Heat rising off the tarmac roasts me. My legs are locked into a rhythm as I push the pedals around. All I can hear is my own panting and the ring of cowbells floating across alpine meadows. After two hours of climbing I approach the summit of Hourquette d'Ancizon, a back road close to today's stage of the Tour de France. Lifting my sweat-stung eyes, a row of granite peaks cut the skyline like the teeth of my chainring.
I think about my long road to France. This is the final day of a journey whose roots reach back more than 20 years to when I discovered a passion for cycling. While pedalling many a country road I dreamed of witnessing the most glorious spectacle of them all - this 21-day, 3600 km festival of cycling. My enthusiasm was such that a few well-meaning friends assumed I would actually be competing!
With thousands of others I made my way to the holy land to seek an audience with the revered ones. Not quite gods, but certainly more than mortal men. Their flamboyant sprints, noble suffering and dedication inspire me to keep the pedals turning when the hill seems endless or the headwind blows hard. Today we will congregate at Saint-Lary Soulan,a ski village wedged amongthe Pyrenean peaks near Lourdes. The riders will sprint through the village before climbing 11 kilometres to the ski resort at Pla-d'Adet. But that is several hours away.
At last I make the col, and stop for a photo. Earlier in the day, while filling water bottles at a village fountain, a French rider advised me to take a back road to avoid the traffic. Justa faint line on my Michelin map, and rising to 1500 metres, itsteers me clear of the clogged highway in the valley. A few more pedal strokes send me coasting downhill for 30 minutes through beech, silver fir, and mountain pine. The warm wind blasts my hair. Life is sweet. Ipause at a hairpin and cautiously finger the burning hot rim of my wheel.
By lunchtime I am in Saint-Lary Soulan, chilling out with beer and Spanish melons, three for five euros at the market. It's time tohead up the hill and claim a viewing spot. The gendarmes have blocked the road to motorised traffic, but the cycle is king today so I pedal on. Singing Basque fans wrapped in flags swarm past sun-baked Germans on deckchairs. One guy is wheeling a bucket of paint. Every hundred metres he stops and daubs a name in giant letters across the road, a hurry-up to his favourite riders.
After half an hour I spy a break in the crowd. Wish I'd brought an icy drink and umbrella to combat the rays. It must be an inferno for the riders. Today's stage started five hours earlier and 200 kilometres away. You'd think someone would have a radio for race updates, but my enquiries are met with Gallic shrugs -no one seems to know who is leading.
If you see a giant cheese driving towards you, what do you do? You jump and shout and wave and hope to catch a free sample. It's the caravane publicitaire. The Tour is the world's greatest sporting event that you can watch for free. The sponsors pay the bills, and they are represented by the strangest parade imaginable. First a motorised coffee pot, next a lion, then some bottled mineral water on wheels. Dancing babes in tank-tops are tethered atop trucks, tossing freebies to the demanding fans -key rings, caps, and playing cards.
Once the caravane passes, a silence settles over the crowd. The moment approaches. This is my dream, my folly, my love affair. I have endured long flights incattle class, negotiated the TGV across France, camped in fields, and sweated over the hills. My mouth is dry and my heart pumping.
At last, a helicopter flickers into view across the valley. It shadows the lead riders as they plummet into Saint-Lary Soulan and start the final climb. A huge yellow BMW motorcycle swings around the hairpin, signalling the arrival of the leaders. Hundreds of fans lean forward for a glimpse, rippling like grass caught by a gust.
Spanish star Oscar Pereiro, Dutchman Michael Boogerd, and American George Hincapie are duking it out. Pereiro leads, his green jersey unzipped to thewaist in an effort to catch a cooling breeze. Panting and drooling, they are focused on one simple task - pushing pedals with the regularity of a metronome. Ignoring the shouting, clapping, stamping lines of fans, they stare at the road ahead. Their shaven legs glisten with sweat.
The chase group follows, race leader LanceArmstrong among them. The Boss dominates the peloton with robotic professionalism. Rumoured to be the product of a secret US military project, he clings to his nearest rival, Ivan Basso. Basso grimaces while Armstrong has the thousand-yard stare of a warrior.
Hincapie takes the victory at Pla-d'Adet, his first stage win in the Tour. It's a sweet victory for the only rider who has been with Armstrong in each of his seven victories. I don't see the finish, but have my own memories. If you want to see all theaction, stay home and watch it on Sky. But if you want to imbibe the passion of the Tour, join the pilgrims and head for France.