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Chez Nick: Touring at le Tour

Situated halfway up a back road which stems from the main road to L’Alpe d’Huez, the village of L’Armentier makes for a spectacular location to wake up in. The rocky Alpine peaks of the Ecrins National Park bask in the sun across the valley and the town of Bourg d’Oisans sits on a carpet of velvet greenery deep below. If only Nick Craig wasn’t prancing around the front of my tent in a pair of saggy long johns, I’d probably describe the view as perfect.

“Mornin’” says the national mountain bike marathon champion, chirpy and ready to ride his bike as always. I on the other hand am not and the fact that we devoured our entire tasty selection of breakfast pastries on last night’s arrival doesn’t help me pack. Not that there’s any rush.

As I roll up my tent and load it onto my bike, Nick chats to the locals and learns that the piece of ground upon which we’d camped is the property of the local mayor. He doesn’t establish whether the dignitary is aware of our trespass but no-one else seems to mind. The Tour de France is arriving on the mountain today and it seems that anything goes.

This spot was in fact the first possible camping opportunity we’d come across when climbing up the mountain in the dark last night. Every other lay-by, lawn and vaguely flat section of cow pasture had already been occupied by other Tour campers.

From L’Armentier, we continue up the narrow back road which vaguely mimics the most iconic climb of the Tour de France on the other side of a small ravine. Occasionally we catch glimpses of it through the pine forest we’re riding in, it’s verges lined with bumper-to-bumper campervans.

To find such a grandstand pitch on the Alp, you have to arrive three or four days earlier. But because we carry all we need on our bikes, Nick and I can be a lot more flexible in our visit to the Tour. Three consecutive stages of the race and a flight back home give us a vague framework to work around but otherwise our agenda is completely open. We have no set tasks and no itinerary; we’ll ride, eat, sleep and stop to watch the race when and where we feel like. We’re on a budget camping trip without a plan. Basically we’re winging it.

Riding on Scott cyclo-cross bikes offers us additional versatility. We can go at a reasonable lick on the tarmac but also venture onto dirt when the opportunity arises. The wide tyres and strong frame help accommodate the extra load which is fixed to our bikes by a simple Topeak rack that clamps straight onto the seatpost.

With a bit of practice, descending and riding on the flat is fine but carrying all our baggage in panniers uphill is a drag. You’re forced to turn a lower gear and dribble up the climbs at a snail’s pace. Thankfully Nick is friends with Pete and Ann who have a house at the top of this narrow mountain lane where we can at least dump our luggage for today. We drop-in, are invited to stay the night and are given a quick lecture on water conservation.

“It’s the same as anywhere, there’s a shortage of the stuff, but living up a mountain, you’re a bit more aware of it” says Pete pointing towards a ridge not far behind the house. “The reservoir is just up there and in the summer and you can see that’s its going down by the day.  If it runs out, there’s no other place we’ll be getting any water from.”

From Pete and Ann’s, it’s a 20 minute ride along a tiny little goat track to reconnect with the Tour de France climb. The singletrack path cuts through a quaint Alpine hamlet before snaking between rocks and out across wide open meadows. Unburdened by panniers, we move briskly and freely, whipping through corners and blasting up short rises.

We traverse a causeway of rough weathered rock on top of a small cliff, and then drop down –with some shouldering of the bike- a steep and cumbersome trail into a gulley. Upon emerging out the other side, we’re surrounded by the buzz of pre-Tour festivity. Accordions are playing, wine is being slurped and a gathering of orange clad Dutch fans are going nuts in their makeshift trance tent.

* * *

For the rest of the afternoon we base ourselves around Huez, the old village two thirds of the way up that gives the mountain its name. Sitting in a fold between a couple of the 16km climb’s 21 hairpins bends, it’s not a big place but we find fun by swooping through the village’s ridiculously steep and narrow streets.

Although we’re only at it for ten minutes, it’s unlike any road riding I’ve ever indulged in before. Free-styled and directionless, we’re just enjoying the pure pleasure of moving on a bike. Had Gary Fisher and friends been pioneers of road biking, I imagine that they might have come up with something a little like this.

