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Mayo, Vinokourov, the Peloton; Mauro Mondonico at L'Alpe D'Huez Stage of the 2003 Tour de France

Being a true racing fan, during the spring and early summer I studied this year's Tour de France course many times. I was looking, as always, for the right chance to attend one of the alpine stages. Each year I hear the call of the Tour and the temptation is too strong for me.

After checking the map I decided upon Stage Number Eight. The was the 219 kilometer stage that started at Sallanches and ended with the hilltop finish at L'Alpe d'Huez. It was one of the most difficult stages of this year's Tour de France. For this stage, the racers had to climb mountains like the Telegraphe (1,566 meters elevation), the Galibier (2,645 meters) and the last 14 kms, the climb up Alpe d'Huez (1,850 meters).

So, with a couple of friends I drove to France. I started from our home in Concorezzo, near Milan at 6:00am with our bikes loaded in the car. The plan was to reach the bottom of the L'Alpe d'Huez with the car and then ride up to the finish line.

At 10:15am we were on the spot. Bourg d'Oisans is a a small town that is famous because it is placed at the bottom of this epic climb.

After preparing the bikes we were ready to start at 11:00am. It was fantastic weather with a burning sun, typical Tour de France hot weather. It was Sunday and there were thousands of people already waiting on the roadsides. Several cyclists were riding on the famous climb. Many people were writing the names of their favorite cyclists on the road, using a lot of paint in the process. The Dutch are always the best at this. Their graffiti are always special and creative.

The ride up the Alpe was hard from the very start. The first 3 kilometers are the steepest section of the climb. There are a total of 21 switchbacks and on each switchback there is a plaque that reports the name and year of the previous winners of the old Tour de France stages. Near the top of the climb the Gendarmerie (French police) stopped us just 600 meters from the finish line. But we had enough and so we stopped to rest.

It took me one hour to complete the climb. I was quite tired since we each had on our shoulders a small backpack with new clothing, normal shoes and something to eat (I don't like French food, you never know what is inside...).

We then descended and stopped at about 4½ kms from the finish. It was a good straight section of road and we thought it was a perfect place to wait for the riders.

In the meantime, the usual long line of vehicles continued to drive up to the mountain. The buses and cars of the teams, journalists, TV, guests and many other people were driving to the top of the climb.

We were anxious to see the advertising caravan that precedes the race by about 1 hour and 15 minutes. The caravan is really something spectacular with all the vehicles with very strange shapes and colors according to their sponsors. Every year the caravan is bigger than the last year with more and more cars and people on it.

The first goal of the spectators is to get a small souvenir that the guys on the cars launch on both sides of the road. We got some.

After the caravan, the attention of the people on the mountain is solely focused on the riders that are coming. No one cares about the souvenirs or the other cars coming up. We were able to know who was in the lead and the race situation by listening a small radio belonging to a French fan. So, we were waiting for Iban Mayo followed by Vinokourov and then the other best GC riders.

And here we are. An open orange Euskaltel jersey was climbing up the mountain followed by the TV motorcycles. Helicopters, cars and motorcycles clacksoning, people screaming...it is the giant casino that I love so much!! It is a magic moment. It lasts for only a few seconds, but it is really special for a real cycling fan.

After Mayo, there was Vino and the most important peloton: Beloki followed by Armstrong, Hamilton, Zubeldia, Basso...

Some tifosi are really crazy trying to run on the sides of the riders with flags. It can be really dangerous for the rider. Even with all that noise each rider is absolutely focused on the climb, that's why it can be easy to crash.

We waited then for the other riders until the "gruppetto" (sprinters and other poor climbers who ride in a group, trying to avoid being eliminated by missing the time cutoff ). The last rider was of Euskaltel with a delay of about 50 minutes. At the and of the stage he was too late to make the time limit cutoff, which is the stage winner's time, plus a percentage of time determined by the difficulty of the stage. He was eliminated from the race. We say, fuori tempo massimo. It was strange, one Euskaltel rider was leading and won the stage and another one was closing the race.

We were molto contenti. We descended to the bottom with the bikes at very low speed considering the number of people there that day.

As you know, it's not the first time I have attended a Tour stage. Yet, I have never seen such a large number of people like that day.

Around 7:00pm we were ready to drive back. We stopped at Briancon for dinner and then headed to Italy. At 1:00am we were at home. It was a long day. But, as always was worth it.