Tour de France Stage 17: Why fans will camp out for days to glimpse cyclists
Mountain stages like the Tour de France's Stage 17 today, which could decide the battle between defending champion Alberto Contador or rising star Andy Schleck, are favorites among spectators.
Col d'Aubisque, France
In the Tour de France's Stage 17 today, when Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck pedal furiously up the infamous Col du Tourmalet – battling for the overall lead in cycling's most prestigious race – fans will have been in place for hours.Skip to next paragraph
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With the Tour ending Sunday in Paris, today is the last chance for fans – many of whom make yearly pilgrimages to their favorite mountainside – to sprint alongside cycling's icons for the few steep miles in which even Lance Armstrong is reduced to mere human speeds.
On a typical flat stage, the peloton zips by in a few seconds. Blink and you've missed the action.
But on Tour climbs like the Col du Tourmalet, the most iconic in the race's history, steep inclines separate the strongest riders from the rest. It’s not uncommon for a half-hour to pass between the leaders and last group of stragglers, commonly known as the grupetto.
That’s what happened during Tuesday's Stage 16, on the 5,606-foot Col d'Aubisque, a Pyrénéan mountain pass south of Pau.
Helicopters and bikes – but no cars
With 42 appearances in the Tour’s history, the Col d'Aubisque is the second-most visited climb by the race after Tourmalet, where Thursday’s potentially decisive stage will end.
The peloton had already ridden up Tourmalet once when they got to the Aubisque on Tuesday. Helicopters whirred overhead and official vehicles blared their horns as the first riders – an eight-man breakaway that included Armstrong – chugged up the climb.
On cue, thousands of fans, some of which had been waiting here for days, spilled out onto the narrow two-lane road, cheering furiously for their favorite riders.
Only the native brown-furred donkeys, perhaps the sole locals in attendance, were unfazed, barely moving at the commotion.
Only die-hard fans
Compared to Tourmalet, with its numerous hotels, lodges and restaurants, the Aubisque is a more Spartan affair: one small inn lies at the summit. The lack of accommodations, combined with road closures to motor vehicles on race day, means the Col d'Aubisque attracts only die-hard fans.
Outfitted in the white and blue uniform of team Française des Jeux, a French squad in the Tour, he offered a take on Monday’s incident between race leader Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck as we listened to race updates on a transistor radio.
“Hey, you know, it’s just part of the job, suffering breakdowns,” he said, siding with the Spaniard.
While riders sweat, fans party
Other enthusiasts had driven to the top by car or motor home well before the stage and staked out their place, a common occurrence on every mountain along the Tour’s route.
“We’ve been here since Friday,” said a man who only identified himself as Didier. For the seventh year in a row, he had driven his family from their home near Bordeaux for a vacation at the Tour.