I woke up in the morning earlier than before, with a bit of pain still in my legs, but I forced myself to get up and out of bed as quickly as possible. Today, the plan was to climb the Col d’Izoard, which would be the final mountain pass of this year’s Tour de France. The race was going to finish on the top of the mountain. Further, the women’s race La Course was being run on the same day, and finishing in the same place. I knew I had to leave early.
Upon going outside, I was immediately disheartened. It was raining, and had been for most of the morning so far. I had packed for summer wear, my rain cape was back in my room in Cambridge. ‘It’s going to be a cold day’, I thought to myself, as I set off down the road. The first hour of riding was along exactly the same route as the first day to Risoul: down the edge of the valley to Guillestre. The short climb in the middle of the route to the town of Pallon was still annoyingly steep, only this time I had two mountain passes in my legs, and so it took longer than before. Fortunately, over the top, the weather cleared somewhat, so that I could have a safe descent down the other side.
At Guillestre, the road started upwards, and would remain upwards for the next 34 km. The first 5 km were into, through, and out of the town of Guillestre. Here, the road was still wide and the traffic still relatively busy for the still early hour of the morning. But I knew I was on the route proper; at each of the several roundabouts through town, an officer of the Gendarmerie stood waiting to close the road of when the route did come through. Some people were on the roadside already, but not a lot.
From Guillestre, the road flattened slightly until the intersection at the Maison du Roi. For the next 12 km, the road gently rose up the gorge of the river Guil. It was beautiful, but remarkably quiet. You could hear the sound of the water rushing down the river, and everywhere you looked up, you could see the tall cliff faces above you. There was one point in particular where the gorge narrowed sharply, which was probably the most picturesque parts of the climb, if the lighting had been right. There were people with campervans on the side of the road setting up for the morning and cooking themselves breakfast, some gave a cheerful wave as I rode past. For some reason, though, there weren’t all that many cyclists on this part of the road.
That all changed when I turned onto what is often considered the ‘real’ start to the climb. Leaving the main valley and going up a side gully, the final 14 km of the climb are very tough, averaging about 8% to 9%. Here, the road was fully closed to traffic, but from somewhere, the number of cyclists on the road increased dramatically. The climb was uneven too, with very steep sections followed by flatter sections. One thing that did impress me, was a 12 year old girl riding up with her father faster than most of the 30 to 40 year old adults.
10 km from the summit, we reached the township of Arvieux. There were hundreds of people milling about this usually sleepy settlement. Hundreds of campervans parked in a nearby field, and the bars were bustling with patrons. A grumpy-looking Gendarmerie officer was telling everybody to get off their bikes and walk. I thought that was silly, how else was everyone supposed to get to the finishing line? Reluctantly I agreed, and walked up through the town, only to notice that everyone was getting back on their bikes again. Maybe this was just for the town itself?
There were further small villages 8 and 6 km from the summit where the same thing happened. Nevertheless, me and the people around me pushed on up the hill. I wouldn’t remount until everyone around me did, and there were numerous people eager to get to the top. The final 5 km rise at some 9 to 10% through a series of forested hairpins. Here, the number of people on the sides of the roads were getting crazy, people were setting up barbecues or chilling out with the radio. A couple more times, we were stopped by the Gendarmerie telling people to walk, but it didn’t really work.
Eventually, I made it to the barriered section near the top of the climb, with a clear run to the Casse Déserte. With about 2 km to go in the climb, the road dips down a fast downhill section through the barren, rocky landscape and then up the final few steep hairpins to the summit. Unfortunately, the authorities were blocking this little downhill section completely, not letting anyone, even walkers, through. We were all stuck at the admittedly beautiful lookout which looked up to the summit.
There was, however, a food truck in the lookout, so I took the opportunity to get something to eat. Wanting a hot-dog and chips, I actually found myself with a chip-topped hot-dog in baguette, but I was tired and not going to complain. While I was eating, they cleared the road of cyclists, and the first of the race vehicles for La Course started to come through. I positioned myself just short of the top, and looked down the straight road for the first cyclists.
The first to appear was the Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten, from the Australian team Orica-Scott. She had distanced all other riders from her, and would go on for a solo victory at the top of the Col d’Izoard. Other riders followed in ones and twos for a good half an hour or so, each one of them getting a raucous cheer from the crowd. It was a really exciting race to see.
I sat around for a bit, but shortly after the race had finished, they opened up the road to the summit, so I grabbed my bike and rode on. I got as far as 400m from the finish line before they wouldn’t let anyone else through, so I had to shoulder my bike and walk cross country to the summit. After deciding that the summit was too crowded, I settled into a place about 200m from the finish, on a side of the road where I could lock up my bike to the barriers, and lie down.
I waited a good number of hours in the same spot, mostly lying in the sun. Sometime later, they closed the summit road again, so I wasn’t in danger of losing my spot. Eventually the race caravan came through, the same configuration as the previous days, and I grabbed all of the freebies that I could. I also bought myself a souvenir t-shirt and water bottle.
