On the Port de Balès


WORDS & PHOTOS: Phil Deeker

Stage 15: It had to happen on the Port de Balès. It seemed so evident. If Andy was going to be more than Alberto’s cycling pal, then he had to make his move on the Balès. The wooded section of the climb is predominantly made up of steep ramps followed by short ‘breather’ sections, ideal for climber style sprint-attacks.

Having ridden the whole route with a group of 16 determined riders two weeks ahead of the race, the stages were still buzzing in my head. Apart from on the occasional stages for the sprinters to shine in, there had been many tough climbs, even on the ‘medium’ mountain stages. Beauty and cruelty often in equal doses. 2010 was a tough millésimé.

In the July heat the Port de Balès climb was amongst the toughest of the 2010 route. I had ridden it again with a small group of Australian riders on the eve of the Tour’s passage, in the crushing mid-afternoon heat. The narrow twisty road through the trees offered few places for the camper vans to settle, but every space for them to park up on their wooden chucks and hang their flags had been taken. When there was no room for the white vans, tents had landed on the smallest patches of flat ground. Despite a sheer drop over the edge of the bank, parents seemed happy for this to be a spot for a family holiday. How come there are not more casualties amongst these fans, happy to wait for a couple of days for the Tour to come through, then running wildly alongside riders and motos like headless chickens?

As I climbed the open section on the last three kilometres and looked around at the tranquil green slopes, I thought of the helicopters, motor bikes, dozens of cars and the cameras transmitting images all over the world that would make this space theirs in 24 hours’ time. It seemed crazy, beautiful, invasive and exciting all at once.

The top of the col had become a massive camper-van park with a couple of marquees catering for their needs in food and, more importantly, alcohol. Those who have been here will know what a remote, desolate and wonderful place the Balès usually is. Now Tour-fever had infected the mountain with a different type of magic: an equal mix of proud locals and fervent international Tour followers were preparing for the greatest cycle race in the world to fly past. That evening I was back up on the top of the Col (four wheels this time!) to witness the celebrations: groups of local trumpeters blew in unison from one hill-top to another as flames soared into the sky from the fire sculptures that had been lit before fireworks made the night sky their own. I left just after midnight. It was clear that the night was still young in the beer tent.

I cycled back up the Balès from Luchon the next morning with hundreds of other cyclists of all shapes and ages. The race would come through at about 4.30pm. I chose a spot to watch at about 11.30am. The wait would be long, but anyone will tell you that this is what watching the Tour is all about. The good humour that probably comes from the absurdity of it was very catching. It was extraordinary to see so many people filling up every inch of this remote mountain road in the Pyrenees. The guy opposite me was dressed as a penguin. He drank a lot of beer (well, it must be so hot in that outfit). There was a lot of orange, red and yellow around. Blue and yellow flags too. The Schleck and Contador camps seemed equally represented.

Then the publicity caravan arrived and the atmosphere was almost as electric as when the race itself approached. A 40 year old cyclist in front of me, in full racing strip, instantly became a greedy ten year old and grabbed, jumped and snatched all he could from the air around him. He stuffed all his prizes into his back pockets with a serious urgency until they were full. The rest went under the front of his jersey, finally smiling when he seized a Caisse d’Epargne t-shirt. Occasional gifts managed to fly through his hands and land at my feet. I picked them up and threw them back to a family seated on the hillside behind me. The kids were thrilled and the Dad thanked me profusely.

Now the crowds, dressed in polka-dot t-shirts, Skoda bobs, Champion polka-dot caps, and waving giant green hands, were ready for the race itself. I had forgotten my pocket radio but picked up from a group close-by that the breakaway had started the climb. The ever popular Voeckler was leading this group. News spread quickly and the French smiled.

Suddenly cars and motorbikes passed by nervously and more frequently until eventually we could hear the distant drone of the helicopter. The moment the first one came into view it was hovering below us, and a shiver went down my spine. It was following the leaders who, a minute or two later, sped past us and up the penultimate ramp of the climb. Water was thrown over the riders’ backs by the screaming fans. There was just enough room for the riders to get through the crowd. Motorbikes tried to run over our toes to push us back.

Then news came over the radio that Andy had attacked and opened up a lead. I didn’t need details. This was good enough. Soon the helicopter was below us again, and so was the maillot jaune group. The crowd were ecstatic. The fact that the blue Astana jersey of Alberto then appeared long before the yellow jersey seemed to matter little: we were there to scream at all of the riders, in whatever order. Alberto was pounding on the pedals: as the gradient rose, so too did his speed. It was an impressive sight. Andy followed (too many) seconds later, hanging on. There was no time to work out what could have happened. Menchov, Sanchez, Lance, Cadel, they were all flying by and needed cheering.

Every rider, down to Cavendish and Petacchi in the grupetto, received rapturous applause. The respect and encouragement that every rider receives from the fans is one of many attributes that set the roadside cycling fans apart from those of most other sports. The media heroes might have been at the front of the race, but the sight of Jens Voigt (Mr. Tough incarnate) with his right hand on Cancellara’s saddle as he pushed him all the way up the last ramp of the climb deserved such respect and admiration. It certainly made me smile as once again Jens proved just how selfless and brutally tough he is.

By the time the Voiture Balai came past, word had spread about the stage results. But no one yet knew about the chain. If others were like me, they were still busy trying to take in what they had just been part of: A couple of seconds as they flew past us just inches away had been enough to let us into their world of pain and heroism.

Those fleeting moments where you can smell the glory and achievement of these men is enough to make it all worthwhile. They are still the models of bravery and resilience that the Tour organisers wanted them to be a century ago, when the riders were first sent into the mountains.

Phil Deeker is the creator of the Cent Cols Challenge, the ultimate sportive.

Read Phil’s account of the 1910 Challenge »

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