The station master for our train from the end of our walk was a young lady who wore her station master’s hat on a slight angle. She kissed the train driver on both cheeks, as the French do, but didn’t extend the gesture to the passengers. We did, by the way, manage to get a seat, but only just. Thankfully there were very few left and Karyn was forced to take the first on offer. Yes!
The travelling notes on our destination stated that Aix en Provence is a town where the women far outweigh the men. Most apparently were doing Arts at the local university. It is a location with a wonderful cultural history. But, we were not here to study the demographics, or sadly, even the arts festival. We were here for Le Tour.
We checked into our hotel, and after a slight hiccup where our third night had disappeared from the booking, we were soon settled and off to pick up the bikes. We thought we would get into the full spirit of the event and give the stage from Aix en Provence a bit of a crack. Well some of it anyway. The road bikes from the local bike hire shop were very basic and quite grubby, but they did the job – the wheels went round when we peddled. So we set off for a trial run. Well here we were, strange bikes, strange location, strange side of the road and limited idea where we were on the map. After a bit of a ride around the town, with lots of stopping and map checking, we managed to find our humble abode without falling off or getting skittled.
The next morning, we were off to find the start of the stage. There was nothing there, other than a painted sign on the road. I was a bit underwhelmed. As a matter of fact, the whole town seemed to be in the same state. The bike shop owner had complained that they were going to close the roads and the schools for the day. The hotel manager said that biking wasn’t big in the South of France. It felt like Karyn and I were the only ones excited.
Anyway, we set off on our ride of Stage six of the 100th anniversary of this amazing race. It was raining and the roads were greasy. We had our first flat tyre about ten K down the track. We fixed it, but couldn’t find the problem and assumed that it was associated with the movement of tape in the rim that exposed some rough edges. Our second flat occurred a bit further on and it was on the same wheel on Karyn’s bike. This was fixed with our last remaining spare, and even though I removed the tyre and checked it out, I couldn’t find a problem. Having safely made it to the small village of Saint Cannart, it was time to stop for breakfast and then head for home on a dodgy tyre, with a dodgy wheel. We were told there were no bike shops in the village. I did however get a loan of a decent pump before departure, courtesy of a group of cyclists who were doing a charity ride over the original Tour de France route.
With 20 K still to go and no spare, the front tyre was flat again. It was going to be a long walk home in the rain and a rather deflating end to our adventure. But wait, is that a BIKE SHOP? Yes it was. Pure bliss, right in the middle of nowhere and just when we needed it. The owner took one look at the wheel, shook his head and decided to replace the tape. As a final gesture he ran his expert hand around the tyre, and found what was possibly the real culprit. It turned out to be the tiniest speck of glass hidden deep within the rubber.
I actually felt like a bit of a dill, but then thought, hang on, we have just done our bit for the Aussies on Le Tour. That piece of glass could have been the end for Cadel, Richie, or one of The Green Edge boys, and now we have cleared the way.
We made it back unscathed and after a bit of exploring around some of the surrounding hills, we did a final loop of the town. Someone shouted out that Le Tour wasn’t until the following day. I said that I needed to start now to make it. On arrival at our hotel, we realised that we were both covered in mud and grease from the road. I am afraid that my white Place socks and white Graceville Bike Company kit will never be the same again.
Thursday 4th July is famous for lots of things, but on this particular occasion it was to be famous for Le Tour de France to leave Aix en Provence. The town had finally come alive and it was a beautiful sunny day. We headed down to the start and it was packed to the rafters. My mission was to get as close to the bikes and riders as possible. We discovered this fenced off section with lots of security and admission only by special pass. I thought that this must be it. I pleaded with security, but no way. I even tried to pull the Aussie tag and had a chat to one who had a brother living in Brisbane – all to no avail. I thought of scaling the three metre high fence and then thought again. We did a circuit around the complex and it was locked up as tight as a fishes you know what.
Throughout all of this, Karyn kept on saying that she couldn’t see any bikes inside, maybe we should look elsewhere? Karyn is very wise. So instead of looking in, we looked out. And there they were, the buses and the bikes. I jumped the fence, well, struggled over, and arrived in cycling nirvana – Two hundred of the best cyclists in the World and about 400 of the best and most expensive bikes in the World. And no security – go figure. The other secure area that was tied up like Fort Knox was for the sponsors’ exhibits – go figure again.
And then it happened. I was swamped. First it was Matt Goss, then Cameron Meyer and Stuart O’Grady, all from Green Edge. Then came Richie Porte from Sky, closely followed by Cadel Evans from BMC. They must have heard about our exploits the previous day and wanted a few tips, as well as say thanks for that bit of glass we picked up. Stuart had even heard about our days on the cobbles a few weeks earlier and wanted to sort out some technique issues in case he had another crack at the Paris-Roubaix ride. Sadly, Simon Gerrans, the yellow jersey holder, missed out and I noted with some sadness at the end of the day he had dropped a few places. Even with Karyn’s constant supply of food and water to keep up the energy levels, one could only do so much.
And then they were off and were gone. Another 200 k in the blazing sun at an average of around 45 k per hour and they will do it every day for three weeks. Crashes will occur and bones will be broken. In some cases, the accidents are fatal. Most however, just get back on the bike and ride – as that is what they do.
And so it is also time for us to get on our bike and ride, not literally this time. But before we do, I must mention that out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something. Aix en Provence is a delightful place, full of delightful people, both young and old. But they have this other odd habit. They smoke. What is it about the French and smoking?
We are off to Paris by train, maybe we will find out there. By the way, our seats are allocated and numbered. Just thought you would like to know.