to similarities between Armstrong’s cheating US Postal squad of a decade ago and Sky’s dominance this year, the clear implication was that he and his team are doping, and would he like to comment? Would he indeed.
It went something along the lines of “I’m fucking sick and tired of fucking wankers who can’t get off their fucking arses spouting shit behind pseudonyms. They can all go fuck themselves” And as it was the last question of the day he put the microphone down. And with a final flourish of ‘Cunts’ he was off. His earthy Anglo Saxon, almost Chaucerian, approach to PR is making me warm to him even more.
He also said that Nicki Sorensen looked as old as Mick Jagger. They do say that riding a tour takes a year off your life.
Of course this caused a major shit storm. On the whole people agreed with his sentiments but decried his language as a bit fruity. Others posited that he can’t handle the pressure. I don’t agree. Big difference between getting wound up by insinuations and speaking your mind. And cracking in a race. After all Sky’s way of riding so far isn’t exactly emotional.
As an aside I’ve been rather enjoying seeing known chargers like Vino and Valverde going out the back.
And Big George. I know, I know, nothing proven. But if it walks like a duck…
In my eternal quest for WeeFee I decided not to go and watch the time trial but sit and watch it on TV in yet another bar. I’d camped the previous night in the charmingly sleepy town of Ornans in the Vallee de la Loue because the massive industrial style campsite at Besancon was full, even for little old me and me little ol’ Ka. No WeeFee of course but a big screen TV and just me watching. Later I went to eat at the Hotel de France, the only hotel in town. Fairly shabby on the outside and in the bar (tinted yellow windows, dark wood, that sort of thing) but in the restaurant, the food… Blimey! Small portions but incredible.
I was having a fag outside after and got talking to the chef. He said the night before they had had the Saxo Bank team staying and that the riders ate in the restaurant on their own in silence while the team management and mechanics ate in the bar, laughing and drinking. He felt sorry for them and felt that they were almost abuse victims. He also said that they’d left the rooms in a terrible state. One had a section of wallpaper ripped off and vomit covered two of the others. Sad. He also said that Nicki Sorensen looked as old as Mick Jagger. They do say that riding a tour takes a year off your life.
What with all the running and driving around and arriving at campsites late when they’re shut and leaving early in the morning I’m beginning to get a bit ripe. And I can’t be doing with all that communal toilet shower block stuff. But I have noticed that there is a municipal outdoor pool here so after a quick swim, shower and wash followed by some beard trimming in the car park it’s getting quite late when I set off with the aim of parking at the top of the Col du Grand Colombier tonight.
So far the Gendarmes have seemed to shut the smaller mountain roads early in the morning but I’m not sure about the bigger ones and this is the first Haut Categorie (‘beyond measurement’) climb of the race. The SatNav says that I’ll be in the town at the bottom around 10pm. That should be OK.
As I arrive and follow the signs to the Col there are lots of camper vans and RV’s parked up. Bit of silly place to watch I think if you’ve come all this way. Why not go up the mountain rather than stay in the village? Turning a corner to the start of the climb all is revealed. A very pretty blonde ponytailed Gendarme is waving me to stop with a torch.
“Pardon Monsieur, le Col est ferme”.
What a lovely side cap you’re wearing I think, such a jaunty angle.
“Really? What time did it close?”
I turn round and park up pondering my next move. I could go to the next Col but it’s only a 3rd category or I could go to the town between the two, the other side in the valley. Or I could find another road up.
As I’m thinking this I hear “Monsieur!” ‘Very Pretty Pony Tail’ is coming over. For one minute I think that she’s going to take pity on me but she just wants to tell me to take my wheels off the road.
Right, that settles it. I tell her that it’s OK, I’m going to go somewhere else.
I take the road out of town until I see another signpost for the Col and start driving along a straight dark road but I don’t get very far until I see a parked car, out of which gets a Gendarme with the same apologetic message. I try and ask him some supplementary questions but neither my French or his English is up to it.
Turning around I continue to skirt the Col until I see another signpost which sends me up to a village past a brightly lit bar with lots of people with suspicious minds hanging around outside. Or am I getting paranoid?
Higher up on the outskirts are more cars with their lights on but none containing Gendarmes as far as I can tell. Oh hang on, that one’s got three in it but they’re looking for something in the car and haven’t noticed me. I stop and one looks my way but doesn’t come over. Maybe he thinks I’m a local as there are more houses further up. I seize the opportunity and drive on. Very slowly and guiltily. Whilst checking the rear view mirror. No-ones following. Good. But maybe there are more of the buggers lurking around the next corner so I proceed ‘with paranoid caution’.
The road is narrow and winds up through trees. As I get higher I start to see the odd camper van here and there. Ah ha. This must be the descent then. If the worse comes to the worse and I get stopped again I could watch it here as I’ve never seen them race down a descent before but it’s something I’ve intended to do a bit later and hopefully on a more attractive one than this. All these trees are getting on my tits.
