Stage 7 of the Tour de France had passed just 20 miles from our Geneva "home". Looking out our windows that evening, we could count 20 helicopters hovering over what we thought was likely the finish area. This was just too much for me to miss, and we planned an outing to watch in person.
Stage 8 of the tour ran from Le Grand-Bornand to Tignes, a mountainous course of 165 km. A couple hour's drive brought us to Bourg-St-Maurice, situated approximately 118km into the stage. St. Maurice lies at the end of long downhill stretch, so the riders would arrive strung out over a period of 30-40 minutes.
The roads close 2 hours before the cyclists arrive. After a long wait during which the waiting crowd's level of anticipation rises and falls, the pre-game-show ("the caravane") begins.
It isn't quite the Pasadena Rose Parade...
...but it's still quite a show, as the race sponsors parade by tossing goodies to the crowd.
Below, a sample of coffee sails over my head. (Jump, Jolene, jump!)
Eventually, there are no more caravane vehicles. The crowd thickens, gazing uphill. There are "false starts" as official-looking vehicles drive past. Occasionally, a local cyclist races by, testing out the route and (no doubt) dreaming lofty dreams to the accompaniment of scattered applause. Anticipation builds with a sudden flurry of team vehicles. These are followed by motorcycle policemen, more team cars carrying spare bicycles, and lastly, the tow truck and street sweeper. (The riders must not be impeded by stalled vehicles or leftover "loot" from the sponsors.)
There was another 10 minute wait....then two motorcycles raced by, escorting the top 4 riders, who were tailed closely by 2 more riders (possibly pictured below). Not far behind came more team cars. One, whose driver was perhaps snoozing, slammed on its brakes and fishtailed when he finally noticed the speed bump pictured above. The riders, however, gracefully absorbed this bump, floating over it as if it were not there.
We think these may be among the top 10 riders at that moment, maybe in about 5th and 6th position. Everything happens so fast -- even with the camera in "continuous shutter" mode, we got a lot of photos of empty roadway where a rider had been just a split second before.
For me (Jolene) it was impossible to identify individuals. Not having followed the tour closely this year, I could only identify the most familiar jerseys, like CSC (above in red and black) and Discovery Channel.
It was interesting to me to see how many motorcycles and other vehicles were mixed between the different groups of riders. Some of the team cars even seemed to be racing each other, jockeying for position as they followed their riders.
Because it is a three week "marathon" sports event, the Tour de France is probably best taken in via video highlights of each day shown on the TV sports channels. However, I am very glad we took the trouble to go see it in person. I enjoyed being there, seeing the organization and proceedings of the big event, and then the riders flashing by.
We did get some information on the previous day events when, during the parade, a truck passed out the race "daily" (in French) listing results, placements, and stories from the previous day's stage. We also considered watching the race from the finish line, or at the end of a steep uphill where the peloton would be bunched together. However, reaching these locations made for a long drive that was only complicated by race-related road closures.
Reviewing the stage notes later on the Internet, we learned that Rogers and Arroyo, the two leaders we saw, had crashed up the hill from where we stood. Both were able to remount new bikes, but sometime after passing us, Rogers withdrew from the race due to injuries. Micheal Rasmussen was the stage winner.
So to summarize: We drove a long ways over scenic French toll (€€€€) roads, parked in a lovely Alpine village and walked to the flagged stretch of roadway, joined the crowds waiting in lazy anticipation on this breezy, warm, sunlit afternoon, inspected some interesting "floats" in the caravane, scored some sponsor-donated "loot", waited some more, and then cheered and waved as a bunch of hot, sweaty bodies flash past on their bicycles at a high rate of speed!