Touring the Tour (2003)

2003 sees the centenary of the Tour de France – though not the 100th edition on account of the two great twentieth century wars. The Tour is the greatest of cyclingÕs stage races – one of the three together with the equivalent races in Italy and Spain that last for three weeks. It is indisputably the greatest of all cycle races, much more important and prestigious than the annual World Championships or the Olympics. In terms of the numbers who watch it by the roadside and throughout the world on TV it is the greatest single sporting event that takes place annually.

I've been fascinated by the Tour de France since childhood. Footballers, cricketers and such like didn't interest me – but Fausto Coppi (who won the race in a truly decisive fashion in 1949 and 1952) was a hero you could really admire. Admire from afar that is. France seemed then as almost as far away as Australia does now – even farther perhaps. And there was no coverage of the race – as far as I was aware – in the newspapers or on radio, nor on TV of course.

You followed the race by buying the weekly magazine Cycling, always known for some reason as 'the comic'. It has since become the glossy Cycling Weekly, with lots of excellent photographs by the likes of Graham Watson, but in those days the photographic coverage was much more sparse and monochrome and following the Tour mainly consisted of carefully reading, a week or so late, the account of the journalists covering the Tour. I never aspired to be able to cycle the route of the mountain stages of the race, let alone to be in any sort of race myself, and I think I'd have been quite pleased at the age of ten to learn that half a century later I would drive up some of the most famous cols and visit the scenes of so much drama.

The route varies each year, but the modern tour has 3 geographical constants – the Alps, the Pyrenees and the finish in Paris on the Champs Elysees. There is always the possibility of surprise in cycle racing, but nearly always the decisive stages are the individual time trials and the mountain stages. The former are often where the race is decided but it has always been the latter that have really captured the imagination.

Nowadays, the Tour may start almost anywhere in France or in a town in one of the neighbouring countries, such as Luxembourg or, in 1998, Dublin. Anywhere except Paris. Except for 2003 when it will return to where it all began in 1903, the Réveil-Matin , Montgeron. Things have changed very much in a century. What was then a rustic inn in a hamlet which in former years had been the staging post of the Lyon diligence is now a restaurant advertising Pelforth beer on its window blinds in a relatively quiet 'dip' off the busy N6 near the southern edge of the bleakly anonymous Paris conurbation. There are two plaques, one commemorating the fiftieth anniversary in 1953; the other 'in homage' it says, 'to the giants of the road' records the official start of the final stage in 1993. It was here around mid-day that 60 contestants assembled for the first stage - a massive 467 kms ride to Lyon - of the very first Tour de France. The favourite and eventual winner, Maurice Garin, reportedly smoked a cigarette as he waited for the race to begin. Interesting, but not as inspiring as the high mountains.

It's at least 300 miles from the southern shore of Lake Geneva (or Lac Leman as it is known in France) to the Mediterranean coast at Nice – closer to 400 the way we are going, driving over some of the great cols that frequently feature in the Tour, taking a leisurely four days over it. This really is leisurely. We're driving shorter stages than the Tour riders normally race. In 2000, for example, they covered most of the route we're taking – albeit in the opposite direction – in 3 days. Our route won't of course take us up every famous climb. In particular, we will leave out L'Alpe D'Huez and other important ascents like La Plagne , where unforgettably in 1987 Stephen Roche from Ireland hung on and recovered in his duel with Pedro Delgado, needed an oxygen mask at the finish - and went on to win not only the Tour but a few weeks later the World Road Race Championship to add to the Giro (Tour of Italy) win he'd already achieved that year. Only Eddy Merckx, nicknamed the 'Cannibal' because of his ferocious appetite for victory and his success in achieving it 524 times in all manner of races, had done that previously.

No, we'll be sticking to roads that actually go somewhere – more than just up to a ski station and then back down again the same way. Much of the time we'll be on the route of the Grande Traversée des Alpes and the D902. It's a warm evening in late July – just after the end of the Tour. We're having dinner on the terrace of the hotel restaurant looking out over the lake as the light gradually fades. Above us is the very pretty - but ever so touristy little town of Yvoire with its narrow streets, abundance of flowers and medieval gateways. But we're down at the bottom of the hill next to the long jetty and the small harbour full of small private craft. It's still quite busy here but somehow a little more 'real' as well as less crowded and more relaxed. We are staying at Les Flots Bleus and eating in the hotel restaurant. What must be the last steamer of the day with a Swiss flag over the stern in pulling away. There is a regional Alpine flavour to the menu – a starter of raw mountain ham, local Savoie cheeses and a bottle of Chautagne. The heights of the Jura on the other side of the lake are fading as darkness falls, but we don't need to see the Alps behind us to be conscious of their massive presence.