Unlike the previous day, there was a weak phone signal at the top of the Col d’Izoard, so I was able to stream the race live to my phone as they came up the mountain, so I roughly knew which riders were going to come to the summit first. Again, I could see the race on the hairpins below me, so I saw an attack by French hopeful Romain Bardet being chased down by defending champion Chris Froome. The day was won by the French King of the Mountains, Warren Barguil, and there wasn’t any major time gaps between the big favourites, meaning that race leader Froome was the favourite going into the final two flat stages and one time trial. It was still some time to come before the final stragglers reached the top.
After the race had passed, it was a scramble to get to the top of the mountain. At first, the organisers only allowed the team cars and professional riders to descend the mountain: they started the day in Brainçon at the base of the climb, so would all go back to their hotels and team busses. Eventually, the road was opened up to the public, who had amassed in their thousands on the hill next to the summit. Everyone was walking cross country to try and rejoin the road, the main road being blocked by the press taking photos of the stage podium. There was a short, metre or two high, cliff, which people were sliding down in their smooth, cleated shoes and carrying their bikes worth thousands of dollars.
Once on the road, the descent was crazy. With thousands of people trying to descend the mountain, the traffic of bikes clogged up. At some point, a white bus tried to do a three point turn in front of everybody, which slowed everyone down even more. Some people, especially those on mountain bikes, rode cross country between the hairpins, though one mountain biker crashed into a road rider just in front of me. Much abuse was hurled. I managed to get passed the white bus and down the road a few hundred metres further, until there was another hold-up. On a narrow, curved bridge in front of us, a grey bus had tried to go past a parked, race official’s vehicle, but there wasn’t enough room and the side of the bus and jammed against the side of the car. Meanwhile, thousands of cyclists stood impatiently waiting for the obstacle to clear, with thousands more still coming over the top of the pass. It took a quarter of an hour for the driver and a number of strong helpers to essentially carry the car a foot to the side, in order for the bus to get down. There were great cheers by the cyclists once the bus was moving again.
Once passed the second bus, the road was relatively free-flowing. The top part of the descent was very twisty and narrow, but everyone generally kept to the rule of slower riders to the right, faster riders to the left. I managed the first 10 km of the descent just fine; it is the steepest and most technical, requiring a lot of deft touches of the brakes. I rounded the corner to start the flatter, straighter part of the descent, when disaster struck.
Unbeknown to me, and because I had hardly been pedalling, the gear that I had selected hadn’t yet been shifted into, and so the derailleur and the chain were in different places. As the straight section of the road opened up, I went to pedal hard to build up some speed, but my chain jammed around the derailleur. The force I was pushing with the pedal could no longer be distributed into the chain, but it had to go somewhere. Instead, I was pushing the pedal into the road, and so my bike had to twist out from underneath me to do so. No longer on my bicycle, I hit the ground with my left shoulder and the bottom of my back on the right. I felt a crunch as my helmet cracked onto the pavement. There was a ringing in my ears as I slid down the road, quickly to a stop. I lay on the road for a few seconds; I could hear my phone, my bike lock, and my water bottle bouncing down the road. With thousands of people behind me, I stood up fairly quickly. This is usually a good sign, but I wasn’t thinking of it just yet; being able to stand up means that you haven’t broken your collarbone. I heard someone yelling at me, A pair of cyclists with familiar accents, though I couldn’t tell if they were British or Australian, had stopped next to me and were directing the cyclists behind me to avoid me and my bike.
They told me to sit at the side of the road and catch my breath. I was hit with adrenaline and didn’t want to sit down, but eventually did. I took of my helmet and inspected it; there was a huge crack right through the back where it had hit the road. I didn’t realise it yet, but my visor had shattered off as well. I started to go through a list of belongings in my mind. My sunglasses, which I was wearing at the time, were still on my head and unscathed. My week-old phone had bounced out of my pocket, but the screen was unshattered. The back of the case had been very scratched up though. My water bottles and my Garmin stayed on my bike without a scratch, though the souvenir bottle I was carrying in my back jersey pockets had bounced across the road. My combination bike lock had taken a hit too, no longer did the rotors move freely, and some of the numbers had been scuffed up.
At this point, I looked at my shoulder. My jersey, being worn for the first time today, had ripped on my shoulder, and there was a huge gash beneath. I felt around for other tears; but my cycling shorts were all together. I had some minor bruising on my legs, but there was no blood drawn.
The guy who had stopped with me pulled my bike off the road and started fixing the chain. I thanked him for his help, as someone else went to get assistance from a Gendarmerie officer just up the road. He came, but left shortly after. The guy adjusted my brakes, noting that my back wheel was now buckled. I thanked him again for helping, and soon, meekly, got back on my bike. With a cracked helmet and a less than ideal back brake, I rode slowly down the mountain into Brainçon.
From there, there was a final hour of riding to do down the valley to my hostel. When I got home, I inspected the damage further; apart from my lock, jersey and helmet, everything seemed fine. I washed myself clean and picked out the one bit of gravel rash I could see. I put on some fresh clothes and wandered down the street to the same restaurant I had eaten at the previous night. I checked on my Garmin data, which showed that I had been doing nearly 60 kph at the moment of my crash. I was lucky to have come out of it so well. I went out to a restaurant in town and had a bowl of pasta for dinner. I figured I could do with something revitalising. That night, as I lay down in bed, I could start to feel the muscles beneath my bruises tightening up. It would be an uncomfortable night.