On Friday, I flew in a helicopter over the Tour de France. This was only the third most remarkable thing which I experienced that day.
After being driven 25km of the stage we were dropped off to watch the race pass from the side of the road, then run to our helicopters. There we met our pilot, Juliette, who said that, although she has spent 6,000 hours in the air, with her day job being to fly tourists over Paris, she had never previously flown in the mountains. Something may have been lost in translation.
For 40km of the stage our helicopter – one of five helicopters for guests – flew in formation 200 metres over the race. Not the peloton, because there wasn’t one. There were just groups of various sizes scattered over about two kilometres of road.
Beneath us, another three television helicopters buzzed 50 metres above the riders. And a few thousand metres above, two planes circled continuously, receiving and transmitting the images from the TV helicopters while also managing the air traffic below.
Thinking about all of this, and that it happens for 21 days, over 3,500km, without a hitch (so far as we are aware), was almost as mind-boggling as the views: beneath us, groups of cyclists that, from the air, looked serene; and all around us, the magnificence of the Alps.
Trying to follow the race from that distance was impossible. The apparent serenity was misleading. Down below, Thibaut Pinot, pictured, was dropping out the back, visiting the medical car, having a thigh injury examined, then abandoning in tears. From potential winner, and joint carrier of the home nation’s hopes, to non-finisher in the 45 minutes or so that I was airborne.
The helicopters landed near the base of the Col de l’Iseran, which at 2,764 metres was the highest point of this year’s race. We jumped back in our cars and raced ahead, stopping for lunch halfway down the descent. The sky was blue, with benign-looking white clouds gathering around some of the mountain spires.
When we got back in the cars we were only about 25 minutes ahead of the first rider, Egan Bernal, who’d broken away on the climb and was riding for a possible stage win and to take the yellow jersey from Julian Alaphilippe, the overall leader for 14 of the 19 days. On the Col de l’Iseran Alaphilippe had finally cracked. He was going backwards.
A few dollops of rain spattered the windscreen as we set off. Then, in the time it took to get up to speed, the sky turned dark grey and hailstones the size of golf balls began to ricochet off the car. The noise was incredible. There were one or two stomach-lurching moments in the helicopter, when it was buffeted by the wind, but nothing like this. Beneath us, millions of hailstones congealed to form a sheet of ice. The road had turned white.
Hundreds of cars and motorbikes precede the Tour and most of them pulled to the side of the road. Some skidded to a halt. In our four-by-four we carried on, but then had to stop when in front of us appeared the most remarkable spectacle: an avalanche of mud and rocks. On closer inspection, the landslide resembled a living organism, because it was moving and growing. We beat a hasty retreat.
Back in the car I watched the race on my phone: Bernal pedalling fluidly and increasing his lead while fans in shorts and T-shirts cheered him on.
The sun was shining on him, literally, while about 10km away, on the other side of the mountain, was a vision of hell. A decision was taken quickly to stop the race, but there wasn’t really a decision to be made. Even without the landslide, carrying on wouldn’t have been an option.
It was unprecedented and scary for a number of reasons, not least the extremes in weather.
Two days earlier the riders had endured temperatures in excess of 40 degrees. In the Alps, the fact that nobody could remember a stage being stopped because of weather like it, in a race with more than 100 years’ history, is alarming. If this is climate change, and if it owes it to human activity, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that the Tour de France itself, with its thousands of vehicles and helicopters, must be one of the least environmentally friendly sporting events on the planet.
Friday’s truncated stage and Saturday’s abbreviated stage – just 59km, with only one climb, to the finish at Val Thorens – made for a strange climax to a race that, for two weeks, had been enthralling. That owed much to two Frenchmen, Alaphilippe and Pinot, one who thrillingly stretched the limits of his talent and courage to keep the yellow jersey for so long, the other who appeared to finally be in the right place at the right time and with the right form to achieve a first home win since 1985.
The wait goes on. In the end, when the race finishes in Paris today, the outcome will be familiar: a win for the team formerly known as Sky, now as Ineos (the chemicals company who, along with several other team sponsors, stand accused of using cycling to “greenwash” their reputation).
It will be the British team’s seventh Tour win in eight years, their first with a non-British rider. The new face on top of the podium will be Bernal who, at 22, is the youngest post-war champion and the first winner from cycling-mad Colombia.
“He was born to go uphill fast,” said Geraint Thomas, the defending champion, who, as Alaphilippe slid further back on Saturday, moved up to second overall.
Thomas added that he believes he can win the Tour again. At the same time, Chris Froome, the four-time winner who missed this year’s race after crashing, responded to a tweet from Pinot, in which the Frenchman said he’d definitely be at the Tour next year, by saying: “Good recovery! See you there.”
Bernal, Froome and Thomas all ride for Team Ineos. And while Thomas noted that having joint leaders this year “worked out not too badly,” three into one will not go. That will surely be a problem for Ineos and Dave Brailsford, the team principal. As he drinks champagne on the Champs-Elysées for the seventh time, he will no doubt consider that there are worse problems.