Day 12 ? Wednesday, July 12

I TAKE back every bad word I?ve said and thought about our Broomwagon. A night spent in Lourdes has given some perspective and our Fiat Granduca 67 is a luxury vehicle. I told it so this morning.

This morning we got up at 5.30 to drive from our campsite in Oloron-Sainte-Marie to the Col de Marie-Blanque. Picking up some bread and croissants on the way, we pulled into Escot at around 6.30 only to reach the turning for the bottom of the climb to be greeted by Gendarme.

?It?s closed. You?re too late,? he said.

We were, it seemed, only just too late but that wrecked our chances of driving up onto the climb itself. Even our orange ?Presse? badge stuck to the front of the bus opened no doors. If you want to get onto the mountains you have to be there the night before.

I don?t think anyone was too disappointed that the chance for a bit of shut-eye had presented itself, though.

When we finally woke, at around 10.30, we still had more than five and a half hours to go until the race came past.

It was the first proper bit of down-time for more than a week. We weren?t driving, writing, planning our next move, searching for our campsite or looking for a restaurant, we were just sitting, chatting.

It was bliss. We got a chance to talk about the race, who we thought would do well, how we thought the stage would pan out. There was a great sense of anticipation and excitement. The Tour was about to spark into life ? at last.

A couple of hours before the race was due we packed up our things and started to walk up the climb. As we hiked uphill the publicity caravan passed us and for half an hour or so we forgot we were supposed to be professional journalists and waved at the publicity girls and hoped they?d throw us their free gifts. Hats, posters, wrist bands, sweets, a little sachet of coffee, although we could have done with a kettle and some filters, and all manner of other freebies were chucked at us in the manner of a French queen chucking day-old bread at the peasants below. But who cares? Look at me in my free Skoda hat! I was jolted from my revelry when I was hit in the face by a bag of Haribo sweets. The girl who?d thrown them just laughed. Suddenly I realised just how ridiculous I looked. Simon carried on grabbing at the free stuff.

We settled for a spot midway up the climb between the Chechu Rubiera fan club and a rowdy bunch of Basques in orange who were amusing themselves by trying to throw clods of earth through the windows of passing cars.

Shortly before the race came through a van of mean-looking Gendarmes pulled up to keep an eye on the Basques. The boisterous Basques have been a bit of a nuisance in the Pyrenees in recent years, part of the reason the stages are now held in midweek, but this rather intimidating presence from the police was rather unnecessary ? particularly as the race gave them nothing to get excited about.

The leaders came past in one group then, ages later, came the main group, then later still the grupetto. It was hardly the most electrifying of mountain stages and you have to hope it gets better.

Following our walk back down the mountain we drove to Lourdes, where we were to be staying in a hotel. We couldn?t get into Andy the photographer?s Ibis but were booked into the Ocean Hotel opposite.

We were caught in an hour-long traffic jam in the run-up to Lourdes, which made my mood somewhat blacker.

Last year I spent three days in Lourdes while working on the Etape. I vowed never to return. Here I was, less than 12 months later, back in a place that makes my skin crawl.

It?s the sense of desperation and the ugly exploitation of that desperation that makes Lourdes such a sad place.

Anyone who knows me will know organised religion is not my bag but even I don?t like seeing beliefs that many hold very dearly cheapened and exploited. Who wants to buy a five-litre flagon of holy water? Or a flashing crucifix? Or a three foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary? It is Blackpool for religious people.

And, because the religious lure of Lourdes and its healing properties brings people in thousands no one has bothered to tidy the place up. Many of the hotels ? Ibis apart ? are stuck in the 1970s with manky carpet, peeling wallpaper and creaky staircases. There is no need to modernise because people will visit regardless of the quality of accommodation. If this was a British seaside town it would have been ailing for years; instead the bars and restaurants are full.

Every year the Tour ends up near Lourdes and because there are so many hotels some poor souls have to spend a night there. When I was woken for the umpteenth time by the neon ?Hotel? sign outside my window was flashing through the tracing paper thick curtains I considered gathering my stuff and returning to the van. I didn?t though, because the Virgin Mary in the picture above my bed had a very stern and disapproving look on her face and I didn?t want to upset her further.

Still, at least the racing today was epic, eh? Great stuff, boys.