The rest of the build-up to the Tour is spent meeting up with friends, soaking up the atmosphere and questioning the sausage to baguette ratio of an entrepreneurial local who’s selling hot dogs from his porch. As always, the pre-race publicity caravan brings on a mass fit of excitement as spectators scramble for corporate branded key-fobs, carrier bags and lollipops chucked from the strange array of decorated floats that chug up the mountain.

Forgetting he’s an elite racer with an unbridled competitive streak, I make the mistake of challenging Nick to a contest of seeing who can collect the most junk. He’s a tour virgin wrapped up in its excitement and additionally motivated by the thought of gathering souvenirs for his kids. He risks life and limb by running out in front of ten-tonne floats for inflatable batons and battles with knee-high children in a bundle for sachets of coffee granules. By the time he places a third freebie hat on his head, I acknowledge I’m a beaten man.

With everyone stirred up by the passing of the caravan, the wait to the actual race arrival is painful. A TV helicopter hovers above and everyone cranes their necks to try and see as far down the road as possible. With every police outrider, the crowd gets a more little anxious. Then suddenly it’s upon us and the leaders burst through at a speed that belies the terrain they’ve covered.

Small group after small group trickle through behind them, their moods and faces telling many stories. Midway down the field, Nick’s Peak District neighbour David Millar ploughs towards where we stand and lands him a high five. Riders further back glance longingly towards the ski resort at the top of the mountain. At least they’ll be home and dry before the downpour comes. The same can not be said for us. We hang around for too long afterwards and return along the goat track wearing bin liners for waterproofs.

* * *

24 hours later I’m sat in a field in another mountain village further along the Tour route. Nick is off at the phone box and I’ve relaxing in the brief silent solitude as the sun dips down behind the surrounding peaks to leave a psychedelic purple tinge on the landscape.

Suddenly the silence is broken by a human cacophony. It sounds like a tribal call to arms and I fear the worst when I look up towards the little hillock where the spired village church perches. There are two silhouettes looking down across the vast open hillside meadow in which sits nothing but our distinctive Bikamper tents. I recall what happened to Jack Nicholson when he went rough camping in Easy Rider. Maybe these are bored locals who’ve come to rough up Jean Etranger.

“Get off my land,” comes their second cry. Reassuringly it’s not in French, but in pseudo country farmer English. The two figures wander towards me, their wide grins emerging out of the dusk.

Stephen and John had bumped into Nick near the phone box and explain that they’re Yorkshire fell-runners making their way towards a sky-marathon in the Dolomites. Rather than travelling by train, plane or automobile, they’re getting there on mountain bikes.

They say that they’ve chosen to camp in this village because its altitude is good for their athletic constitution. My take on the location is a little more pragmatic. It has a restaurant, it has a bar and we felt like stopping.

Nick and I make good use of the bar and then spend the rest of the evening hanging out on the steps of a statue in the middle of the village square. Usually the occupation of bored and despondent youth, our excitement tells otherwise. We can’t stop talking about how much we’re enjoying our five-day trip. After a while, Nick gets out his mobile to send a text to his old buddy who had originally planned to come too.

“He doesn’t know what he’s missing,” says Nick. “He’d absolutely love this.”

 * * *

The rest of the week continues in the same vein: we enjoy the freedom of the road and add to our extensive and random catalogue of delightful, painful and surreal snapshot experiences that make touring so memorable. We help another British rider who’s jammed his chain and Nick climbs to the top of the Col du Glandon an hour quicker than I do. At the top I’m on my knees and wolf down a meal in a cafe while an Australian tourist shows a bizarre interest in the history of the M62 motorway.

We stop at fountains to wash and bakeries to snack and make small talk with the locals. Steaming back through Grenoble towards the airport, we hop up a kerb and enjoy several kilometres of nifty little dirt trails that run parallel to the road we’re following.

Perhaps the defining moment of our trip comes on our final evening when we arrive in a hilltop village after 150km and sink several quick beers at the bar. Tired, and a little bit tipsy, we slope off to a discreet corner of a nearby field and -without bothering to set up tents- lay down in the grass. Our trip to the Tour de France has been less about seeing the stars, but falling asleep beneath them.

Suffolk, August 2006

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