Cycle Sport’s eyewitness report on the 2006 Tour’s ascent of the Mûr de Bretagne and Cauberg climbs.

Words by Edward Pickering

Tuesday July 5, 2011. This is an edited version of an article originally published in the September 2006 edition of Cycle Sport

Cycling, like any religion, has its holy places. Alpe d’Huez is cycling’s Jerusalem, or perhaps its Calvary. But during the first week of the Tour de France, the race visited two of its cathedrals – the Cauberg climb in Valkenburg, and the Côte de Mûr de Bretagne in Brittany.

The Cauberg, finishing climb of the Amstel Gold Race, and the Mûr de Bretagne, a focal point for cycling in France’s most cycling-obsessed region, were only designated third category climbs by the Tour organisation, but their pulling power and mystique drew thousands of spectators to their slopes. Perhaps it is no coincidence that stage three and stage eight, during which the two climbs appeared, were the only two road stages before the Pyrenees in which the bunch sprinters were thwarted.

Neither climb is particularly demanding – the Cauberg is 800 metres long at an average gradient of 7.3 per cent, the same steepness as the first hors-catégorie climb of the Tour, the Col de Soudet, but a mere 20th of its length. The Côte de Mûr de Bretagne is harder – 1.6 kilometres long, at 7.5 per cent. The Cauberg was made significant by coming right at the end of stage three, while the Mûr de Bretagne is a unique climb, thanks to a quirky decision made by the engineers who designed it. The Mûr is dead straight, both on the run-in and on the climb, making it one of cycling’s greatest grandstands.

And television, which flattens gradients that are much steeper than they appear on the screen, also flattens the atmosphere of these places. The noise, colour and even the smell of the Cauberg and Mûr when the Tour passes through can only be experienced first-hand.

COTE DE MÛR DE BRETAGNE, JULY 9
The Tour de France travels in waves.

The first wave, unseen by spectators, is the quiet work of the flèchage, four drivers doing their own Tour a day ahead of the race putting up thousands of direction signs along the route.

The second wave is the growing roar of engines, techno music and noisy inanity as the Tour caravan passes through. And the third and fourth waves come simultaneously – the noise of cheering spectators marking the progress of the riders.

On the Côte de Mûr de Bretagne, these waves travelled in slow motion. From Cycle Sport’s vantage point at the top, it was possible to see three kilometres down the road in a straight line. Even with several thousand Bretons lining the road, the view was uninterrupted, thanks to the steepness of the slope and the view across the valley.

“This is the best region for cycling,” local resident Moisan Gilbert informed Cycle Sport unashamedly.

“And this climb is our Alpe d’Huez. It will be as noisy here as it is in the mountains, because we have always been the most passionate about cycling,” he continued.

The locals would be cheering for Breton riders Sébastien Hinault and Christophe Le Mével. And while the spectators on the Cauberg were held back by barriers lining the road, the Côte de Mûr de Bretagne came midway through the stage, so that nothing separated the public from the riders. Between the caravan and the race passing through, the crowd amused themselves by singing the French sporting national anthem “Allez les bleus” at every grim-faced gendarme who drove past.

National pride was split unevenly in favour of the ubiquitous black and white Breton flags, which had lined the route since the race entered the region, with French flags a close second. And again, it was possible to see the approach of the race before hearing it. Across the valley, tiny figures on bikes crept towards the foot of the climb, surrounded by motorbikes and followed by team cars.

The approach of the race was signalled by the growing clamour of the crowd at the foot of the climb.

The front group, six riders who had escaped early in the stage, were accompanied up the climb by a bulge in the crowd. Spectators crowded the middle of the road, only jumping back at the last minute to let the riders through, then rushing in to fill the vacuum left behind them.

Ag2r rider Sylvain Calzati, who would go on to win the stage, forced his way up at the head of the group, with Mario Aerts of Davitamon on his wheel. The next rider, Patrice Halgand, had let a small gap develop, and he led Matthias Kessler, Dave Zabriskie and Kjell Carlström up in a single file.

It became clear that the group would take some pulling back when several minutes separated the front group from the arrival of the peloton, who rode steadily up the Mûr, led by the Phonak team. This would be the first successful long-range breakaway of the 2006 Tour.

CAUBERG, JULY 4 2006
The 2006 Tour de France swept through its first week like a fast-flowing river. Each day took this itinerant community of athletes, assistants, sales people and hangers-on further from its source. And as the race progressed through stages three and four, it was just as well that nobody was looking back over their shoulder to Strasbourg, where disgrace, innuendo and shame hung in the air like summer haze.

The race couldn’t leave France soon enough. What better way to symbolise a fresh start than to quit France altogether, even if it was only for a couple of days? The Tour’s way of dealing with the fallout of Operacion Puerto was to ignore it – as the race crossed into Luxembourg and Holland for stages two and three, the doping scandal had become the elephant in the living room.

And so while some of the alleged guilty parties made weak statements of denial from home, the show went on without them, hardly caring.

The public still loved it. They lined the roads more thickly than ever, through the first week, in spite of the scandal, and in spite of the fact that, bunch dashes to the line aside, there was very little happening.

