So this year as soon the route was released I told myself I must go. The Tour started the day after my last day at work. So during my 2 week break before starting my new job, I had to make the most of it. Noticing that the first mountain stages in the Pyrenees were back to back in the middle of my break was too good to pass up.
The Tour is always special, but this year, it’s the 100th edition of the Tour de France. Winning the Tour comes with great honour but to win on its 100th anniversary will be that bit more special and go down in history under a great anniversary. Every stage win and jersey worn will mean so much more to the riders. The route itself pays respect to the previous winners, towns and mountains and much more.
I arrived at my hotel to find Le Coq Sportif, Garmin Sharp and Visit Luxemburg vehicles in the car park. This was very reassuring for the mornings drive to Ax-Les Thermes. Having never been to a mountain stage, I was not quite sure what expect. That and not being the biggest fan of using car satellite navigation systems.
I got there early, 3-4 hours before they reach the top of Col de Pailhères. Apparently that was not enough for the Gendarmerie, who were stopping people driving any further. I parked up and bumped into a couple from Yorkshire who following the entire route (jealous). They were stopped as well and decided to move on. I decided to walk up Col de Pailhères and look for a decent spot to watch the riders come past. But walking up the mountain, all I could think was if I watch here, they will just fly past me and make it even harder to get a photo, let alone see who I am taking a photo of…
I kept walking, and walking, and walking. At some point I looked at the time and figured I could probably reach the top in time, it would just be a very long walk and entirely up a mountain. The walk was long, hot and rather beautiful but really quite an epic slog. I have some impressive blisters to remind me of the event. Having said that, the walk was entirely worth it. Not just for the breath-taking view, welcoming fans, Tour caravan or the shop where I bought as much water as I could carry…
Seeing the riders come over the crest of mountain was I incredible. I placed myself just a bit further down as they start to descend and take on a quick gel whilst they can safely. It being the first mountain stage, the group was very broken up and the riders were flying past for a decent amount of time. Enough time to make out most riders before they flew past you.
Chris Froome was with his teammates Richie Porte and Peter Kennaugh when they came over the climb. This was the day Froome ascended Ax3 Domaines with the third fastest time ever to win the stage and wear the Maillot Jaune.
Stage 9 is short stage but difficult with five mountain passes. I decided to head to Col de Val Louron-Azet. I parked a few hairpins from the top and made walked to top. I was greeted by a cool little beer and sausage tent, with live Tour coverage and tons of fans from all over the globe. There were lots of Euskaltel (Basque Country) supporters spraying the roads with messages for their riders, a couple of family’s attaching the Union Jack to their car and motor homes parked along the route for as far as your eyes could see.
Whilst I waited for the riders to get to us, I watched the Tour inside the gazebo that had been setup. Within 10 minutes of watching the footage, I saw Peter Kennaugh clash with a Garmin rider and fall down the side of a cliff. He emerged a small amount of time later with blood on his clothes, torn clothing and looking a bit shaken. I got a couple of photos of Peter as he went past me on the climb and quite a lot of clothing was torn, he had bandages covering some of the damage.
Everyone was caught off guard by the caravan vehicles which were making their way up towards us. It was carnage and everyone ran towards the road to collect as many items as they could carry and more. After being picking a terrible spot surrounded by children, I decided to make the most of the free bar and order some food which turned out to be fantastic. Merguez sausages are great! Whilst enjoying my food and watching from a far, I somehow put myself in a better place for catching items and had 4 Carrefour polka dot caps land in my lap.
The sound of helicopters, a sign the riders are getting closer. A quick check inside the gazebo shows me that they are only a few kilometers from the start of the climb. Being on the climb rather than just over the crest like yesterday’s stage, I got to see the riders in a different light. You are so close to the riders as they power up the fourth mountain pass of the day. I saw many of the rider’s eyes and heads look up towards the last few switchbacks which were considerably steeper than the last few they just rode. Sprinters did not look happy!
Froome went past looking good in yellow. He was putting in an epic effort to stay with Movistar during their big attack. Sylvain Chavanel went past and appeared to be smiling which was rather entertaining to watch. Not so entertaining was seeing Team Sky Domestic Vasil Kiryienka struggling to keep up, he fell outside of the time limit for the stage so his Tour ended this day.
My experiences this year in the mountains has been so surreal. I just wish had planned the trip earlier so I could of rode up the mountains myself and truly got caught up in the Tour fever. Maybe next year? More photos on our Facebook