Next morning, the trip begins almost anti-climatically. After a boring bit along the coast to Thonon, we're off southwards through Morzine and Les Gets. Now it's getting standard ski-resort-like. Cautiously sticking to main roads at this stage, we've already missed one of the trickiest climbs - the Joux-Plane – that comes in to Morzine over a small country road. It was there, in 2000, that the phenomenal Lance Armstrong showed a rare sign of vulnerability. His inspiring recovery from testicular cancer had been followed by an almost equally amazing victory in the 1999 Tour. The following year he had seemed, if anything, even more unbeatable. But he cracked on the Joux-Plane and looked as though he might – just - lose the race overall, though with a lead of over seven minutes and only 4 'flat' stages plus a time trial to go, this would take some doing. In the end that day Armstrong recovered sufficiently to still retain more than a five and a half minute lead over Jan Ullrich. A memorable moment, though.

Our first real pass is the Col de La Colombière [1618 metres]. After a long twisting climb we reach the top. It's surprisingly busy. The inevitable cafˇ and lots and lots of cars. Difficult to find somewhere to stop for a photo. Then on down through Le Grand Bornand. Our next climb, the Col des Aravis [1498 metres], gives us a view of Mont Blanc in the distance - although one shrouded in mist. Our last climb of the day the Col des Saisies [1632] is a bit disappointing. The summit, which is quite long and flat, seems overdeveloped. There's a sort of suburban carriageway arrangement with a couple of little traffic islands. We drift down into Beaufort, the home of the famous cheese, 'the prince of gruyères' according to that pioneering foodie Brillat-Savarin. This features in more than one guise in dinner that evening at the Hotel Doron, as does the equally 'regional' Diot sausage, made with pork and vegetables and cooked in white wine.

The next day we tackle first the splendidly named Cormet de Roselend [1605] with marvellous view of the Mont Blanc range. Very different from how it looked in 1996 – one of the wettest and coldest Tours on record. Poor Stephane Heulot the erstwhile race leader was forced by a painfully defective right knee to retire from the race – in tears, understandably. Later that day Miguel Indurain, only the fourth ever to win 5 Tours and the very first to accomplish this in successive years, finally cracked on the final climb to Les Arcs. Its 20.5 kms – nearly 13 miles – from the top of the Cormet down to Bourg-St Maurice. From there it was, for us, down the main road, past the bottom of the initial hairpins leading up to the 'Little' St Bernard Pass into Italy, past the Lac du Chevril, with the huge picture of a head on the Tignes dam, to Val D'Is¸re. The Col D'Iseran [2770 metres] is by far the highest so far – indeed the second highest of the entire trip. It's 35 kms - 22 miles with an average gradient of 7.4%. to its very rocky top, with craggy outcrops among the yellowing grass. There are a number of one-storey buildings with thick stone walls and very small windows where one can buy the usual postcards and mementoes. We stop for a coffee, and I buy a little booklet about how in the summer of 1944 the Iseran was liberated by the local Resistance.

In 1996 one whole stage of the Tour was almost wiped out by snow, the Iseran and the Galibier were both impassable and the stage was reduced to a mere 46 kms. The eventual overall winner, Bjarne Riis of Denmark, stormed over the Col de Montgenèvre and into Italy to win the stage at Sestrières. There seems to be a rule that any stage ending there is important and memorable. Fausto Coppi won there in 1952. There was a 40 year gap before the next Tour visit, then another Italian, the mercurial Claudio Chiappucci won after an epic lone breakaway. Interviewed by Channel 4, the American Andy Hampsten said that Chiappucci's victory was the best he'd ever seen. The following day Hampsten himself won the Alpe D'Huez stage – so he was well qualified to judge these things. Then in 1999, returning to the Tour after his terrible illness, Lance Armstrong surprised many by the strength of his timetrialling first in the Prologue and then in at Metz when he regained the leader's yellow jersey in the time trial. After a rest day in Le Grand Bornand the 'real race' in the mountains was about to begin. Armstrong could time trial, clearly, but could he climb? Could he at least finish close enough behind the specialist climbers to preserve his lead? What happened was the stuff of legends; an almost unbelievable attack over the last 6 kilometres gave Armstrong the stage win and increased his lead in the General Classification to over 6 minutes.

The next day we have a classic series of cols, the Galibier, the Izoard, and the Col de Vars. First though, the Col du Télégraphe – a sort of stepping stone to the Galibier which hairpins up from the valley to 1566 metres. The view down makes you feel dizzy. Just at the top, the inevitable café. Refreshed, onward through Valloire, now another ski resort, to the Galibier. The last few kilometres seem to go straight up vertically. Even driving up tires you out! At the summit – once an international boundary and now the point where we say goodbye to Haute Savoie and enter Provence – the view is spectacular. The character of the mountains has gradually changed since we left Yvoire. The cols of the north were all lush grass, wooden chalets and cow-bells. Had Julie Andrews and a bunch of singing kids appeared round the corner, no one would have been surprised.

