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Le Tour 2011: The Roadside
Photo - Rob Saunders
The Tour de France is always a visual feast, but for the fan on the roadside it is the sounds rather than the sights that often make a lasting impression. This was particularly true on stage 19 of this year's Tour on Alpe d'Huez, where the exciting, contrasting and dramatic noises I heard seemed to reflect perfectly the unique character of this year's race.
There was a wonderful party atmosphere as we rode up the Alpe in the morning, along with half a million other fans. The crowds seemed bigger than ever and the excitement of this year's race has produced even more anticipation for this, the decisive stage. Seeing the size of the crowd, the organisers had closed the Alpe to traffic at 9am and stopped bikes at midday, almost 5 hours before the race would arrive. Riders were 5 deep across the road - a mass procession of friendly and excited fans.
Photo - Ben Lieberson
The party atmosphere and noise was at its most extreme on turn seven - Dutch corner - where a couple of thousand drunk Dutchmen were enjoying a five day party, with the thumping accompaniment of bizarre techno and euro disco, blaring out from twenty foot high speaker stacks. They even had their own DJ, on a scaffold podium way above the crowd. It was gloriously naff and hugely motivating as they screamed encouragement at my 10-year-old son, Felix, as if he was Lance Armstrong on the attack.
With an hour to go, the Caravan made its appearance. A weird and sometimes disturbing celebration of packaged products and questionable French marketing. But it seemed strangely appropriate on this crazy day. The vans and floats pumping out their jingles and French pop and the dancers and greeters showed no sign of fatigue after 3000km of waving and gyrating. Next to me on the roadside the noise was drowned out by the excited shouts of "S'il… vous… plait!!!" by Rapha colleague Alex as he implored every passing vehicle to throw him their shelf wobblers, such as Haribo and samples of soap powder, so he could give them to Felix.
A crowd of a hundred or so fans had congregated at the Rapha Mobile Cycle Club near turn six to watch the race approaching on the TV screen. The gendarmes were increasingly concerned about the spillover blocking the road for the race and, with ten minutes to go before the leaders arrived, they ordered us to turn the TV off so the crowd could spread out along the roadside. The party atmosphere changed in an instant to become almost silent. The air was pregnant with tension and quiet anticipation as our heroes, the warriors of the last three weeks, approached. The only sounds were the whir of helicopters and crackle of the race announcer.
Photo - Ben Lieberson
Suddenly, there was Contador! Dancing on the pedals and racing towards us, alone and travelling at impossible speed. His attacking riding had redeemed him and there were no boos, only roars of encouragement. Venga! Allez, Allez! C'mon!
The next thirty minutes were constant celebration as groups of riders and team cars passed. The appearance of Thomas Voeckler sent the crowd to their loudest level. Then there were the audible groans as Johnny Hoogerland went past and we saw the livid, six inch, railroad track scars on the backs of his legs. Most of the riders were serious and focused, blocking out the cacophony on the Alpe. Only Juan Antonio Flecha gave the Rapha bus a wave and a broad, sparkling smile as he passed through.
On the way back down the mountain, the road hummed with different international voices and languages. Hungover Dutchmen, British fans of team Sky, Americans, Italians and, of course, thousands of French. But the loudest and happiest voices of all belonged to the Aussies. They had all found flags or inflatable kangaroos from somewhere and were singing and chanting for Cadel. Their guy had held on again, was right in contention and could still win this race, the greatest sporting event in the World.
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