This road is very narrow and bumpy, with grit, dried mud and debris all over it. They’re not really coming down here are they? Turns out that they are.
The road opens out a bit and there are more vans and tents and someone flashes a torch at me.
Oh alright, I will dip my headlights you moody bore. I keep going and going until suddenly there’s an open space with crowd barriers all ghostly in the moonlight. Bugger me I’ve reached the summit. Up yours ‘Very Pretty Pony Tail’! I am so Money Supermarket.
The thing I’ve noticed with Gendarmes and road closures is that there doesn’t appear to be any consistency or logic. The following morning I meet an English couple who a Gendarme gave permission to drive up the very route that ‘Very Pretty Pony Tail’ denied me. At 10am.
The following day I’m at the intermediate sprint at the foot of the Col du Glandon when I watch them stop cyclists riding up from first thing in the morning. They make them all get off. They must know that once they’re round the corner they’ll all just get back on again. Weird.
I think that, unlike the motorbike riders from the Garde Republican, they are locals and either make it up as they go along or aren’t briefed very well. A few days ago I saw the buggers cause a huge traffic jam with all their whistle blowing and arm waving. If they’d just left it all well alone it would have been fine.
High above me the sky is littered with stars. So bright are they that some people are staring at them through binoculars.
I can’t stop here as all the KOM stuff and trucks will be here tomorrow. Funny that they aren’t here now.
So I drive a bit further down looking for somewhere where I can park the car and pitch the tent. Tiny verge on one side. Rock on the other. I then come to a set of camper vans on both sides of the road and space in front of one on the left where the edge of the road drops away.
A generator is powering a sound system which is pumping out Bob Marley’s Greatest Hits. I can’t stand Bob Marley.
Someone is attempting to string a chain of white LED lights over the road. There is a lot of noise and everyone seems very drunk. It’s like Lost Vagueness mixed with Apocalypse Now. Perfect.
Katrine tells me that my liberal use of the words ‘Fuck’ and ‘Fucking’ is cute. And that I look like Sean Connery. Mind you I’m in shock. And she’s drunk. And it’s dark.
I pull over and someone tells me about the Gendarmes moving people on if their wheels are on the road. I also realise that because of the steep drop outside the driver’s door I can’t get out of the car. So I reverse back up and do a clumsy three point turn with rock face one way and the drop the other before returning to the verge and just as I’m making things perfect and tickety-boo the car lurches to the right.
Once this multi national group has established that I understand what the problem is and yes, I do understand that my rear wheel is off the ground, a horrible feeling of panic starts to creep over me. It feels like the car will gently roll over any second. I can’t get out because maybe it’s my weight keeping it on the road. And unlike in The Italian Job Michael Caine isn’t here to say ‘Hang on lads, I’ve had a great idea.’
So I was reduced to shouting “Can someone just hold on to it!” Funny what you say in times such as those. Things that sort of make sense and sort of don’t. Somehow with some holding and some pushing and some shoving the wheel was returned to the ground and I managed to reverse out of trouble accompanied by the smell of a burning clutch. Was the Ka front or rear wheel drive? Doesn’t matter really as I only had two opposing ones to work with. I get out of the car.
“You look like you need a bloody drink mate!” says the first person to greet me, a giant shaven headed man with a goatee.
He introduces himself as Karl and he’s just flown in to Paris from California with his wife Katrine and two teenage daughters and then driven straight down here. All four of them are sleeping in a car not much bigger than mine. They’re game I must say. Katrine tells me that my liberal use of the words ‘Fuck’ and ‘Fucking’ is cute. And that I look like Sean Connery. Mind you I’m in shock. And she’s drunk. And it’s dark.
Marley finishes and is replaced by Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ and I get to know my new friends who all seem to think I’m hilarious but did I mention that they all seem very drunk?
There’s Martin and Mel from Derby, whose camper van not only has the sound system but also more importantly a satellite system, so we can watch the stage on Eurosport tomorrow and wake up to Ken Bruce and Sally Travel on Radio 2 broadcasting all over the mountain that the Chiswick Flyer is still closed. Martin informs me that he wants to be cremated to ‘The Chain’s’ middle eight.
Then there’s Jeff from Canada via Bournemouth and London who’s really nice and says that now there’s two Dave’s and introduces me to the other one who is also very nice. From London he’s photographing things in an unofficial way for Sky. Even shots of Wiggins. Not sure how he’s done it but he is charming.
And then Lee. A really gentle slow accented blonde curly haired and curly bearded Kiwi who tells me that he bought a bike in Alaska and then decided to ride it to New York and once he got there he thought that he might as well keep going. So here he is. He’s going to head off to eastern Europe next. I asked him if he’s going to keep going. “You could get all the way back to Alaska”. “Hmm…” He says.
