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Team Clif Bar Blog
Jul 22, 2011
Tour de France Evacuation

After watching all the fabulous racing through the marvelous mountains of the Tour de France - and seeing all those wild, enthusiastic fans who line the roads as the riders go by - Mark Johnson checks in to give us a glimpse of the aftermath of a mountain stage.  
The TdF racers rip down the descents at blistering speeds.  The fans in their vehicles… not so much.

Tour de France Evacuation
Story and photos by Mark Johnson  

Tour de France mountain top stage finishes are glorious, nail-biting spectacles, whether you are watching them on TV or in person. Only for people watching in person on the mountain, the adventure really begins when the race is over.  

Take stage 12 to Luz Ardiden, a 5,627-foot Pyrenean beast.  At the top of the climb we park in a lot that is less parking lot than one of those puzzles where you slide numbered pieces around in a square area until they go in numeric order. Only with this puzzle, by the time all the cars are packed in, there was no empty space left to move your pieces into.

After Spaniard Samuel Sanchez takes the win in front of legions of Basque fans who are busily burning things, drinking gallons of vino tinto and waving giant banners in support, we make our way back to our car. Seeing as it was lodged between a semi-trailer and 300 other cars, we occupied ourselves for a couple of hours until the parking lot loosens up a bit.

A French gendarmerie waves us out of the lot onto the race course—the only way into and out of Luz Ardiden. It is 6:30 pm and, according to our Garmin GPS, our hotel is 60 minutes away. Only GPS satellites don’t account for anomalies like the Tour de France, with its 200 publicity vehicles, army of 4,000 employees, 2,000 journalists, plus 20 teams and all the cars and trucks they need. Oh yes, there is also the matter of the hundreds of thousands of fans who have walked, cycled and driven onto the mountain over the previous week. They also want to go home on the same single exit road the moment the yellow jersey is handed out.

Six hours after getting in the car we finally make it to our hotel that night.

The scene two days later on the Plateu de Beille illustrates why it takes five hours to go down an eight-mile road at the Tour.  

At 5,840-feet, Plateau de Beille, is, as the name suggests, a beautiful plateau in the sky. Only where Luz Ardiden is seriously constricted in terms of parking area, stage 14 has vast fields where the world’s press corps, race vehicles, and fans can park their vehicles.

Once the race ends, there is a rush for the cars. At first, there is some order to the chaos. Team vehicles go down the single access road first, bookended by police escorts. From afar, that looks like a forest of carbon fiber moving en masse.

Once the team cars go down, the publicity caravan heads out. This takes an hour to get past, during which the vast parking lot, carefully organized in the morning, metastasizes into a huge snarl of vehicles, all heading for the mouth of one small mountain road. People take down traffic-guiding ribbons. They drive low-slung rental cars over grass berms. They glare and honk. Finally, 90 minutes after we get in our car, we make it to the road, where we go 500 meters, then sit. For no apparent reason.

When traffic starts flowing again, it takes over both lanes, only in waves. For a while it’s orderly, everyone driving down in the right lane, while the left, uphill lane is occupied by the cyclists and walkers pouring down the mountain.

But when an ambulance comes racing down in the left lane, probably carrying someone asphyxiated by auto fumes in the car park, others see this as an opportunity to draft. Suddenly the left lane is filled with a stream of cars screaming around corners in the ambulance’s wake. Eventually one of two things puts a stop to this; a French policeman will stand in the left lane waving the miscreants over to the right, or a Tour de France semi-trailor will be in the left lane picking up the miles of crowd barriers they erect every night.

At one such stop, we get out of our car in front of a field that has been turned into a sprawling fan encampment. Under tarps spread between motor homes, Spaniards sit at tables loaded with tortilla, olives and cheese. Norwegians march around with Viking helmets, waving their country’s flag and breaking into singsong praises of the magnificent feats of their Thor Hushovd.

On the road, a clan of French are in costume. Their camp is a picture of industry. They carted their own bar up the climb and set it up on the right side of the road. A sign on the bar reads “Le Relais Des Grimpeurs.” Roughly translated, “Place where climbers can get drunk.” It is decorated with red polka dots. A yellow yard umbrella provides shade, and next to that is a white inflatable couch were a woman sits. She is not part of this group—she just sat down to rest while hiking up the hill. She is alarmed when I take her picture in their midst.

A boom box on the bar emits waves of martial military music. One gent is dressed as a nun. He dances in the street with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. Another is in an outfit that gives him the appearance of what a ladybug would look like, were Picasso in charge of that insect’s design.  

Then we hear doors slamming down the road. Progress! The line jerks forward. We make it a kilometer further, then stop. For no reason, of course. And so it continues until we finally emerge on to the valley road below, four hours after we started our 12-kilometer drive.

My advice? If you want to really enjoy the Tour de France mountain stages, rent a motorhome, show up a few days before the race comes through, join the party, ride your bike.

During the Tour the French are remarkably lenient about roadside camping, so there is no need to book an official campsite if you arrive early. (The roads around the Galibier stages at this year’s Tour were completely filled with campers two days before the stage.) Watch the race go by, view the traffic jam crawl past, look at the stars, sleep where you are. Then, the next day, drive off the traffic-free mountain at your leisure.
In 2011 Mark Johnson is writing and photographing a book on Garmin-Cervélo to be published by VeloPress in early 2012. You can follow his travels with the team on Twitter @argylearmada


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