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MALAUCENE, France (VN) — For most of the year, this hamlet at the base of Mont Ventoux is pretty quiet.
Things pick up during the summer months with cyclo-tourists plying the local roads, but most months, life is an easy Provençal bliss.
For 24 hours or so, cycling’s biggest circus takes over any finishing town.
When that stage is happens to be the finish line of a double-ascent of Mont Ventoux, a big fete is assured for everyone.
Here’s what happens when the Tour de France takes over a small French town:
T-minus 22 hours: Everyone buzzing for Le Tour
We roll into Malaucène around 9 p.m., deciding to skip the stage start and B-line here to give us time to get up on the flanks of Mont Ventoux ahead of the maddening crowd.
The access roads to Ventoux are already closed, meaning that any fans hoping to drive up on cycling’s most famous mountain are in for a disappointment. We dropped off Jonny Long, my colleague at Cycling Weekly, who was hoping to hitch a ride to the top of Ventoux to camp out overnight.
The roads into town were already blocked off, and we had to talk our way past a series of police checks to get to our accommodation. Police and even military unit patrolled the Tour following a series of high-profile terrorist attacks in France over the past few years.
We checked into our lodging for two nights at the Maison Sule, a Napoleon-era mansion owned by a Canadian couple located right on the route. Most years, the place would be booked up months in advance before a stage as big as this one, but with COVID-19 travel restrictions, we shared the place with a couple from Poland and a handful of cyclists.
By 9:15 p.m., I posted up at a local bar to watch Spain and Italy in a semi-final game in the European championships that ended in penalty kicks.
Despite the travel restrictions, the bar was abuzz with tourists. I talked to a table of Italian cyclists who’ve been in town for three days riding and waiting for the Tour.
Everyone’s primed for the Tour’s arrival.
T-minus 8 hours: Fans already lining the course
I woke up to the sounds of the French music blasting on loudspeakers outside our hotel.
After a quick breakfast, I head down to the local “tabac” to buy a copy of L’Equipe. Très désolé — says the owner, all sold out.
The area near the bar where I watched the game last night was completely transformed. What was the main square the day prior was now a jumble of structures, TV cables, and fencing that made up the Tour de France finish line.
The entire historic district was fenced off, with only one crosswalk to allow fans and residents to get from one side to the other. One madame grumbled as she’s told by a security official she couldn’t cross the road.
A fleet of trucks traveled from finish to finish (or from start to start) to build, attend, and deconstruct all the podium and finish-line infrastructure of every stage. With military-like precision, the moving cities ply the Tour de France route each summer, with dozens of trucks and hundreds of crew members building out the Tour.
Every bar and terrace was absolutely packed in town. Fans were lining the route, and any meter with a bit of shade is highly prized.
The sun was beating down as the first vehicles of the race start to whip through town. With two passages, fans will see the riders as they fly off the backside of Mont Ventoux, and then loop around to Bédoin for the traditional approach to the “Géant of Provence.”
The massive hump is a pilgrimage site for all cyclists (as well as motorists and motorcyclists), and serves as an economic magnet for the region.
“It is the first time the Tour is finishing in Malaucène, it’s a big day for us,” says the owner of a restaurant. “All the tables are booked.”
By noon, fans were already lining the road to snag the best spots. I ask one couple why they’re there so early, “le caravan, bien sûr!”
T-minus 3 hours: Ready for the caravan
At about 2:30 p.m., the first caravan vehicles started to barrel through town. Some of the fans were already well-lubricated, and break into song as the party kicks into a new gear.
The publicity caravan is an anachronism that’s alive and well in the 21st century. When the Tour de France was born more than a century ago, in large part as a publicity stunt to drive newspaper sales, race organizers quickly realized they held a captive audience.
Long before the first live TV broadcasts in the 1950s, the only way to follow the Tour was to listen on the radio and go to the roadside to watch the peloton whip by.
The caravan was created in 1930, and today, it includes dozens of race sponsors with elaborate vehicles bedecked with pretty hostesses and handsome hosts, who toss out trinkets and souvenirs.
Fans will post up for hours and even fight over plastic key-holders, sun visors, and otherwise worthless trinkets. For some fans, the publicity caravan and its cadeaux or souvenirs, are bigger than the race itself.
Lap one: Julian Alaphilippe in the break
Fans were delighted to see Julian Alaphilippe in the break. French fans adore the swashbuckling world champion, and he often pays back the cheers with a tip of the hat or a wave. There was an “Alaphilippe for President” sign hanging from one of the balconies, assuring his future as a TV pundit when he retires.
The GC favorites roared through, and Chris Froome was spotted between that group and the gruppetto. Luke Rowe brought up the rear, and was later time-cut, meaning Ineos Grenadiers lost one important cog.
Fans jealously guarded their prime viewing spots, listened on the radio, and watched the climb on their iPhones. Loudspeakers updated everyone on the action unfolding on the heights behind them.
The route and exact roads of each stage were meticulously studied by the Tour staff. Officials drive the entire Tour route each October after the details are revealed, and staffers make notes on dangerous points of the course and other details, like where the finish line can be, or more mundane details of where team buses can be parked after each stage.
Towns pay thousands of dollars to host a Tour stage finish, and often repave local roads and pull down dangerous traffic furniture to make room for the Tour.
The decision to host the Tour is highly political, and ASO has a small army of staff who ply the villages, towns, and cities across France to foster good relations and engage with local mayors and politicians.
It’s hard to say if spending the money to host the Tour in Malaucéne was worth it, but for a few glorious hours in the middle of July, it was the center of the sporting world.
Finish sprint: Cheers until the last
You could hear the cheers before seeing the riders as they blazed off the summit. There’s a blur of color as Wout van Aert ripped to victory. The cheers, the speed, and the emotion raised the impact of seeing the Tour in person in the front row.
Fans cheered the stragglers just as much as the first. Cavendish was shepherded in by a quartet of teammates and stayed in the Tour another day.
By 18:15, fans started to drift away. By 18:45, the loudspeakers were turned off, everyone’s gone home, and crews were already taking down the barriers.
T-plus three hours: Already gone
By 8 p.m., we finished up our work and headed back to the main square to search out dinner.
Any hint of the Tour was nearly gone.
There were piles of trash, and a crew was spraying the paint off the road at the finish line. Crews had already torn down the finish line podium and loaded up the trucks to drive straight to Nîmes to do it all again.
A big crowd of young Belgian fans was celebrating their COVID freedom as well as the win by Wout van Aert. Wout, ole-ole-olaaaay! Wout! Wout! Wout!, all to the beat of Euro-techno.
The waiter laughed as he cleared the plate, adding, “let’s hope it doesn’t take so long to come back!”