Who knew? Watching a Tour de France mountain stage is a journey of community, of freebies, of nonsense, of joyous merriment

Chris Marshall-Bell drove past the thousands of fans on Luz Ardiden on stage 18 of the Tour de France and then watched the final kilometres from the roadside. He realised what he knew all along.

Tour de France
(Image credit: Getty)

Do you know that joy you get, that unfettered delight, when you walk into a Tesco Express at night, tired and weary and starving from a day of no food, and find the whoopsie aisle offering a sandwich, a pie, a wrap, a meal deal at 80 percent of its original price?

The feeling of securing a bargain, as if somehow you deserved it, you earned it. It’s a glorious emotion of pure happiness. Something so simple, so minor, so unimportant, yet simultaneously so important.

You know that joy that that Tesco whoopsie aisle find gives you? All that joy is nothing compared to receiving a cotton E.Leclerc polka dot jersey at the Tour de France. Or a Kyrs blue summer’s hat. Or a shopping bag from Skoda. Or even a LCL yellow t-shirt that was probably fabricated at a twentieth of the price of your tuna and mayonnaise sandwich that you devour with the same gusto as if it was served in a Michelin star restaurant.

Because nothing rivals the joy of being a spectator at the Tour de France.

Who knew that a 25-year-old man could stand for five hours on a mountain top only in their swimming trunks and be as content as the man twice his age reading L’Equipe three kilometres down the mountain in his camp chair that needs two new legs and stitching back together.

Who knew that every time a press vehicle drove the route it would unconsciously cause you to scream, to shout, to bellow Allez Allez Allez, to raise your hands in the motion of a Mexican wave, all because said car contains someone who has probably spoken to the rider who you came here for.

Who knew that every non-sporty person would be so inclined to book a day off work, to cancel their plans, to spend time, hours and hours, on a mountain side waiting to see a few dozen skinny men ride their expensive bicycles past them so very fast.

Who knew that in the aftermath of a torrid 18 months, the way to regroup, to share barbecues, to see old friends, to bring the family together, to feel what it is to be a community, would be standing crowded around a phone on a sometimes sunny and sometimes cold July day, watching a stuttering feed of a bike race.

Who knew that dozens of young 20-somethings throwing bags, hats, t-shirts, biscuits, washing tablets and paper from modified whacky vehicles would provide such unstrained joy to a 10-year-old, to a 30-year-old, to a 50-year-old, to a 70-year-old. Who knew a freebie was so precious. 

Tadej Pogacar wins stage 18 of the 2021 Tour de France

After hours of waiting, fans finally got to see Tadej Pogačar pass

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Who knew that eating a week's worth of bread, a month's allocation of cheese, and drinking your entire fridge's stock of alcohol in just a few hours wouldn't make you feel guilty because Xavi from Bilbao, Joris from Utrecht, Fabio from Turin and Raphaël from Valence are doing exactly the same.

Who knew that finding your position, obdurately sticking with it as the morning gives way to intense afternoon sun, would crescendo to the moment when, finally, after all those beers and all those baguettes, the first actual actors, the ones we paid no money to see, finally arrive on the scene would cause so much happiness.

Who knew the sight of a young man dressed in yellow with boyish looks and blonde hair doggedly piercing through his helmet would herald such cries of anticipation and excitement.

Who knew that spending all day on a mountain side surrounded by old friends and new strangers collecting worthless freebies was such a priceless moment that will forever be entrenched in our memories.

Who knew that a bike race - just like those Tesco whoopsies, something so simple, so minor, so unimportantly important - could cause so many smiles.

Watching the Tour de France on the Luz Ardiden, I knew.

It was then that I knew that the Tour de France is the most magical event in the world.

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Chris Marshall-Bell

Chris first started writing for Cycling Weekly in 2013 on work experience and has since become a regular name in the magazine and on the website. Reporting from races, long interviews with riders from the peloton and riding features drive his love of writing about all things two wheels.

Probably a bit too obsessed with mountains, he was previously found playing and guiding in the Canadian Rockies, and now mostly lives in the Val d’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees where he’s a ski instructor in the winter and cycling guide in the summer. He almost certainly holds the record for the most number of interviews conducted from snowy mountains.