We had taken Meryl ( our van) high in to the Pyrenees mountains, through windy little gorges, through cave tunnels, all to end up on the side of the road surrounded by what felt like millions of camper vans just outside of Arreau. We had no plan to seek out the Tour de France even though we are fans we just figured it would be madness to try and get close to it, so imagine our amazement as we are driving down the road where we began to see the streets lined with camper vans with flags flying high. At first we just thought, “oh, these are very patriotic campers” but as we went further down the road it dawned on us …..we had hit Le Tour de France country. We quickly swung the van around and parked up in one of the lay-bys with lots of other vans. The small community we had joined was made up of people from all over the world all there for the same thing; to see the sheer brilliance and athleticism of these amazing cyclist.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of clanking balls ( le boules ) and a few new people who had joined the lay-by. The game was in full swing when we noticed the main road had been closed off to traffic, the sound of circling helicopters erupted in the air overhead and the crowd got to their feet and waited. Now I just want to say I have never seen full grown men act so crazy for free shit and I mean shit in my whole life. Trucks hurtled up the road at speeds of 50kmh with people harnessed to the top hurling anything from cakes, sausages, pens and hats. The crowd went wild! Adults fighting off little kids for a plastic keyring running out into the road with near misses of getting flattened for stickers … I guess that is worth risking your life for ….right? After all the free trucks had passed what felt like 600 brand new Skodas passed all racing up the hill … nothing is slow in this race…. Finally at about 4:30 a car went past with a load speaker announcing, “THEY ARE COMING, THEY ARE COMING GET BACK”. Helicopters dropped from the sky, motorbikes with camera crews attached to them, cars with hundreds of spare bike wheels all came around the corner at once. Suddenly, there they were! Racing towards us all in their own worlds, legs spinning so fast the sound of a ‘woosh’ filled the air and as quickly as they came, they were gone. As we turned around the camper vans were taring down their set-ups and in a blink of an eye, they were all gone too, heading up the road to the next leg. We felt so happy to have been apart of it and we couldn’t believe our luck to have stumbled across that leg of the Tour.
The next day we headed up the mountain to a place we thought looked like a lovely stop to camp for a few days. As we crept around the sheer hair pin bends up into the clouds we started to notice a lot of cyclist and vans making their way up also. Once we made it to the top the views were breath taking. We slowly rolled down the other side to turn a corner to what honestly looked like 2000 camper vans in a crazy sort of chanty town. A sea of white. We could not believe our eyes as we made our way through them all to where our sat nav (francis) said we were stopping for the night. Luckily we were not in the middle of the madness. We knew yet again we had hit the next leg of the tour. We were lucky enough to find a spot to pull the van into. We jumped on our bikes and cycled towards all the commotion, where we were meet by guys dressed up as women playing in a full on jazz band on the side of the road. The energy here was electric, and yet again the crowds went wild for the free tat. Police had to try and control middle age men racing into the road for blow up ibis pillows…it was a sight to see. Since this was an uphill leg the riders were way more spread apart. Its hard to put into words how epic it is to see these guys go past. The determination drawn all over their faces, the sheer willpower to keep fighting. These athletes are so self-contained. Wether they were the leader of the pack or the last guy in the back; you could feel the passion these men have for their sport. Sweat dripping down their faces, teethed bared and jaws clenched, the fight in them is unbelievable to see.
The location of this leg was absolutely stunning. Lac de Payolle is surrounded by mountains that are covered in fir trees that stretch to the top of the peaks. At night horses and cows roam free, eagles soar high in the sky above you, it is truly a beautiful place. It is a very surreal kind of wonderland. The free and gorgeous animals have an infectious energy that possess you the minute you see them wandering the mountain sides. We spent every evening surrounding ourselves with them because at the end of the day their beauty made us smile and we went to sleep to the sounds of freedom…and the clanking of cow bells.