SAINT-JEAN-DE-MAURIENNE, France (VN) — Looking at the helicopter television shots of the Lacets de Montvernier, the closing climb of the Tour de France’s stage 18 Thursday, it seemed that the French fans had ended their holidays and gone back to work early.
Spectators mark almost every foot of road during the 21 stages of the grand tour, especially when it reaches the high mountain passes of the Pyrénées and the Alps. Having the ribbon-like road up the mountainside empty, devoid of cheering, seemed “weird.”
Tour organizer ASO blocked spectators from walking up the pass because the road was just too narrow to allow them and cyclists to exist side-by-side comfortably. From the base to the top, 3.4 kilometers later, green pines and valley views prevailed. At the top, with 10 kilometers from the finish in the Alpine village of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, the roar of the fans returned.
“It is a bit weird,” Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) told VeloNews.
“There were fans at the bottom and fans at the top, you go through this wall of noise, then silence for 3K!
“For the Tour de France, it is a weird experience. It is weirder just going back into the noise; that seemed louder than it would be normally.”
ASO first used the climb with its 17 switchbacks in its Critérium du Dauphiné race this June. Because the road is only large enough for a mid-size Peugeot, it made the unusual decision in both the Dauphiné and the Tour to allow nature, not fans alongside the cyclists.
Compared to climbs like Pra-Loup or the Alpe d’Huez with its famous booze-fueled Dutch corner, Lacets de Montvernier must have felt like landing on the moon to the Tour’s peloton.
“It was strange,” Frenchman Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) explained while warming down on his rollers. “I prefer, though, when you have the fans on the roads like we saw on Pra-Loup.”
“Almost every kilometer in the race up until now, you’ve had spectators all the way,” the Tour’s leader, Chris Froome (Sky) said in a press conference.
“We had three kilometers there where there was no one. That was definitely something quite different.”
The fans, not the cyclists, often vie for center stage in the Tour’s mountains. ASO has used leading motorbikes to part the waves of people, but at times, riders themselves must throw arms to make their way through.
On a road only 10 feet wide at best, the combination of fans and cyclists could have been lethal Thursday.
“You’d get a País Vasco-type situation where you can’t even follow the guy you want to follow,” Dutchman Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) said, referring to stage 3 of the Spanish race where fans crowded the roadway.
“It was difficult as it was. I was eighth position at first. I wanted to move to the front, but that was already difficult because you really have to do a corner, sprint, another corner and sprint.”
It was a one-off — or “weird” — in a world where fans color the roads as much as the sponsored kits clothing cyclists.
“I think,” added Froome, “it’s going to be a different story up Alpe d’Huez.”