On Tour in France: Climbing the mountains into madness is easy behind a car wheel
By Ivan Speck
Last updated at 8:52 AM on 14th July 2011
Ready for the madness? Then we'll begin. And you definitely don't need to be sitting comfortably.
Welcome to a world without restrictions. There are rules yet they are rarely applied with the strictness of the law which pervades the rest of French society. If they were, then the Police stations of the Pyrenees and the Alps would be heaving.
The riders have been applauded from the Vendee into Brittany, cheered and waved at from Normandy into the Massif Central and further south still. Beginning just after lunchtime today, that applause will turn into a gauntlet of passion 25 miles long. That's the total length of the climbs on Stage 12, three mighty slogs up mountains at such altitude, they will need every last breath just to survive.
As they do so, they will be accosted on all sides by spectators high on the euphoria of watching Le Tour in one of its showpiece settings. Oh, and the odd alcoholic drink mixed with sunshine by the Spanish border might have an effect, too. It is bedlam on a hill.
Flower power: The peloton ride past a sunflower during the 11th stage
There are the stationary show-offs, those who lean in front of the motorbikes carrying television cameramen and then there are the fully-fledged, a-baguette-short-of-a-pique-nique nutcases who insist on trying to run up mountains in their dodgy shorts and their still dodgier bellies. Watch out for the fancy dress costumes, the mankinis and, in the Alps especially, the Dutch orange boiler suits.
Some will offer water to the riders, others will simply spray them with it as the sea of spectators parts at an impossibly late moment to allow often lone cyclists to carve their way through. I suppose it stops the riders thinking too far ahead at the gradients which await when all they can see and hear is a Jackson Pollock mish-mashed landscape of colours and a fearsome din.
Downhill struggle: Riders let gravity do the hard work
Today's final climb to Luz-Ardiden isa notable exception to that because its summit is all-but-visible from the town at its foot, Luz-Saint-Sauveur. The brave ones who dare to lookup will see 8.2 miles of narrow Pyrenean road snaking its way up to thesky at an average gradient of 7.4 per cent.
They will see the caravans, too, motorhomes lining the route, giant Basque flags – a symbol of the race when it reaches its tip in the western Pyrenees, perhaps even a stubbornpatch of snow defying the summer sun.
And they will know the mayhem that lies in wait.
I will have experienced it all from behind a steering wheel several hours earlier with the added complication of having to compete for limited road space with hundreds of amateur cyclists all endeavouring to emulate their heroes by scaling one of Le Tour's legendary climbs.
Pedal power: The pack rides during the 11th stage of Le Tour
So slowly do you grind your way up the course that two years ago on Mont Ventoux, the engine of my hire car began to overheat, smoke rising ominously from beneath the bumper. I stopped and turned the engine off. Two minutes later, a gendarme on a motorcycle passed by and told me I couldn't stop where I had. I explained the situation and pointed to the simmering bumper. To no avail. He was adamant I had to move on even, presumably, if the engine exploded and the car had to be towed away. It didn't make sense but then little about Le Tour does. Two other press cars burnt out their clutches that day.
Though the concentration levels required making driving in central London seem like a jaunt in the country on a Sunday afternoon, it is worth every last moment, for no experience in sport comes close to the exhilaration of weaving your way through a heaving mass of humanity super-charged with such frenzied excitement.
Thankfully, though, I have a car engine to help me. The riders have only themselves.