In 2009 the world's greatest annual cycle race, le Tour de France, came through Nice - this time taking a counter-clockwise direction as it sped through the hexagon of France.
The summer is approaching the Côte rapidly, now, and thoughts are turning towards the grand boucle — Le Tour de France. In late July, this wonderful race, the world’s greatest annual sporting event, will see the finest road racing cyclists traverse the great ranges of the Mercantour and the Hautes Alpes to the northeast of Digne. Eager fans will already be writing their slogans on the bitumen over the Col de Lombarde and the Col de Larche and poring over the Tour route maps, planning their viewing points on the big climbs.
This year Le Tour travels the hexagon of France in a counter-clockwise direction, covering 3,500 kilometres. The route crosses 19 high passes, and visits a number of new stop-over towns, including the tiny village of Jausiers above Barcelonnette. This lovely part of the Ubaye is famous for its splendid ‘Mexican’ villas, and Jausiers has some beauties, which will feature, hopefully, in the television coverage of the race.
Another fascinating heritage aspect of this beautiful region is the presence of a series of stone fortifications, redoubts and barracks from the wars. Here, we are very close to the border with Italy, and this has been disputed territory for centuries. This year, Le Tour crosses into Italy above Jausiers, then returns via Isola, above St Martin Vésubie. Should you be based on the Côte, Isola is quite possible as a day trip. How wonderful it would be to holiday up there, this summer, to glimpse Le Tour, then spend some time on the wonderful day walks that cross the alpine meadows and visit the perched glacier lakes!
At my home, on the surf coast, we are in a very different season. The vines are all being pruned, autumn rain has begun to fill our water tanks, and there is even hope of putting in some winter vegetables for the first time in years. Only very keen dog walkers and surfers are seen on the beaches these days, and the first snowfalls have begun in the Alps. And yet, in our imagination, many of my neighbours and I will soon be sharing your summer, picnicking in the mountains and shouting allez allez to the passing peloton. Even our local roads bear the message ‘GO CADEL’! The reason is simple enough…
Cadel Evans, top Australian rider with team Silence-Lotto, runner-up in last year’s Tour, lives here at Barwon Heads with his family in the ‘off’ season, our southern summer. Cycling is a big recreation here, for old codgers like me who just tootle down to the shops, and for serious cyclists who ride great distances daily in the local training peloton. Through the summer they get to vie for the lead with a very distinguished companion indeed!
Funnily enough, another formerly successful Australian competitor in the Tour, ‘Le Skippy’ — Phil Anderson, who rode the Tour in the eighties, lives just a few kilometres down the coast. He was the first non-European rider to wear the leader’s yellow jersey — he won it 11 times! Every July, Phil leads groups of Australian tourists who bring their bikes over to France for the thrilling experience of riding some of the Tour stages, meeting leading racers, and exploring the ‘sacred sites’ of French cycling.
If you are not a fanatic, you may find the technicalities of long distance cycle racing somewhat opaque, so let’s try to simplify it. Above all, it is a team sport, with about 20 teams of 9 riders each. Le Tour involves 21 days of racing stages over a month, and most of the riders are domestiques, expected to do the hard slog of leading the group into the wind, carrying water bottles from the team car to the front, and generally expending their reserves of energy to defend the stars, the minority of riders who have a chance of winning a jersey as a leader.
And there’s more than one kind of leader. ‘Sprinters’ have explosive strength. They try to win points on the long undulating stages, and the domestiques lead them out at the last moment to win by micro-seconds. The best sprinter wears the green jersey. On the big mountain climbs, on the other hand, the domestiques attempt to lead the ‘climbers’ to a position where they can surge up, dropping the pack, and winning the stage by minutes, even tens of minutes. Climbers ride for the polka-dot jersey.
‘Time triallists’ have the clinical ability to ride alone against the clock in the most energy efficient manner. Cyclists who go out too fast early on a time trial, ‘blow up’, so this is also a stage where big margins may be established, and many riders simply hope to finish.
Finally, the big stars are the ‘GC’ men, competing for the General Classification — the maillot jaune. You may have heard of great winners like Lance Armstrong, Miguel Indurain, Laurent Fignon or Bernard Thévenet. General Classification riders, the team leaders, are striving to register the fastest cumulative time overall. Obviously their success depends to a high degree on the quality of their team domestiques, but the leaders themselves have powers way beyond other cyclists. They must be excellent riders in every discipline of the sport, and are almost certainly absolutely outstanding as climbers, as it is on the arduous mountain stages that the race really opens up.
In recent years, British riders have struggled in the Tour, but this might be a good year to watch competitors like Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins, and David Millar. You may know that a great British cyclist, Tom Simpson, died of exhaustion on the race up the final slopes of Mont Ventoux in 1967. Every day, dozens of cyclists from all over the world make the climb, and the granite memorial beside the road above Bédoin where he died is treated by them as a shrine. Visitors leave flowers, caps and drink bottles at the memorial as a token of respect.
Enjoy the Tour, wherever you may be. I can assure you many residents of Barwon Heads will be staying up night after night through July to follow Cadel Evans, Stuart O’Grady, and the other wonderful Australian competitors on television. How we wish we could be there!