We arrived at Castelnau-Montratier on our bikes. This seemed the appropriate means of transport, as we'd come to see stage 18 of the Tour de France pass through. The riders had started at Blagnac, near Toulouse, and were heading for Brive, in the Dordogne. This stage was a distance of 222.5 kilometres (138.25 miles) and had four official climbs. These do not include the climb to Castelnau-Montratier, although it is on a hill. It is a bastide town, built in the middle ages with defensive walls. I can vouch for the hill, because I struggled up the counterpart on the other side of the town. But the men of the Tour de France make light work of such hills.
It was just after midday when we arrived, and the town was en fête. Crowds of people lined the pavements and coloured pennants fluttered between the old stone buildings. A caravan of floats was passing down the narrow main street. Some carried models of soft drink bottles, and attendants threw sweets to children by the roadside. Others had large mock ups of cyclists, or even real cyclists on static bikes. On one float a young woman rode a huge bottle, from which she sprayed the crowd with water. The floats were accompanied by advertisers' cars, which sounded their horns, filling the street with noise.
Everyone seemed to have turned out. Although there was a light covering of cloud, it was warm enough for shorts and strappy tops. There were families with children in buggies, men with bicycles, a woman with two dogs on short leads. Two old men sat by the road - one with an eye patch, the other sitting comfortably on a folding stool. As people walked by, I heard several English voices.
Once the caravan had ended, there was a lull, although some members of the crowd cheered every offical car that passed. People wandered around with bags and boxes of food. A man from the sapeurs-pompiers (fire service) came past, carrying pizzas for his colleagues. Lunchtime. We sat on a low wall at the edge of the car park and ate our sandwiches. There was a family sitting nearby, where the children wore red and white polka-dot hats, supporting the King of the Mountains. Further down the road, some men tried to attach an Australian flag to a building. Gendarmes wearing yellow waistcoats stood in a side road, but they seemed relaxed, letting the occasional car cross the main road.
When helicopters started buzzing overhead, we knew the riders were near. The gendarmes ushered a woman with a buggy off the road. A man climbed out of the window of a house opposite and stood on a ledge, camera in hand. A string of journalists rode past on motorbikes, some carrying big cameras.
A cheer went up and the cyclists were there. This was a breakaway group - a dash of helmets, bright jerseys, pumping legs and lightweight bikes. Several minutes later, the main peloton arrived. Bradley Wiggins, wearing the yellow jersey, seemed comfortable in the middle. Then they had gone, to be followed by a succession of team cars, carrying bicycles and wheels. When the race had officially ended, several amateur cyclists rode past, following the route.
We wheeled our bikes along the main road in the opposite direction, and came to the centre of the town. In a square shaded by chestnut trees, crowds of people sat at tables outside a restaurant. Beyond was a church with a dome. We chained our bikes by railings at the edge of the rock on which the church stood. Beyond was a drop and a view of the valley below. When we cycled back along the main road, the people eating at the restaurant cheered us past, as if were competitors in the Tour de France!
It was only when we got home that we learned the story of the rest of the stage. The main peloton had caught the breakaway group by the time the riders reached Cahors. In the last kilometre, there was a sprint for the finish, started by Bradley Wiggins, followed by Edvald Boasson Hagen and Mark Cavendish. It was Mark Cavendish who stormed home first across the line, but Bradley Wiggins retained the yellow jersey.
Infinite Improbability Drive
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