Now we're in a rougher, craggier, rockier, and generally sparser world. From the sign announcing the altitude as 2645 metres we look down as the road twists sinuously down the mountain. A little way below we can pick out a thick almost drum-like pillar in a small stony clearing at a bend in the road. It's the memorial to Henri Desgrange, the creator , as the monument tells us, of the Tour who died in 1940. The Galibier, first included in 1911, was his favourite col and he is remembered when the tour passes this way by the Souvenir Henri Desgrange prize awarded to the first rider to cross the summit.

At the bottom of the Galibier descent we come out onto the main road at the Col du Lautarat [2058 metres]. Then it's down past Brian¨on, the highest town in the France with a Vauban citadel and more fortifications of a similar provenance high in the mountains. Turn eastwards here and you're soon climbing the Col de Montgen¸vre at the top of which is the border with Italy from where the road goes on to Sestrières. But we are going south. Our next objective is the famousCol D'Izoard [2360 metres]. It was here in 1949 that Fausto Coppi made his race-winning lone break , dropping his rival Gino Bartali and taking the stage by more than 26 minutes. The mountain is equally associated with Louison Bobet – the first man to win 3 successive Tours (1953, '54, '55) and at that stage only the 2nd to achieve that number of overall victories. Philippe Thys of Belgium was the first in 1913, 1914 and 1920. Might he have been the first 5 Tours winner had the Great War not intervened? As it is, only Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain (5 wins), Lance Armstrong (4 wins - to date) and Greg Lemond (3 wins), have equalled or bettered the feat of Thys and Bobet. Decisive breakaways on the Izoard were key moves in Bobet's first two Tour victories. The col didn't feature in the 1955 Tour.

It's another long climb – 20 kms – and at the top there's a chimney like pillar with plaques including one commemorating the opening of the Route des Alpes in August 1934. Attached to the cafè there's a little museum of cycling memorabilia, including one of Coppi's yellow jerseys. But the strangest and most distinctive bit of the Izoard is just a little further on, as we begin the 31 kms descent to Guillestre – the Casse Déserte. This is difficult to describe without cliché. It's often called 'lunar'. The grey and brown rocks seem to have been whipped into peaks on either side of the road like a miniature gothic mountain range. What most catches the eye are the rock stacks that rear up out of the void on the outside or 'precipice' side of the road. And it is on one of these that one can just about read the weather-worn inscriptions on the two plaques – side by side – commemorating Coppi and Bobet. After the Izoard the otherwise redoubtable Col de Vars [2109 m] seems – well, a little ordinary. The summit marks the boundary between the Haute Alpes and Alpes de Haute Provence departments

We staying this night at the Cheval Blanc in Barcelonnette. The town has an unexpected connection with Mexico - a local man made good there in the 19th century and persuaded some of his fellow townspeople to join his enterprise there. The connection is commemorated in the name and building style of the Azteca hotel and the central square – the Place Manuel where we catch the tail end of a local celebration featuring L'Atelier des Enfants du Jazz.

From Barcelonnette it is, I calculate, just over 80 miles to Nice, via the Col de La Bonnette Restefonds which, at 2802 metres, is not only the highest of our trip, but is said to be the highest pass – that's to say road that goes anywhere except straight up and down the same way – in Europe. This col has been used by the Tour only 3 times. Leading over the top in 1962 and 1964 was Federico Bahomontes, the great Spanish climber who won the race only once, in 1959, but won the 'King of the Mountains' competition, no less than six, Bahomontes was known as 'The Eagle of Toledo' and legend has it that on more than one occasion he stopped, having reached the summit well ahead of the bunch, bought an ice cream and ate it at a leisurely pace while the field caught up.

The very top of La Bonnette is bleaker than anywhere else I've ever been. It is like being on another planet. There is no vegetation at all – not even the occasional scrubby bush that survives on the Izoard. The rock is dark grey, almost black. The black ground looks dry and as if you could crumble it away in handfuls. The road is very narrow and the unfenced drops must be terrifying to race past on a bike. There's a sort of one way system at the summit. There is also a weather resistant plastic plaque which tells us that a military road was planned in 1860 under Napoleon III but only opened in its present form on 1961 – just in time for the Eagle of Toledo and his pursuers. Restorative work was done on the road in 1987 and the years following – just in time, then, for Robert Millar to cross the summit ahead of the race in 1993 – the only other time the Tour has ventured up this terrible mountain. Millar, unrelated to the current British Tour hope, David Millar, though like him a Scot, still holds the record for the best ever British placing in the Tour – the race as a whole rather than a stage. He came 4th in 1984 winning the Mountains prize in the same edition.

From the top of La Bonnette it is downhill all the way to Nice. I almost regret not having put my bike in the back so I could enjoy a 30 mile freewheel. On the way we pass the turnoff for Isola 2000. In 1993 this was used as a mountain top finish and a sort of substitute for Alpe D'Huez which wasn't included in that year's race. Robert Millar - like Bahomontes a 'pure climber' – was nearing the end of his distinguished career that year and it would have been poetic justice if, having led over the 'roof' of the Tour at La Bonnette, he had gone on to clinch the stage win. Sadly, it was not to be. Miguel Indurain, on his way to the 3rd of his 5 consecutive Tour victories, was being pressed by Tony Rominger and Claudio Chiapucci. They caught and passed Millar on the final climb . Millar counter-attacked at least twice – but to no avail. Rominger, from Switzerland, won the stage and eventually finished 2nd in the race as a whole, a second under 5 minutes behind Indurain.

