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.
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.
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.
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.