Blog: two days at the Tour de France with Giant-Alpecin

Riding with Tom Dumoulin and co in the Pyrenees

To win a stage of the Tour de France, on any terrain, is a huge achievement – the pinnacle of almost any professional cyclist’s career. To win in the mountains, takes grit and a climbing ability most can only dream of. To win in Andorra, atop Arcalis at the end of a truly gruelling mountain stage in the Pyrenees, is another level again.

Tom Dumoulin reached that level on stage nine of the 2016 Tour de France, winning from the breakaway at the highest summit finish of this year’s race as the peloton crossed into the mountainous Pyrenean principality.

For Giant-Alpecin, it was perfect timing – with new title sponsors Sunweb being officially confirmed during the following day’s rest day. A gift for the squad’s new backers.

Tom Dumoulin wins stage nine of the 2016 Tour de France in the Pyrenees

#CreatingMemories is Sunweb’s philosophy, and as memories go, this wasn’t just for the assembled guests – RoadCyclingUK included – packed into the VIP zone at the Tour finish line; this was one for the fans, for the team and for Dumoulin himself.

Almost prophetically, one of the Sunweb cards handed to us offering clues as to what the package holiday specialists had planned for our visit to the Tour, had read ‘the best kind of memories are the unexpected ones’ – though that had referred to a private jet from Barcelona to Andorra, rather than a Giant-Alpecin stage win.

Dumoulin, team CEO Iwan Spekenbrink told us before dinner on Sunday, was not going for the stage win at the start of the day – he was in the break so the team, working for Warren Barguil, would be relieved of chasing duties in the peloton.

Spekenbrink admitted he didn’t expect the break to succeed, let alone for it to succeed with their rider, Dumoulin, going solo over the fiercely steep Andorran climbs to claim victory.

Looking at the route map, it’s difficult to appreciate just how steep some of the switchbacks on the Queen Stage’s climbs were – the category two Cote de la Comella, 4.2km at 8.2 per cent, was more than just a warm-up climb, with a series of leg-numbing pitches.

Immediately followed by the Col de Beixalis, 6.4km at 8.5 per cent, a fan’s sign welcomed us, driving the course ahead of the race, to Purito Land – and the hairpin bends, with gradients well into double figures at their maximum – certainly looked the sort of terrain on which Joaquim Rodriguez has flourished in the past.

In fact, one vehicle from the Tour’s publicity caravan had to be rescued as one of the steepest switchbacks stopped it in its tracks.

This was a day for the pure climbers to shine, in scorching hot conditions – the sort of day on which Dumoulin ultimately slipped out of contention for the Vuelta a Espana red jersey on the final weekend last year.

A great vantage point of the finish line – until the hailstones came

Unexpected indeed; awe-inspiring – very. This is a man with serious talent and a serious future in front of him.

Unfortunately another unexpected element of the day was the weather – the vantage point atop Arcalis, once we had been driven up the route to the summit, was a great one with a view down the final part of the climb and up to the finish line.

Of course, an apocalyptic storm hit – hailstones and all – to literally put a dampener on the afternoon, but that only added to how impressive Dumoulin’s solo ride was and then, further down the road, yellow jersey Chris Froome and white jersey Adam Yates’ efforts to stay first and second overall, nullifying the surprisingly cautious Nairo Quintana.

To watch the Tour de France procession on a mountain is a totally different experience to the flatter stages we were treated to when the Tour came to Yorkshire two years ago.

The Andorran weather added another challenge to the already punishing gradients

Anybody at the finish line in Harrogate or London – or even on the hilly stage to Sheffield – got a quick taste of the action as the race hurled past at break-neck speed.

On the mountains, it is very different – you can see the suffering on the rider’s faces and see how tough professional cycling truly is, from Dumoulin at the front of the race to the sprinters in the grupetto.

The fans, too, make the mountains very special – painting the roads and lining the mountain course with an explosion of colour.

Rodriguez’s fans were joined by the ‘Warren Barguil Fan Club’, while Arcalis boasted one bend completely taken over by Norwegian fans. Colombians, meanwhile, seemed to pop up everywhere in their bright yellow tops and national flags.

Andorra also boasts a brilliantly green, rugged backdrop to frame the action perfectly – but that brilliant green landscape is, of course, fed by regular rain, as was the case on Sunday.

The following day allowed us the opportunity to sample part of the Tour de France route for ourselves, in the company of Giant-Alpecin’s riders on their rest day.

So the previous day’s result also means I can now say I’ve ridden on the Tour de France route with a Tour stage winner. Or rather, he was miles up the road as I rode with Albert Timmer, the nominated back marker, in the grupetto which quickly formed.

Now let’s be clear, I’m nowhere near the shape needed for riding in the mountains, let alone having not even looked at my bike since becoming a father for the first time ten weeks ago.

Andorra’s gradients are unforgiving


And as comeback rides go, Andorra represented a baptism of fire – even riding out of the city centre, the gradients are constantly nagging and I ran out of gears much earlier than I’d care to admit.

Naturally, on his rest day ride, Timmer barely broke sweat as I ‘pedalled squares’ up what was, essentially, the warm-up climb.

The Giant-Alpecin riders then went to do a casual five minutes’ worth of intervals on the Port d’Envilara – the highest climb in this year’s race – to justify spending the rest of the morning at a coffee shop. There’s a stark difference between the WorldTour’s finest and us mere mortals.

Unfortunately the rain returned later in the day, presenting the slightly ironic picture of Sunweb’s founder, in an open-roofed cathedral, explaining Sunweb’s sunny summer holiday packages while holding an umbrella as their partnership with the team was announced.

Still, when the Tour de France is town, nothing can really dampen proceedings – and certainly not when you’re in the company of a rider who has just won one of the toughest stages in this year’s race.

The future for the Giant-Alpecin team, and for Dumoulin, is certainly a lot brigher than the weather in the Andorran mountains.

RoadCyclingUK were #CreatingMemories in Andorra as guests of Sunweb, the new major partner of Team Giant-Alpecin.


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