So much, for the Alps, but before we go across the South of France to the Pyrenees, we have one more mountain on the Eastern side to visit - Mont Ventoux. I have known one or two British cycling fans who are a bit vague about its whereabouts. They think of it as being in the Alps. It's certainly on the alpine side of the Rhône but quite a long way from the Alps proper. Its a huge almost oval shaped mountain in plan, looking like a monstrous beached whale from the distance, There are plenty of much lower foothills around it including the jagged Dentelles de Montmirail but otherwise standing in spendid isolation, visible from great distances in most directions. The top looks as though it is permanently covered in snow, but though this is usually the case in winter, at other times of year the appearance is more likely to be because of the treeless almost vegetation-less nature of the light grey scree that covers the summit. From there on a clear day one can see the some of the valleys of the rivers Rh™ne and Durance, the Vercors, the Lubéron, the Alpilles, Cézanne's Montagne Sainte-Victoire and even Marseille. The first known ascent of the mountain was by Petrarch the Florentine poet and renaissance intellectual who spent much of his life at nearby papal Avignon. In 1336 he climbed the mountain with his brother and a servant (in cycling parlance a 'domestique' or a 'gregario') one night that April when there was a full-moon. He recorded his impressions of the 'sublime panorama' that greeted their eyes as the sun rose.

The first road to the summit, just over 1900 metres from the village of Bédoin at the base of the mountain, was opened in 1882 when the meteorological observatory – still very much there – was built. Some years later , the 'Giant of Provence' was used for the 'Ventoux Marathon' the first of many cycle races to use the mountain. Yet the first visit of the Tour de France was not until 1951. Bernard Mondon's splendid little book has a summary of the 12 stages between then and 2000. Six crossed the summit en route for finishes down below in Avignon or Carpentras; two were time-trials finishing at the summit and the remaining four were 'road race' stages also finishing there. A similar finish there in 2002 brings the total number of Ventoux stages to 13. With later road-building, ascent is now possible from the north (and even the east, though that has only been used once in the Tour) as well as the south. Both north and south routes are 21 kms long but whereas the northern route has an average gradient of 7.5% this goes up to 7.6% on the south with – significantly – this going up to 8.4% for the last 4 kms. Given the time-honoured sadism of Tour de France organisers no-one will be surprised to learn that it is this southern route which has been used most frequently.

We therefor dutifully leave Bˇdoin on this route. It is ordinary enough at first. We're driving along between the trees. What is different from the alpine climbs is that there are very few bends. The road stretches out in front relentlessly. For Tour riders 'off the back' of the pˇleton (or main bunch) this must be like adding insult to injury. They can see much more clearly than usually just how far behind they are falling. To begin with we are going across the long side of the mountain from west to east. Then at the Chalet Reynard about two third of the way up there is – at last – a sharp turn to the left and we are tracking back westwards toward the summit – the aptly named Col des Tempêtes. We're out of the trees tracking across the endless expanse of shale or scree. Just a white stony desert Another 'lunar' landscape.

It's a killer mountain. William Fotheringham in his book on Tom Simpson gives some examples of the – non-cycling – casualties including two soldiers stationed at the observatory in 1936 who froze to death in a white-out snowstorm. The day Simpson died on 13 July 1967 on the Tour's 13th stage the problem was the opposite; intense heat. About a kilometre from the summit we stop opposite the memorial. We are not the only ones. It sees a steady stream of visitors, some of whom leave cycle tires, racing caps, bidons (feeding bottles) or even pedals and cranks as a sort of homage to the first British cyclist to wear the yellow jersey (in 1962) and winner of the World Road Race Championship in 1965. Simpson is described on the monument (in French) as a 'British Sporting Ambassador' and that is surely right whatever conclusion one come to about the doping issue which has inevitable been linked to his name since his death. Since we last came here a tiny plaque has been added recording the 30th anniversary of his death when his daughters Jane and Joanne road up the mountain.

The greatest road racing cyclist of all, Eddy Merckx, a truly famous Belgian, started his professional career in Simpson's Peugeot team. In 1967 he attended Simpson's funeral. The next time the Tour came up the Ventoux was in 1970. Merckx was on his way to the second of his five victories. He was also leading on the stage that finished at the summit - and indeed went on to win it. But three kilometres from the line the commentators announced that he was 'in trouble'. He was gasping for air and struggling to keep going. Had 'the Cannibal' cracked at last? He was certainly having a harder time than usual. Yet as he passed the newly erected memorial Merckx managed to take off his cycling cap and cross himself in tribute to Simpson.

