Venturing into the unknown

I’m fond of saying the bike often takes me places I’d never go to in the car. The same can be said of watching live racing.  I spent a few idyllic days last week following the Tour de France, revisiting areas such as Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Montpellier and Ax 3 Domaines. But I also had the opportunity to make maiden visits to Albi, Castres, Carcassonne and Mazamet – birthplace of the now tarnished Laurent Jalabert.

UNESCO site, Albi (image: Tourist Office)
UNESCO site, Albi (image: Tourist Office)

Plan A was to follow the Tour thanks to my press accreditation but when this looked unlikely to be forthcoming I reverted to Plan B, accompanying my girlfriend who’s working for Eurosport. Luckily I didn’t cancel my hotel bookings because my accreditation came through at the last moment and my place in the Eurosport car was taken by two of their bigwigs. So I was flying solo!

My plan each day was to get to the Village du Depart as soon as it opened; “hors course” parking enabling me to leave the car nearby. I would pick up a bowl of fresh fruit salad from one of the stands, a glass of water from Vittel, L’Equipe from Credit Lyonnais and find myself a shady corner in which to enjoy all three.

The early inhabitants of the Village tend to be the Tour Caravan and I was somewhat amused one morning to hear Monsieur Cochonou – one of the Tour’s long-term partners – exhorting his team. I generally avoid the Caravan, I have no interest in any of the freebies. I still recall being tackled on the Galibier in 2006 by a large gentleman intent on getting his hands on one of the Cochonou hats which had fluttered in my direction. Frankly I wouldn’t be seen dead in one but thanks to the overzealous attentions of said gentleman I was almost seen dead without one.

Beautiful location for Village du Depart in Castres
Beautiful location for Village du Depart in Castres

The television and video crews are next, grabbing something for breakfast and working out who they want to speak to for that morning’s soundbites. Inevitably most want to speak to the same riders and staff which has prompted more of the teams to employ PR folk with whom slots have to be booked.  It’s difficult to chat to the riders with the attendant scrum of the press pack all of whom earn their living from this. Me, I’m just doing it for my own amusement. As a consequence, I look on it as an opportunity to make contacts which I’ll  renew later in the year when everything is much less pressured.

It’s not that it’s been warm for the time of year but more that, thanks to the wet Spring and delayed onset of summer, I’ve not had time to become acclimatised. I’ve therefore chosen to hover as much as possible in the shade.

While I have a number of friends working on the Tour again it’s hard to do much more than wave from a distance or say a quick hello when everyone’s so busy and intent on their job. However, I have had fun taking loads of photographs, not all of them successful, but I live and learn.

When I’m watching cycling I’m out all day and generally only have time to sleep in my hotel room. I arrive, zonk out, get up the next morning early, pass on breakfast and leave. Consequently, I set myself a budget of no more than 75 Euros a night. Most times the hotels are fine but occasionally I really land on my feet. On Friday evening I stayed about an hour north of Albi, in a walled town in the Aveyron region called Najac. It was a charming family-run establishment – always the best kind – with an excellent restaurant. On my drive there I had passed loads of vineyards and just three cars on undulating terrain, perfect for the bike. I shall return.

After an exciting finish atop Ax 3 Domaines – I kept my eyes closed on the way up and down in the cable car – I decided to head for home rather than go onto Bagneres-de-Bigorre, a place I’ve already visited a few times. As I drove back I realised I would have to make an overnight stop and found an unprepossessing motel just off the motorway outside of Montpellier. But you really can’t judge a book by it’s cover. The rooms were spacious, had recently been refurbished and had those all-important (to me) free WiFi and air-conditioning.

I quickly sent my beloved a message to let him know I’d be back Sunday afternoon telling him that I’d “crashed out” in Montpellier but I omitted the all-important word “out” and he was worried as to how I was going to get back having crashed Tom III! Ah, the perils of texting……

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