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FINHAUT-EMOSSON, Switzerland (VN) — By any measure, Wednesday’s Tour de France summit finish high in an inaccessible corner of the Alps along the Swiss-French border, with Mont Blanc as the backdrop, was one of the most spectacular in a sport renowned for its spectacle.
Europe’s byways and highest mountains are the Tour’s stadium, and every day during the three-week big loop around France delivers one delight after another. Ever wonder what happens behind the scenes? VeloNews takes you on a “day in the life” of the haggard press corps trying to chronicle the big show.
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9:30: Race organizers warned journalists to go early, because today is going to be a logistical beast. Cars are packed, bills are paid, and we’re on our way from Bern to the Alps. After driving 4,500 kilometers so far in this Tour, the 120km drive to the base of the first climb seems like a Sunday jaunt. It’s Wednesday, we think.
10:15: A quick stop along the highway. Coffee, a croissant, and juice for a cool $18. Gotta love Switzerland.
11:30: We hit the “point de insertion,” the junction on the road where credentialed vehicles can gain access to the race route. It’s the day’s first traffic jam. We’re hours ahead of the race, and more importantly, the publicity caravan. There’s no better way to mess up your day than getting stuck behind a giant chicken tottering along at 20 kph.
12:10: We make good time up the first-category Col de la Forclaz. At 13km at 8 percent, some four hours later, Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) would see his GC chances take a dive. From the summit, we catch our first glimpses of Mont Blanc and the roof of Europe that will be hogging the skyline all day. Mind-blowing even by Tour de France standards, where the geography of France is its stadium.
12:30: After a quick descent, we hit the hors categorie Finhaut-Emosson climb, a narrow stretch of asphalt barely a car-width wide. Kicking up at nearly 9 percent for 10km, it’s a real climb. These Euro roads don’t reveal their true steepness until you drive back down them (or cycle up). We’re glad we arrived early. Journalists coming up behind us were diverted to park on the valley floor far below and were shuttled up to the finish. We’d later see them being dropped off nine hours later.
12:40: Pandemonium on the roadway as we try to pick our way through the crowds of bikers and pedestrians working their way up the mountain. Most of these people hump it up the mountain for hours to get close to their cycling heroes. All pack backpacks full of baguettes, wine, and raincoats. The stop-and-grind on 10 percent pitches is not good for the clutch in my car rental. We burn out a clutch just about every other Tour. We’re past due.
12:50: Fans everywhere, and almost no police to control the crowds. The road is completely lined with campers and fans staking out spots to watch the race. Barbecues, crazed Norwegians fans, and bikers scrambling to fight their way up the slope have my nerves ratcheting up. Between the softening clutch and the growing bedlam, I’m dismayed to see there’s still 5km to go. I’ve been grinding up climbs across Europe for 20 years, and this was one of the rowdiest ones in a while (not counting Mont Ventoux last week). Word filters down that there’s a five-star press buffet waiting at the top. We press on.
13:15: We pop out on top to a spectacular view unlike any I’ve ever seen in the Tour. Dominating the southern horizon is the Mont Blanc massif, a wall of ice and rock with 11 summits over 4,000 meters, including unobstructed views of Mont Blanc, the highest point in western Europe at 4,808 meters. The Tour officials did a fine job scouting this location, piggy-backing on a similar stage from the 2014 Dauphiné. Without a cloud in the sky, the views are nothing short of breathtaking.
13:20: To our surprise, we’re directed into what Tour director Christian Prudhomme called a “James Bond tunnel,” a narrow, 1km hole punched into the side of the mountain. We exit on the other side onto a narrow goat track. Local volunteers help journalists perform treacherous three-point turns (any slip of the clutch would result in a 100-meter plunge into a reservoir), and we park nose-first along the road. Then it’s a 15-minute hump back through the tunnel. Ah, the Tour never ceases to surprise.
13:45: The day’s press tent is perched above a 600-foot dam that’s part of a massive $2 billion hydro-electric project that will ultimately produce 900MW at full capacity when it’s completed in 2018. I don’t know exactly what 900MW can light up, but a proud local assures me it’s “a lot.” Swiss engineering at its best.
14:00: A quick check online, and we trundle into the press buffet. Each day, per a Tour tradition, locals serve up regional delicacies to keep the journalist rabble fed. Sometimes it’s little more than couscous and carrot salad. Today’s was five-star, with raclette, charcuterie, and local wines. Journos huddle together to share race tidbits and marvel at the views of Mont Blanc. Oh, it’s a tough life.
17:30: As the peloton nears, we scramble into the finish line area. Every day is completely different, based on the lay of the land. Today, the team buses are stretched out single-file along the top of the reservoir, and we clamber down several flights of metal steps to catch the riders and sport directors for post-race comments and observations. Every stage is a complete crapshoot. Sometimes you get great stuff, other days you wonder what the hell you’re going to write about. Because everyone is waiting for a police escort off the mountaintop, there’s plenty of time to chat.
21:00: After hammering out a few stories, dictating recordings, shooting videos, editing photos, and dabbling on social media (we did a Facebook live chat with Mont Blanc in the background), we hike back through the tunnel to begin the long drive off the mountain. Barely three hours ago, the place was crawling with thousands of fans and the trappings of the world’s largest bike race. You’d never know it now. Crews efficiently rip it all down, dismantling the podium facilities, the fencing, and the other structures of the Tour entourage, only to rebuild it the following day at the next day’s finish line. A separate crew does the same thing, leap-frogging from start to start in an impressive, military-like efficiency to build the Tour’s daily moving village. Say what you want about ASO, but they know how to run and organize a bike race.
21:20: A key moment that will decide our immediate destiny. Descending off mountaintop finishes can take hours on a good day, but we pop out of the tunnel only to find the road blocked by a big line of tractor-trailer trucks. They’re part of the finish-line entourage, and about 10 to 15 are ready to begin their descent. Police are telling us we have to wait until the evacuation begins. If we have to follow behind 15 of these monster trucks down the twisting, narrow 10km descent, we won’t be having dinner. Or beers. My colleague Gregor Brown sweet-talks a local cop, and she lets us slip ahead of the long line of trucks just before they roll out. Who said miracles don’t happen on the Tour?
22:25: We roll into Chamonix, with the dark hulking mass of Mont Blanc towering above us. The hotel manager escorts us to his local favorite restaurant to assure us the owner will serve us a closing-time meal. Hot plates of food and cool glasses of rosé are passed around. There’s warm camaraderie around the dinner table as we wrap up the final reports and swap stories on the day’s adventures. Just another day on the Tour de France. Seventeen down, four more to go. The night’s last toast: Vive le Tour!