Travels with Papillon




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   A Very Big Deal             


For 23 days in July, France and the cycling world focus on the most famous bicycle race in the world


 Tour de France  


and in France it is a very big deal.  Roads are closed hours before, cities are overwhelmed with the crowds and everyone has a winning strategy.


And we 2, captivated for the last few years by Lance Armstrong's winning years desired to see a stage of the race.  But we wanted to see more than 5 seconds of it as they whizzed by.  Thus we wanted a mountain stage, but not at the finish line as the crowds are immense.  So we selected the last mountain stage in the Alps: a stage that must rank as one of the most challenging ever.  Three mountain grades beyond category: i.e.. over 10% grades over long distances - 2000 feet or more in elevation change.  That stage was held on Wednesday, July 23, 2008 over 3 of the most famous climbs in cycling:  Col du Galibier, Croix de Fer and Alpe d'Huez.  The total distance covered was 212 kilometers-over 132 miles, with an elevation gain of 10,000 feet.

The consensus was that whoever won this stage SHOULD win the Tour de France.


We arrived at the village of le Bourg d'Oisans, at the bottom of the road to Alpe d'Huez on Sunday the 20th of July at 3 PM, in search of a camping place for the night prior to moving to Col du Galibier the following day.

Fat chance!  All four campsites were sold out.  Had been for days.  In addition, every possible place on the race route was filled with camping-cars, as witnessed in a drive in the pouring rain up the 23 switchbacks of Alpe d'Huez.  Three days before the race and there was not a parking place to be had.  Probably had been full 5 days ahead.  (Alpe d'Huez is the premier finish stage in the Alps.)

Our biggest impression was the steepness of the climb.  Television coverage does show how steep the grades really are.



Tucked into a curve

Nearing the top


We now started to get concerned that there would not be any room for us on Col du Galibier.

Heading east into the higher mountains we found a campsite for the night and arrived at Col de Lautaret, at the foot of Col du Galibier, just before noon on Monday - 48 hours before race time.

Col de Lautaret:  at the bottom of Col du Galibier


At noon we secured perhaps the last available place on Galibier.  At 8000 feet, we were 500 feet or so from the summit of the pass.

 When parking along the race route you are not permitted to park on any part of the pavement.



P marks Papillon's place on the hill for 3 nights.


The first night on the mountain the temperature was 32 F with a very gusty wind of up to 30 miles per hour.  Here we are dressed for July 22nd, 2008.

Hats, gloves and scarfs.






Hundreds of amateur and recreational bicyclists tried their stamina on the hill including these folks below.

Our small flag flies from the top antenna.  A bigger one next time.


Singly or in groups they came, all day long.



He did pedal from the bottom to the top of the mountain and return.

On an 11% grade he is just a slip away from eternity.


*     *     *     *     *


La Caravane



Beginning about an hour and a half before the racers arrive at your locale, the "Caravan" passes by and most fans enjoy this event as much as the race.  For here the sponsors pass by while throwing promotional material out of their vehicles just like a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade.



And do they ever give away stuff.  Mostly trinkets of course, but promo literature states that all the sponsors combined distribute 11 Million items during the Tour.  Here Judy is scarfing up some hot chocolate like drink.







They throw the stuff at your feet and at the end of the event we had a good "haul".




All morning fans continued to come to the hill to view the race.  However the road was blocked to all traffic since 8 AM so they did the only thing that they could do.  They walked.  Uphill for 2000 feet to get to the summit or other high place.  Here we see the line of fans hiking up the old road  to get to a good viewing location.  Some could not bother with the long winding road and blazed paths straight up the mountain.  Once the cyclists passed by they headed back down the hill.

In the upper right hand corner of the photo above we see the valley that leads to the town of Briancon.  The racers will come up this valley to Lautaret and then up to this location.  The racers were visible in this valley about 40 minutes before they arrived here.

Now for the main event

In every bike race there are always a few riders who break away from the pack.  These 4 are 5 minutes ahead of the pack, or Peleton at this point in the race.  None will finish in the top 10 this day.


And in the time that I could press the shutter on a small digital camera these guys were past.  Just amazing is the speed that they came up this mountain.


And then the Peleton appears in about 5 minutes time.



And on up the hill they went.

First to the right


and near the summit to the left


And by happenstance, or more than likely by planning and strategy, the winner of this days stage did indeed remain the Tour leader and became the Tour de France winner for 2008.



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