When the Tour de France comes close to where you live it's impossible not to notice. The flags come out, cyclists don their lycra and there is a general buzz in the air that lets you know something exciting is about to happen.
Stage 17 of the Tour de France 2016 took the riders from Bern, the capital of Switzerland, to Finaut-Emosson on the Swiss-French border, just around the corner from Chamonix. Due to road closures and busy public transport the best way to get to the final climb of the stage that would take the riders up to the Barrage d'Emosson (Emosson Dam) was either to hike or bike. We chose bike.
Starting our day at 11am, right when the sun was high in the sky and starting to bake the road, we began the usual slog up from Chamonix through Argentiere and up the Col de Montets. With lycra on, sunscreen and snacks in the bag and a lightweight road bike I was ready to tackle the hills, however half way up the Col de Montets I was already ready for the downhill!
The road was closed to motor traffic from just after Argentiere which made the cycling more pleasant and there were throngs of cyclists all making their way along the road and plenty of walkers too. The sight at the top of the Col was one to behold, blue skies, stunning views back into the Chamonix valley and across to Switzerland. There were plenty of people here ready to enjoy their day of sporting entertainment, young, old, families, couples and amateur cycling teams all mingling together.
After a lovely long descent from the Col to Le Buet, Vallorcine and on to the Swiss border at Chatelard we were ready for the next climb...or so i thought. The road up to the Barrage d'Emosson is really beautiful but it is also a brutally long and steep climb. Starting with some amount of shade at the bottom we cycled passed caravans, tents and motorhomes all camped out on the road side waiting for their heros to arrive. The Danes were out in force as were the French supporters and of course the loyal British supports of team Sky and current race leader Chris Froome.
The heat was almost unbearable by this point and I was only too happy to bump into friends along the route and to stop for a chat and a breather. We rode up past the town of Finhaut and on to a point just before the road took a turn onto an even steeper gradient, we'd made it up 4km up the 10km climb and by this point I was completely spent and glad to find some shade in the trees to lie down.
Our viewing spot was luckily opposite two of the VIP spectator buses and a big screen which was showing the race in real-time. We were able to watch the riders climb up the Col de la Forclaz from Martigny and descend down to Trient before hitting the bottom of the final climb up to Barrage d'Emosson, heading towards us.
The best part of the Tour de France for me is without a doubt the 'caravan' that comes through around an hour before the riders. Team buses, official vehicles and the many sponsors create a party atmosphere and throw their free gifts out into the crowd. Having been on several Tour stages before I warned my friends to spread out, be prepared to be ruthless in their attempts to catch their loot and to stay away from children - you can't compete with a small child when it comes to freebies! With the music pumping, the dancers going wild on the floats and free gifts coming flying at you, you can't help but be sucked into the party spirit.
Eventually, at around 4/4.30pm our long wait was over and the first of the riders came past. Ilnur Zakarin from Team Katusha and IAM Cycling's rider Jarlinson Pantano were climbing together some eleven minutes in front of the yellow jersey group of Chris Froome. Not long after they passed us Zakarin made an impressive break from his companion and rode to an amazing solo victory on one of the steepest finishes of the 2016 Tour. Around 800 metres from the finish we saw him attempt to zip up his jersey but he failed with a slight smile and a shake of the head.. he didn't even enough energy for that, but eventually managed to do it and broke into a smile as he crossed the line for his first ever stage win in the Tour de France.
Behind him, the race continued as Chris Froome managed to break from his group and take even more time out of his main rivals in the overall classifications. Froome and Ritchie Porte were alone and ahead of their rivals for the final 2km. Niaro Quintana couldn't keep pace and in fact young Adam Yates (currently 3rd in the overall) passed him and arrived at the summit with Fabio Aru and French favourite, Romain Bardet. Second place rider Bauke Mollema came in just behind Quintana. Froome has now extended his overall lead going into today's mountain time trial from Sallanches to Megeve.
The race complete, the last riders of the peloton and 'broom wagon' (the sweeper bus that signifies the end of the race) had passed and started thinking of getting back to Chamonix on the train. Sadly however, with the huge amount of people all heading in the same direction they weren't allowing bikes onto the trains. I couldn't have been more disappointed. The thought of riding all the way back from Chatelard up to the Col de Montets in what was still over 30 degree heat was not very appealing, but without any other choice I was forced to face my fears and begin the long ride home. Safely back in Chamonix by 7.30pm, I was ready for a shower and a celebratory demi!
With three stages to go until the final day in Paris on the Champs Elysee there is still plenty of time for racing, winning stages and for the overall classifications to change...