At the café just before the top my daughter buys me a copy of Bertrand Mondon's book on the Tour on the Ventoux. He quotes, as other writers on the subject do, the words of Roland Barthes's chapter on the Tour in Mythologies (1957) in which he characterises the mountain as 'an evil god, to whom one must sacrifice.' Much more recently, Lance Armstrong has told how he feels that the mountain is sinister – and doesn't like him. Which has not stopped him doing rather well on it.

But there is at least one cheerful tale of the Ventoux. In 1994 the 'giant', the wonderfully-named Italian rider Eros Poli, could not have been looking forward to the stage that went over Mont Ventoux and ended in Carpentras. Climbers, like Robert Millar or more recently Marco Pantani are invariably small and light and thin. Heavily-build sprinters for general all-rounders like Poli usually suffer horribly in the high mountains. Poli seems to have decided that the best strategy was to tear off into the lead before he reached the foot of the climb. No doubt he would be over-hauled on the climb but he would get to the top not too far behind and with no danger of being eliminated by being outside the time-limit at the end. It seemed to be working well when Poli reached the beginning of the climb with about 15 minutes lead on his nearest pursuer and 25 on the peleton. The race leaders and the climbers Virenque and Pantani began cutting into this lead in a big way, standing on the pedals, swaying across the road between the mass of encouraging spectators, his racing jersey unzipped to get the maximum air to his large and sweat-drenched body on another sweltering day, Poli fought his way up a metre at a time. Surely he would be caught before he passed the observatory? But he was still in the lead as he passed the Simpson memorial where the race organisers together with Merckx and Bernard Hinault were placing the usual commemorative flowers. He was still ahead at the summit, though Pantani was now less than four minutes behind. But on the descent the advantage went back to the heavyweight Poli. Coming downhill on a bike weight does make a difference. Pantani could make no more inroads as he struggled to get maximum speed down the mountain. At the bottom with 20 kilometres still to go Eros Poli had five minutes lead. He managed to hang on to most of this, taking his most famous victory with 4' 35 over Pantani and 6' 03 over Virenque – the two greatest climbers of that period.

Now it's a long drive across Languedoc and on past Perpignan to Collioure not very far from the Spanish border. We're set to do the same sort of trip through the Pyrenees as we did with the Alp, only just three days this time. We'll go up all – or at least most – of the cols associated with this mountain range and in the process move from the Catalan area of France to the Basque. If Yvoire was busy, this pretty harbour town with its chateau and quayside church is busier still. The air is so clear and the colours of everything so bright it seems almost inevitable that Derain and Matisse should (more or less) invent fauvism here around 1905.

The following day we set on the long slow climb along the N 116. High in the mountains we stop for coffee at the pleasant – and busy – fortified town of Mont-Louis. Fortifications by Vauban again. Didn't he just get around? It's difficult to put your finger on just how the Pyrenees differ from the Alps, but they do. I suppose part of it is that the latter spread untidily and seemingly endlessly across Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Slovenia and a sort of 'bog standard' Alpine building style based on the Swiss chalet has become common everywhere, the Pyrenees are more like a neat line drawn across the map to divide France from Spain – and the 'chalet style' though not unknown is far less common. On the whole, they feel wilder and less tamed. I suppose this is symbolised by the survival – with great difficulty and as a result of conservation projects – of the Pyrenean bear. Though the first two Tours were more or less 'flat', the race started getting entangled in mountains at a surprisingly early stage given the weight of the machines in those days and the absence of derailleur gears. The first col to be tackled was the Ballon D'Alsace in the Vosges. At 1176 metres that doesn't count as a high mountain (though the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis is only a couple of hundred metres higher). The Tour took on the Pyrenees in 1910. It's said that among the objections of the riders (which of course simply convinced Desgrange that he was on the right track) was the fear that they would be attacked – and possibly eaten – by bears.

Our first col is the Puymorens [1915m], first visited by the Tour in 1919. A handy tunnel now takes the N 20 avoiding the col but this is not for us. Next we are heading towards Andorra and the Port D'Envalira.[2470 m]. This is a spectacular climb. The mountains are very open here allowing the eye to sweep round and down a very long way without other peaks getting in the way. It's the highest pass we will be going over in the Pyrenees. Immediately after the border we go from the sublime to the sub-duty free warehouse. There are dozens of emporia, selling anything you can think of at advantageous tax free prices, and doing good business too. But soon we're past and still climbing to the summit. The Envalira hasn't been used very often by the Tour – although as if to make up for that in advance the both first and second times were in 1964 when they climbed over and into Andorra La Vella – the capital of this tiny republic one day, and out over it the next. Bahomontes was first over the col on the second day. But unlike us he was not stopped by the French customs in search of contraband. Takes you back in these post-Schengen days.

