Le Tour de France

Back in July Bex and I took a last minute trip out to see two stages of the Tour de France.  We'd been thinking about it for a while, but eventually decided we HAD to go - this was the year to do it, it had been a perfect season so far for Brad Wiggins and Team Sky and there seemed a good chance that we could see the first ever British winner of the world's biggest cycling race.  

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 After a busy Friday at work and a mad dash to the airport, we watched the sun go down from the air on the way to Basel. Tomorrow stage 7 would finish at La Planche des Belle Filles, a ski station in north-east France.

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 Up and up we walked... It took a while but we wanted to get a view of the action at the sharp end of the race.

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1km to go. In hindsight it was good to walk the full length of the climb as it meant we could appreciate the gradient the riders had to deal with.

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Two Aussies had got up super early to stake out a spot on the final corner to cheer on defending champion Cadel Evans. They had a good view, but we wanted to go a bit further to get a look at the final ramp we'd heard lots about...

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...and there it is. Admittedly it doesn't look like much in this photo, but it ramps up to 20% and was hard enough to walk up, let alone cycle.

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We made our base in a good spot 300 metres from the finish at about midday, or roughly 5 hours before the riders were due. It was packed already though, with plenty of liquid refreshment being consumed!  We'd carted a backpack full of baguettes, cheese and ham up with us (when in Rome...), and set to work putting them away.

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The Tour publicity caravan comes past to ramp up the crowd, basically a 90 minute stream of weird cars and floats, throwing free hats/water/Nesquik/Haribo etc etc to the fans. Hundreds of vehicles like these do the full length of the tour, roughly 3,500km. Mental!

Waiting for the riders in his new free polka dot cap.

Waiting for the riders in his new free polka dot cap.

Are they coming yet?

Are they coming yet?

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The road gradually clears of people, the first clue that the peloton is getting closer. The anticipation ramps up more and more as the official race motorbikes zoom past and the thud of a TV helicopter, directly above the riders, comes into earshot...

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The stage is set with only seconds left until the riders come in to view. We'd chosen to come out specifically for this stage as we'd hoped that the short sharp finish would blow the peloton apart and make some good racing. We weren't sure though - at 6km the climb was a bit short, maybe nothing would kick off and they'd just all ride up together whilst marking each other?

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Not a chance! After 5 hours of waiting around, the excitement from the crowd as Cadel sprinted into sight around the final corner was unreal! We'd heard via text message that the pace on the lower slopes had been blistering, and by the time they reached the final kilometre only the top 4 or 5 guys were still left.

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Cadel was smashing it on the front, but he couldn't shake off Froome, Wiggins and Nibali.  The noise was deafening - the crowd were hammering the hoarding boards and screaming encouragement. An amazing atmosphere.

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Despite it being uphill, the leaders were past in a flash. Fortunately, the high pace meant that the peloton had splintered, and over the next 20 minutes we could watch the other riders filter through in small groups. Here's George Hincapie, a stalwart of 17 Tours de France, and also the only rider to be on all 7 of Armstrong's winning teams.

Some riders were in a lot of pain...

Some riders were in a lot of pain...

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Fabian Cancellara wearing the yellow jersey for the final time this year - he was too far behind the leaders on this climb to retain the lead for another day.

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Whilst some people were busting a gut to get up the climb, Peter Sagan found the energy to play up to the crowd - he cycled along like this, up hill, for a good 50 metres or so. Legend!

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Mark Cavendish in the rainbow jersey of the World Champion cruises up somewhere near the back. Cav is the fastest man in the world on a flat sprint finish, but in the hills he just tries to survive and make it through to the next day.  As I took this shot Bex, standing one foot to my right, screamed 'COME ON CAV!!!' at the top of her voice.  The poor guy's ear must've been no more than a metre away.

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The following morning, after a night sleeping in the back of a rental car, we went to the start of stage 8. Bradley Wiggins had rode himself into the race lead for the first time the previous day, and we wanted to catch a first glimpse of the Brit in the famous yellow jersey.

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Brad came out of the bus in yellow to loud cheers, and was instantly mobbed by the crowds of reporters and fans that had gathered around.

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Team Sky were the hottest ticket in town with the race favourite and yellow jersey, but fans of all teams were walking around hoping for a glimpse of their heroes.

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One of the great things about going to the start town of a stage is being able to wander around and see all the riders. The team buses just park up on the streets and the riders are milling around, getting ready for their day in the saddle. After a crash-filled first week, lots had war wounds already.

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Here's Scott Mitchell, a photographer whose images and books I've admired for a while now. As the Team Sky photographer he's got pretty much the dream job in my eyes!

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As the riders all roll to the start line, the team cars get in line behind them. The flotilla of cars that follow the race is incredible, each with a roof full of bikes worth about £10k a pop...

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It's tradition for the wearers of the various leaders' jerseys (for the overall race, king of the mountains, points leader and best young rider) to line up at the front of the peloton each day. The tall frame of Brad Wiggins stood out in his fresh new yellow top.

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And out they roll for another day's racing. Plenty of people chase the tour for the full 3 weeks, but unfortunately for us that was it - we watched the rest of the stage in a cafe before heading home. An exhausting but awesome weekend!