Don’t try checking into a campsite with your little tent behind eight German families with huge caravans each asking reception really boring irritating questions about power supplies, facilities and if they can all pitch next to one another. Answer. They can’t. And I could have told them that 45 fucking minutes ago.
And Max and what appears to be a huge group from South Africa. His wife and daughters, daughter’s boyfriends, son’s. Hard to tell. Got very annoyed when Jeff hid his big South African flag overnight. They seem to really like their flag. They’ve got loads and their camper is covered in them. The daughters are wearing cat suits also in the colours of the flag.
The next day it is apparent is how many Norwegians there are. Over the next few days they are everywhere I go. They come flying up mountains on those summer ski things on wheels all with little Norwegian flags popping out of their backpacks.
They congregate on corners and spread out massive flags. They wear Viking helmets. They hoot hunting horns. They shout and ring cow bells. They all wear tops made of the Norwegian flag. They really get on my tits.
They can’t all be here for Boasson Hagen surely?
Much to my surprise I’m discovering that on this trip I really like Yanks, Canucks, Aussies, Kiwis and even, at a pinch, Afrikaans.
What I don’t like is Cloggies (aggressive) and Krauts. Don’t try checking into a campsite with your little tent behind eight German families with huge caravans each asking reception really boring irritating questions about power supplies, facilities and if they can all pitch next to one another. Answer. They can’t. And I could have told them that 45 fucking minutes ago.
Another thing that I’ve learnt is don’t stop for anything. That includes letting pedestrians cross the road or you’ll get stuck in a massive traffic jam. Or be the victim of a random road closure. Because some Gendarmes decided to move a barrier for no reason.
Always use any opportunity to keep your laptop charged. And keep stocked up on fags and booze because the shops have opening hours which don’t coincide with travel times. And there aren’t any up a mountain anyway.
“What’s bigger? The risk of getting stuck in traffic? Or running out of snouts?”
I bet that’s a sentence that Carrie Bradshaw never thought she’d write.
A Garde Republican stops his motorbike and tells Max to take down his South African flags. Max is annoyed. But they were big and hanging over the road. This becomes significant a bit later.
The first part of the reliably mental publicity caravan arrives. This is where grown men fight small children for the rubbish that they give out / throw away. The Anstagaz red baseball caps are appalling cheap nylon.
Brad flashes past and I tell him that I fully support him in ‘TwitterGate’. No I don’t, I just scream ‘Go on Brad’ in his face like a girl. He on the other hand remains inscrutable and refuses to acknowledge me.
I get hit on the head by a Mickey Mouse comic book. I throw it at Karl’s daughters. They say they don’t want it.
Martin is making the finishing touches to his very large flag of St George which is hanging over the road complete with Jeff’s green mankini. I’m sure Jeff’s got that with him to be ironic. He seems too nice otherwise. At least he’s not wearing the horrible thing.
Ha ha ha! Absolute disaster. One of the Vittel trucks has come roaring past and it happened so quickly that no-one saw it, just heard a crack. But disappearing into the distance is the truck complete with a shredded flag of St George and Jeff’s mankini fluttering from the back. That’ll be a nice surprise when they get to their hotel this evening. Martin looks a bit crestfallen.
The TV helicopters arrive and here comes the break featuring today’s future winner, darling of France and irritant to the peloton, little lucky plucky gurning Tommy Voeckler. ‘Allez Tommy!’ Do one for Europcar!”
Then they’re gone.
The bunch come by and I’m pressed against the rock as they are inches from my feet. Brad flashes past and I tell him that I fully support him in ‘TwitterGate’. No I don’t, I just scream ‘Go on Brad’ in his face like a girl. He on the other hand remains inscrutable and refuses to acknowledge me.
By this stage the peloton are spread up to half an hour all over the road. We cheer the stragglers and reserve a big lungful of a yell for Cav and then it’s all over.
We hang around Martin and Mel’s camper to watch the last hour and check that sneaky Nibs and sneaky Cuddles don’t try anything. They do but it comes to naught.
And then it really is over.
Everyone starts to pack up and head down the mountain the way the riders came up. Fantastic views of Lac du Bourget and really steep, tight and twisty.
Hours later I get to a campsite by Lac Annercy. It’s shut of course. It shut at 7.30. Honestly if you were a hotel you wouldn’t get very far with that attitude. So I throw my tent over a hedge and pitch on someone else’s pitch. Doesn’t matter, I’ll be gone in the morning. And I’m not bloody paying for service like that either.
Today is the 25th anniversary of Tom Simpson’s death on Mont Ventoux. And I’ve just seen the stage finish. Hurrah! Bloody boring stage but David Millar won in a thrilling sprint. Well done sir! I like him. And Wiggins in yellow too. Couldn’t be better really.
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