Andorra was the home of Festina watches, who sponsored the team eventually led by Richard Virenque in the 1990s. This was the team that was in the eye of the doping storm that nearly brought the 1998 to a premature halt. The 1999 Tour was to be one of renewal and redemption. And so it seemed. Yet the fact that the wife of the rider placed third in 2002, the Lithuanian, Raimondas Rumsas, has been remanded in custody in France for several months on performance-drug related charges makes me apprehensive that the 'Affaire Festina may not be the end of this sorry saga. I hope I'm wrong.

For once, we have retraced our steps from the Port D'Envalira and after bowling down the main road towards Foix, we turn off near Tarascon-sur-Ariège and take the D 618 over the Col du Port, which seems to be saying the same thing twice. This was last used in 2002. It was the penultimate climb on one of the most decisive days of the Tour, where Armstrong made one of his by now characteristic breakaways six kilometres from the mountain top finish at Plateau de Beille. We spend a very pleasant evening at the Hotel des Trois Seigneurs in Massat sipping a hypocras apéritif at a table on the veranda before tucking in to an excellent dinner.

The next morning sees us driving up the not very high [1070 m] but for cyclists very tricky Portet D'Aspet. On the descent we spot what we've been looking for – the memorial to that other Tour fatality, Fabio Casartelli. He crashed fatally here in 1995. The stage the next day was neutralised with the riders simply riding the route at touring speed in one big bunch until near the line the surviving members of Casartelli's team were sent to the front to symbolically cross the line first. As Armstrong, a team-mate of Casartelli on the later recalled the Motorola riders were split about whether to withdraw from the race or carry on - with Armstrong initially among those who wanted to quit. But when Jim Ochowicz, the team manager mentioned a day or two later that Casartelli had been planning to try and win the stage into Limoges he decided to win the race for him. Though he attacked – as he admits – far too soon and in the wrong sort of place, Armstrong pulled it off and won by a minute, pointing at the sky by way of dedication as he crossed the line.

The marble monument is beautiful and impressive. It's surrounded by flowers, some neatly in pots. And it's clearly much visited. There was a car pulling away as we arrived and I saw another arriving in the rear mirror as we left. I suppose given the speeds coming down mountains and the often dangerous roads the amazing thing is that so few riders have been killed on the Tour. Tragically, in recent years there have been fatalities among spectators – at least one a child. Killed, of course, not by the riders but by part of the huge entourage of cars and vans that accompanies the Tour. Among riders there have only been four deaths on the Tour in its first hundred years – Tom Simpson and Fabio Casartelli are two; the others were Adolphe Hˇli¸re from Rennes who, of all things, drowned at Nice during a rest-day in the 1910 Tour and the Spanish rider, Francisco Cepada, who died after a crash near Bourg D'Oisans in the Alps in 1935.

At the summit of the next climb, the Col de Menté [1350m] a few miles further on, we find, in addition to a coffee at the café quite a large enclosure full of kennels containing huskies. There is also a memorial to a – presumably local – cyclist Serge Lapebie whose dates are given as 1945-1991. Two riders with that surname contested Tours in the late thirties and the late forties. Possibly he was related.

Our route now takes us, as it does the Tour when it comes this way, over the border into Spain as far as the nice little mountain town of Bossòst where a sharp right hand turn takes us to into a minor road back into France via the 5 mile long Col du Portillon [1293m] – except that we discover that on the Spanish side it is called Portillo, thus lending a whole new dimension to that famous cry of the day after the 1997 election 'Were you still up for Portillo?'

Through Luchon, where in 1937 Charles Holland, the first British contestant in the Tour, after struggling without a team or mechanics or any sort of assistance was finally eliminated after a final mechanical breakdown, and up the Col de Peyresourde [569]. We are now on what my picture postcard calls the route des cols coming into the area of the mountains most visited by the Tour. We stay the night in Arreau where a spectacular thunderstorm accompanies our meal, featuring such regional specialities as garbure and a local sheeps' milk cheese.

Still on the route des cols, now the D 918, we're closing in on the Pyrenean mountains that have been used most frequently in the tour – 50, 60 or more times in most cases. The first is the Col D'Aspin. The little herd of cows at the top, each sporting a bell, seem to be unimpressed by the magnificent view across to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, the 2812 metre high mountain crowed by an observatory and TV mast. That's where we are off to next; the Tourmalet pass crosses immediately below it. But first we have to get down the Aspin and through the little village between the two mountains, Ste Marie-de-Campan. Various notices and leaflets announce that it will be en fête in a few days time. We are more interested in finding the forge, or to be more exact the plaque that marks where the forge used to be.

There it is! The plaque, the gift of the French Cycling Federation under the patronage of the paper L'Equipe it says, tells the story. 'Here in 1913 Eugène Christophe, the French racing cyclist, first in the General Classification of the Tour de France [i.e. leading the race at that stage I B] the victim of an accident to his machine on the Tourmalet repaired the forks of his bicycle. Although he'd come numerous kilometres on foot down the mountain and lost many hours, Eug¸ne Christophe did not abandon the race he should have won, furnishing thus an example of sublime will.'

