Today we got up, had breakfast, got dressed and got out of the hotel early at around 7:30 AM. We started out with several people from the bike tour, riding towards the Col de la Madeleine.
We headed out of Albertville, and followed the TdF route. Every roundabout and intersection had a bright yellow sign with an arrow pointing the correct direction. There were gendarmes posted at many intersections already, even though the caravan wasn't scheduled to pass by there until 11:30 and the riders an hour later.
We rode with a couple of French cyclists for a while, and I had a "conversation" with them in a mixture of French, English and Italian. But they really didn't understand all that much that wasn't French, and my French simply wasn't very good! We parted ways with them at the base of the climb.
In Rognaix, we turned right to go up the Madeleine, after taking pictures at the base of the climb. The Madeleine is a 25km climb that ends at an altitude of 2000m. Considering we start at around 330m, that's a long climb.
The others had left us while we were taking pictures, so Phil and I started climbing by ourselves. Well, not really by ourselves, because there were many cyclists making the pilgrimage up the mountain.
All along the road, cars were parked, staking out the prime territory for watching the race that was to pass by later in the day. People would cheer us on and yell "buon chance!" and "bon courage!". What a fun way to do a climb!
We quickly climbed above the valley we started in. The views were spectacular and the heights were dizzying. The road was not all that steep, but it was very long. After a while the length really got to me.
The weather was nice, but not summer-like. It was a little chilly and sunny with some clouds in the sky. We had to bring extra clothing since we were going to stay at the top to watch the race, and we were told it gets quite cold. As a result, I had put clothing and shoes in my bike messenger bag and was lugging that up the hill. After a while it got pretty heavy!
At 9 km to go, we stopped at a little bar to get some water. We refilled our bottles, and Phil (thankfully) took my bag so we could climb faster, and off we went.
Now the climb got steeper. I had made the mistake a few km back of remarking that the climb wasn't so bad. Now we were paying for it! The steepness is deceiving. Maybe it's because we'd been climbing so long. The road looked flat, but it did not feel that way. It reminded me of the back side of Monitor on the Death Ride in its deceptiveness.
The sides of the road were filling up as we got to the top. I noticed many French, Dutch, Belgian and German license plates, but didn't see too many Italians or Americans. Most of the Americans undoubtedly went to l'Alpe d'Huez to cheer on Lance. Perhaps the Italians were boycotting because neither Saeco nor Mercatone Uno were chosen as wildcards.
We ran into a French cyclist while we were climbing and climbed the 5km to the top together. Regis is a fit, middle-aged cyclist who lives in a town near the base of the climb. He spoke both English and Italian, so we were able to have a real conversation as we climbed up the hill. He knew the climb well, so when it got very difficult, he was encouraging us that it wasn't that much further.
As we got to a certain point a few km from the top, we were able to see the road switching back and forth up the hill in front of us. It was quite daunting, because of the realization that we had to climb all the way up there! And then, as we rounded what we thought was the last switchback, we saw where the top is and felt demoralized, because there was still more to climb. But the climb flattens out at the top, so the finish wasn't as bad as it looked from below.
We arrived at the top around noon, took some pictures, and then descended back the way we'd come to settle in for the afternoon. We picked out a spot at a corner about 1 km below the top, a spot that had a view of several km of switchbacks and straightaways. It would be a great place to watch the race from.
We had bought some food, and Regis had brought his lunch, so we all sat around eating lunch and chatting. We were sitting next to a French family with two kids around 10 years old who were rooting for Ullrich. No matter how hard I tried, they wouldn't switch their allegiance to Lance...
The publicity caravan started a bit after 1. The caravan precedes the racers and lasts for about an hour. Car after car, painted or decorated with advertisements for the race sponsors, drive on the course, throwing out souvenirs to the spectators as they pass. We could see the caravan snaking towards us from our vantage point... it was really quite impressive! (I will post pictures to give you some idea.)
The souvenirs that each sponsor threw to the spectators were somewhat dorky, but cute. Orange, a cellular phone service provider, was throwing out hats that said "Bob" on them, consistent with one of their advertising campaigns. Aquarel was throwing out small bottles of water.
You had to be quick to get one of the "throwaways", since they would only throw at a few at each point. We had to contend with the two kids next to us to get the souvenirs... needless to say, they were quite good at snatching them!
Finally, the caravan was finished, and we sat to wait for the race to come by. We knew the race was getting close when we heard the helicopters approaching. The helicopters are there to film the race for broadcast TV.
Ahead of the race came cars that told us over the loudspeakers what was happening in the race (in French, of course). Regis translated. There was a breakaway of three riders, and then the main pack behind.
Finally, we saw the police cars and the official cars riding ahead of the break. And then came the riders. By this point, there were two guys in front, another guy behind, and then, the front peloton, with Lance, Jan and the rest of the main contenders.
The two leaders passed us, side by side. The KOM sprint was up the hill, so neither of them was ready to attack yet. Then, the rider who had slipped away from the three-man break passed. Soon after, the group with the big boys: Lance, Jan, etc. Jan was at the head of the pack, being pulled by Kevin Livingston. Lance was almost the last guy in the back, and looked terrible. We were worried. Fortunately, as we all found out later when Lance attacked on l'Alpe d'Huez, it was a bluff.
Somewhat later, the laughing group came by. This is the group of sprinters and non-GC contenders that don't (and can't) contest the hilly stages. They generally ride together and support each other in trying to make sure they all get to the finish before the time cut.
Finally, we saw a lone rider, David Millar, followed by the "broom wagon" indicating the last of the racers. David looked awful, and he wound up abandoning later in the stage. Apparently, the crash he had had in the Prologue took a toll and he'd been riding in pain ever since, finishing last in most of the stages. I think this time there was no way he'd make the time cut, so he abandoned. (I'm just hypothesizing, because we hadn't read anything about it in the papers...)
As soon the caravan and race had passed everyone started down the hill. Because the race was on a hill, as soon as the broom wagon passed a point on the hill, the people at that point would start down the hill. So it worked out nicely because everyone would naturally leave in the order they were on the hill.
Nevertheless, there was a huge traffic jam of cars going down the hill. Lots and lots of diesel cars in fact. Smelly! As a result, we descended down the left side of the hill, passing cars all the way down. If a car came up the hill, then we'd slow down and slip through the cracks between the two cars. This was an accepted and tolerated practice, because of course every car on the hill contained a cyclist or a cycling fan! It was really cool...
We got to the bottom of the hill, and said our good-byes to Regis, and headed back to Albertville. We hurried as fast as we could to the hotel so that we could watch the end of the race.
We got back to the hotel just as Lance made his attack. Lance stormed up the hill, leaving his competitors in the dust. He made mincemeat of everyone and won the stage! It was so exciting to watch!
Before changing out of our clothing, we popped over to a local bike shop where I bought a much nicer map holder, and returned to the hotel to shower and change for dinner. Tonight dinner was on our own, so we went over to a local pizzeria and ate a mediocre dinner.