The crowd is going wild as the riders approach, hooting and banging on the barricades that line the final metres of a Vuelta a España stage up one of the most brutal Pyreneen passes. But these aren’t the race leaders. It’s a few young children riding high into the mountains to find good viewing spots.
The reception they receive is a mix of honest respect for their effort – the climb up the Col du Tourmalet is a punishing 18-plus-kilometres long – and the conviviality of a well-lubricated crowd that has been waiting a long time for something to happen.
The Vuelta is Spain’s equivalent of the Tour de France. It crossed the border this month to finish on the Tourmalet for the first time and plenty of fans were there to witness the showdown. Motor homes nabbed prime spots days in advance and on the morning of the stage thousands of amateur riders clawed their way to the 2,115-metre pass.
I was one of them. For years I’d marvelled at the wild and woolly scenes that play out beside cycling’s biggest races. When I happened to be less than 40 kilometres from that day’s finish line, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
For the non-fan, it’s difficult to explain how up-close and personal spectators can get to cycling’s biggest stars. Imagine Lionel Messi taking a penalty shot as some loon in a mankini hollers in his ear. Or Connor McDavid launching a breakaway while a bunch of drunk people waving flares congregate around the crease.
These encounters are not always fun for riders. There have been crashes, acts of sabotage and allegations of noxious substances thrown on racers. An unnerving development has fans running alongside while revving chainsaws.
But public access is also part of the democratic soul of cycling races. Former pro Adam Hansen instantly cemented his journeyman legend by taking a beer from a fan and drinking it as he rode.
Anyone can stroll down and watch if the race happens to pass through their community. Organizers also encourage participation by including in the race convoy a publicity caravan that hands out sponsored goods and revs up the crowd.
It helps to think of the race as a moving village. Finish-line infrastructure, ad banners, giant inflatable jerseys and souvenir booths are set up for a few hours and then taken down and moved to the next day’s route.
Fans take position to play their own part, acting as extras and occasionally participants. The biggest crowds gather in the mountains, where stakes are highest and racers are going slower, which lengthens the viewing time.
To be clear, slow is relative. The stage winner would climb the Tourmalet that day about twice as fast as a solid amateur. My ride up is also not made easier by a knapsack of food and other supplies, but I get there eventually and find a good spot between a French couple and a cluster of Colombians and Puerto Ricans.
We’re hours early and people keep turning up. A guy whose backpack has a baguette protruding from it. More children. People on electric-assist bikes, mountain bikes and $10,000 race bicycles.
The crowd gets louder and a man wrapped in the Basque flag bellows incoherently at new arrivals. There’s a refreshing lack of liability concern on the part of organizers. Anyone attempting to urinate discreetly in our area risks tumbling down the slope. Across the road, people trying to climb the steep gravel verge slide ignominiously down. Spectators stroll around double-fisting beer from the restaurant at the pass.
We have limited clues what’s going on in the race, gleaning snippets from those with cell connectivity. But most of the Tourmalet is above the treeline, allowing spectators to see way down. And finally we spot the front of the race in the distance.
Word reaches us that Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard has attacked. Gone off “like a motorcycle,” someone says. It’s a strange tactic. His teammate is leading the race and usual strategy would suggest riding in support of him. We puzzle it over in multiple languages.
As Vingegaard powers into the final kilometres he’s climbing at a ferocious pace. The circus around him is visible in glimpses: fist-pumping fans run beside him; kids jump up and down, screaming their devotion. And then he’s into the barricades that offer some protection in the last kilometre.
After waiting so long, it seems to happen in a flash. Vingegaard sweeps into close range, face twisted in his characteristic rictus of a smile. Thirty seconds behind is his teammate, race-leader Sepp Kuss, who is nearly caught by a third teammate, former Vuelta champion Primoz Roglic.
We roar and hammer the barricades. A kid clangs his cow-bell furiously. And they’re gone. Just out of sight, Vingegaard takes the win. Spanish phenom Juan Ayuso is fourth.
With the day’s race decided, the energy subsides. We cheer for the stragglers but most appear barely to notice us. The body language of the racers reflects their very tough day. I’m amazed to see one pro swerving side-to-side to maintain momentum on the steepest bit.
Former Tour de France winners Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal finish stolidly, nearly half an hour slower than Vingegaard. Defending Vuelta champion Remco Evenepoel is just behind them, his chances buried by an awful day.
Once the final rider is past, spectators don’t wait for the all-clear and immediately start swarming downhill. The first kilometre is a gong-show, the road mobbed with weaving riders and pedestrians. Be careful of drunks on bikes, I’d been warned.
But soon I was clear of them and bombing down a glorious descent with no oncoming traffic, taking the curves very fast. Meanwhile, crews were pulling down the roadside ads they had been installing during my ascent. The village was moving on and would be built again the next day, with a new crop of thousands playing their role beside the road.