Words and photo by Peter Cossins
Today I had my best half an hour at the Tour so far. Ever since the news was announced that Luz Ardiden would be back on the race route for the first time in a decade, I’ve had one thought in mind: to watch the stage unfold from the roadside rather than on the TV in the pressroom or from the far end of the finishing straight.
The 13.3km climb that rises from the once swanky spa town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur to the tiny skiing resort that is overlooked by the towering crags of the 3,000m Pic d’Ardiden is one of the great cycling arenas, or more precisely its closing 4.5km are. In this final section of the climb, the road weaves and wiggles frantically, rising through hairpin after hairpin, the steep and grassy banks in between them offering the perfect vantage point onto the action unfolding beneath you.
From the highest part of the climb, just a little below the ski station where the finish is located, the final switchbacks offer the best vantage points of all, enabling you to see the riders when they’re still the best part of four kilometres away, and I didn’t want to miss this. I knew it would probably mean ending up trapped on the mountain for some time after the race had finished – and didn’t realise at that point the French president would ensure that would happen – but there are few better places to be a bike fan than on this spectacular Pyrenean climb.
The drive up to Luz Ardiden heightened the experience. It was lined almost from bottom to top, the road surface a multi-coloured mish-mash of graffiti, fans cheering and waving every vehicle that passed. Once at the top, where swirling mist added to the atmosphere, we made our way to a point where I had stood last October taking photos having ridden up early one morning and barely seen a soul.
Perched high above the 500-metre-to-go sign, we watched and listened for the riders’ approach. The first indication they were coming was the sound of the TV helicopters, tracking their progress up from Luz-Saint-Sauveur. Soon after, there was a sudden flurry of traffic, of red race organisation cars, grey vehicles carrying race officials and the blue blur of the Garde Républicaine motorbikes zipping back and forth through the bends. It was like a giant Scalextric layout had come to life.
Then the riders appeared, nothing more than brightly coloured specks to start with, Tadej Pogačar’s yellow jersey easy to pick out in what was already a short line that was headed by Sepp Kuss, with Jonas Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz on the race leader’s wheel. It probably took them no more than 10 minutes to reach us, Kuss dropping away having set the pace for his Jumbo teammate Vingegaard, Enric Mas bridging up to the leading trio.
Two bends below us, it was, surprisingly, Mas who struck out first for the finish. The Movistar rider opened up a significant lead over the three riders at the top of the GC standings, delighting the many Spanish fans on the mountain. “I thought for a few moments I was going to win,” Mas confessed.
That thought was swiftly ended by Pogačar. Approaching the hairpin directly below us, the race leader accelerated hard, like a cheetah chasing down its prey. Mas was caught, devoured and dropped. Although Vingegaard and Carapaz endeavoured to get back on terms with the young Slovenian, their efforts were in vain, just as they had been at the previous day’s summit of the Col de Portet.
In their wake, there were further mini-battles. Ben O’Connor versus Wilco Kelderman in a duel for fourth place after its incumbent Rigoberto Urán suffered an untimely jour sans. King of the Mountains leader Wout Poels was still giving his all to get to the top even though he must have known that Pogačar had stripped him of the polka dots at the very last. Then, finally, 32 minutes after the yellow jersey had won the stage, Mark Cavendish came into view, escorted by four of his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammates, safely inside the time limit and now with perhaps two chances to break Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 Tour stage wins.
Interviews conducted, we yomped back up to the ski runs temporarily serving as car parks above the ski station, took our place in the line to get out, and waited, waited and waited some more. The Tour, we were told, was hosting its biggest guest so far, French president Emanuel Macron, who had arrived at the “Vaccibus” parked just beyond the finish and had decided to give an interview in order to encourage his fellow citizens to get the jab.
His security staff had created a perimeter around him, and we were on the wrong side of it, trapped until the president had finished talking and was helicoptered away, perhaps getting his own Scalextric-style view of the mountain and the thousands of vehicles that were only now beginning to edge slowly off it.
As we waited even more, we passed the time watching the mist slowly shut out the view of the mountains around us, then sat transcribing the post-stage interviews. What stood out for me was one of Tadej Pogačar’s quotes.
“It’s all about having fun. I had a great time,” said the UAE leader, having all but wrapped up his second Tour de France title. I couldn’t agree more. Seeing all those smiling faces driving up through the crowds on Luz Ardiden, feeling the sense of excitement and anticipation building as the riders approached, I was reminded for the umpteenth time what a joyous event the Tour de France can be. I had a great time too.