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Giro finale
Photo ©: Bettini

91st Tour de France - July 3-25, 2004

Where Eagles Dare

A sideways look back to Alpe d'Huez

Leading up to the much-anticipated stage to L'Alpe d'Huez, Neil Storey, friend and fan of Cyclingnews diarist Scott Sunderland, gets back to nature with his daughter Polly, and experiences the highs and lows of life by the roadside.

L'Alpe d'Huez: A week-long campground
Photo ©: Jon Devich
Click for larger image

Day 1, July 19, 2004: Its dawn; the first orange-grey streaks of light that radiate across the sky to my left illuminate the walls of the ruined Chateau high on the hill to my right. And, about a hundred metres below, a man-made lake shimmers in the early breeze and reflects the few remaining stars above.

My daughter Polly - nine, but more often than not demonstrating the wit and wisdom of someone at least six years older - is stirring within our newly-acquired tent pitched in a lay-by about fifteen kilometres from St Etienne. About being the operative term since we'd become fabulously lost the previous evening while trying to find a proper camp-site.

We'd been warned by Toad (elderly and genial next-door neighbour to my Charentaise lair and all round bon-viveur) that we should only camp on a appropriate site; 'Pas de le camping sauvage' we were told in no uncertain terms while ingesting a healthy dose of his home-brewed Pineau des Charentes the previous evening - an only locally-sold nectar and truly God-like in his incarnation. But, with no proper place to pitch our tent and dusk upon us, we had no other options than… a lay-by in the middle of nowhere that was on the sauvage side of wild.

It was also the first night in a tent for me since about nineteen hundred and frozen to death - my last experience becoming not an altogether agreeable one as that particular tent was stolen one day in at the Great Eastern something or other Music Festival way back when in Lincolnshire (England) and I was forced to sleep under a car for another two nights awaiting the late Robert Palmer strutting his stuff fronting Vinegar Joe; the Beach Boys before Brian Wilson went loco and Roxy Music's debut. And probably the Incredible String Band - they seemed to play at every Festival in those days. Thirty-something years later and I'm still not keen on tent-life but knowing we'll not get a room within miles of the fabled hill - a tent it has to be.

And, our mission? To give Scott a bit of a yell and as much support as we can as he climbs the Alpe on Wednesday afternoon and hopefully meet up with Sabine, Saen and David the bone-cruncher, who's been looking after Scott's back for the last ten days or so. A gem of an idea that hatched in the village depart the previous week which we'd inhabited while spending a bit of time with Scott, watching Polly and Saen collect as many rider autographs as they could while Sabine and I downed more ridiculous strength coffee than was probably good for either of us. This'll also be Miss P's third Tour visit - her first coincided with Scott's own first in 1996 when he rode for Lotto.

Inside knowledge

The village depart, ah yes - please allow a slight digression here. Given that the Tour's rest day was only situated an hour from home, this gave us the ideal opportunity to not just see Scott but have Sabine and Saen to stay as they traversed this middle leg of the race. We actually went twice; once to St Léonard de Noblat, the home of living-legend Raymond Poulidor and also to Limoges. The latter a remarkable rugby-scrum to get into, the former a bit more subdued but no less intriguing.

What is it, I wonder, that makes people so eager to get into a place like that? Regarded as some weird kind of holy of holies, it's a little like the back-stage area at a big music festival or similar where those with the right laminates can get relatively up close and personal with those they've come to watch or listen to. Exactly the same in the little town of St Léonard; we walk past the burly security guards festooned with laminated bits of plastic inscribed with 'guest of' dangling from our necks and we're into a relatively calmer atmosphere yet no less bizarre than that outside the high wire fence.

The dress code appears to be quite important; dark glasses of the latest shade, hue, shape and design being the most essential accompaniment attached to heads that sport quite an astonishing array of hair-styles all of which are slightly dampened down to one side as the other accessory du jour seems to be permanently clamped to either the right or left ear - yes, that marvellous invention… the cell 'phone.

There are no riders here yet - and we're not anticipating any of the big names since they'll reside in air-conditioning and so chill-out in their massive team-buses until the last possible minute. The journalists, however, seem to be amassing over to our left in the yellow-emblazoned Credit Lyonnais area - ah yes, there's William Fotheringham from the Guardian.

Everyone wanders around full of self-righteous purpose yet it all seems so purposeless; this peculiar place that divides those who believe in their eagerly acquired plastic laminate-coated badges that give them the right to be there with those who probably should be - the real fans.

Star spotting

"Uphill progress is further hampered by the kamikaze descent speeds of those who've already made it to the top; there's an accident just waiting to happen."

