Why? Four days in soaked, stinking Lycra, sweat pouring in torrents, stinging my eyes with a nasty mix of sun screen and salt, tasting of stale tartiflette as it runs relentlessly down my face, into my mouth, dripping off my chin, wiped away futilely by already soaked cycling gloves. Why? Because it doesn’t get any better than this.
This is the French Alps and this is the Tour de France. These grand, spectacular mountains are painted – with a lot of yellow and a fair deployment of red polka dots – but mostly with all things cycling for four intense, gigantic, dramatic days each year. Like a fierce storm the Tour de France rolls through, up, over, down and out the other side of the alpine cols, sweeping me and my bike along with it. For those four days I’m in the Tour, or as close as I’m ever going to be.
Four days happen fast, an intense whirlwind of vibrant colour, people, vistas distilled into a potent emotional concentrate. Except on the climbs. Where it slows. Pedals rotating slowly not spinning fast. Time falters and extends the opportunity to dissect and process individual moments, snapshots of memory from within the whirlwind and fully answer the: Why?
It’s butterflies basking on the warm road, escaping death by front wheel and disappearing amongst the mesmerising alpine flowers in the meadows that lie sandwiched between hairpins. Camper vans, lots of camper vans with occupants spilling out dressed, half dressed, half cut, half bored, very bored or very excited. How did that ancient VW camper get up here? Families camped on precarious precipices. Kids, lots of expectant kids reaching out for a high-five in return for a pain relieving allez-allez or even a precious song. Some other songs are rude, I think. Sung raucously in drunken European accents by uber-excited 18-30s, they’re maybe older, maybe younger – it’s a vast array of humanity swarming on the mountain sides. Being overtaken by an E-bike (lots of them this year) but easily catching a Brompton folding bike set on conquering mountains too. Distracted on the brutal Ramaz by official posters of past winners. Where’s Armstrong? (The other drug cheats are all here). Picture postcard perfect chalets perched on the mountain, promising idyllic alpine living, adorned in Tour decorations, like Christmas but celebrating cycling. Wet paint on the road, splashing my bike with neon green and pink tattoos, daubed by supporters marking out their support for Bardet, Sagan, Froome – they’re all coming through later. Mixing the Bicycle Moaning Collective club kit with club kits from all over the world. Spotting club mates racing on hairpins high above or even better – below. Appreciating admiring looks at my bike or were they admiring my socks? Euro-pop-beats that help pick up the pace momentarily until fading out of earshot and fading with it my momentarily lifted pace. The breath-taking, awe inspiring views from the high mountains – don’t forget to look down. The cooling air as I climb higher, not too cold but cold enough to help. Swirling mountain mists, riding through and above the clouds, entering another world. Moving aside for Gendarmes on their motor bikes, roaring past in aggressive groups of threes. Moving aside for Tour Team cars racing up behind, with deafening horns. Get out of the way. Is that for me? Or the crowds pressing in from each side at the top of Col du Joux Plane? Narrowing the road – like they do on the television – no more than a meter wide. I’m in the Tour.
That’s Why. There’s one more: starting out on an epic climb and not knowing or believing that you can do it: climb that high, that steep, for that long and that hard. But you do. You make it to the top. You can, you did.