2017-07-18 15:09:02
On Tour’s Mountain Roads, Beer, Baguettes and, Briefly, Bikes

15:09, July 18 158 0

MONT DU CHAT, France — A white-haired man was dancing naked in the middle of the mountain road, his sunburned body rocking imprecisely to a pop song pounding from a set of speakers. His halfhearted attempt to cover himself with one hand as he swayed was mostly ineffectual, which only made his friends laugh harder and cover their eyes. Behind them was a 20-foot-long, homemade banner that read, “VIVE LE TOUR.”

It was late Saturday afternoon on Mont du Chat, a full 24 hours before the competitors of the Tour de France would ascend these brutally steep roads. But the merrymaking, as the man’s striptease made clear, was already in full swing.

For connoisseurs of cycling, mountain roads provide an optimal vantage point to see a race in person. On flat pavement, riders speed past in a thick pack, gone in a flash. On steep climbs, though, they lumber past, often slowly enough for fans to talk to them or touch them or even run alongside them for a bit.

But reaching these roads is no easy task. Prime spectating spots tend to be up several miles of winding pavement, on windswept outcroppings of rock, or, as here in the western edge of the Alps, cut out of thick woods. Local authorities tend to close mountain access roads in the days before the Tour passes through. There is a longtime tradition, then, of cycling fans camping out in the mountains for days, or even weeks, to claim a coveted place along the course.

That type of pop-up community was on display last weekend on Mont du Chat, the toughest climb during the first mountain stage of this year’s Tour. In the days before the race rolled through on July 9, an impermanent society of tents and mobile homes developed, where sun-bronzed hordes of multinational partyers — nature lovers and attention seekers, rowdy young people and tranquil retirees — communed in crowded, roadside quarters.

The fans had little to do but wait. But for many of them, waiting was half the fun.

“We just enjoy being outside,” said Ferdinand van der Duin, 67, of Groningen, the Netherlands, who sat quietly in a lawn chair on that Friday morning. Van der Duin and his family had arrived on Thursday and pitched a couple of tents on a narrow, slanted patch of grass next to the road. “If the cyclists never came up on Sunday, we’d still be O.K.”

There were more than two days to go before the race, but the mountainside was brimming with people.

Up the road, nine men from around the French department, or region, of Isère — mostly in their 50s and 60s — were constructing a refined dining room amid the trees, using bamboo scaffolding to support a tarp roof and an overhead lamp. They placed a citronella candle on a floral tablecloth to dissuade bugs, and their dinner left nothing to be desired: thick coins of saucisson, a dry-cured sausage, to start; a simmering pot of mahogany-hued chicken tagine; a wheel of Brie and a hefty brick of Comté; and homemade génépi, a liqueur infused with alpine herbs, to cleanse their palates.

“Bravo to the chef,” they said, clapping, after mopping the stew with bread.

Wine flowed throughout. The men talked politics and howled with laughter recounting their trip to the Tour last year, when a trusting stranger stumbled upon their camp and left so drunk that he passed out in the woods.

The men were lucky enough to claim one of the best views on the entire mountain — the Alps towering in the distance, Lac du Bourget shimmering below — but that was all invisible in the dark as they cleaned up their plates and refilled their glasses.

A few hundred yards up the road, a group of young men in their teens and early 20s — hailing from Le Bourget-du-Lac, the town just to the east of the mountain — was only starting their night. They pulled beers from a cooler and played endless rounds of pétanque, a French lawn game.

They said that they come up to Mont du Chat often, mostly to hunt wild boar and goats. They were excited about the Tour — like many other people there, they hoped to make it onto the television broadcast of the event — but the race, they said, was just another excuse to meet up on the mountain for a good time.

“Before the Tour de France we’re up here, and after the Tour de France we’ll still be up here,” said Thibault Joram, 18, who wore a beret atop his wiry frame.

At 3 a.m., the young men rumbled down the slope, setting off firecrackers and clanging an enormous cowbell. It was 6 a.m. when they finally decided to call it a night.

Just a couple of hours after that, early Saturday morning, Gisèle Machet scooted up the mountain in her Peugeot 106 with a sack of baguettes on the passenger seat. Machet, 67, who lives in the nearby town of Meyrieux-Trouet, was not a camper — just a woman who understood the daily need here for fresh bread. After picking up loaves from a local bakery, she was driving up the mountain, from R.V. to R.V., to drop them off.

“I’m doing this as a service,” Machet said as she accelerated up the road. She was charging the campers her cost: 1.10 euros per loaf, no profit. “If the situation were switched,” she said, “they’d do the same thing for me.”

Some people had arrived as early as Monday, but the mountain truly came to life on Friday afternoon. People painted the roads, leaving encouraging messages, or taunts, for the riders. Neighbors made small talk. Some campers sought out their countrymen, taking clues from license plates and flags. Les Aigles, the only restaurant on the mountain, and the site of its only toilet, did a brisk business.

