Le Tour de France - a brief insight !

Situated in the beautiful Vallée du Louron the Ancienne Poste, Avajan sits at the foot of the Col de Peyrasourde and the Col d’Azet, two of the famous Tour de France “mythical” cols. However, what are the origins of a bike race that has been described as “the most prestigious and difficult bicycle race in the world”?

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The first race took place in 1903. It was a publicity exercise to increase the sales of the newspaper, L’Auto and a bid to outsell its rival, Le Vélo. The race took place over six stages covering 2,428 km (1,509 miles). 60 riders set off but there were only 21 classified finishers. The winner was a Frenchman, Maurice Garin, with a margin of 3 hours, the final rider arrived 3 days later! L’Auto achieved its goal and doubled its circulation during the race.

In 1910, the race introduced its first Pyrenean mountain stages, Stages 9 and 10 (the Alps commenced in 1907) Stage 10, being the “colossus”. It covered 326-kilometers and was a brute that included four monster climbs, Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque. For fear that this stage would be too hard the organisers introduced the famous “voiture balai” or “broom wagon” its job was to follow the last rider and ensure any that couldn’t finish the mountain stages were “swept” up and allowed to continue the next day (although not permitted to compete for general classification). The riders set off at 3.20am and cycled up roads whose conditions bore very little resemblance to the roads of today, the bikes also were simple machines and it was not unusual for the riders to walk. The race was won by Frenchman Octave Lapize an iconic statue of whom now adorns the top of the Tourmalet.

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Since 1903 the race has been held every year except during the First and Second World Wars. In 2020 the race risked not being run due to the pandemic, Covid-19, which has touched the entire world. However, usually raced in June/July, this year the race has been moved starting on 8th August to 20th September. The course remains unchanged and Stage 8 will finish in Loudenvielle (in the centre of the Vallée du Louron) on 4th September 2020. For the French, the Tour is a national celebration and it is a great privilege to be chosen as a host venue.

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In the mountains, the excitement builds long before the race. A week before camper vans start to arrive and claim their spot on the cols. The valley takes on a “festival” atmosphere and there is a noted increase in road bikes, their riders inspired to ride the giants. The roads are sprayed with team logos, riders’ names, words of encouragement a form of temporary graffiti that reminds bike riders of the Tour for weeks to come. The roads often get a new slick layer of tarmac in preparation and honour of the sporting stars due to ride them.

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The day of the arrival of the Tour is quite something. The Tour is the largest free spectator sport in the world, accessible to all. Spectators line the villages and prime roadside spots for a glimpse of the riders. Places are claimed early, picnics set out and friends pass the time chatting or making new friends whilst waiting the arrival of the riders. The crowd is truly international.

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First to arrive is the advertising and sponsors “caravan”. This is loved almost as much as the race itself, a mini carnival handing out an estimated 11million promotional items over the course of the event, from washing powder, to cakes, to keyrings and tee-shirts. Competition to grab “freebies” is intense but most spectators (and especially the kids) finish the day with a bag full of goodies.

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The arrival of the riders is heralded by the sound overhead of the TV stations helicopters. As they start to circle the excitement mounts, then it is the sound of the motorbike outriders. First come the “gendarmes” and then the crowd starts to ripple and move for a vantage point. At last, the lead rider comes through and the cries of “allez allez” can be heard from everyone. Riders are cheered and applauded one after another (with the occasionally element of rivalry!) until the last rider followed by the “voiture balai”. Then everyone slowly returns back home carrying a bag of souvenirs and memories until the next time.

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From its origins to modern day the race is unashamedly commercial but it is also more than this it is viewed as one of the greatest tests of human sporting endeavour and endurance. Anyone who has cycled one of the renowned cols knows the human strength, stamina and determination required to undertake the climb coupled with the huge sense of achievement as you reach the top, exhausted, drained but knowing you have done something special; you have conquered a giant and joined an elite group of cyclists.

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