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.
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They parked their Volkswagen SUV and a small white trailer about 300 meters from the top of the climb and, over the weekend, mingled with fellow campers.Skip to next paragraph
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But they hadn’t watched any of the previous stages – though many RVs have satellite dishes, their trailer does not. “We don’t have a TV, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “We came for the party!”
By Tuesday, the party was clearly in full swing. When I arrived, people were drinking at a makeshift bar on the summit, taking pictures with the unleashed donkeys or just settling in to watch the race.
Texas flags mingle with European colors
It wasn’t only French in attendance, of course – Spaniards and Britons contributed to an international potpourri of cycling fans.
There were many Americans, too, some bearing Texas flags to help cheer Lance Armstrong on in his final race.
But the main attraction, as it will be today at the top of the Tourmalet, was the race.
Gendarmerie, then the peloton
Late in the afternoon, as clouds started to form on nearby peaks, the gendarmerie – French national police – rode through on motorcycles, launching the crowd into pandemonium. The police always pave the way for the racers.
Then the breakaway approached, grinding up the 7 percent grade.
Most noticeable were the relatively fast speeds in which they rode uphill.
A popular pastime for fans on mountain stages is to sprint alongside the riders. But on the Aubisque, many struggled to keep up for more than a few feet.
Didier, who camped out in his trailer, was one of the fans who kept pace with the bunch, at least long enough to get a photo of Christophe Moreau, a 39-year-old Frenchman who is the oldest rider in the Tour.
Watch out for Contador's fists
On ascents, where fans can be three or four deep lining the road, it’s sometimes a matter of inches between racers and their supporters.
There’s usually little acknowledgment of this relationship, unless a cyclist feels his security is threatened, as when Alberto Contador punched a fan on a ride up to Verbier, Switzerland, during last year’s Stage 15.
After the first group had come up Col d'Aubisque, Didier paused to show me his photo: True to form, Moreau’s gaze hadn’t budged – straight ahead, pained expression on his face.
It was as if the fans didn’t exist.
I asked Didier if any riders had ever stopped to acknowledge him.
“Of course not,” he said, laughing. Then he rushed back into the fray, ready to watch the rest of the race.
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