But the climb up the Cauberg still gave the general classification its first shake-up, less an earthquake than the window-rattling vibration caused when a heavy-goods vehicle advertising La Vache Qui Rit cheese thunders by, but enough to force a change of the yellow jersey.

Cycle Sport picked a spot halfway up the Cauberg to watch the race pass through, perching atop a pillar at the gates to a graveyard. This provided a good view but was possibly a bad choice, since the noise of 10,000 Dutch cycling fans even before the race arrived was enough to wake the dead.

Dutch Tour fans are relatively undemanding, making them a more entertaining spectacle than to their less relaxed rivals. While the French are caught up in a 20-year wait for a local winner and the Americans have an ongoing superiority complex, the Dutch are happy to ignore all health warnings about dehydration and sit in the sun drinking beer.

Beer is the overwhelming smell of the Cauberg, which climbs straight out of Valkenburg. There are not many other Tour climbs whose lower slopes are lined with pubs. Even the riders noticed it – Jimmy Caspar told Cycle Sport the next day that his main memories of riding up were the booze-sodden breath of the crowds and having to dodge empty plastic beer containers on the side of the road.

On the Cauberg, there was a sea of people. Every vantage point was bagged several hours in advance. Most of the way the crowd was three or deep, with more perched on walls. The corporate seats were the first line of people, hugging the barriers, with an uninterrupted sight line to the road, while everybody else was forced to apply ingenuity to the problem of how to see the riders, or risk their necks. People were up trees, in bushes, sitting on portaloos and hanging on to lampposts. Those that had gone beyond caring if they saw anything or not were slumped in the gutter.

The Cauberg is an elongated S-bend, climbing out of Valkenburg before a right-hand bend about halfway up. The road then twists around to the left – from this corner there remain a few uphill metres, then the false flat to the finishing line less than a kilometre down the road. The Amstel Gold Race climbs it three times, and since the finish line of that race was moved to the top, there hasn’t been a sprint finish.

Putting a climb at the end of an early Tour de France stage was a long overdue move by race organisers ASO. Too many recent Tours have been characterised by endless sprint finishes in the first week, entertaining in their own right, but giving cycling fans very little in the way of variety. The Cauberg was difficult enough to break up the front group, with most sprinters likely to be left behind on its slopes.

After the noise of the publicity caravan, and competing commentators giving a breathless account of the race in French and Dutch throughout the afternoon, a lull signalled that the race was about to pass through. In the same way that the force of an explosion precedes the sound that it makes, the crowd became quiet, before a scarcely discernible buzz swelled up the hill. Then came cheers and applause, pulling the riders up. Dutch champion Michael Boogerd was leading, with Tom Boonen on his wheel, and the front group was stretched to single file. Boogerd, the home rider, known as “Mr Amstel Gold” for his consistency in his favourite race, had his name written all over the Cauberg in paint. His aim for this day was transparent – get his name written at the top of the stage results.

But the politics of the Tour are different to those of Amstel Gold. Boogerd’s efforts might have been enough to gain a podium placing in the latter race, but all he did at the Tour was lead out the other contenders, setting them up for an attack.

As the riders came past Cycle Sport, the composition of the results sheet was already beginning to make itself clear. Tom Boonen was going forwards through the group as fast as Thor Hushovd was going backwards, and the Belgian would take the yellow jersey from his Norwegian rival at the top. And Matthias Kessler loomed ominously in third place, from where he would soon attack to win the stage.

Boogerd was already out of it by the time he disappeared from Cycle Sport’s view – once Kessler accelerated past him to signal that the game was up, another 38 riders would overtake him as he drifted towards the finish line. 48 riders finished in the front group, five seconds behind Kessler, and another 51 riders would finish within a minute. The other half of the Tour, ground down by a stage which resembled a Classic in its terrain, rode past in square-pedalling dribs and drabs.

Kessler, whose nickname is “pit-bull”, is a close friend and training partner of Jan Ullrich, and his win on the Cauberg was a signal of solidarity within the T-Mobile team. He is as taciturn and uncommunicative off the bike as he is tenacious on it, and his stage win was all the more impressive considering he’d paced Andreas Klöden back to the peloton after a crash inside the final 20 kilometres, and he’d come within a short distance of winning stage two 24 hours previously.

The other winner of the day, Tom Boonen, took his first-ever yellow jersey and still looked happy on the podium. This was before the low-level stress of consistently not winning a stage turned his smile from a beam into a twitching frown over the next few days.

But the main winners were the Tour de France and the Cauberg. Stage three of this year’s race was an affirmation that the first week of the Tour should be more than just a build-up to the mountains. The Cauberg and the Côte de Mûr de Bretagne were not to have the race-defining intrigue of the Alpine stages, but for the spectators, if anything, these places were better vantage points. Spectating at the Tour is a day out – doping scandals and the fight for the yellow jersey are a secondary consideration, and the public are still in love with the spectacle, especially when the atmosphere on a small stretch of road can equal that of any sports ground.

The Tour started in Strasbourg as a sick man, but the Cauberg and Mûr de Bretagne proved that the race would be resilient to its challenges.

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