Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ax les Thermes

My plan for the coming day was to catch the early morning flight to Barcelona (which departed at 7:10am), immediately pick up a rental car that I had booked, and then high tail it into France to Ax les Thermes to catch the summit finish of the day’s Tour de France stage in the Pyrenees at the Ax 3-Domaines Ski Resort. The timing worked out pretty well assuming that all went according to plan, with my landing in Barcelona at 9:00am and then a 3 hour drive to the Pyrenees which would give me time to position myself on the climb to see the riders go by.

I was fast asleep when my alarm went off at 5:30am, and after collecting my things I made it downstairs to check out at 5:45am and then boarding the shuttle which departed just after 6:00am. I was flying with EasyJet out of Terminal 2, and my first indication that I might be in for trouble occurred as we pulled up to the Terminal where cars were backed up for a few hundred meters from the departures part of the airport. Luckily the line for buses and taxis was not as long, and after donning my backpack I sprinted inside only to have my suspicions confirmed: everyone in the greater Milan area had booked a flight on EasyJet departing that morning. Stinker!

The terminal was a sea of people, I could barely even figure out where the line for the check in counter ended and where the crowds of people just generally milling around began. I finally found the back of the line and started waiting, but based on my distance from the ticket counter (far) and how fast the line was moving (very slowly), I soon knew there was no way that I would make it in time. At 6:28am I left my spot and began walking around, and eventually caught sight of a roaming EasyJet representative. After getting his attention I explained my situation and asked if there was a way I could get checked in right away. However, he immediately dismissed me, and summarily told me that since it was now 6:30am I had missed the 40 minute check-in window prior to departure, and that it was no longer possible for me to check-in. I began to protest but he promptly marched off to deal with some other crisis, and I wanted to yell “But Andy Schleck needs me at Ax-3 Domaines!!” but he was gone before I had a chance and I was left standing in the crowd feeling deflated with my heart sinking.

He had told me that I needed to go ask at the ticket counter about getting on the next flight, so I thought maybe there would be one leaving soon and my plans would not be impacted. I went and waited in line to speak to the surly ticket agent, and she informed me that the next flight leaving for Barcelona on EasyJet was at 7:30pm that night. My immediate instinct was to leap over the ticket counter and strangle her, but I suppressed that and asked her if there was another airline that I could get on. She made a phone call and told me that Weylings had a flight leaving out of another terminal at 9:00am, and that I would have to take a shuttle bus there and ask them about booking a ticket on their flight.

With a sigh I turned and started to walk towards the terminal exit, resigned to my fate, when I though I heard something about “Barcelona” over a loudspeaker. At this same moment I had a flash of inspiration that maybe it was still possible to get on the 7:10am EasyJet flight even though by now it was 6:40am. This sentiment was reinforced as I recalled various experiences traveling with Roanne where I have observed her aggressive, no holds-barred approach to air travel which can involve threatening ticket agents, sprinting through terminals, and spitting venom at security guards. I ran back into the ticketing area and saw that the monitor for one of the ticket counters displayed a reference to my Barcelona flight, indicating that they were ticketing any last comers for the flight. I desperately shouldered my way through the crowd and reached the ticket counter just as the information on the monitor changed to indicate the counter was now closed, but the agent was considerably more accommodating than anyone else I had dealt with so far and she agreed to print me a boarding pass and told me to fly like a banshee to the departure gate (at least that is what I heard).

So off I went, passing other people who were also running for their flights like they were going backwards. I made it though security quickly with the knowledge that you don’t need to remove your shoes in European airports, and my heart leapt as I rounded the corner for my gate and saw that they were still boarding. SO AWESOME! I felt like I had come back from the dead, and was so stinkin’ happy that I was going to be able to see the tour after all.

We took off on time and landed in Barcelona just before 9:00am, at which point I immediately headed to the rental car counter. There was a long line there that took almost an hour to get through, but I was still so happy to have made my flight that I didn’t mind at all. My car was called an Ibiza and was a compact standard (not diesel this time) that seemed like it would do just fine. I headed out of the airport on the highway and made a wrong turn at the first opportunity, but luckily it didn’t take too long to correct and I had better luck with navigation for the rest of the trip.

I arrived in Ax les Thermes at about 1:30pm, perfect timing since the riders were expected to arrive around 5:00pm, so I would have time to hike up the climb and find a good viewing spot. I parked the Ibiza just outside of town on the road that I had come in on, pointed back towards Barcelona anticipating the gridlock that would ensue after the stage was over and I needed to get back for my work meetings that started the next morning (Why did I come to Europe again? Oh yeah, it was for work!). I then walked down into the town, where the roundabout the riders would pass through was already set up with barriers and had gendarmes directing traffic in anticipation of the road closure (that went into effect at 2:00pm).

