So, July has come and gone and we're now entering the home straight of the long summer holidays. There are more camper vans on the roads than lorries, and in this part of the country they are fighting the combine harvesters for road-space. At the moment it's forty - thirty to the combines. Add on the tractors and trailers teetering dangerously along over loaded with straw bales, and the wannabee 'Tour de France' candidates wobbling from side to side as they push up the one- in -eight gradients and it's the Highway to Hell on some routes.
Ah! 'Le Tour'. It has a strange effect on the French. They are by nature in love with the velo. It seems to be inherent in the male of the species. An urge to purchase a multi-geared monster, a flash helmet and appallingly fluorescent Lycra and take to the open road. Every week-end they flash by my window in a streak of yellow, orange or lime green come rain. hail or heatwave. A pelaton of cyclists have a peculiar sound as they swoop past. It's an eerie hum of skinny wheels on tarmac, and perhaps the muted chatter of conversation. Quite weird, like a ghostly daylight apparition. In technicolour.
This year Le Tour made an overnight stop in Lannemezan. I like Lannamezan. It's got a good range of shops, some cut-price supermarkets, and a big Wednesday market, so it's my kind of town. Each year towns all over France vie with each other to 'win' an overnight stop on one of the stages. It's quite a coup, and a financial boost into the bargain.
Thank goodness Lannemezan has a good selection of bars. I guess they'd all have been full of journos, and assorted Tour followers. Not the cyclists though . They're all too exhausted to do anything other than lie on the physio's couch and then turn in for the night, ready for the next day's punishment.
The Tour organisers must have a soft spot for Lannemezan, because they stopped there a couple of years ago, so cycling and the accompanying tourism seems to have replaced the production of mutton for which the town was famous in the last century.
This year the tour organisers declared there would be zero-tolerance towards drugs and their words must have been heeded, as there were only four disqualifications, which may be four too many, but it's an improvement on previous years. Performance enhancing drugs have always bedevilled the tour, and it had become so blatant that there was a danger that France's most famous contribution to the sporting summer was beginning to loose some of it's public support.
But this year the crowds along the route were a thick as ever with old-hands arriving four or five hours before the start, and pitching camp in the best places for seeing their heroes. You can always see which roads the tour has used over the years, as the names of previous overnight leaders are stencil-sprayed onto the tarmac, and sometimes on the walls of tunnel and bridges. There they remain long after the 'name' itself has retired - a reminder of past glories.
There was a bit of a niggle in the press that the whole carnival of Le Tour was becoming too much of a strain on local services. Certainly, the roads do seemed to be closed off for an inordinately long time before the race actually starts, and the route uses up an awful lot of policemen who could be otherwise occupied with speed cameras, but I can't imagine there will be any change in the plans. It's a festive occasion and too much a part of summer to be cut back.
We've watched a couple of stages over the years. The first time we were inadvertent spectators as we unwittingly strayed onto the route and were informed the road we wanted to take had been closed and would remain so until the whole shooting match had gone through. So there we were, in this little village, squashed against the wall in the narrowest of streets in a midday temperature of 30c + for over two hours.
But we weren't without entertainment. Long before the peleton appears we have the spectacle of the caravan of sponsors and back-up cars . This is the warm-up act and goes on for ages, a endless procession of trucks, trailers and pretty girls throwing out freebies to an eager crowd who risk death by hurling themselves into the road to retrieve a free sachet of coffee, a cheap baseball cap you wouldn't be seen dead in,a ballpoint pen that lasts all of five minutes or a keyring. Being British I refrained from such displays of avarice and contented myself watching grown men race to beat their neighbour to a children's puzzle book. As for the cyclist themselves they were there and gone in a rush of air which actually created a sort of wind-tunnel in the narrow street, leaving me to wonder what all the fuss was about.
The next time we watched it we were better prepared, with bottles of water and a camera for a start. We positioned ourselves on a wide bridge over the Garonne, where the crowds were thin which meant we had a ringside view ( and some where to sit as an added bonus). I surmised from the lack of spectators we weren't in the most exciting place, but we were quite happy. It was a distinct improvement on the previous occasion.So we waited...and waited. The freebie part of the morning arrived and drove slowly through, throwing out the booty to eager arms. The police, stationed on the roundabout at the junction were well up on the give-aways...they could spot a mineral water promo- van before it even arrived on the bridge and would be prominently positioned in readiness for half a dozen bottles to be handed over. They didn't bother with the pens, they'd probably got a whole storeful back at the station.
After about an hour and a half the clatter of helicopter blades announced the arrival of the media pack sent a frisson of excitement through the crowd. The peleton were on their way, and could be spotted on the other side of the river, flashing silver, green, blue through the trees lining the road.
David Bailey(on less exciting days, The Significant Other) made final adjustments to his camera and leaned expectantly into the road. I was watching his maneuverings with mounting alarm. The lens cap was swinging from the camera, he was precariously balanced with one foot on the road, and one on the verge and I could just visualise the carnage if he got himself tangled up with the lead riders. A couple of years before a woman with an uncontrollable handbag had a close encounter with Lance Armstrong's handlebars and he finished up in the gutter with several other riders on top of him. And only the year before I had seen a hilarious video of a golden retriever wandering across the road straight into one of the cyclists who crashed to the ground with a front wheel bent beyond redemption. The dog continued his amble across the road as if nothing had happened.
My squeak of "For God's sake get back" was lost in the crescendo of excitement as the riders, preceded by police outriders, wheeled right to the bridge and powered down towards us - a tsunami of alloy,lycra, bronzed thighs, and grim expressions. They sped down to the roundabout, then off and up, to the Col Ares for another masochistic day in the mountains.
And that was it, until next year when the route would be slightly different but the spectacle unchanging.The crowds drifted away and began the long walk back to their cars, the police cleared the barriers away and opened up the road and the Significant Other took a quick look at his photos. He was well satisfied and I was relieved. Man and camera had come through unscathed.