There's a little more to tell. Different authorities give slightly different accounts but Christophe, a leading candidate for the 'all-time unlucky rider of the Tour' prize (known – on account of his huge moustache as 'Le Vieux Gaulois' – the Old Gaul), had a big lead over the col, then broke the forks of his bike at the Broussé bend three kilometres down the descent. He then jogged 13 or 14 kilometres with the bike over his shoulders down to Ste Marie-de-Campan. There, monitored by three race commissaires (including it is said Desgrange himself ) he effected a repair at the forge. This took four hours. The rules in those early days forbade assistance of any kind and – this next bit may be apocryphal but is widely believed – the commissaires gave him a further ten minute penalty because, having only two hands, he had let the blacksmith's boy operate the bellows for him.

Nor was this the end of the matter. He had two more almost identical mishaps. In 1919 he lost three hours, and the Tour, when his forks broke again at Valenciennes, and in 1922 coming down from the Galibier in the opposite direction from us, he had yet another broken bike accident at Valloire. Undaunted as ever in the best Boys' Own tradition, he borrowed a (no doubt heavyweight) bike from the local curé and disappeared over the Télégraphe into legend. In all he took part in eleven editions of the Tour, the last in 1924 at the age of 40. He never won but was second in 1912 and, in spite of the accident, third in 1919. It seems utterly appropriate that in 1919 he was the first rider ever to wear the newly-introduced yellow jersey of the race leader.

The summit of the Col du Tourmalet [2115 m] one of the great climbs of the Tour, the Pyrenean equivalent perhaps of the Galibier in the Alps. Like the latter, the top is quite narrow unlike some cols where there's a flat bit – something of a miniature plateau. As on most of the mountains we've been up since leaving Yvoire we have passed quite large numbers of cyclists – male and female, old and young, alone or in small groups. Some of those at the top of the Tourmalet look to be as old if not older than me and I feel a bit ashamed of coming up the easy way. It must be a great feeling to battle your way to the top – however long it takes you. But once there, there is just room for the café – a look at its cycling memorabilia, a good look around outside at the magnificent view, and then it's down the other side, unless you elect to go back down the side you've come up.

Things have changed since we were last here. Then, for an entrance fee, one could gingerly drive up the narrow little road to the observatory (and café of course) at the Pic du Midi some 700-odd metres above the col. Near the top the sides of the road were sheets of ice and snow, although it was mid-summer. Now the road is closed – being repaired and upgraded. Also there are now two commemorative bits of statuary. One dedicated to the Tour and especially Octave Lapize who first climbed the Tourmalet in the Tour of 1910, which he went on to win, and the other a bust of Jacques Goddet who took over the direction of the Tour when Desgrange became ill in the mid-1930s and continued until 1988. The first Souvenir Jacques Goddet prize went to the Swiss rider Sven Montgomery in 2001; the next will go to the first over the summit in 2003.

And so after a long descent and passing through Argèles-Gazost to the Col de Soulor [1475 m] a 20 km climb. From here there is a narrow one-track corniche with a few passing places to the Col D'Aubisque [1710 m] another 10 kilometres on. This is a frightening road to drive along, with rocky little tunnels and an appalling drop on the outer edge of the road. To think about racing along it makes the mind boggle. It boggles again when on reaching the Aubisque I read a traffic sign seemingly regulated to alternate 12 hour periods the direction that goods vehicles are allowed along this road. What on earth would they be doing up here, in the first place?

1910 was the first year the Tour ventured into the Pyrenees. The state of the mountain roads in those days can be imagined. Desgrange and the other organisers were apprehensive. Were they asking too much of the riders? They waited at the mist-enshrouded summit of the Aubisque. Eventually, a solitary rider appeared. It was Francois Lafourcade. He went by without saying a word. A quarter of an hour passed. Then out of the mist appeared, on foot and pushing his bike, Octave Lapize: 'Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!' he is said to have shouted at Desgrange and his assistants. In that context being called a murderer was likely only to encourage the tormentor. Desgrange was well on the way to establishing the austerity and toughness of the event that have remained the keynotes of the Tour ever since. Happily, Lapize went on the win both stage and race. Tragically he was one of three early Tour victors to die in the 1914-1918 War, in his case on Bastille Day 1917.

The mainly smaller climbs of the Western end of the Pyrenees have featured only intermittently in the Tour, but before leaving the area on our way back to Paris we stop at – of all places – a motorway service station between Pau and Tarbes to look at the large and impressive sculpture entitled 'The Tour de France in the Pyrenees'. A twisted, convoluted steel track rises high into the culminating in an impossibly steep peak. Eight figure of racing cyclists – a bit reminiscent of the one at the top of the Tourmalet – same artist? – are spread out in groups of two or three. The leading figure, painted yellow is giving the traditional winners two-armed salute. Round the base are information plaques recording notable Pyrenean moments in the Tour.

