There’s a hint of smoke in the distance and it’s a subtle clue to what awaits the unwary. Moments later, a few reflected flashes of sunlight confirm it’s definitively today’s challenge that’s sending out signals, even if they turn out to be via a self-contained barbecue.
As we get nearer the climb I can see people and their belongings silhouetted against the dramatic backdrop; like a scene from a Western. In this movie they are the bandits and we are the travelling convoy about to be attacked. Spaghetti was one of the choices at breakfast this morning I’m now glad I declined the pasta; if shots are going to be fired, even metaphorical ones, then I’d like to believe I’ve done all I can to make sure luck is on my side.
Some of the natives who await our passage might, realistically, be from Mexico. They could be proper Red Indians. But if they are, then they’re lost in and amongst the more familiar tribes who have invaded every available roadside nook and cranny. In this Alpine setting Northern means European not American, though given the size of the vehicles on the roadside the New World’s motto of ‘bigger is better’ is winning out. I suppose it’s normal, you couldn’t bring the compulsory flags, banners, folding chairs and satellite dishes if you came on horseback. And even if you could, one low-level flight from the television helicopter and your steed would be off into the sunset with pots and pans a-jangling. Best bring a van the size of a house then you can be sure you’ve got everything.
The Belgians and Dutch, who seem to dominate cycling’s motor-home scene, like their home comforts in the same way that they like seeing their heroes pedal uphill.
It’s one of the unrecognised peculiarities of the lowland countries that a hill of any sort has at least two roads going up, and if there’s enough land available it’s usually more. After the road they build nice cafes and restaurants along the top and have races, which pass them by in every possible direction. Eat, drink and be merry with some peloton action for desert, in a climate-controlled environment. It’s a popular pass-time up their way.
No wonder then that during their holidays they travel the length and breadth of Italy, France or Spain seeking out similar entertainment in similar style. And here we are today, the sun is shining, the beers are suitably chilled and the flags are waving in the breeze. Motor-home life is good and the modern days bandits are happy.
Climbing up through the crowds amongst the Flemish twangs I hear Italian, French and English voices too. Thankfully the speed isn’t yet that vicious and there’s time to take in the sights and sounds of the gathered masses. Fat, thin, tall, short, young and not so sprightly – the motorised travellers come in every shape and size. Some have red features but they don’t have bows and arrows it’s more a case of too much sun and by the looks of their antics too much alcohol. They’ll be glad of the drop down bed in a couple of hours’ time that’s for sure.
Nearer the top of the mountain there’s a change in atmosphere but it isn’t just the altitude. There’s more order, the parking is structured, the banners aren’t home made and there’s decorum in the enthusiasm. These are the serious fans, the ones who’ve been parked up for days, maybe a week to reserve their spot. The one they had last year and the year before, and the year before that too. The final parking is the territory of the knowledgeable people. Flags flown by these guys aren’t just decorations they are statements. They don’t drop litter, they don’t leave a mess behind and most importantly they remember the time when you came past their favourite cafe in some local race you’ve totally forgotten.
As we approach I recognise one of the crowd from a couple of days ago, he was at the start and asked for an autograph. It was on a proper photo, not a scrap of paper, and in it I had that many clothes on I looked like the Michelin Man.
“Liege, in the snow,” he said: “Our motor-home got stuck in the ice and we missed the finish.”
“You’re lucky,” I said “I almost got frostbite that day.”
I don’t think his English was good enough to understand but he’d smiled and wished me luck. I can see he’s offering up a can of Coke, so just before I grab it I throw out one of my bidons in exchange. Fair swap. Everyone is happy.
A couple of hours later as we’re trying to get to the hotel I spot him again, in a shiny big camper with Belgian plates. He’s stuck in the usual post-race traffic jam too but he’s not driving, which is wise, as he’s got his feet up on the dashboard and a beer in his hand. There’s a collection of bidons from various teams in front of him along the base of the windscreen.
He winds down the window and waves the beer. “Cold,” he shouts. “Just like home.
“Just like home.”