I stopped to buy some water and some sort of delicious ham-based savory food item, and then continued walking through town towards the base of the climb. It was nice to be in France where I felt like I had a fighting change of making myself understood to locals, as opposed to Italy and Spain where all I could do was say “Hi” and “Thanks”.
After a few hundred meters I reached the base of the climb, where the KOM banners indicated that there was 7.8 km of climbing until the summit (there was then a further 1 km before the finish line):

I continued up the climb, passing lots of spectators and stopping along the way to say hi to Didi the Devil:

It was pretty hot out and the climb was really steep, as I struggled up on foot I was feeling sorry for the riders who would have to race up it in a few hours time. There were a number of amateur cyclists riding up the climb, and as they almost came to a standstill on the steeper sections (up to 10% according to the sign posts) it was pretty telling as to how fit the pros are who will cruise up it at 20 km/hour. As I went higher on the climb the crowds became thicker and there was more writing on the roads:

There were also lots of tents and campers set up, as most people had driven up the night before and had been there all day drinking, barbequing, and partying as they waited for the show to arrive. Just past 2 km from the finish (1 km from the end of the climb) I finally reached the start of the barriers, and decided to set up shop just below that. While a view from the barriers would have provided a clearer view of the riders, I was more excited about being in the midst of the chaos, with the crowds and flags and their thickest and only parting to allow the riders through. Here is the view down the climb as I waited for the action to start, you can see the 2 km to go banner in the distance:

At around 3:15pm the publicity caravan began to come through, which is sort of like a bunch of parade floats that drive up the climb playing loud music and throwing things at the people in the crowd. I had planned on wearing my yellow jersey for the event, but during packing I had decided to cut down on clothing by also wearing that as my jersey if I went riding (as seen in the previous post), however an all day ride in 35 degree C heat tends to really stink up a jersey so I had been forced into wearing a plain white shirt. I managed to catch enough flying objects from the publicity caravan to deck myself out in more appropriate attire, a polka dot T-shirt and a wide-brimmed red hat (the photo is from after the stage, if you are wondering where the crowds went):

Here is a shot of the caravan coming through:

The publicity vehicles filtered through in starts and stops for about an hour, and then at 4:15pm the flow died down and it was just the occasional race motorcycle that would go buzzing through, with the gendarmes (who stood about every 30 feet on the upper part of the climb) blowing their whistles and yelling at everyone to get back and make a path. As more motorcycles came through the tension began to slowly build, until just before 5:00pm when the “thump-thump-thump” of a distant helicopter could be heard. This was the TV camera that followed the race, so it was then clear that the riders were close and the excitement ratcheted up a notch further. Finally a whole fleet of motorbikes came through followed by the lead rider, and Ag2r rider named Christophe Riblon who was the surviving member of the day’s break. I don’t think words can justice to the next few minutes (at least not words written by me at the tail end of a 14 hour flight back from Spain), so if you want to get an idea of what I saw check out the 3 minute video that I took and uploaded to youtube:

Oh man was it ever awesome! It all happens pretty fast, but again, I would say: “Worth it!!!”. Here is one photo that I took after the video:

After the majority of the riders seemed to have gone by I decided to walk up the rest of the course to the finish line. I did feel that I hadn’t seen all that many riders go by compared to the 170 or so that should still be in the race at this point, and as I neared the finish line almost 40 minutes after the leader had gone through this sentiment was confirmed as the gruppetto rolled around the corner:

This was cool to see as there were so stinkin’ many riders in there, there must have been over 100. The wearer of the green jersey (Alessandro Petacchi) was on the front marshalling the pace (“piano, piano!”) as they all rolled by at a casual pace.
I continued on to the finish thinking that I might try to see jersey presentations, but it was a real maze up there with all of the official vehicles parked and I gave up before ever finding the area where the awards would be given out. I decided I had better start back down the climb in light of my obligations the next day, since it would take an hour or two to walk back down the climb and then another 3+ hours to drive back to Barcelona. By this point the entire road down was clogged with a tour-sized traffic jam, with a mix of official vehicles, publicity caravan vehicles, campers, etc. and I was happy to be walking instead of sitting in a car (though I did inhale a lot of diesel fumes as I walked by all the idling vehicles).

I finally made it down by about 7:30pm where I grabbed something to eat in town and then walked back to my car. Traffic was insane going the other direction (into town) on the road I had parked on, but not bad in the direction I was headed so luckily I made it back across the border into Spain without too many delays. I did hit some traffic delays closer to Barcelona, so by the time I searched the city for a gas station to fill the rental car tank, returned the car, and caught a taxi to my hotel it was 12:30am. Darn, another short sleep coming up! Oh well, the adventures aren’t going to come to you if you just sit around and wait for them, better to get out there and go after them!

The next two days of work meetings went well, it was fun to hang out with Dylan and Chris from Synapse as well as the others from the various companies involved in the project. We got a chance to swim in the Mediterranean and had good times in the evenings going out to some great dinners, with the highlight being going out for Tapas with Dylan’s friends (who are locals) Eli and Lluis (apologies in advance as I’m sure both those names are spelled incorrectly), lots of good laughs and general hilarity. All told it was an amazing trip, I hope I can continue to have my employer finance vacations for me!

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic to read this account, see all the photos, and watch the amazing video! Very moving- glad you made it there, which I would say, was a miracle, by the sound of it!