Of course nothing that day was according to plan..it is transfer day after all...initially I was meant to leave first thing with the others in the morning to pick up clients, but two cancelled and I didn't need to go until later on. So I settled in for lunch. Then I had a call saying, nope change of plan, you need to be in Toulouse in under two hours to meet some clients. Awesome..takes two hours to get there. So I jumped in the van and headed off full speed. No time for worry about the rib and driving (the van sets it off for some reason) until I went past the spot where I pulled over and a little chill went through me. But made it to the airport in time parked up and met the clients and drove them to the start in Luchon. Nice surprise being that two of them had been on the Pico's trip so it was good to see friendly faces.
Luchon was crazy..loads of people, cars and cyclists, and you could feel the atmosphere building up for the Tour finish the next day. Very different from the town that we passed by on the raid..but that is true of all places that the Tour went through..it brings life and a carnival feel wherever it goes. Flags and banners everywhere. If you didn't know it was a cycling event you would purely by the fact that the town had been shopped dry of bananas completely. Bad preparation by the town..they should have ordered in quadruple the normal amount!
That day of the trip was about settling in and getting bikes ready. The next day we threw them in at the deep end..no lovely civilised warm up..oh no...straight on and up the Port de Bales, a monster of a climb made worse by rain and near the top heavy mist. As a cyclist this was bad enough but in the van it was horrendous.. as well as the normal windy road and mist there was the hundreds of mobile homes and caravans to manouver around on a road that was just over one car wide. Chance would have it I was in big old Frodo too..the bigger and least powerful of the two vans. Couple of close calls and slides on the grass and eventually the top was reached. Then once all arrived and layered up in clothes a zoomy descent all the way back to town and a few braved the west side of the Portillion too.
Day 2 was again following the tour route but this time over the east of Portillion and then if they wanted up the Superbagneres then back to town to watch the pros go over Bales and then the Luchon stage finish. Going to the east side of Portillion meant going to Spain (yay). It confused me slightly as I forgot that fact so when I got stopped by the police I started spouting broken French at them. Soon clicked and managed to assure the very suspicious policeman that I was just a poor guide and that all I had in the back of my van was bananas and my battered bike in slightly better Spanish. Portillion is a nice climb from the east..beautiful views. However it was nothing compared to the sight that met up when you looked up on the descent. High above on the edge of the mountain face opposite us was the most imposing building (even imposing at that height). It soon became apparent that this was where we were headed..that was Superbagneres. After a long and tough climb (for the cyclists, not so bad for me) we reached the top and were rewarded by the most fantastic view over the snowy peaks. Absolutely breath taking. Def a climb for my bucket list.
Time to head back to Luchon, something I had been dreading as it would be chaos and there was no chance that I would be able to get near town let alone park there. Plan was to try and skirt the town then come round the other side via the main road and try to park as close as I could. Chance would have it that this was the perfect plan as that side they had opened up a field for free parking. Phew. Walked into town passing the team busses and got myself a bit lost in the maze of barriers and people but I ended up by then finish and the big screen. Quickly realised that the best place to be was actually after the finish not before as it would be a fast end so better to see them after when they slowed and got caught in the media rush. It did mean I missed the caravan but I did get to see all the riders close up, and was able to walk to the busses after and see them all close up there too. I was however far too English and proper to get any photos with then even though I was mere mm's away from the likes of Bernie, Trentin and Sagan (annoyingly charming in real life). I wondered back to the hotel meeting up with the group and then bringing the van back to town when the roads opened.
Unfortunately that meant having to get up real early in the morning to have all the hire bikes done for the days off. Which in itself was early as the group were going to ride the days tour route ahead of the pro's and get as far as they could before the Gendarmes closed the road. For the vans this in theory meant an easier day as we couldn't support the guys on the road. Reality however is always different as there were road closures and generally hoards of coaches, cyclists and cars all blocking up the road and stopping us from where we wanted to be. Arrgghhh stressful. Brief stress interlude when we were able to take a spin up the Aspen from Arreau, so good to stretch the legs and get some time outside the van. Hotel that night was in Aste..one of my favourites that we use in the raid and where they have nicknamed me 'banana Louise'. Great place.
Day 4 was a big old day..up to the Hautacam! The mountain finish for the last day of the mountain stages. The riders went pretty much straight up while we sorted the bags at the hotel then followed them up. It was amazing..thousands of people, cyclists and cars and busses all headed up the mountain. There were stalls and music and drink..it was brilliant. It was a tough old climb but there was certainly enough to distract you. I was just getting my rhythm and getting into the climbing zone when a car misjudged the distance between us,and clipped me with the mirror..wibble wobble splat..there I was lying on the concrete looking up at the boot of the car as he drove off. A gendarme and some onlookers helped me up asking if I was ok..being a proper cyclist I ignored them until I checked out my bike. All fine there then did a body check..blood on my leg and my hand and some tingles in my left arm. As soon as the chain was back on my bike I thanked the people and headed off. Only to stop a few k's later to recoup. Annoyed more with the fact I had lost my rhythm and was now struggling with the climb. But being stubborn I kept going, keeping strong past the temptations of the beer and wine tents on numerous corners we went past. I think I must have looked like hell as at one point I was suddenly joined on the road by 5 drunk guys drafting behind me! I was annoyed at first and then realised how funny it must look and started to get into it, flicking an elbow which they eventually caught and came in front so we had a wee chain gaing going, me and my five drunk boys. They stayed with me for about a km when they realised beer was low and the tent was far back. Bless them it was so funny and cheered me up no end. Half a km away and I was at our 'hospitality suite' just after the 2km flag. Time for beer, wine and BBQ (and for me a frozen salmon on my arm to try and reduce the swelling) while we waited for the caravan and the tour itself.
I have to say the caravan was my favourite part..it became a mission to get as many goodies as possible fighting off all the other local spectators in the process. I got all our riders involved and we soon had quite a haul of stuff that well I imagine will go straight in the bin!! Soon the pro's came past..first Nibali and then the others behind him. We tried to amuse them by waving the marmots in their faces...it didn't really work! Half an hour later and they had all gone up past..and we were seeing them come back down again at the same time. When they had all finished they opened the road to cyclist so many rode down alongside the pro's. We had to pack up so it was a good few hours before I hit the road and the jams of traffic (cars and bikes) trying to get off the mountain.
Day 5 was the mighty Tourmalet and the Luz Ardeden..not much sticks in my head about that day. Though as I left the Luz there was a massive hail storm.
day 6 the last cycling day..very civilised day up the Soulour and Aubisque. Very relaxed day..I even got to cycle my favourite road between the two cols and back. Cake at the top for one riders birthday too..all good. Then back down to reality and the afternoon of getting the hire bikes ready for the next trip in the heat. A nice last dinner with the guys and then I bowed out early as I had the early transfer.
Day 7 transfer to Toulouse at 8 then last minute told to pick up new passengers to bring back to Ax. All worked out relatively smoothly, and strangely I knew one of the new guys from a ride I did last year in the Alps. Small world.
And then Pech...home again but this time for the last time to sort and pack my panniers again and get ready for the off later in the week back to Spain....