It was the second riding day of my Tour de France trip, and the first day that I would see the Tour en route. The race started in La Mure, and took in the Col de la Criox de Fer, Col du Telegraph and Col du Galibier before finishing on the descent into Serre Chevalier, on the outskirts of Briançon. I had climbed each of the three Cols (mountain passes) in the same direction as the race when I was last in the Alps in 2013, albeit each on different days. However, given the location of my hostel, I planned to climb the other side of the Col du Galibier, which the professionals would descend into the finish. Once I made it to the top, I would have climbed the Col from each of the three possible sides.
Having drunk all of the milk that I had the previous morning, I relaxed in the hostel until 8 AM, when the supermarket opened, and I could stock up for breakfast. Once eaten, I got changed into my cycling gear and headed out. Fortunately, the day wasn’t nearly as hot as the previous day to Risoul.
The previous day, I headed down the valley towards Guillestre. Today, I headed up the valley to Briançon. Like yesterday, there were two roads up the valley, the main road and a quiet mountain road. I opted for the mountain road again, but planned to join the main road for the last little bit into Briançon. The climbing began straight away out of L’Argentère-la-Bessée, the first climb was gradual and steady, but was climbing nonetheless. It was only a kilometre or so long, but after a short plateau, it was up again for the second climb. The road took me high above the valley, but still far below the tops of the mountains. The road weaved its way carefully along the edge of the escarpment, before dropping back down to the main road.
By the time I reached Briançon, I had been riding for about an hour. Here was the start of the climb of the Col du Galibier, rising 1400m over 35km to a height of 2642m. The first few hundred metres of the climb, in the town itself, was closed, however, as there was a fruit and produce market on the street. I wheeled my bike through, and eventually found a stall selling bananas and bought a couple, knowing that it would likely be my lunch.
The first few kilometres of the climb were on the main road out of Briançon. It was fairly steady, almost flat, until I reached Serre Chevalier, where the finish of the stage was going to be. The finish line was 400m off the main road, but the barricades and flame rouge (1 km to go banner) were already being put up. From here, the incline increased from 2-3% to about 4%. From here, the number of cyclists on the road around me increased dramatically. Every so often, I would pass a group of cyclists, or be passed in turn. There were some groups that I would pass in one section, then be passed by, then pass again. Not everyone was on road bikes either; some where on mountain bikes and some were on electronic-powered bikes (which were really annoying when they passed you, because it felt like they were cheating).
I just kept plodding along up the climb, and it slowly increased its gradient up to about 6 or 7%. Towards the top, there were a couple of avalanche tunnels, which were open on one side, which were really fun to ride through. With 7 km to go, I reached the top of the Col du Lautaret. This col links two of the valleys together in a saddle, but the road climbs higher still to the Col du Galibier. I had climbed this bit before, starting from the other side of the Col du Lautaret. The road from the Col du Lautaret was closed off; a gendarmerie officer stood with the closed boomgate letting cyclists through, but not cars. The last 7 km were on closed roads. Given that cyclists had come up both sides of the Lautaret and were merging for the final bit, the road was packed. Different people rode with different speeds, spread all across the road. The road got steeper and steeper to the summit, with the last kilometre being the toughest, averaging about 10-12%, made worse by the fact that the oxygen is rarer at such high altitudes. Finally, I made it to the top, where lots of other cyclists were mingling about. I found myself a position on the side of the road about 200 m from the summit, where I could see the winding climb beneath me, and down the valley a good 6 or 7 km.
The wait for the race was long. I had arrived at the top shortly after noon, but the riders wouldn’t come through until around 5 PM. I sat on the edge of the road, behind the barricades, and watched the masses of people. Shortly after I had found my place, the gendarmerie closed off the summit road such that nobody else could crest the col without walking their bikes along the outside of the barricades. This was for the hundreds of cars to come through over the course of the afternoon. Some were press cars, some were advertising cars, some were team cars dropping team helpers on the side of the road with water bottles for the riders. There were several vans selling official merchandise which meandered slowly up the climb.
