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le Tour 4: in the Pyrenées

Tour de France route 2015
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Tour de France 2022

Lance Armstrong, Richard Virenque and Jan Ullrich (r to l) climbing a Category 2 hill

Lance Armstrong, Richard Virenque and Jan Ullrich (r. to l.) climbing a Category 3 hill, Port de Lers, on the 13th stage of the 2004 Tour de France.
larger version

On a hot sunny day, three great cyclists power their way up to a 1517 metre hilltop, le Port de Lers. Further behind in another group was the Yellow Jersey (current leader of this race), and even further back, in dribs and drabs were the rest of the riders, including many expected to do well.

Lance Armstrong, five times winner of the Tour de France shares this climb with Jan Ullrich, five times runner-up of the Tour, and with Richard Virenque, who is aiming to win the spotty jersey - le maillot blanc à poi's rouges - for most hill-climbing points.

experiencing a mountain stage

Waiting at a mountain stage - the night before
Arriving in preparation to watch a mountain stage (6.30 pm the day before). Spectators still arriving at 9.30 am, the day of the mountain stage.
[Click photo for larger version.]

Going to watch the Tour de France on the flat or in a town is one thing. Going to watch a mountain stage, for instance in the Pyrenées or the Alps, is a completely different experience.

If you are not experienced in watching the Tour on the road and haven’t read Preparing for the Great Day or The Great Day arrives pages, you should first read them to cover the more mundane details.

On mountain stages, spectators arrive in their cars and camper vans at least the day before, staking out their prime position for watching the cyclists zoom or labour their way up to the top of the mountain pass [col]. Tents are set up, tables and chairs appear for the meals to be eaten while waiting, frisbees and boules come out. Those who arrive late have to make do with lesser viewing points and parking in possibly treacherous boggy heaths.

Waiting is a fine art. Playing cards, eating, watching a portable TV in the car, playing music loudly and listening to radio sports reports, visiting your neighbours is all part of the experience, painting your hero’s name across the road. For the keen, get up at 7am, pull on hiking boots and shorts, sling a pack on the back and grab a metal point-tipped walking stick, then go for a refreshing tramp up a nearby mountain.

On mountain stages, the road is shut to all motor traffic the afternoon before. It used to be at 17h/5pm, but recently the road closed earlier, so make sure that you and your vehicle are at your chosen spot early in the afternoon on the day before the stage goes through. The closure of the road leaves the race route clear, not only for the race to come, but also for groups of enthusiastic amateurs to ride the actual Tour route, or set up camp, before the race starts.

Then eventually comes the publicity caravan, bit by bit building up to a slow stream of multi-coloured bizarre, yet beautiful, carnival floats, advertising both race and team sponsors. Old and young wave, smiling eagerly, encouraging every vehicle, whether it contains goodies or not, to throw something their way.

Another long pause. Look at your Tour guide to check when the race is expected here. You know, don’t you? Having managed to corner a spot just a 100 metres or so from the top of a col (of course, you did that bit right, didn’t you?), the guide gives a clear estimated time for the first competitors.

Helicopters appear, a good sign; police motor bikes, another good sign. Then the breakaway pair drive up the hill to cheers, shouting and clapping. There’s Armstrong flanked by team-mates, with strong hill-specialists keeping pace. Then the next group, and the next. The grueling climb, the hellish pace, the heat make for leaden legs in all except those really suited and prepared for the mountain stages. The sprinters come near the back, along with once-vaunted favourites broken by the steep incline, the heat and the pace.

It is mainly in the mountain stages where the Tour is won or lost. Not just a few lesser contenders in a break-away, followed by a mass peleton as it sweeps at high speed on flat roads. Now the riders are strung out over miles when they are reaching the top of the category three climb where these photos and report were made. By the time the riders reached this point, they had already conquered two category one climbs, two category two and a previous category three climb on this thirteenth day of the Tour, with still the delights of a hors category climb [too awful to classify] to come, to complete their day’s 205.5 km ride.

By the end of the day’s ride, Armstrong had wound in more than nine minutes on the Yellow Jersey, Thomas Voeckler, the French cycling champion, since the flat stages gave way to the hills. With the Pyrenées behind them and the Alps still to come, Armstrong won the stage with only a 20-second deficit remaining on the leader.

The only other rider who has not been entirely shaken off is the Italian Ivan Basso. With the two individual time trial stages still to come, and Basso having lost 10 minutes in the three time trials last year, failing accidents, the writing appears to be on the wall for a mighty record-breaking sixth Tour victory for this phenomenal sporting giant. And all this from a man who is a recovered cancer patient.

after the stage has passed

Once the peleton, and then the Sweeper van have passed, it’s time to leave the mountainside and return to the hum-drum world down in the valleys below. And if you thought you needed patience to wait for the caravan and then the peleton to pass, it is nothing to the endless traffic jams to be exerienced as you leave the race road. There is no caravan to look forward to, just a queque of cars and camper vans making their way to the nearest motorway junction.

How to encourage Richard Virenque, predicted winner of the spotty jersey for the seventh time.

Virenque's name painted on the road

the publicity caravan in the beautiful Pyrenées

'gifts' from the Tour publicity caravan

tv cameraman following the Tour as a bike passenger

Jimmy Casper, at the back of the race peleton

New translation, the Magna Carta


new! Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours  Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours

Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France updated: Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France

 the perpendicular or English style of cathedral  Manchester cathedral

the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais

Stone tracery in church and cathedral construction illustrated
stone in church and cathedral construction

stained glass and cathedrals in Normandy illustrated graph

fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes

cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
using metal in gothic cathedral construction

Germans in France
cathedral destruction during the French revolution, subsidiary page to Germans in France

Click for an introduction to cathedrals and stained glass in France.

on first arriving in France - driving
France is not England
paying at the péage (toll station)

Click for motorways and motorway aires in France.

Transbordeur bridges in France and the world 2: focus on Portugalete, Chicago, Rochefort-Martrou
Gustave Eiffel’s first work: the Eiffel passerelle, Bordeaux
a fifth bridge coming to Bordeaux: pont Chaban-Delmas, a new vertical lift bridge

France’s western isles: Ile de Ré
France’s western iles: Ile d’Oleron

Ile de France, Paris: in the context of Abelard and of French cathedrals
short biography of Pierre (Peter) Abelard

Marianne - a French national symbol, with French definitive stamps

la Belle Epoque
Grand Palais, Paris

Click to go to pages about Art Deco at abelard.org

Click to go to 'the highest, longest: the viaduct de Millau'

Pic du Midi - observing stars clearly, A64
Carcassonne, A61: world heritage fortified city

Space City, Toulouse

the French umbrella & Aurillac

50 years old: Citroën DS
the Citroën 2CV: a French motoring icon

the forest as seen by Francois Mauriac, and today
Les Landes, places and playtime
roundabout art of Les Landes

Hermès scarves

Hèrmes logo

bastide towns
mardi gras! carnival in Basque country
country life in France: the poultry fair

what a hair cut! m & french pop/rock

Tour de France 2021

Le Tour de France: cycling tactics illustrated

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