An Italian and an Englishman walk into a bar-tabac. You won’t have heard this one before, but you know the kind of place I mean. Nudie calendar peeking out behind the counter, bingo numbers on the TV and middle-aged men reading the local rag over morning coffee.
When they find out where we are headed, the conversation begins. One fellow tells a story about how it was snowing one July and they had to shorten the Tour stage. When we mention Team Sky, his friend remarks “Ah, le dopage.”
On the way back to the car, the village priest politely says hello. We’re off to church too, Rev, there’s masses of masses on Alpe d’Huez. I see several more men of the cloth there, drinking religiously. One is even climbing with Elvis Presley.
This isn’t just any old Alp; it’s the Alpe, definitive article. Not the toughest or tallest in the Tour family, but the craziest, the one which spins stories and women all night long. You can feel like you’re on the roof of the world on the Galibier, but can you dance all night to tunk-tunk Dutch techno? Mont Ventoux is moonlike and majestic, but would you kiss a stranger on its summit?
So they come in all shapes and sizes, the gnarled and the newbies, the day-glo and the dapper, civvied and costumed – the Tour is manna from heaven for the inventor of the Morphsuit – for this 13-kilometre exclamation of euphoria.
The clutch stinks. It takes almost an hour for us to drive from hairpin 21 to the top. The French call them lacets: shoelaces. And in 2013, because of the addition of the Col de Sarenne, the Tour is tied a neat loop. It meant two bites at this booze-soaked cherry for the bunch, 42 lacets.
Paolo and I start to walk down. Every turn heralds another suburb in this pop-up metropolis: a different nation’s flags festooned on the wall, layabout cans of its chosen beer and a new favourite song and son. Strangers crowd around transistor radios or, that lugged-up-there luxury, a TV screen, sharing titbits of food and race information.
Into Huez village, we come across a Dutchman in white Panama hat and chequered shorts, rocking the mic. “Sit down. Sit down. Everybody sit down!” he gravels in a Grolsch advert accent. A hundred obedient followers down on their haunches. Us too. The gendarme is trying not to follow the instruction. Or smile. The music slows, silence… and pop, the party bounces up again, people raving, a jolly impromptu road disco.
To the right, those on the ground make rowing actions while the man at the front of this thirty-person canoe does the paddling. To the left, 100 drained Jupiler bottles in a crate. “I am a taxi driver from Eindhoven. But for four days, I do this,” Panama Hat Man says. “I go to the world championships the last twenty-five years. I go to the Suisse, twenty years.”
On from this enclave to hairpin seven: Dutch Corner. Bram Tankink and Mollema get tenor football match chants. “Bauke Mollema, lo-lo-lo-lo-la!” Somebody standing on a van lets off an orange flare. A man in front of me falls over, takes a drag on a cigarette, and a swig of beer, and gets up to join the mob. Multi-tasker. We are in the land of the ultras now. Then the riders come, sweeping along a handlebar-width tangerine alley. Sep Vanmarcke celebrates, arms off the bars, as he rides through. The luxury of a Flandrian on a Dutch team.
Sky and Saxo-Tinkoff’s cars gets booed. There’s talk of riders getting punched and spat on later. Boorish, tribal stuff. But a few idiots among 700,000 isn’t bad.
We edge away from the crush and sit with alliterative Canadians Kevin and Karey, consultants from Ontario. They flew over to see friends in Germany but when they saw how close they were, they realised they had to be on the Alpe.
“I told someone at work I was going to the Tour de France. They were like: ‘What’s that?’ Wait till they see the photos,” Kevin says. Wife and daughter are back at the hotel, among their many countrymen who don’t really get it. “Deb’s gonna have a heart attack over this,” he mutters.
Second time round, the riders are slowed and spaced out. The Canadians aren’t sure if they got Hesjedal in their camera frame. Movistar rider Rubén Plaza smiles in recognition at the lady opposite. Ian Stannard grins, sailing past thanks to a hefty push. The riders know we’re here. But by and large, they focus on the rapidly constricting section of road in front of them, each hairpin a Groundhog Day of garish punters, with tunnel vision.
We begin the slog back. Wait, wait, there’s one more. “Don’t you know who Tom Veelers is?” says one Low Countries fan to another. The Argos-Shimano rider is last on the road, broomwagon up his arse. By the finish, Veelers is only a minute behind the gruppetto. Let’s just say he was a fair bit further behind when he passed me. A rock star crowd-surfing to the top on a tifosi tsunami. Many hands make light work of the time cut.
An old French man in a yellow vest discusses France’s first stage win with ladies across the road. A veteran of the Tour, surely. “Magnifique, what spirit. This is a real mix, the English, Norwegians, all the world,” he declares. Turns out it was his first time on the Alpe.
Appearances can deceive. We come upon Panama Hat Man again. Barbie Girl is blaring, but his subjects have stopped dancing. His voice is croaky. How does he do this for four days? “How many beers have you had?” I ask.
He smiles and shows me the beer can wordlessly. 0.0% APV. Alcohol-free: pas dopé. Forget Christophe Riblon, Quintana, Veelers: this is the most remarkable performance of the stage. I shake his hand and carry on up the mountain.
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