Part 2: The Hard Men Hit the Cobbles
Words and images by Donald Powers
The cobbles – a sector of pavé near Somain, northwest France. Tuesday, 6 July 2010. [Stage 3: Wanze - Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, 213k.] The ancient cobbles of these Belgian and northern French roads are far far harder to ride on a bicycle than I had imagined. It is not possible to ride them gently, unless you try to ride the narrow rut of dirt and grass at either side of the cobbled road, but even this thin dirt apron is treacherous in its own way with potholes, tussocks, and stray cobbles. Riding about a kilometre of these cobbles on my tractor of a racing-bike, I felt at once thrilled and shaken to pieces (in my legs and arms), and by the end of it magically a more authentic cyclist. I felt less of an occasional spectator blown in for the day’s racing, more of a devotee. That is Angus on the left-hand side, myself on the right. Note the angle of our feet – from decades of weather and vehicular use these cobbled roads have become humped in the centre.
The same day on the cobbles. In the modern Tour de France the peloton of cyclists is always preceded by a kilometres-long advertising convoy known as the race caravan – a bright noisy cavalcade of dressed-up cars and flatbed trucks carrying a circus troupe of sunburned, permanently waving, mostly young attractive guys and girls chucking freebies to the yelling roadside crowds in a gay mockery of emergency UN food distribution in disaster zones. Once the dust of the caravan has settled, the peloton is usually about an hour away; but the hour passes quickly. Team vans, press cars, motorbiked cameramen and gendarmes roar past honking their hooters, the cameramen hung with their bags and accreditation, the gendarmes straight-backed in their light-blue short-sleeved shirts, fris in the forearm and cool in their shades. The five or six helicopters in the sky herald the arrival of the peloton itself.
Today fate deals hard blows to the strongest contenders. The riders surge past in broken groups, among them Contador gritting his teeth to regain the lead group that has dropped him. Today Frank Schleck (Andy’s older brother), who is in the form of his life, will go down on the cobbles and break his collarbone and quit the race. Today Armstrong will puncture and lose time that will lubricate his slip down the General Classification (a slip that quickens with a series of crashes on Stage 8). Today, our own bikes behind us in the grassy ditch, we watch and cheer within touching distance as the riders grimace past us. There is much pain, there is not much sense, but there is strange grace in these tormented men powering their bikes past us on these cobbles under this gentle European sky.
Sunday, 11 July 2010. [Stage 8: Station des Rousses - Morzine-Avoriaz, 189k.] Today’s stage was the peloton’s second serious outing in the Alps – and my first – finishing with a grinding category 1 climb to Morzine (category 1 is the next-to-hardest category). To get to our spot on the slopes of Morzine required us riding from our campsite in Cluses over two mountain passes that unequivocally and fittingly ‘gave us the gears’ by driving home the lesson that it is NOT a good idea to ride anywhere in the Alps on a 10kg bike with a 39-21 gear ratio and a backpack bulging with ‘stuff’. This ‘stuff’ included: lovingly prepared baguettes x2, fruit, bottle of juice, rain jacket, undershirt, knee-warmers, arm-warmers, cowboy hat, camera, suncream. Given that we’d be exerting ourselves getting onto the slopes of a mountain and then waiting in potentially changeable weather for the race to come through, which items should I have left behind? A good answer: this particular bicycle. I was encouraged to learn a few days later that the pro’s typically ride the long mountain stages on a 39-27 gear ratio. But even if we had known this before, it would not have lessened our suffering as we rode in the full heat of early afternoon to the foot of the final mountain climb and then up one after another steep ramp of the switchbacks that tack their way up to the ski resort at Morzine.
On our way to the final climb, we’d stopped at a wayhouse (pictured here, near the Col de la Ramaz) to refill our bottles with water. Here, we were pleasantly suprised to be spoken to by the proprietors (a couple from England) in crisp English and thus saved the embarrassment of bringing out the standard greeting-excuse we used whenever we needed to speak to anybody in French (Bonjour! Je parlez mal français, parlez vous anglais?). Suffering (and suffering our bicycles) up the slopes of Morzine was well worth it. Settled in at our spot on one switchback 3k from the summit-finish, we chatted with a skinny Danish guy who seemed to know the first and surname of every rider in the peloton, an Australian couple bike-touring the region who were unwashed and cheerful in equal measures, and two keen guys giving excited reports in rapid Spanish from a portable transistor radio. Today was the stage on which Armstrong crashed three times. He came peddling past us (pictured here) a long way down on Contador and Schleck, his face battle-worn, his kit torn. After the race convoy had passed on up the mountain, we descended on a road thick with moving cyclists. It was like riding in a low group in the Cape Argus Pick ‘n Pay Cycle Tour – but without okes crashing all over the show.
Back at our campsite in Cluses, in the French Alps, I watched a grown man climb out of the swimming pool in swimming ‘baggies’ and be accosted by two locals from the group pictured here. His relaxed look changed to something like consternation as he was told that he may not swim in the public swimming pool in anything but the bun-hugging numbers of the kind these guys are wearing here. This rule is in place for health reasons, you understand – and, this being France, for aesthetic ones too. See for yourself the favours it does the physique of the young man in the red shorts. The cycling tan is essential, though.
Did you enjoy this post? Read Part 3: In the High Mountains
Or Read the previous post, Part 1: A Taste for the Tour