About an hour and a half before the race was scheduled to come through, the race caravan arrived. This was a half hour long parade of trucks and cars run by all of the sponsors of the race. At the other races I have been to, like the Tour Down Under or the Tour de Yorkshire, each sponsor gets a single car, and they throw freebies out of the windows as they pass. Occasionally, there’d be something on the roof of the car, but that is the exception. At the Tour de France, each of the sponsors had a lead car/truck which introduced the brand, followed by at least three or four other cars/trucks, which had people handing or throwing out merchandise. They were full on floats too; each was interesting in it’s own design. The freebies I managed to collect included hats, water bottles, bracelets, sweet bread buns, an inflatable pillow and too many key-chains.
The caravan now gone, we stood and waited for the race to come. At such a high elevation, it was starting to get chilly, so I wrapped myself in the only other fabric I had with me: my Aussie flag. More and more official’s cars came by. At other races I’ve been at, the race is preceded by a mass of police motorbikes, usually with the word “STOP” written on the front. Here, because the roads were closed for so long, that wasn’t necessary, so when I saw the bright yellow neutral service car in the distance, I was a little surprised when the race arrived. That said, for the minutes leading up to the race arriving, there were six television helicopters hovering down the valley.
At a long distance, all I could figure out was where the groups were in relation to each other, and roughly how many were in each group. They needed to get a lot closer before I could start to see their team colours. The first rider to come past was Primož Roglič, a Slovenian on the Dutch Lotto-NL Jumbo team. He was closely followed by the group of leading contenders, including yellow jersey and race leader, Chris Froome of Team Sky, Italian champion Fabio Aru of Team Astana, and local favourite Romain Bardet of AG2R La Mondiale. The first rider from this group I saw pass was former winner Alberto Contador of Trek Segafredo, and I thought he had attacked the group, but it turns out he was in a breakaway and was getting caught. Below me on the slope I saw Bardet attack Froome, but by the time they reached me, they were all together again, and largely stayed that way down the descent. The riders kept coming for a good half hour or so, until finally the groupetto arrived: a group of riders who don’t like climbing mountains and so all go together at the back at a slower pace.
Shortly after the race passed, I got on my bike and headed over the col, back down towards Briançon. I was one of the earlier ones to head off the mountain, as I was so close to the top, so aside from a short traffic jam at the Col du Lautaret, it was smooth sailing all the way down. There were some far more timid decenders, who hugged the right hand side of the road, so I took the line down the middle. The descent was very fast; after the Lautaret there are hardly any hairpins, so once you’ve picked up speed, you don’t need to brake very much. Also, since the road was still closed to upcoming traffic, I felt comfortable heading over into the left lane, something I wouldn’t do on an open road.
Towards the bottom where the road flattened out more, I found myself in a group of about 7 or 8 riders who were riding along at a much faster pace than those on the right hand side. I hardly had to pedal at all, the wind from the other riders pulled me along. It only got tricky when we approached Serre Chevalier, where the finish of the stage had been. The traffic leading up to the village was at a standstill; mostly race related cars, as they were pulling down the banners and barricades. I had to ride around the side on the footpath before rejoining the road.
Once through to the other side of Briançon, the road got a lot quieter. I didn’t ride down the same road as the morning, instead I opted for a road on the other side of the valley. This was quiet, and a little lumpy. I filled my bottles at a small waterfall on the side of the road, but otherwise the run back into L’Argentère-la-Bessée was uneventful. There wasn’t a lot of climbing to do, but there was a fun descent back into town.
I showered and changed and went out for dinner almost straight away. Since the stage finished so late, I had got caught in traffic, and I had ridden an hour to get back to L’Argentère-la-Bessée, it was already quite late. I ate at a different restaurant to the previous night, opting for a large, chorizo-topped pizza to fill me back up again. I went to bed very quickly after; I still had another big ride to come.