I guess it was 5am or so, the sky was starting to get brighter, and some of the early birds were starting to move around. It was fairly cool, maybe 50 or so, and it actually made me glad I wasn't atop the mountain as I'm sure it was pretty cold up there, especially with the wind that was blowing. I munched on some stuff, chatted with some of my neighbors, gathered my supplies, water and food for the trip up. I guess it was 7am or so when I started walking up, a lot of other folks were doing the same.
It was a long walk up and there was no shortage of people to talk to. Plenty of English speaking folks, for that matter plenty of people speaking just about any language. The wall of people just kept getting thicker and thicker, walkers, bikers, campers everywhere.
The hike up the mountain was no small task, 20km to the summit and a good portion of it at 10% grade or more.
I walked up to a little past Chalet Reynard, into the "bare" zone, nothing but dirt and rocks on the top of the mountain.
Since I had to get out of this place that night and drive back to Geneva for my early flight the following morning, I decided I would start walking back down the mountain to watch the race come by. So I walked back down, probably to around the 6km point. The whole mountain was like in the photo above, a mass of people everywhere.
The race came through, and it was a phenomenal experience. I gave up trying to take photos, as I didn't want to miss what was really going on. I filmed some neat video clips, but can't figure out how to edit them and to post them here. A nice clip of Lance and Alberto going by. The fans were incredible, the biggest party I have ever attended for sure. The whole hike up the mountain was like in the photo above, a mass of people everywhere. The walk down after the race made me glad I was only 7km or so from where I parked. It was chaos, walkers, bikes, cars.... I made it back to the car, and spent a few hours trying to get out of the area. Of course the GPS kept directing me back onto roads that were either closed still or just gridlocked, but eventually I made it out. I drove all night and made it up to Geneva in the early morning around 1:30am. I parked in the rental car return garage, and went to sleep for an hour or 2 (remember the song "I'll sleep when I'm dead"? LOL). Woke up and opened the airport up, made my 7am flight to Paris for the final day of the tour in Paris!
Got a few good hours sleep last night, which was a good thing, since I was anticipating the next few nights would be spent in the car. Well day 3 was a sort of flat stage, 178km from Bourgoin-Jallieu to Aubenas. So I figured I would go to see the start, then skip the rest of the stage, and focus on getting down to Mont Ventoux for tomorrows stage. My plan was to get to Mont Ventoux by mid afternoon and hopefully get up the mountain and sleep in the car.
First priority of the morning was find the closest Carrefour supermarket (this place was a life saver on my trip), stock up on water, and non-perishable food that I could keep in the car and live off of for the next couple days until my flight to Paris Sunday AM. So I made my first stop at a Gas station, it was at a Carrefour station. Stopped at the pump, and had read before the trip that you typically fill & then pay and look for "sans plumb 95" (unleaded), so I filled up. Then proceeded to walk up to what I thought was the little shop where I would pay. I looked in the door, to find the place was totally trashed, as my heart started racing I thought the place had been ransacked & robbed. It took a second or 2 to notice that it looked like it had been abandoned for years. I thought it was a little unlikely that they would be giving gas away for free, so I looked around and saw a tiny booth at the exit of the gas station with a person sitting in it. Felt a little stupid, walked over to the booth and gave the attendant my credit card. With that taken care of walked back to the car, there was a car behind mine with an old couple in it throwing there hands up in the air and gesturing. I learned the procedure is to fill up, then pull your car up to the exit booth and pay.
I parked and did some shopping at the Carrefour, stocked up on fruit, bread, sandwiches and tried to ask where I could find peanut butter. Turns out this region was where I encountered the least number of english speaking folks. They found the 1 person in the store who spoke some english, and I tried to explain to her what I was looking for "peanut butter, like a peanut butter and jelly/jam sandwich". She looked at me as if I was crazy, but eventually she understood what I was looking for, beurre de cashuette. When I wnet to check out at the register I found out I was supposed to weigh the fruit myslef and tell the cashier how much it was. She was real helpful and went back and did it herself. A couple older gents in line behind me made some comments, and one of them said to me "Engrish?". All in all they were very helpful and understanding.
My shopping experience complete I proceeded to drive to the start of todays stage. The GPS did a fine job getting me in the area. I spotted a lot of people parking in a field with not much else around, so figured this had to be close. I parked, and started walking the same direction as everyone else. I could soon hear the voices and noise of the start area. A pretty sizeable crowd was there already about an hour before the start. I watched the rider sign-in and intro's, and tried to get a spot near the rail where it was only a couple layers deep. The race leadout caravan started to rollout, followed by the start, and the huge caravan that follows the race. Once again with my point-and-shoot digital camera it was easier to just hold it over my head in movie mode and capture a few short video clips.
