The last time we did The Tour de France by Motorhome, was on one of our first trips back in the mid 00’s. It became one of the highlights of the 6-week trip and one we never forgot. So, last Summer, when we came across a road closure sign for this incredible cycling race, we knew we wanted to be a part of the action.
Our tour of the French Alps is winding its way South, through deep gorges and high mountain passes. We’ve just finished driving the Gorges du Cians in the Alpes-Maritime region. Now, we find ourselves heading towards The Col de Turini, which by chance is the first mountain stage finish on the 2020 Tour de France.
First, we have to double check our facts. The last thing we want is to be turning up in the wrong location, especially as it’s a mountain pass. In other words – there’s lots of winding bends and steep inclines.
The Tour de France website, confirms the route is heading this way. Great! All we have to do now is find a turning off the main valley road, towards the village of La Bollene-Vésubie.
All of a sudden the sign for this small mountain village is upon us, but there’s a problem – a police road block!
Oh no – hopefully this isn’t stopping anyone going any further.
There’s no choice but to stop in front of the Gendarmerie, who come over to our campervan window to ask where we’re heading. “Le Tour et Le Col de Turini” we say, hoping, waiting for a nod that this is ok.
Thankfully, all is well! We’re told that no parking is allowed at all on the mountain route itself or at the summit finish. Instead we’re instructed to follow the signs at the summit for Camp d’Argent. Luckily, they confirm we can spend the night here in the motorhome.
I have to say, at this stage, we’re a little disappointed. Usually, motorhomes park up wherever there’s a spare strip of grass or a lay-by. Have you seen them parked along the route? For us, it’s part of the Tour de France package. According to the police, it’s only because it’s a mountain stage. So it sounds like you’d still be able to park on the flat routes.
Well, as it turns out, all is not lost. Because, The Col de Turini is actually in our road bible book of ” 1001 Drives You Must Experience Before You Die”.
Not only that, but the 22.4 mile route is famous for its connection to the early days of the Monte Carlo Rally. Apparently, wealthy car owners would be chauffeur-driven across this 1607m high mountain pass in style. The route has also featured in the series Top Gear, so surely this has to be one to tick off the “done” list!
Leaving the Gendarmerie behind, the road soon begins to climb. Unfortunately, the weather is a mix of drizzle and low cloud, meaning we don’t see the views at their best.
Before long we arrive at the hilltop village of La Bollene-Vésubie, where the roads are narrow and very busy. It’s a good job we’ve got a small motorhome. Navigating tiny spaces between parked vehicles between the narrow streets, leaves us squeezing though the smallest of gaps.
It looks like the kind of place you’d like to stop and stretch the legs, but today it’s chaos. To be honest, there’s not a hope in hell of finding a place to park the van.
The route up this mountain is long and steep, but it’s easily manageable in the Sprinter. Considering the most famous cycle race in the World is heading this way tomorrow, it’s surprisingly quiet.
By the time we reach the cold, damp summit the rain is setting in hard. We drive over the Tour de France finish line, gliding beneath the signs and onto the flat plateau of the summit. Now, this is where the cyclists will descend tomorrow, but for now, it’s a no-parking zone with police moving people on.
We look around us for the sign for Camp Argent, wondering exactly what we’re supposed to be looking for! Then we see it – pointing upwards towards fir trees alongside a hotel. The Gendarmerie wave us on, so now we’re heading towards this little hamlet just beyond the summit.
It’s a short drive up more mountain roads before we arrive at Camp Argent, a small ski area with a wide, flat parking area. There’s plenty of motorhomes already settling in for the night, so we join them, taking in a vacant place at the end of a row.
Afterwards, we contemplate those incredible athletes, using all that body power to push them up that mountain. How amazing and exciting it is to be able to watch their skills in action.
Waking up to fresh skies and sunshine is the perfect start to our day. The cyclists aren’t due to grace the summit of The Col de Turini until around 4pm. This means we’ll have a bit of a lazy morning, before walking down from Camp Argent later in the day.
All the roads are now closed off, with a 6am deadline for final traffic in and out of the area. It’s a good job we came up yesterday.
Unusually, it seems to be a relatively low-key affair. We walk along a tree-lined path to avoid the mountain road and soon emerge into the sunlight of the Col de Turini summit. The organisers are busy with final preparations, whilst the police and fire brigade work together to monitor the route.
We find a place right beside the barrier, with only small groups of spectators. We wonder if this is due to the virus or is it the location, maybe it’s a little too far out for some people to travel? Before we know it, the Police instruct those without a face mask to put one on. The atmosphere is relaxed but somehow it’s lacking the buzz of our previous Tour de France experience.
Our spot is just beyond the finish marker, giving a perfect view of the end of the uphill battle. Like all these kinds of events, it’s the waiting around that’s the worst part. It seems to be made even more boring now due to the restrictions of the virus.
We’re waiting in place for a few hours before things get going. First it’s the colourful Caravanne parade that sets the atmosphere and gets the crowd in the mood. This is like a carnival in itself. There’s an elaborate mix of sponsors from big name companies, driving their colourful floats along the route.
Of course, there’s those freebies too! Yes, everything from bottled water to keyrings, sweets and yoghurt pots descend upon us like misiles! Not to mention, the crowd desperate to get their hands on the loot.
Suddenly, helicopters appear overhead, the atmosphere is electric as they land on a nearby slope. Now the spectators bang their fists against the plastic barrier signs. There’s a drum roll effect, echoing around us as we await the first sign of those athletes appearing at the finish.
Nigel and I are now wearing the free polka-dot t-shirts and caps given to the spectators, we’re blending in well with the others on this mountain top.
Finally, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon! Yes, the motorcades arrive, complete with TV crew, support vehicles and the very first cyclist over the finish line. Wow! It’s incredible and to top it off, these athletes are arriving looking like a breath of fresh air, despite the excruciatingly long, steep ride up this mountain pass.
Quickly following behind are the back up teams, bringing spare bikes and every other kind of accessory an elite cyclist needs. Their sponsor vehicles merge along the army of cyclists now descending on the Col de Turini. Next up is a fast flow of cyclists, the relief etched on their faces yet their bodies hardly noticing the effort.
Those faces of pain, pride and determination are willing the robotic structure of these men onwards. The ride to the top may be over, but this is just the first stage of the race.
What endurance these guys must have. If nothing else, the skill to be this physically and mentally able is one to be admired. After all, this is years of dedication, that will to take them to the top of their game.
Once the final cyclist passes through, our time has come to walk back to the van. It’s been a day of colourful excitement, above all, it reminds us that despite the virus, there is hope to return to a normal life again.
The one thing that you realise with these kind of events – they are over as quickly as they begun! So, before we know it, our day watching The Tour de France by motorhome has come to an end. This leaves only one thing – to leave the fabulous Col de Turini behind via the Routes des Grandes Alpes towards the Mediterranean coast.
Driving around hairpin bends, we reminisce of the bygone era of the original vintage rally of Monte Carlo. The views are dramatic, encompassing far reaching craggy cliffs, high mountain peaks and incredible forests of Mediterranean appearance.
As the road levels out towards the valley floor, we find an Aire to spend the night at the charismatic village of Sospel. We wonder how well those athletes will sleep tonight, above all, they’ve achieved more than we ever could in just one day. Yet, for those elite cylists, it’s just the beginning of their few weeks of extreme exercise. What an achievement!