Nowadays, it seems impossible that the Tour de France should end anywhere else except on the Champs Elysée. Yet before 1976 it regularly finished at the Parc des Princes velodrome. We first saw the end of the Tour in 1979. We were part of the crowd lining the banks of the Seine near the Eiffel Tower. It began rather well. Somehow – I seem to remember a level crossing was the culprit – the two race (and stage) leaders Bernard Hinault and Joop Zootemelk had built a substantial lead over the peleton. They flashed by with Hinault in yellow hard on Zootemelk's back wheel. When the rest of the race had gone through we walked over to the Champs Elysées where optimistic salesmen were busy selling little periscopes to the more gullible spectators. It is difficult enough seeing anything but a blur anyway when a bunch of racing cyclists pass you at 30 mph or more. A periscope would not help. Since then we have seen many Tours end there. It's Sunday morning and we usually go and stroll down from the Arc de Triomphe soaking up the atmosphere. The road is already closed , the banners out, the police earnestly organising and the keenest spectators marking out their patch. I always buy an overpriced 'official' T-shirt. When we've had enough we go off somewhere – the Orsay for example and return just in time to see the race arrive and the final circuits. The excellent daily sports paper L'Equipe – essential reading also the following day for its magisterial summing up of the race – gives the estimated times of arrival. It's a safe bet that the first riders will arrive quite a lot later; taking it easy and fooling about in the pre-Champs Elysée hours of the race has become traditional. And unless you're near the giant TV screen you usually don't see who wins the stage. On one occasion in the early '90s we were having a beer at a café near the Tuileries when the Tour ambulance went charging past with sirens screaming. It was only later we realised that it had contained the kamikaze sprinter Djamolidine Abdoujaparov badly injured in the final yards of the Tour after hitting a barrier with a sponsor's sign from Coca-Cola. The most quietly moving occasion was in 1995. Indurain had just won what turned out to be his final Tour victory. He was not a very exciting rider to watch, but clearly a modest and good-natured man and no-one could deny his unique achievement in not only winning five Tours – as only Anquetil, Merckx, and Hinault had done previously – but winning them in consecutive years. 2003 will see whether Lance Armstrong can equal this. We were at in the Tuileries gardens at the end overlooking the Place de la Concorde – virtually trapped there until the barriers were opened. The race had finished some little time before. We were standing peering over the balustrade towards the Champs Elysée where nearly half a mile away the winner's presentation was taking place. We'd been part of a large crowd, made up – judging from the variety of languages – of many different nationalities. Now the race was over and there was nothing more to see a dozen or so people had collapsed onto those indestructible iron chairs that inhabit Paris parks. We couldn't see the podium, still less the winner. Neither could he or anyone see us. But as the first strains of the Spanish national anthem drifted over we heard the scraping of chairs behind us. I glance over my shoulder. Quietly and undemonstratively the sitters were rising to their feet.

8,063 words

For more on the Tour de France
Samuel Abt & Graham Watson Off to the Races: 25 Years of Cycling Journalism. Boulder, Colorado, Velo Press.
Lance Armstrong (with Sally Jenkins) It's Not About the Bike. My Journey Back to Life. London; Yellow Jersey Press/Random House, 2000.
Jacques Augendre, Tour de France. Le Livre Officiel. The official wonderfully illustrated guide published every year by Solar within a couple of weeks of the end of the Tour.
Julian Barnes 'Tour de France 2000' in Something to Declare Picador/Pan Macmillan, 2001.
Phiippe Brunel, An Intimate Portrait of the Tour de France. Masters and Slaves of the Road (English Edition) Denver; Buonpane Publications, 1996.
Pierre Chany, Le Tour de France, Geneva; Editions Liber, 1995.
Graeme Fife, Tour de France. The History the Legend, the Riders, Edinburgh; Mainstream, 1999.
William Fotheringham, Put me back on my bike. In Search of Tom Simpson Yellow Jersey Press/Random House, 2002.
Bertrand Mondon Les Grande Heures du Tour de France au Ventoux. Le Temps Retrouvˇ, Barbentane; Editions Equinoxe, 2001.
Jean Nelissen, La Bible du Tour de France, Maastricht; WIN Publiciteit, 1995.
Geoffrey Nicholson, The Great Bike Race London; Hodder and Stoughton , 1977.
Tom Simpson, Cycling is my Life, London; Pelham, 1965.
James Start, Tour de Frnce/Tour de Force. A Visual History of the World's Greatest Bicycle Race.San Francisco; Chronicle Books, 2000.
Rik Vanwalleghem, Eddy Merckx. The Greatest Cyclist of the 20th Century (English Edition) Boulder, Colorado; Velo Press, 2000.
David Walsh, Inside the Tour de France, London; Stanley Paul, 1994.
John Wilcockson & Charles Pelkey, Lance Armstrong and the 1999 Tour de France Boulder, Colorado; Velo Press, 1999.

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