Off The Ball's Eoin Sheahan got a first hand taste of the action
The pre-race hysteria at a stage of the Tour de France is more akin to a festival than a sporting event.
Navigating from stalls selling yellow jerseys to amusements allowing you to simulate the wearing of yellow jerseys, it is fairly easy to lose count of the wide-eyed kids with big cycling dreams and their feverish parents who might have once dreamt of racing in the Tour. Some of the lycra-clad dads look as if they still do.
A trail of team buses lined the way into the centre of Saint Girons, where Stage 13 was about to start. Displayed outside each coach were the teams’ bicycles, popularly referred to by the crowd as ‘bike porn’. If you are not admiring said pornography, you are doing your best to avoid the trickle of professional riders making their way through the hubbub and to the start line.
It really is unparalleled immersion with sportspeople right before they go into battle. Some of them even stop for a chat. “How’s the mood in the team been since Porte crashed?” I asked Nicolas Roche.
“We had a big party,” he volleyed. “How do you think it’s been?”
Right back in my box, I am shuffled to the car to get out of Saint-Girons ahead of the peloton and onto the 101 kilometre stage. Foix was the destination, the Pyrennes was the route and Bastille Day was the event. In other words - big crowds, big climbs and the potential for big risks, given the brevity of the stage.
On the back of his stage win the previous day, one could be forgiven for wondering if Romain Bardet was the real reason the French people celebrated July 14. Most of the roads, signs and inebriated men in mankinis brandished his name in one way or another. Indeed, France would end its 12-year wait for a Bastille Day winner. But it was Warren Barguil - not Bardet - that would sprint to victory.
Celebration time for France and its cycling enthusiasts, then, with Barguil becoming the fourth home rider to win a stage in the 2017 Tour. At the age of just 26, Romain Bardet is the eldest of the pack. Exciting times, as the French version of ‘great white hopes’ is presumably being uttered from Dunkirk to Perpignan.
While the Alpine stages are more revered in the event’s folklore, the Pyrenean challenge is not to be sniffed at. Just to be sure of our surrounds, we transferred to a helicopter and it was clear below us that what mattered here was not just the incline, but the severe hairpins that would have to be negotiated on the three category one climbs.
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Back in the Skoda motorcade and in front of the leading riders, we scaled the Mur de Péguère by car. A brutal climb with inclines of up to 18%, certain sections of the mountain were too narrow to be accessible by fans.
The cliché ‘television doesn’t do it justice’ is the go-to phrase of snobs with rather high opinions of their own travelling experiences. One exception: the television genuinely doesn’t do the Tour de France justice. Imagine having to crane your neck to see where the riders will be in 50 metres. That might help do a category one climb like the Péguère justice.
With even bigger climbs to come, the final days of the 2017 Tour de France are going to involve a lot more neck-craning and a lot more more French nationalism on the slopes. But they’ll probably have to wait a while for one of those great white hopes to finish in that yellow jersey.