Our drive with Karen to Embrun was eventful, strategically trying to dodge the toll road took us down all kinds of back roads and alleys. En route (French word) we stopped off at Le Caire for some “Via Ferreta” – essentially rock climbing with a harness and zip line. During WWI the surrounding mountains were used to transport soldiers and defend main routes. Many of these sites have been resurrected as havens for climbers. We were lucky/unlucky enough to start on an intermediate course at 13 Euro for gear hire and 5 Euro to do the course.
With Mitch in the lead and Tam encouragingly pushing him along at first, he managed to eventually get the hang of the clips and race ahead. Despite the safety clips, being on an overhang was still terrifying especially not being able to find a place for your feet! Once at the top, with a great view down, we then clipped on to the zip line and switched back and forth down the mountain at good pace, perfecting the mid-air running man to prevent any crash landings.
We later arrived in Chorges and followed the Embrun-Chorges time-trial route which was already teeming with TdF supporters trying to best their heroes. The next challenge was finding our accommodation halfway up a narrow mountain road. When we got there, the place from the outside looked great, a renovated large house, with most of the mod cons, but on closer inspection, this probably took the cake for the weirdest place we have ever stayed. Which probably explained why there were only three other guests and why the price was so relatively cheap.
Walking up the stairs, we saw numerous posters and hand drawn pictures of animals, with the odd tatty teddy bear on the railings. In our room with a “lake view” we stood on the bed to look out the velux (which was very difficult to open) to see the view. Walking out back, we found more paintings of smiling animals, a broken down playset and a stone chip soccer pitch. But that was about to get very different when someone pulled up in a Peugot van with a couple miniature horses in the back. Not to worry though, he quickly tied them up, slapped them round a bit, then sped off to pick up more. The fact we spoke almost no French and the owners the same for their English didn’t help much at all, but we did eventually get an explanation later that night – the place was recently (we are thinking weeks) a home for mentally challenged children. This explained the lino on the floors and the hard to open windows.
After speeding away to escape to the town for dinner, we weighed up returning to the place. Mitch definitely had a Scooby-Doo vibe about the place and was contemplating sleeping in the car. Eventually we slinked back to the hostel to plan our escape the next morning.
After surviving the asylum, we travelled north through Briancon and the eastern mountain pass to Bourg D’Oisans. The road was full of thousands of cyclists, with the place becoming crowded in anticipation of the Tours arrival. Today Tamsons’ mother Marg was coming to join us in Bourg D’Oisans for the rest of the trip. Marg had done a few Tours of duty in the past and having her experience would prove to be most helpful.
We managed an afternoon ride to the ski resort of Vaujany, trying to keep to the flats as much as possible, but inevitably some good climbing was again on the cards, again in the midday heat. We resolved that when we were to do tomorrows ride up Alp d’Huez, we were going up early in the morning. Dinner that night was a bit interesting – Mitch learned that Beef Tartar, is pretty much cut up raw steak with capers. Always wanting to try something new may have proved to be dangerous here. He did get to meet “The Devil”, a German who religiously dresses up each year and makes apilgrimmage to torment cyclists on their ascent. Checking into accommodation that was normal was a much appreciated relief. Our place was right beside the chair lift, which would be handy when going to watch the tour come through in a couple days.
Our morning climb up Alp d’Huez was following that of the tour riders, except they looped around, doing the climb twice! We went for the light version with ONLY 2km of vertical climbing! The ride up was again steep, with gradients of around 8-9% snaking up the switchbacks past the campers – on one corner the effluent systems of one camper was overflowing giving the most putrid smell of crap and ammonia, not the best when you’re sucking back the fresh air! This year a large contingent of Norwegians joined the usual rowdy crowds of Dutch and Belgians and parties were going at every corner. We also found a few Kiwi’s on the way up, always keen for a yarn. So, in all, a lot of support was also offered, in about 7 different languages. Well, we think it was support…
After meeting Marg for lunch in Alp d’Huez we opted to climb further over the pass of Col du Sarren before the ominous looking clouds decided to pack in. The temperature quickly plummeted near the top, with patched of rain becoming light dustings of snow. Roadworkers were quickly doing last minute patchwork on the bumpy potholed road. Once we got to the top, the other side of the slope plummeted sharply away with a decline over 10% and sharp hairpin turns. Hay bales and crash mats were placed out for the riders, probably to prevent them falling down the cliff to their likely death! The descent was very quick, through long tunnels and small villages. You get a real appreciation for the danger and exhausting work these riders go through just to complete a tour, let alone win a stage like this! The thunder and lightning began as we got back.
The following day was a treat, getting the cable car over and being able to watch all the Tour stars climbing twice up the mountain. We went up the skilifts first to see the snow. People were still skiing in the middle of summer!
This stage, being more accessible, had much more supporters lining the banks. A tent blasted classic Dutch oom-pah music and the group grew over the day to include bunny, baby, cow, frau and ostrich costumes, creating a drunken conga line every half hour. The more hardcore fans listened intently on the radio and used binoculars to spy the helicopter which gave away the incoming riders position.
American Teejay Van Gardren led the stage early on with a big breakaway. Followed many minutes later by the peloton and then another bunch made up mostly of sprinters. We were pretty chuffed to get a wave from Kiwi Greg Henderson as we waved the flag. During the down time a few spectators managed to evade the gendarme, who did their best to keep the road clear at all times. The second lap of the riders saw Christopher Riblon overtake Teejay only a few metres up the road to win the stage and the polka dot jersey. The first stage won in this tour by a Frenchman. Chris Froome struggled a bit in this stage, looking quite defeated and being helped up in the final few km by Richie Porte. This led to a few boos from some of the crowd, not the best show of support for the maillot juane. But then again, the French seethe at the thought of British riders winning their Tour. It was revealed later that he was dangerously low on glucose at this point.
The weather quickly packed in again and we got stuck in a very long line for the cable car. After an hour or so, we were moving to the first transit point, only to be greeted with another 2 hour wait at a higher, colder and wetter altitude! Not happy campers in that line. At least we had a baguette to munch through.
Tomorrow we leave for Annecy and the penultimate stage of the Tour, where the eventual winner of the jersey is to be decided before being crowned in Paris.