Le Tour Continues !

Trip Start Aug 17, 2010
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Trip End Sep 16, 2011


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Flag of France  , Rhône-Alpes,
Thursday, July 21, 2011

Day 4 – 21st July

The time has come for the men to be separated from the boys. The peloton will leave Pinerolo in Italy to return to France to Galibier Serre-Chevalier and cover 190km while going over three HC climbs… all of which are at 2350m in elevation or more, for a total elevation gain of 5000m for the day !

One of these climbs is up over the famous Col du Galibier, first included on the Tour de France 100 years ago ( so this year's Tour was celebrating the anniversary by getting the riders to climb Galibier twice in successive days ! ). Given the access issues and popularity of the climb, we decided to head for the climb before, up the Col de l’Izoard, and be one of those sparse groups of spectators you see out on the course supporting the riders.

We made it as far as the little village of Brunissard, more a collection of ski lodges, before the police turned us off of the road, now closed for the race. Resorting to walking, we did not go too far before reaching a hairpin bend we decided also offered an excellent view down the road, so we could see the riders approaching – a decision vindicated by the number of professional photographers who also stopped by our spot ! A few campervans parked nearby provided some festive atmosphere with families picnicking and music playing and so we were set – camping chairs by the side of the road, fresh baguettes in hand for lunch. The weather remained fine, and Jim armed with his monocular, scanned the road spreading below us, for the first sign of the race approaching. It was actually very pleasant sitting up in the Alps, there are indeed far worst places to wait in the world.

A cheer from below announces the arrival of the Caravan, and here they come once again. Lauren stationed on one side of the road, and Jim on the other, we catch and scrounge what we can, only to pass it off to the families with kids on each side of us, only too eager to take home bags full of the advertising junk collected. We prove very popular!

A couple of police motorcycles zooming past herald the arrival of Le Tour, and out front in a breakaway we see the irrepressible Schleck brothers ( Frank and Andy ) heading a group of half a dozen riders. They tap up the steep incline at an impressive pace – that’s what the Schlecks do – and pass to much acclaim – being a very popular pair of riders in Europe. Their team car passes, and here is a poor soul that has been dropped off the breakaway, plugging away in the hope he can catch back on. Good luck with that, and he is applauded for his efforts – crossing himself as he passes us and looking heavenward ! A gap, and expectation builds. Who is this heaving up the hill – in red and black colours, no less than Cadel Evans, not looking happy, another rider tucked in behind him, just hanging on and not much help. Cadel goes past talking to his team car, collecting an energy bar and nodding. Go Cadel, don’t drop too far behind your main competitor – Andy Schleck !

Here comes another lone soul, but he looks better, working away at the hill, maybe encouraged by the knowledge that a strong rider – Cadel – is up ahead, and if he can catch him they may ride together up the rest of the hill. Someone shouts out encouragement in Italian, and he turns and gives a huge smile, nodding and winking. Who says the riders don’t appreciate the support out on the road !

Quiet time – where is the peloton ? A long way back, that’s where. And here they come, in a huge rush, riders filling the road from side to side, forcing the spectators to step back. They pass by a whisker from you watching by the side of the road – you see some riders eyeball you as they go past – get out the way !

Team cars pour past, but all is not done, and here comes the "gruppetto" – the name given to the group of cyclists who drop off the peleton on big climbing stages – usually the sprinters and tired domestiques – who gang together to just finish the stage within the time limit. No less encouragement is given to this group by the spectators, as it takes a lot of guts just to finish a stage of the Tour de France !

Our day is not finished either, as we are moving accommodation to Corps, on the Route Napoléon, and we have been promised by the tour company that the hotel / restaurant Hotel de la Poste offers something very special in way of dinner – and remember, we are in France ! I will pass to Lauren to describe the subsequent foodie experience !

The Hotel de la Poste does not have a Michelin star – it’s probably not considered refined enough. That said it has playful and bountiful attitude to the art of dining…. and at the Hotel de la Poste dining is definitely an art form. Before we were even shown a menu we sat down and were presented with a selection of savory pastries and olives, bread and dips…. just to whet the appetite we are told. After we order from the menu we are quickly presented with a small yabbi like creature with a creamy side sauce and salad. “I’m sorry Monsieur, but we did not order this??”.. “Order? You do not order this, it’s a welcome specialty, enjoy!”.  Then it’s time for our entrees to arrive, but hang on what’s this? In the centre is  placed a large tray full of fresh oysters and crab. Along with a platter of sides to go with your entrée. Mainly seafood in various sauces…. Jim and I wished we had ordered the langoustine entrée rather than the duck and rabbit terrine… amazing but a bit of a clash of flavours. All this is then cleared away for our mains. Jim had the steak and I had the lamb… more sides come out. How many different types of potato are there anyway???? Wow just when we thought we had seen it all the cheese plate comes out. This consists of whole wheels of various cheeses that our waiter offers to cut off chunks...to our liking of course! No takers from our table as we are leaving whatever little room we have left for dessert and coffee. Rich chocolate tart and a tart raspberry sorbet, if this wasn’t enough the end of the meal also brings the appearance of various pastry petite fours… thank god we skipped the cheese. Our waiter promise even more for the next night we are here…..time to let out a notch in the pants… right up there with possibly one of the most amazing dining experiences we have ever had. Just the whole theatre and flourish of the whole night – you are truly in France and at the Hotel de la Poste we expect you will experience it all !!!

