Let’s get one undeniable fact out of the way: watching 150 of the best cyclists – and one might argue the best athletes – in the world battle up the final climb of the three week, 3500 mile race known as the Tour de France, is exhausting work.
It could have been the elevation.
My friend Tom and I had driven to the top of Port de Bales, which marked the final of two climbs in the 17th stage, the last ascent in three days in the Pyrenees, and the final summit of the 99th Tour de France. The thin air at 5750ft made it very difficult to cart around our lawn chairs.
It could have been the sleep-deprivation.
The bustling international community of people that had converged on the summit the night before made sleep an unattractive option; a professional fireworks display at midnight made it very unlikely. Already far from a den of tranquility, our rental Toyota Yaris also fell well short of a Sealy Posterpedic. Finding a comfortable sleeping position proved as impossible as fitting a pencil into an Altoid tin. The fits of shivers in the cold alpine temperatures didn’t help either. Tom, who had smartly come to France with -20F sleeping bag and a bivy sac, slept comfortably outside under the cloudless night sky.
It could have been the beer.
Amongst the clusters of cars, vans, and RV’s lay several nuclei of beer gardens that fueled the crowds throughout the night. Thrown in the face of convention, all beer was surprisingly inexpensive: 2 euros each. A geographically trapped clientele is enough to make American alcohol vendors in sport stadiums and ski lodges shake with anticipation. There is something incredibly satisfying about being on top of a mountain and paying for a beer with a single coin. And doing it multiple times in a single evening.
It could have been the food.
The largest tent at the summit contained numerous tables and chairs, with a steady influx of beer coming from one end and stacks of grilled meat from the other. We sat down and were treated to a small stack of what turned out to be rack of lamb, hypothesized through our beginning French and confirmed by a man walking in front of the tent with four limp white legs dangling from his arms. The same man would come into the tent periodically to ring a bell and pronounce “___ est mort!” to the cheers of those gathered in the tent. I didn’t know the first word but the following two – “is dead” – made it an easy guess that another stack of meat was a grill away from coming into the tent.
But our exhaustion was most likely from the anticipation.
After removing my stiff and groggy body from the car at dawn, after walking the final stretch of the climb to find the ideal vantage point, and after waiting in said vantage point for four hours until the first vehicles in the promotional caravan, I was shaking with excitement to have the stars of the show pass within feet of us.
As the fog that had smothered the side of the mountain began to lift, we saw the serpentine road to the pass above and below us, and the hundreds of people wait with anticipation. Nervously, I kept checking and rechecking the settings on my camera under the shifting lighting conditions. We could heard the wave of excitement build down the mountain as the first group of riders approached our vantage point. My pulse jumped as they rounded the hairpin turn we were on, their legs trudging up the last stretch of the climb with alarming speed. I fired away with camera hoping to capture some of the faces I have known for years – twisted from exertion, drenched in sweat: Wiggins in yellow, Voekler in polka dots, Van Garderen in white, Sagan in green.
150 riders passed us; the last of which elicited as much cheering from the crowd as the first, out of respect for the sport and the feat of their accomplishment. Within minutes of the final team car passing us, the crowd had dispersed, some on bicycles down the mountain, most to their cars and RVs parked back up on top of the mountain. As Tom and I descended the mountain to drive back to Toulouse, we marveled at what the feat that was just accomplished, 150 times over.
Stage 17 recap from www.letour.fr