We're in the Champion area being served croissants from a bored waitress who has a look written all over her face of 'What are you people doing here?' Then, all of a sudden, a flurry of excitement a few metres away - the unmistakable figure of Raymond Poulidor has hove into view followed by a fleet of camera crews. His preferred position for this round of morning interviews is a few feet away from us. Greying hair and somewhat portly, he has twinkling eyes and a look of genuine astonishment that the public (and media) holds him in such thrall as they still evidently do. He looks humbled by all of the attention.

But wait… isn't that Bernard Hinault just to our right? The five-time winner is doing his rounds and both Polly and Saen open their autograph-hunting account. Then the vertically-challenged figure of Bettini arrives, settles himself in the Champion area wearing the mountain leader's Polka Dot jersey and is surrounded by invited guests and media, all eager for a few words.

The Russian, Vladimir Karpets rides slowly by, a mass of long thin legs and curiously semi-dyed long blonde flowing locks; a number of others gather in the hair-cut area, Quick Step's Zanini and Tom Boonen among them; McEwen is in green and impenetrable shades talking on one of the Village area's freebie-phones; Michael Rogers, Fabio Wegmann, Garcia Acosta, Mancebo, Botero, Mercado, Wauters all hover around as Scotty rides up and downs two coffees in quick succession. The waitress suddenly starts to smile as Sabine bristles in indignation.

Belgian TV are quickly onto Scott wanting something of substance concerning the removal by Jean-Marie LeBlanc the previous day of his Slovenian team-mate Martin Havistja from the race - something we'd all walked right into the middle of the previous evening when the deed had, literally, just been done… a fairly weird sensation brushing shoulders with the portly figure of the be-suited Tour organiser, M'sieur grand fromage himself, as he wished a bewildered Martin - who looked like a startled rabbit does when caught by a car's headlights - good luck and safe journey home the next day. Scott sits quietly, answers the questions patiently, stating the facts and reasoning that while LeBlanc was in an impossible position 'should a state of innocence not prevail until absolute guilt is established and only then punishment meted out?'

And there's Marcus and Magnus - team-mates with Scott at Fakta and now part of this year's Alessio-Bianchi squadra. Paris-Roubaix winner Backstedt seats himself in the now quiet Credit Lyonnais area and settles back with what looks suspiciously like the Financial Times as Ljunqvist leans laconically back on the cross-bar of his aquamarine blue steed and stares into the middle of the crowd like a man who's seen it all before.

Thomas Voeckler rides in… resplendent in his recently acquired golden fleece as the Tour's current leader, he is pursued by a phalanx of teenage girls and rides quickly away with a bemused look on his face.

Winding our way to L'Alpe

The view from way above
Photo ©: Space Imaging
Click for larger image

All of this and more rumbles through my mind as we edge into the Alps and, by eight-thirty, Miss P and I are trundling into Bourg d'Oisans and the need for super-strength coffee is high on my agenda; four hours sleep on what felt like a bed of nails after seven hours driving the previous afternoon not being ideal preparation for this little jaunt across France. Despite the hour and the Tour being two days away, the little town is already awash with people.

Not unsurprisingly, we've forgotten a couple of items so head for the local supermarket that, I guess, on normal days is similar to Champion in my nearest little town and a pleasant place to shop. Today it's a heaving mass of humanity with queues stretching back from tills right down each aisle. Its as if an announcement has been made that there will be no more food anywhere for a month; people seem to be panic buying like they do in England at Christmas. Our essentials suddenly become not-so-terribly essential and we get back on board and start wending our way toward the Alpe itself.

First up, avoid hundreds and hundreds of Rabobank-clad riders thronging together about a kilometre from where the real climb starts… this must be some sort of 'ride-with-us' corporate kinda thing. It may be meant to be an organised ride but chaos reigns with Gendarmes uninclined to do much to assist anyone or anything especially if it means leaving the shade of a roadside tree.

With the skies overhead cloudless, it's already in the thirties and ancienne voiture's temperature gauge is rising to worrying heights. Dammit, we're not even on the climb yet. What happens if… I shudder, barely able to contemplate that level of worry.

Ultimately we roll forward and then suddenly, skywards. Crikey, this is a lot steeper than it looks on television. Round the next hairpin and again… the steepness in these first couple of kilometres is quite remarkable with the car's cooling fan already being tested to its maximum.

Picture-postcard stuff

Within minutes as we twist and turn upwards, avoiding heavily perspiring, grunting and groaning riders of all shapes, sizes and team-allegiances we see Bourg d'Oisans far below. This is picture-postcard stuff… as high, high above are snow-capped peaks and the vista in every direction is nothing short of majestic. And we're still only about a third of the way up with the gradient remaining… unremitting.