Day 5 – 22nd July

To all the cyclists out there, all I have to say is “Alpe d'Huez”. Yes, a relatively short day of 109.5km, the Tour takes the riders back up Col du Galibier and then up the mythical Alpe d'Huez, all 21 hairpins, 12% gradient and majestic splendor of the Alps, to finish on the summit. Wow – what a day.

We are all going the back way to the summit finish – off to Station Oz, to catch the ski gondolas up through L’ Alpe d'Huez ski fields, then down to the summit ski village. Sharing a car ride with our Aussie compatriots Michael and Antoinette ( our right-hand driving cousins also sharing a car ) we all muddle our way to the Station Oz using the GPS supplied with the hire cars. Its worth a side comment on how we all agreed how essential the GPS were – the road atlas supplied being next to useless – but also how we all selected different GPS personas. We found our NZ Jenny to be forthright but not too pushy; but Michael had selected Aussie Ken, who was far too mild and quiet spoken – several turns were missed ! John and Jenni had US Lorie – who started off as their friend, but seemed to develop an unhealthy fixation with persuading them to drive off of the edge of sheer mountain roads !

It was all very alpine and ski-like at Station Oz, a scene now all too familiar to us ex-SkiStar employees, but the terrain was a step away above what we have ever witnessed on our snow travels. The first gondola traversed vertical drops to take us up to 2100m, leaving us at the foot of a slope that wrenched itself up to 3330m, with drop-offs and crags that would not looked out of place in a ski-film ( Warren Miller MUST have filmed there ! ). The slopes under the gondola that took us down to the Alpe d'Huez village looked more moderate, so it seems that there is skiing for everyone there after-all.

The village itself was abuzz with excitement, the crowds were extreme and Le Tour fever was high. We camped ourselves at the 50m mark, and were soon joined by John & Jenni, losing patience with pushing through the crowds. Lauren disappeared on the hunt for lunch, and returned with baguettes and beer – luxury ! And so we waited for the riders.

It was difficult to keep track with what was happening with the race, not understanding the rattling French commentary. One of the giant TV screens was just visible down the road, so out came the trusty monocular again, as Jim & John tried to view progress and statistics on-screen. A great gasp arose from the crowd, and we became aware that Contador had attacked and broken out on his own – head-down and clearly determined to make an impact. Alberto Contador (last year’s winner) had been hiding in 7th place, the Frenchman Thomas Voeckler’s unexpected run in the yellow jersey distracting everyone’s attention, with Cadel and Schleck brothers occupying the 2nd to 4th places. Now it seemed was make or break time for Contador, needing to make some serious time up if he was to challenge for the maillot jaune on the next day’s time trial.

Much rumbling came from the crowd, as Contador was not popular with the French, due to his doping allegations – yet to be decided one way or another. Alberto continued with a truly heroic effort, slogging it out on his own, desperately trying to hold off the other breakaways which included Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans. But, as can be the way with cycle road racing, as the peleton wears away the breakaway groups, so do the breakaway groups wear away the sole rider – and to a great roar of approval, Contador is caught, then overtaken by a young French rider – Pierre Rolland – who digs deep and scorches across the line to win not only the stage, but the white jersey for best young rider. In recognition of his achievement, the crowd goes berserk – Pierre being a Frenchman feeding the flames even higher. But the race is not over yet – here comes the Andy Schleck breakaway, and he crosses the line with enough time made up to take the maillot jaune – to chants of “Andy, Andy, Andy” as a most popular winner of the yellow jersey today. Cadel crosses the line in the midst of this madness, and it is up to the Aussies and other Cadel fans to quietly nod and smile that Cadel is only 57s behind Andy Schleck, and Condator is almost 3 mins away despite his efforts – Cadel, the time trialler specialist, is within striking distance of winning the Tour de France – tomorrow !

It took a long time to get back to the Hotel de la Poste that day. The queues for the gondolas back down were expected. Not expected was the gridlock that brought traffic to a stand-still, just 700m from our turn-off. The grid-lock was so bad that people started getting picnics out by the side of the road; leaving their cars and going for a walk; or just covering their heads with a newspaper and going to sleep. We rang our hotel to say we would not be back until late – can you leave a plate out. Then – the traffic moves a few cars, and we sneak around a laneway onto our road home ! Some racing tactics from Michael sees us in just after 10pm, and we find what “leaving a plate out” means in France.

A selection of terrines, pates, cold meats, pickles, salad and bread. Beer and wine is available. The chef comes around with a small pasta dish; and for dessert sir ? Marinated sliced pineapple with strawberries, and an apple tart. Coffee to finish. Just a little plate for you…poor things for coming in so late…
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