A mountain of characters – camping out on the Tourmalet

Cycling Weekly writer Paul Knott camped out on the Tourmalet to savour the unique atmosphere created by thousands of Tour de France fans. A once in a life experience that should be on everyone's to do list.

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You hear it before you see it. The overhead thump, thump of helicopter blades sound the intro, the shouts come in next as the Tour’s orchestra begins to kick into gear. Then the claps commence, followed by the crescendo as the riders arrive and the shouts of “Allez!” hit maximum volume.

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Fresh-faced Frenchman David Gaudu is the first to appear from the throng driving the pace, followed by France’s best hope of a win (at that time) Thibaut Pinot, mouth agape and slinking out of the saddle. Everyone else passes in a flash but you can’t help but find your eyes drawn to the last rider, Julian Alaphilippe, resplendent in yellow. All the while the band plays on, it’ll go through successive movements as the rest of the Tour arrives, pitching and rising.

On the Tourmalet the Tour is turned up to 11 and while the party’s theme in 2019 is Maximum France, everyone is invited.

Just under 48 hours earlier on a balmy Thursday night in the Pyrenees — Simon Yates has just taken his first of multiple stage wins thanks to a breakaway victory in Bagnères-de-Bigorre on stage 12 and the race is swiftly heading east towards Pau for an individual time trial.

As the Tour turns its attention to the race against the clock, CW has just crested the Col du Tourmalet and is greeted with the sight of hundreds of campervans parked up for the summit finish in two days’ time. We peer down the valley looking for gaps in the log jam for us to slot our rented Volkswagen Transporter into.

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As we reach Super Barèges, 4.5km from the summit, we manage to manoeuvre our way into a makeshift campsite by the ski lift and find a spot next to a bog. As we settle into our first night on the mountain, a chorus of German singing breaks out from a nearby tent a hundred yards to our right, as a group of Frenchman create a makeshift shower with bottle of Vittel — a festival feel is sweeping across the Tourmalet.

Following the Tour necessitates a hit and miss series of French hotels — inevitable when thousands of people descend on small towns unable to cope with their accommodation needs. This means that a night spent in the camper is something of a luxury and we are woken by the sound of cowbells — on actual cows — ringing around Super Barèges.

The wake-up call is broken up by the whirring of helicopters dropping off supplies to Le Bastan café. As I make photographer Dan’s breakfast — the least I can do as our trip coincides with his 31st birthday — Australian late-comers try to force their way into the rammed campsite before being shoed off by a Frenchman marking his territory with his awning.

Read the full feature in this week’s Tour de France review issue of Cycling Weekly magazine. On sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25