When the Tour de France first went into the mountains, many of the riders were forced to walk. ‘Assassins,’ they spat at the Tour’s organisers as they wheeled their bikes over the desolate summits. This year, with five mountain ranges to climb and two, the Vosges and the Jura, already ticked off, the riders have more reason than ever to shake their heads in disbelief, because the Pyrenees, Massif Central and Alps now lie in wait.
The long transfer from the Jura to the Dordogne complete — and thanks to the luxury buses that most teams now have they can wash their kit en route — today is a rest day. It’s a chance for the riders, not just to do the laundry, but also to have a few stolen moments with friends and family. It doesn’t last long though and even that will be snatched time, because the stress of the race is always on their mind. It’s also a mixed blessing, because having glimpsed normal life outside the Tour ‘bubble,’ some riders find it hard, mentally and physically, to get going again. One rider, a veteran of many Tours, told us that he struggled on rest days. “Of course I want to see the kids,” he said, “but when they leave it’s hard to bear. I want to go with them. Afterwards, I really struggle with motivation.”
Next the peloton visits Perigord and the Lot-et-Garonne, before heading south through the Landes and the Gers, to Pau, third most visited city by the race — the Tour has come to town no less than 69 times — and the capital of the Bearn. From Pau’s spectacular Boulevard des Pyrenees, with its striking views of the distant mountains, the riders will take a deep breath. They know that the 12th stage, taking them from Pau deep into one of the most beautiful parts of the Hautes Pyrenees, to Peyragudes, will be gruelling. And it is guaranteed that the fans will be wild! This close to the Spanish border, the Tour always attracts huge crowds from its immediate neighbour and ensures a riot of flags, horns and a day-long party atmosphere.
At an altitude of 1,580 metres, Peyragudes — so spectacular that it was used as a location in the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies — is a haven for winter and summer sports lovers. And, when it comes to the 2017 Tour de France, it look as if it will now need a super-hero performance to dethrone Chris Froome.
Words: Jeremy Whittle
Photography: Pete Goding