Otherwise time passed slowly. Inge Dienaar, 56, of Zutphen, the Netherlands, spent hours that afternoon seated on a prime corner of the course — a spot she and her husband had claimed on Thursday — crocheting a doll for her granddaughter. Her Jack Russell terrier, Ellie Bellie, sought refuge from the punishing sun under their R.V., which boasted a satellite dish, a solar generator and, crucially, a television.

“We’ve got a season of ‘Inspector Morse’ and the newest season of ‘MasterChef Australia,’” Dienaar said.

On Saturday, before the sun began to set, the police closed the road for good. Anyone traveling it up or down from that point on would have to walk or ride a bicycle along six miles of curving road.

Parties in the mountains tend to get wild the night before the race, and it was no different on Mont du Chat.

A group of two dozen or so young men from Le Bourget-du-Lac and Chambéry, a nearby city, set up turntables and speakers in a clearing that featured a heterogeneous array of objects reminiscent of an American fraternity house: a barbecue grill, a hookah, a sombrero, a flat-screen television balanced on an old wooden desk, two refrigerators filled with beer, a hammock, a shopping cart, a coffee maker, many pairs of flip-flops and assorted costumes.

They planned to wear the costumes — Marge Simpson, a pig, a Dalmatian and a cockroach, among others — when they ran alongside the riders on Sunday to improve their chances of getting on television. This was the ultimate goal. When a race official suggested that the image of a syringe they had painted near their campsite, with Chris Froome’s name written next to it, would hurt their chances of getting on camera, they quickly splashed it with a layer of white paint.

“We have fun, but there are rules about what you cannot do,” said Jean-Philippe Taravele, 27, who wore an Atlanta Falcons football helmet. “We’re not stupid.”

Up the road, another party — the one that later would inspire the elderly man to remove his clothes — was raging. Fans danced in the middle of the road, yelling exaggerated encouragement to the last amateur cyclists chugging up the road ahead of Sunday’s stage.

This crew had arrived on Friday from Doussard, a town two hours to the east by car, and set up a campsite that seemed to represent a sort of platonic ideal for spectating on the mountain: majestic views of the Rhône in the distance, and a sharp corner with a wide portion of pavement where riders would inevitably slow. They said they scouted the location last year, when this year’s route was announced.

“We looked at the whole route on Google Street View,” said Fabien Reitz, 29, one of the revelers. “We saw this and said, ‘Well, there it is.’”

Sunday morning moved fast. More people arrived after hiking up the mountain. The riders started the stage from Nantua around midday, and the fans on Mont du Chat gathered around strangers’ televisions and radios to track their approach. An ominous early thunderstorm fortunately cleared by late morning.

Near the summit, Szymon Konieczny, 28, of Katowice, Poland, prepared enormous cutouts of his favorite riders’ faces, an idea he said he had borrowed from watching the N.B.A. His wet socks hung on a wire behind him.

“Paint the street? That’s old,” Konieczny said. “Hold a flag? Old. A head? That’s new. They will come by and say, ‘Wow!’ It will give them energy.”

After days of waiting, the mountain became engulfed in noise when the first riders arrived around 4:30 p.m. Warren Barguil of France led the group at one point and inspired crazed cheers of “Allez!” Froome, the three-time Tour de France winner, was close behind and was mercilessly booed and cursed the whole way up.

Crowding the course, inches from the cyclists, the spectators could yell almost directly into their ears and look straight into their eyes. George Bennett of New Zealand cracked a big smile when he spotted a man dressed like an insect, furiously snapping his cloth pincers. But otherwise the riders had blank, detached expressions. Some seemed pained. A few of the stragglers received pushes from helpful fans.

“They go so slowly that you can actually see the effort and see them suffering,” said Caitlin Van Kooten, 28, of Chicago.

It took a little more than half an hour for the entire pack to make it through, and when the last rider went over the top, the weekend (or, in a few cases, the week) came to an abrupt end. It grew eerily quiet on the mountain. Within an hour, most of the roadside tents had been packed up.

“You’re here so long, and then it’s over so quick,” said Brent van Lieshout, 19, of Oudewater, the Netherlands, as he loaded his car. “It’s bizarre, if you think about it.”

But Thomas Adelskov, 53, the mayor of Odsherred, a municipality in eastern Denmark, tried to savor the moment. He has an election in November, and he was looking for a way to spend time with his sons Mads, 27, and Jonas, 24, who live in Copenhagen.

They had arrived in an R.V. on Thursday and soon met a young Danish couple who had pitched a tent nearby. The five watched the race as a group and were surprised and elated when Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark appeared near the head of the field. They screamed his name as he rode by and buzzed about the moment for hours afterward.

“Four days on the mountain,” Adelskov said as he settled into a lawn chair surrounded by trees, “and for that, it was worth it.”