COL DU TOURMALET, France — For cycling fans, the Col du Tourmalet is Mecca, a beast of a mountain and the greatest open-air sports stadium there is. There are no boards on the Tourmalet. No safety glass. No sidelines or security fences. No luxury corporate boxes or over-priced beers or fat cats in fancy suits occupying the best seats. No tickets required, and no real cultural protocol separating the fans from the athletes.
The distance between spectator and hero is measured, literally, by inches during the Tour. Riders are close enough to the crowd, a throng that swelled to some 300,000 during Wednesday’s classic mountain stage, to reach out and touch. And some do, grabbing hold of a bike seat, giving it a mighty push and, at times, receiving a thumbs-up as a thank you — as well as a gentle scolding from one of the Gendarmes positioned nearby.
Others sprint alongside their heroes, hollering encouragement in whatever language it is they speak. It is pandemonium around the periphery of the peloton, a roiling sea of humanity that, after baking in a hot mountain sun for hours waiting for the race to arrive, awakens into a wild frenzy once it actually does. And the fever is contagious.
A confession: I hadn’t cheered at a sporting event in a long time until Wednesday, an era of detached silence coinciding with my many years as a sportswriter. You don’t cheer when you write the games. You don’t pick sides. And you never clap.
But the calculating, non-clapping part of my sports soul died on the Tourmalet, a passing hastened by the appearance of a Frenchman, Thomas Voeckler, beetling up a twisting mountain road on the toughest day of cycling’s toughest race accompanied, for a brief stretch, by a shirtless, sprinting French man screaming in his ear. Screaming the magic words: “Allez! Allez!”
They echo around these hilltops at the Tour, shouted by one and all as an exhortation, an incantation, a spell binding us to them, binding us all together. It is an intimacy I can’t say exists in other sports, one founded on a simple point of geography: Everybody standing at the top of the mountain watching the race understands exactly how far the cyclists have ridden to get there. Seventeen kilometres, straight up a very steep hill.
Being at the side of the road as they approach allows you to peer into their faces, looking for clues. Some are contorted in pain, twisted from the exertion, while others are slack-jawed, almost expressionless. Some riders break into grins, peering back at the crowd — feeding off of it — flashing the thumbs up. Others, like Voeckler at times, will push the fans away or plead for a glimpse of the road ahead. The adrenaline is palpable.
And then they are gone, chasing down the backside of the mountain.
Imagine taking batting practice at Yankee Stadium, practising penalty kicks at Old Trafford, swatting a few balls on the grass at Wimbledon or rounding Amen Corner at Augusta National. They are all sports fantasies and, unless you own a team or know somebody who knows somebody, they will stay that way.
But the Tourmalet is not a private club. You don’t need a ticket to get in. The road closes until the riders pass and then it reopens. Anybody brave or stupid enough to have ridden up the mountain that morning gets to ride back down it. No cars. No crowds, just you and your bike negotiating the same curves that the pros did some 20 minutes before.
And as you gather speed, you say the magic words. Whisper them quietly, or shout them into the rushing wind: Allez! Allez!
Tales from the Tour de France: Getting personal with the Tourmalet