The barriers - which started about seven or eight kilometres from the top (which we can but presume is high above us) - mean that any vehicles already parked there are now hemmed in for the duration. And, it looks as if some happy-campers have been here for a week already, prime positioning being of such importance on a climb like this and with the expected attendance on race day due to be between half and three-quarters of a million people.

On we go, up through the steep hairpin that was immortalised by the late Marco Pantani when the rider who he caught from an earlier breakaway, turned and bowed over his handlebars opening his arms wide in gracious salute to the diminutive Italian's climbing speed, style and absolute genius. Still, for me, one of the most remarkable moments of any Tour and right up there with the 'Armstrong look' moment.

But now its slower still because of the sheer volume of cyclists on the mountain and we start to be passed by those we'd previously overtaken - a sinewy tree-trunk legged chap from the Port Talbot Wheelers in Wales informs us of his heart rate as he passes the open window: if he'd told his doctor, it would have been the physician having a coronary.

Every conceivable nationality seems to be represented - this mountain is no longer the Dutch prerogative, although they're already here in their thousands… on Wednesday its going to be a cauldron of sound and colour from every conceivable nation; a spectacle that, even if one knows nothing about the Tour and its history, would cause the heart to flutter.

Five kilometres from the top, it becomes hopeless. The traffic is solid ahead; one long line of cars and camper vans intertwined with people on bikes - by now many are so close to being beaten by a combination of gradient and heat that they're weaving dangerously across the road. And uphill progress is further hampered by the kamikaze descent speeds of those who've already made it to the top; there's an accident just waiting to happen.

A little road to the right exists a bit further ahead - surprisingly not many seem to be taking it yet the map shows we'll end up in Alpe d'Huez that way. Ten minutes later we're at the top and on the edge of the ski-resort. Its more like landing in Glastonbury having been blindfolded for the last hour of your journey: there are more tents pitched and camper-vans parked up than I've seen in my entire life - a sea of canvas ring-fenced by motor-homes of every conceivable creed.

Pitching the tent

We drive round and round working out the geography of the place before Miss P spots a place and we park up and start to unpack; there's just about enough room to pitch the tent and set up the barbecue and folding table and Miss P's Charentaise blue folding plastic chair.

To our immediate right are a couple from, extraordinarily, the Charente too; beyond them a Welsh lady flying her flag and her Dutch husband; behind three German lads with singularly Teutonic haircuts; further back is Mister Mad - so named by Polly because he's already half-way through a bottle of wine that he's taking from a coffee cup and has crazy stary eyes - a bit like Marty Feldman on a good day; there is the generously proportioned young Belgian couple who spend a large percentage of waking hours in their tent; the Danish family back to our left who've erected a gazebo between their two tents in Arabian Night's style - both Father and (I presume) Uncle sport swimming trunks emblazoned with their National Flag and an older British couple right next door who look like they missed the turning to Exmoor and have bowled up in the wrong country altogether. Within an hour or so we're all acquainted although curiously, it is the British couple's stiff upper lip that renders them somewhat aloof from everyone else.

What with it being the rest day, time to explore on foot as well as send a few text messages off to those we love who are far away to let them know that we've made it. Scott fires one back saying 'Good to hear - I heard it's a bit crowded up there already, hope you 2 have a great time camping and give me a shout when I go past'. Yes, buddy… absolutely… that is just part of the plan!

During the afternoon we take the cable-car downhill to the next village - basically just to have a bit of a look around - and then Miss P announces: 'Why don't we walk back up?' Either she or I are entirely insane but this is what we proceed to do. It takes three hours.

And, I think during then was the moment of realisation of just how tough a mountain this is for not just the Tour riders who'll ascend at warp speed but what a feeling of achievement it must invoke for anyone who's ever ridden up it. It is tougher than imaginable and one can only appreciate that by being there and on the sweltering tarmac oneself.

Late night post barbecue thunder-claps overhead signal the arrival of a spot of rain and their soft pitter-patter sends us off to sleep as dark falls; lavatories having been negotiated. 'Dad, the green one is disgusting, I am absolutely not going in there again' - Miss P can be defiant from time to time but in this instance she's right to stand her ground, I only got as far as opening the door.

Anyhow, it's easier for the male of the species or Dad's of a certain age - just locate a spot behind a lorry or coach and preferably not into the wind and away you go; my preferred view being the edge of a steep drop and overlooking the valley below and quite close to where we'd earlier watched the German equivalent of the spikey-haired chef Gary Rhodes prepare a meal 'fit for Ullrich' in front of the cameras, backed by a preposterously small caravan emblazoned in red Polka Dots and in front of this remarkable mountain backcloth… there were a lot of sausages that ended up on the plate. For nine-year old girls it's a bit different and I sympathise with her. Mental note to self as the eyelids start to droop: Find somewhere more amenable tomorrow morning as a priority

Click here to read Part II