Lance signs in.
After the start I marched back to the car and punched Mont Ventoux into the GPS, and set on my way. Unfortunately the GPS route was the same route as the race for several miles, so that held me up for a good hour or so. It was a long drive down to Mont Ventoux, much longer than I anticipated, and there were a couple congested areas along the way. It was late afternoon before I finally saw Ventoux off in the distance, there was no mistaking it, fairly flat plains with the big bald Giant of Provence sitting in the middle.
It took a good hour or so from when I first noticed the mountain until I was finally getting near the base, Carpentras then Bedoin, it was about 6PM. Lots of traffic, and it was like a huge parking lot slowing creeping forward on the D974 a few feet at a time. The side of the road was already lined with cars parked for the night and the tailgate parties were already in full swing. I was just barely at the base of the mountain where the road started going up. After about a hour of this, there was a policeman directing people to turn off, the road up the mountain was already closed. So I turned right on a side road and parked roadside in a vineyard.
I thought to myself this looks like a good spot, fairly quiet, I should be able to get some sleep, get up early, and start hiking up the mountain. Well my quiet little vineyard filled up pretty quickly, and cars continued to drive through all night long filling in any space available, even at the risk of maybe not being able to get out again. I thought to myself these people are nuts... isn't it great.... being surrounded by a million other people from all over the world who share your love and obsession of cycling. There was singing and parties going on all night long, in some languages I didn't understand. All I knew was these people are having a GOOD time. I spent a while talking with a Frenchman. It was his first time watching the Tour at Mont Ventoux, but he had biked over it several times. He had his bike with him, and was going to attempt to ride up the following morning.
Beautiful sunset at the base of Mont Ventoux.
Eventually I figured I would try and get a couple hours sleep in prep for the long 20km hike up Ventoux tomorrow AM, so I retired to my comfy Nissan Micra for the evening.
Stage 18 was the Annecy TT which circled the beautiful Lake Annecy. I slept in Annemasse and decided to drive over the Col de Romme & Columbierre on the way to Annecy. It was well worth it. It was really cool even if I was driving and not biking it. The markings of the race from yesterday were everywhere, names on the road, decorations everywhere, and of course people biking the legendary Columbierre.
Did I already say that I would have loved to be biking this, but my recent back/SI joint problems made that unrealistic. The drive was really spectacular nonetheless.
Col de Columbierre.
Oh and by the way the GPS takes some getting used to with the roundabouts. It will say something like "enter roundabout then take 2nd exit". It didn't give the street name, so if an exit had been added recently to the roundabout, it was real easy to take the wrong turn. This happened a few.... err several hundred times over the next few days LOL.
I made it to Annecy an hour or 2 before the race was scheduled to start. Found a port-a-john, pretty interesting, just a hole in the floor in the corner with a couple footprints on the floor to assist with "aim". Walked back & forth over several km's before and after the start/finish area. One thing of note was that I was on the inside of the circle, and after the race started it was impossible to get to the other side. I tried to get over near the start area, but it was basically impossible to get a good vantage point. You really need at least 2 people, so that one can always stay and save a prime spot. So most of my time was spent in the last half km or so before the finish. Since my picture taking skills aren't the greatest, and I really wanted to watch the race, most of my camera use consisted of short video clips. Just hold the camera out there while watching it at the same time.
Near the start line the crowds were big.
Got the devil to give a wave from inside the "pay" or celebrity area.
Spent some time talking with a couple French footballers. Was amazed at the support for Lance Armstrong, even little kids just yelling like mad for L.A. People speaking French, and waving American flags, interesting stuff. The TT obviously offered the most time actually watching the racers since they were spread over a few hours. It was pretty easy getting in and out of the Annecy area, and not bad as far as getting a reasonable spot to watch the race from.
After the race, I was off to Aix Les Bains, where I was spending the night. Got there while it was light still (sunset was around 10pm or so), Les Loges du Park. Nobody working behind the desk or in the lobby of the hotel, so I was just starting to wonder what I was supposed to do, then 4 beautiful young TDF podium girls walked in. This pour helpless American guy asked them if they spoke any English, and they proceeded to tell me that I needed to go to the hotel next door to check in to this hotel. Thats what I did, checked in, but much to my chagrin the 4 podium girls weren't waiting for me in my room when I got in! Not a bad little room, again nothing fancy, 2 tiny beds, and it did have a little kitchenette. Unfortunately it was late enough by this time, that none of the stores or shops were open any more. I devoured the bread, snackbars and other goodies I had, and hit the sack.
