Days 44 – 51: Embrun, The Alps and rather a lot of bicycles

One of our biggest drives of the trip was our journey into the Alps.  Having skirted along the southern coast of France we turned inland and headed up, with the terrain gradually becoming more mountainous and beautiful as we ran out of motorway and onto more twisting and turning roads through increasingly alpine towns.

That said, our base camp of Embrun was certainly not the most mountainous of towns, but none the less, the terrain of the campsite was what could be best described as ‘undulating’, and frankly sheer in other places.

Having refused the pitch we were initially allocated on the basis that it could barely fit a two man tent, we chose a big spot that we reckoned would be the easiest to get in and out of.  But we still had to get to the spot, and after a few stalls and wheel spins we ended up damaging the rear steady of the caravan getting up the very steep gravel path.

We eventually made it to our pitch but it still took a further 30 minutes of hitching and unhitching several times, forwarding and reversing to try to get the caravan tightly into the spot and level, with that lovely clean mountain air somewhat ruined by the foul-mouthed cursing and smell of burning clutch.

The next day (Saturday) was spent in Brianҫon, where I had to sign in for Sunday’s L’Etape du Tour.  We spent a few hours wandering around the ‘cycling village’ where there was plenty of cycling memorabilia to gawp at, including vintage bikes used in previous tours, new and old race director’s cars, and the bike that Chris Boardman used to revolutionize track cycling at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.  Of course there were plenty of merchandise stores for those who wanted to alleviate their wallets of a few hundred euros, but our sole purchase was lunch from the pasta stand.

Having found my name in amongst the 15,999 other entrants on a 20 metre long wall, it was back to camp for further pasta fuelling and an early night prior to the big day.

We deliberately planned to do very little on the day after my cycle as I wasn’t sure how my legs would be feeling (as a boast I will mention that I actually felt pretty fine with no stiffness or soreness to report).  We went for a walk down to Lac de Serre Poncon on the outskirts of Embrun, a huge man-made lake, which has another smaller man-made lagoon within it including a grass beach.  We lay and napped in the sun for the afternoon, punctuated by swimming in the pleasantly warm waters, before heading back to the caravan with two extraordinarily large takeaway pizzas.

The following day we went on a reccy to find a spot to watch the Tour coming through in a couple of days’ time. After deciding on our spot near Le Sauze-du-Lac, we continued to follow the route I had cycled.  We admired several viewpoints and gorges that I had missed as I cycled past with my head down, before stopping at a small lake for a couple of hours in the afternoon (annoyingly none of us had brought our swimmers).  I then insisted on showing Laura at least one of the mountains I had conquered, so we drove up the Col de Vars, which at least enabled me to appreciate the views a little more than I had when on the bike.  There were already people camped out in the best spots up the mountain with their motor homes, ready for the real Tour stage to come past in two days’ time.  We stopped to take some of the photos I missed on Sunday, though disappointingly excluding the vast band of cyclists.  It was a steep and winding drive up the mountain and Laura was gobsmacked that I had managed to pedal my way up it.  And this wasn’t even the toughest one.

Back in Embrun, we spent another afternoon exploring what turns out to be a very pleasant town once you get off the faceless modern main road through the centre of it.  The ‘old town’ is stuck atop a rock that seems to protrude out of the side of the mountain and tower over the vast floodplain below, with the afternoon cloud adding an extra air of mystique to the peace across the valley.  We found a busy square where some French woman was murdering karaoke in the middle of the afternoon so stopped for lunch at a neighbouring pizzeria.  We liked this little corner of the town so came back for dinner a few evenings later, during which there happened to be some sort of festival going on in the town square so of course we had a bit of a boogie to the live music, with Evelyn’s ‘dancing’ winning yet more friends and admirers!

Four days after I had completed L’Etape, the real Tour cycled through the area along the same route.  We were up and out by 9:00am to beat the road closures and gain a vantage point on the side of the road that ascends up the small mountain alongside the lake, a few kilometres outside of Embrun.  Unfortunately at this time in the morning it was absolutely chucking it down, and it still was as we found a spot to park the car near where we wanted to stand.  After an hour of being sat in the car waiting for the weather to pass it started to clear up nicely, so we wandered off back down the road where we could get a good view of Froome et al racing through.

Before the race though, there was the tour ‘caravan’, which is basically a procession of promotional cars, vans and other vehicles driving through, blaring out music and throwing out freebies.  Over about half an hour we managed to collect all sorts of free tat, including seven hats, two tiny cows, frisbees and some chorizo.  The size of our haul was undoubtedly aided by waving a small Evelyn dressed in official Tour merchandise as the oddly decorated cars weaved past.

By early afternoon we were warmed up nicely by both the weather and the excitement of the promotional nonsense and so were ready for the main event.  And we had to be ready. Despite being a steepish hill, the racers really did go by in a flash.  We had two bites of the cherry as there had been a big breakaway group from the main peloton, and it was good to see the full Sky team leading the chasing pack through, with Froome resplendent in the yellow jersey. But there was still a sense of anti-climax that it was over so quickly having waited for several hours on the side of the road, but that’s the nature of it I guess, and probably explains why so many people camp out for days on the side of massive mountains where they get a much better opportunity to see each rider go past individually at a far more reasonable pace.

We headed back to the campsite to watch the reminder of the stage on TV in the bar.  It was a strange, almost warming, feeling to know I had cycled the very same tarmac as the pros just a matter of days earlier, albeit they seemed to be making somewhat lighter work of it than I did.  The winner of the stage, Warren Barguil, finished in 4 hours 40 minutes and 33 seconds, almost twice as quick as me!  I won’t be resting any hopes on a call up for next year’s race.

The following day’s Tour stage started from Embrun so we planned to head down to the start village early to try to watch the start and soak up the last bit of Tour atmosphere of our trip.  Unfortunately our timing was somewhat skewed by having a fickle Evelyn, and by the time we were down to the main area, so were half the people in the Alps it seemed.  It proved particularly difficult to manoeuvre the buggy about in the crowds so we quickly abandoned any hopes of seeing much and plonked ourselves down on a grass bank near the start line.

As the start time approached the grassy area filled up, again meaning we couldn’t see much, not helped by a now sleeping Evelyn not wanting to be moved, so we had to settle just for seeing nearly 200 bike helmets bob past the crowds, followed by thousands of pounds worth of bicycles floating past mounted to the top of the team cars.  Once the ‘fun’ was over we headed off down to the lake again for another lazy afternoon lying about soaking up the last of the mountain air – it was a long drive to Nice tomorrow for the next part of the adventure.

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