This morning dawned a bit like a Turkish bath, and the climb up to the cols from Rimont was a bit hot and breathless. About two thirds of the way up to the Col de Rille, where the Tour was to join the road towards Crouzette, we started to see the cars parked along the side of the (single track) road. And then more. And more. And more, in every nook and cranny. We were early; most of them must have been there since the crack of dawn.
When we reached the Col de Rille, we realised that this was going to be in fact a better place to stop than Crouzette, because from there you can see right down into the valley and get a early glimpse of the riders as they make the climb up from Riverenert. So, with some relief at not having to climb another 390m in what was now pushing 30 degrees, we decided to stay put. It soon became apparent that our rather mean, fits-in-a-rucksack picnic was simply not going to make the grade; people had walked up from their cars (the col road itself had been closed to traffic since 6am this morning) with tables, chairs, numerous cool boxes, china plates and proper glasses, cloth napkins, radios, blankets, umbrellas, games, granny, and probably a few kitchen sinks as well. I even saw a TV. We really should know better by now and we slunk with embarrassment into our shady vantage point, hoping that nobody would recognise us, and settled in to enjoy the party.
And party it was. With over an hour and a half to go before the caravane, everybody - and there were hundreds of people, with more arriving all the time - seemed determined to have a good time. And then someone spotted the caravane down in the valley below and as word went around, everyone got into position ...
... as a seemingly endless procession of bizarre sponsors' vehicles came through, throwing freebies (aka tut) to those of us lining the road. It's clearly de rigeur here to do everything possible to get as much as possible, even if you don't really want a selection of keyrings, flourescent wrist bands, pretzels, fridge magnets, hats, biros, licorice sweets, and all the rest; I was so entranced by watching the antics (and rapidly filling shopping bags, obviously brought specially for the occasion) of my 'neighbours' that I came away with only a bottle of water and a spotted Champion baseball cap, though John in his usual fashion did rather better. (I read somewhere that over 12 million promotional items are distributed every day of the Tour!).
Then everybody sat down again to examine their treasure and eat their pretzels and snigger because they'd got more than the next family while we waited another hour or so for the real business of the day. Word got out that a few riders were some 15 minutes ahead of the peloton. Suddenly a hush descended as we spotted the first Tour helicopter, closely followed by four more; TV cameras set up just opposite where we were standing (did you see me on telly? Did you?). The helicopters circled, the tension rose. Suddenly, a lone rider flew past, followed a minute or so later by 12 or so other riders - if you'd blinked at the wrong moment, you'd have missed them, and many did. The helicopters flew lower and the tension rose higher as we waited for the peloton. "Le voilà!" we all said simultaneously as the rest of the riders appeared at the foot of the valley, and we all got into position again ready for their appearance at the col.
Though I've watched the thing on television, I never really appreciated just how extraordinarily fast they go. It seems - and I know it's not before you all rush to tell me so - effortless.
And then they were gone.