So as a long time bicycling fanatic, I had dreamed of going to the TDF for the last 30 years. Recovering from a crash (messed my shoulder up pretty good), and having some back problems, I thought '09 was the year. So a few weeks before the start of the tour, I started planning and decided Col de Romme/Columbierre (stage 17) through the final stage 21 in Paris was going to be my trip. I'd never been to France, and although I've traveled a fair amount overseas, I knew this was going to be an adventure as a self-planned & guided tour. And it did not disappoint! Well some friends who never seem to get enough of the recap of the trip, told me I should write it down....sooo, here it is.
I used online maps and the like to plan my routes and figure out where I would like to be for each stage. My real targets were the Mont Ventoux stage, and of course the finish in Paris. So I bought my airfare, and made reservations at a couple small hotels. A couple nights like the Mont Ventoux eve, and the night after I didnt bother with hotels figuring I'd probably be sleeping in the car.
So I flew into Geneva Switzerland Wed 22 July, landing around 9am, just a little while before the start of the mountainous stage climbing the Col de Romme & Columbierre, finishing in Le Grand-Bornand. As usual I didn't sleep much on the flight over from Dulles, Washington DC to Paris. And on the flight to Geneva the adrenaline was starting to kick in.... I'm almost at the TDF!! So I land in Geneva, get my bags (by the way Geneva airport has a France exit and a Switzerland exit, never did figure out the reason), and proceed to get my rental car. Oh BTW I brought my Garmin Nuvi GPS with European maps, what a lifesaver! Got the rental car, which was an automatic (actually what we would call a manual) transmission, a little Nissan Micra. So I leave the parking garage, and patiently wait for my GPS to figure out where it was while I drove around in circles, doing my best not to end up heading the wrong direction. Finally the GPS starts talking to me. When I hit the first bump the GPS power adapter pops out of the acessary outlet. Turns out the accessary power outlet isn't as deep as they are in the USA, so the plug keeps popping out a couple times a minute. I finally find some tape and tape it in. I'm trying to find out where the hotel is I'll be staying at that night, and then I'll be heading straight to Col de Romme/Columbierre to try to catch some of the race. Finally I find the hotel, Hotel La Place in Annemasse France, not far from Geneva. I stop in to inquire about where parking is, so I can find it later on, and much to my surprise the receptionist goes ahead and gives me a key. I offer him my credit card for payment, and he says not to worry about it now, we can do that the following morning. Wow, this isn't the USA is it?
So I hop back in the car, punch in an intersection of 2 roads between Col de Romme and Col de Columbierre, and start driving. It's only another 30 miles or so. Along the way, I see a Carrefour food store, and remember a suggestion from a work colleague who said "find a discount food store and a buy a pile of water". (This was great advice BTW). Well I bought a bunch of water, some bread, sandwich, OJ, and some non-perishable stuff to keep me going.
I made it to the little town near Col de Romme, only to find the side road I was going to use to get up near the Columbierre was already shut down. So I found parking in that little town, and started walking to the base, and then up the Col de Romme. It was raining a bit, and the mountains were still shrouded in mist, but there were people all over the place. I just followed the crowd. I hiked several KM up the Col de Romme (no small task, plenty of 10% grade) with thousands of other folks.
Finally start hearing the noise of the race caravan coming through, throwing everything from jerseys, to candy and water to the spectators. I collected a pile of stuff, and hiked up a bit further. Sat at one of the steep switchbacks and talked to a 60ish French gentleman who had biked up with his son. He lived near by and always watched the TDF when it came nearby. His English was much better than my French, really nice guy.
The official race vehicles started coming by, soon to be followed by some of the breakaway remnants. Saw George Hincapie, Lance, Alberto, Fabian going by, and the fans just went ballistic. The field was scattered all over the place, and the fans screamed for every last one of them. These people really love everything about the TDF, it was just amazing. Houses, barns decorated with red&white polka-dots like the jersey.
Getting back down the mountain was interesting also, but I'll leave discussion of this until Mt Ventoux later. Suffice it to say, don't walk too close to the edge, when there is only a 1 foot high wall there. Almost saw a guy take a dive over the edge, and it was a LONG way down.
Anyway, I made it back to the hotel around sundown, devoured the food I had bought earlier. Finally figured out how to get some air, they had these metal covers over the windows. Laid down on the bed and I was gone for the night.