Stage three was everything it was hyped to be by journalists, riders, team directors and crazed aficionados of the cobblestone. One of those rare occasions when hot air transforms into something magic.
What was it like? I’d never seen a pro race up close over cobblestones it the tension was incredible, the danger, the dust, the anticipation, the fans inches from the rushing fury. My head is still spinning and now I know why some riders hate the stone and others are drawn to this particular form of torture.
The last section of pave at Haveluy was no more than ten feet across, with another two feet for spectators, then fields of young wheat. You could call it a road it you were a farmer 100 years ago, or a miner walking to work but now that was a long time ago and time hasn’t been kind.
The cobblestones in this part of France are now in fact celebrated protected, curated, restored each year so they are merely crappy instead of impassable. Haveluy looks like it was just uncovered last month by some cobblestone archeologist — which is not far from the truth. Farmers are still discovering stretches of pave the same way explorers with a machete hack into the jungles of Peru and find another mini Machu Pichu. It’s like suddenly finding another mountain peak in the Alps, an hors categorie gem.
We waited and waited for the stampede to arrive. The Tour de France builds tension with caravan vehicles: as the riders draw near, more and more advance cars and motos blast thru, covering us in dust. Then, faster than I can fire my camera, the six riders of the break fly past. Dust, roars, rattle of bikes, gone.
Then the bigger groups race past and it feels like apocalypse with the crowds screaming, tight against the road edge, thousand and thousands leaning in, clouds of brown dust filling the air. The wide flat field, the dramatic clouds, banner flags, the striking uniforms of the riders — it’s as stunning as a battle scene from Kurosawa, to get just a little heavy.
You can’t believe spectators aren’t killed every few hundred feet. The shoulders of the riders nearly knock you over. Stick your camera out another inch and they’ll rip it right off your wrist. Lean your head in and the pedals of the bikes mounting on the team cars slash your face open.
I saw Armstrong go past alone, full gas, chasing Contador and Wiggins. He’d never catch them and would finish 55 seconds behind the Spaniard. He said he was the nail and not the hammer. That may be a perfect way to describe the cobblestone. There are very few riders that hammer the stones — mostly riders get nailed.
The miners and famers from this part of France could tell you that. But they died along time ago.