As Vincenzo Nibali rode up the Hautacam, his arrival could be heard before he came into sight, announced by the roar of the crowd. The hundreds of thousands of fans that line the roads galvanise the cyclists as they face the Tour's toughest climbs.
The high mountains are where the Tour de France is decided and its heroes are made.
The long, steep slopes test the riders to the limit, but the Alps and the Pyrenees offer spectacular backdrops for their suffering. The hundreds of thousands of fans who line the narrow roads during the toughest climbs provide the electric atmosphere that confirms the Tour's special place as a sporting event.
The Tour is the largest free sports event in the world, and the roadside is its stadium. Estimates of annual attendance are largely guesswork, but they range as high as 15 million.
The three stages in England at the start of this year's Tour drew an estimated 2.5 million spectators. Yet even though the race is free, the fans who lined the roads up the Tourmalet and Hautacam on Thursday paid a price to be there.
Michel, a 68-year-old from Villeneuve-de-Marsan in the Landes, had driven his camper van up the Hautacam the Friday before the race and had found what he thought was the perfect spot, looking down at the road as it wound up the mountain.
Unfortunately, Amaury Sports, which organises the Tour, had long since worked out what a good spot it was. That was where it planned to put the finish.
Michel had to move on and up to spend six days in the clouds and wind at the top of the mountain awaiting the Tour.
"You have to make sure you have enough water,'' he said. Just like the cyclists.
Christian, a 63-year-old from Bordeaux, had arrived only on Tuesday. He had driven his camper slowly up the mountain only to find every potential parking place already occupied. He ended up a neighbour of Michel's past the finish line.
As he stood on a ledge near the finish, clad in his cycling gear peering down the mountain through his binoculars, he indicated a field some two kilometres down the winding road crammed with camper vans.
The field, he explained, was just after a point where the gradient reaches nine per cent. "That would have been an interesting place," he said.
The geography of the slopes tends to divide fans.
Those who come by car on the day and arrive after the roads are closed to traffic, or who decide not to risk being caught on the mountain, use car parks at the foot of the climb and walk up to fill the steep parts at the start of the ascent.
Those in camper vans park in the flatter meadows, while the thousands of cyclists who ride the mountain before the peloton, usually plop down beside the steeper sections.
At the point two kilometres from the finish where the barriers start, both sides of the road were filled with seasoned veterans of the Tour.
Jean-Francois is one of a group of men from Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne in central Corrèze who "come every year”. The Pyrenees, says Jean Francois, "are usually decisive”.
Jean-François and his friends come three days early and camp just to see a glimpse of the riders as they struggle by. They come to spend time among friends and, using the word that every fan uttered, for "the ambience”.
Marie and Guy, from Saint-Viaud in Loire-Atlantique, come every year.
"We always come to the Pyrenees," said Guy. "We like the Pyrenees and I think the climbs are tougher”.
During his stay he had climbed the Hautacam four times, boasting that, at 63, he had improved as the week went along, cutting his time from 1 hour 30 to 1:26.
Amanda from England stood by the side of the road brandishing a stuffed furry animal – the mascot of a travel company that arranged a cycling holiday involving a series of rides up famous Tour mountains.
She had ridden up the Hautacam earlier in the day encouraged by the fans at the side of the road.
"Everybody cheers you on," she said. "I could get used to this, wanting people to cheer me on when I go back to England."
Up the road, Bjorn was the leader of a group of seven riders from the Trysil Cycling Club in Norway. Trysil is a ski resort where, said Bjorn, he could cycle outdoors "four months a year”.
He said he came every year for "France, the Tour, the people, the culture and great food”.
The food clearly matters. Bjorn had cycled up to the top of the Hautacam, and then back down to a good viewing spot, carrying a portable barbecue on his back. He and his group had just finished eating the meal he had cooked.
Vincent, Rafael and Ludovic, three teenagers from nearby Pau, also had food on their minds. They had set out from home at 6am so they could drive part of the way up the mountain before the roads closed. They were aware that the single road down the mountain would be snarled up long after the race had ended.
"We have enough food for the night," Vincent said.
They too came for the "ambience".
"Everybody is happy," Ludovic explained. "Everybody has a smile."
Indeed, everyone still looked happy some three hours after the stage had finished. The spectators whose campers were still trapped behind barriers sat in lawn chairs and and watched the convoy of Tour vehicles crawl slowly past them, down the mountain, waving and smiling as they ate their evening picnics.
As the sun set on another Tour visit to the Pyrenees the ambience lingered.
Date created : 2014-07-25