Ride bikes. Have fun. Feel good.

Stage 17 Embrun -> Alpe d’Huez

Ben Hardisty writes…

Mine and my brother David’s first sight of the Tour de France and what a place to do it. It was pretty hot at about 30 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, perfect conditions for …spectating. And we were very thankful for what cooling breeze there was on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez.

This was the last mountain stage of the Tour de France 2008 and the last chance for a few riders to lay claim to the yellow jersey. With Cadel Evans only a few seconds down on the leader and another time trial to come on the penultimate stage, he was definitely favourite.

Earlier, parking up and jumping on the bikes at Livet-et-Gavet proved an excellent decision as we encountered a road block only a few kilometres up the road where all cars were forced to about turn and park. We cycled into Bourg d’Oisans unhindered roughly 2 hours before the first riders were expected and the gendarmes were happy enough to allow us (and thousands more) access on to the Alpe.

After about 10/15 minutes walking (when in view of the boys and girls in blue) and riding we found a gap in the crowd lined road and positioned ourselves about halfway between hairpin bend numbers 21 and 20 (the first 2 turns on the climb). We had decided not to go too far up the mountain, knowing that the upper slopes were the domain of the dutch contingent and possibly a bit busy. Indeed the previous evening had seen some spectacular fireworks parties eminating from the dutch campers.

The crazy caravan arrived first, around 75 wagons of various shapes and sizes, throwing out gifts of all kinds, including sweets, pretzels, coffee, caps, hats, bags, pens, papers, flyers, keyrings and err…washing powder. And the crowd dutifully collected all. I think my favourite was the guy driving a coffee cup (with spoon).

Once the caravan disappeared, a small crowd gathered around someone with small portable tv and we could just make out the riders bombing down the Croix de Fer only 30 minutes away. There was a small lead group but that was about to change.

After another 15 minutes we could hear the tv helicopters in the valley and then a few minutes later we could hear the crowd down below shouting and screaming, urging the riders on. Around the first hairpin they came and through the chaos I could see a CSC rider dancing on his pedals along with another rider in tow whose team I forget. They passed us very quickly even though there was a fair gradient at this point. Some 15 seconds later the peloton came by, including Evans, the yellow jersey Franck Schleck and other contenders.

What we didn’t realise at the time was that we had just witnessed a Tour winning break by Carlos Sastre, who came in 2 minutes ahead of the peloton at the top of the climb. He was to hold on to his lead in the time trial a couple of days later.

Riders were now passing us in dribs and drabs, some having been dropped, looking totally exhausted and struggling up the climb. After another 30 minutes or so the gruppetto arrived, bunched tightly together, probably containing as many as 80/90 riders. On the whole they looked more relaxed obviously timing their finish wisely after a very tough day.

And then it was over, the crowd started back down the mountain, but always had time to cheer the odd straggler that was still coming through.

What a treat and what a privilege, a day to remember. I might even buy the DVD.

A few days later and I am riding the Alpe for myself, although I stupidly wait until lunchtime to do it. It is hot and there is little shade or wind. Upon reaching the first gradient I am passed almost immediately by some spinning madman but I am happy to go at my own pace. One hour 10 minutes and 21 hairpin bends later I reach the village, very happy with myself. I find out that at 10am every Thursday there is an organised time trial, but after consulting the family it is decided I am not allowed to do it. Next time.