My exciting day at Le Tour

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UPDATE: If you want to see some press reports of the aftermath of Saturday's finish, you can read them (in French) in SudOuestLe Monde (with video), Vosges Matin and Le Progrés (with pictures). 

On Friday evening I realised that there was a stage finish of the Tour de France the next day that was only a few kilometres over the Swiss border. To precise, at a place called Les Rousses that's within striking distance of La Cure, a Swiss railway station. Okay, I thought, I'll take a day trip to see the race, starting early and hopefully gettting back around 11:30pm. Take my camera, station myself about 4km back from the finish line on the last climb, see if I can get some good shots.

The next day I got up early and (after, ironically, calling in at the nearest police station to report the theft of my own bike) took the train to Nyon and thence up the winding narrow-gauge line to La Cure. La Cure is so close to the border you actually emerge from the station between the Swiss and French customs posts, and from there the local organisers of the Tour were laying on a shuttle bus. The shuttle bus arrived and we all piled onto it. It disgorged us about 500m from the finish line, and I made a note of the location for the return journey. A 5km hike up the road later I found a reasonable point from which to observe and photograph the race. The crazily French institution that is the publicity caravan passed with the usual terrifying scrabbling for free stuff, after another hour and a bit the race itself passed (whatever, you can read about that anywhere), then I turned to head back to the finish area for the bus to the station.

I'd timed things so that I'd be walking back to the finish as the major crowds were clearing themselves out of the way and getting shuttled back to the car parks, and to allow a good long buffer period in the event of my not being able to get on the first or even second bus. Plan B was that if it looked insane I could still walk the 10km to La Cure in time to get the last train, even if my feet would be sore.

When I got there there was mayhem - a large meadow full of people waiting for the shuttle buses, which were running on three routes that were only indicated by small signs at the very ends of the field. It seems the traffic congestion was so bad the buses couldn't get through, and also that they'd also massively underestimated the number of buses necessary. Well, okay. I joined the back of the huge crush, intending to wait a few minutes and then start walking if nothing was still happening.

And then the rain began. The thunder had been rolling around for a while, but now the followup appeared in the form of an enormous storm. Picture the scene - two thousand or so people in a small holding field, most of whom hadn't come dressed for rain. I had had the foresight to stuff my waterproof jacket in my bag, so dressed myself up in its Gore-Texy goodness and enjoyed being drier than most people.

And then the rain got heavier. And it got heavier still. And the people in T-shirts and shorts stopped laughing and just started looking scared as the rain turned into hail. Now you've got a huge number of people in a small field, huddled together with no shelter and no buses and nowhere to go, being hammered with hailstones that were, I kid you not, a centimetre or more across. I stood stuck in the middle of all this listening to small children crying all around as thunder hammered around the sky and they got pelted by hailstones, and watching families desperately forming huddles to try and protect their kids from the onslaught. After a while some of the grown-ups started crying along with the kids, and given the sheer misery of the situation and the fact that many of them had nothing but thin T-shirts on I can't blame them. All I could think was "It'll have to stop eventually". And then the hail got harder and heavier for a bit.

The crowd surged occasionally forward as groups moved out onto the road, with the field waterlogged under our feet and rivers of muddy water appearing thanks to the storm. People were getting shoved around, some people were losing their children in the mayhem.. it was, simply, awful. The only good part is that after a while the storm eased off and eventually the rain more or less stopped, creating an opportunity to do something. After a few minutes it was decided that the buses should just be written off and those of us still left should walk up to the finish line complex to get dried off and warmed up. The local sapeurs-pompiers and civil defence people were handing out foil blankets and shuttling elderly people and children up there in ambulances while the rest of us formed a sodden mass trudging refugee-like up to somewhere dry.

We found ourselves herded into a storage garage next to the media centre, which was in a local sports hall. This was a definite improvement as it was shelter, and shortly after that we were told that (as far as I can tell - my French is lousy) there wouldn't be any buses for a while and moved across the road into more comfortable quarters in what had previously been part of the media centre. We got provided with water and something to eat courtesy of the race sponsors, and local volunteers and the Civil Defence were able to get hold of a bunch of towels and bathrobes so the wettest could dry themselves off. They also raided the stores for spare T-shirts and other clothing so at least some people had some dry clothes. We then mostly hung around waiting to see what would happen. I went and sat on the balcony overlooking the media centre and watched the journalists and photographers hard at work in the giant press room - picture a sports hall absolutely full of rows of tables and chairs and you'll get some idea.

Most people wanted to get back to the car parks and drive home, but I now had a worse problem - my last train back home would be long gone by now, and I was going to be stuck for the night somewhere. Quite where I didn't know yet, but I didn't want it to be a bench on the platform at La Cure. As the evening wore on, more people were brought in having been rescued from other place, the buses got reorganised as the traffic cleared from the roads, and people were gradually shuttled back to their car parks from the impromptu reception centre. In the end there was only me left. By now it was about 2200.

To cut a long story short, with the help of a chap with a Tour de France lanyard who seemed able to make stuff happen and one of the local civil defence folks I got a bed for the night at the resort at the finish line. A bed! More than I'd hoped for - I'd only asked for somewhere to sit or crash, but a bed was better than that. I had to pay for it, but when I discovered that the rate (48 euros) included dinner that night and that they were still serving until 2230 I was a happy bunny. I ate and drank (0.25 litres of dodgy vin de table came with dinner at the buffet), then feeling much better but still wet headed for what turned out to be a rather sparse holiday camp room where I had to make my own bed and there weren't any towels as people coming on holiday bring their own.

It turns out my Freitag shoulder bag did a good job of keeping the important things like my iPad dry - a bit of water had got in and ruined a book but that was the worst damage I'd suffered. My camera, fortunately, is weathersealed..

After hanging my wet things around the room I reflected on what a very, very weird day and weirder evening it had been, then feel deeply asleep. In the morning, well, I had breakfast, packed up, then walked the 10km to La Cure in what was becoming an uncomfortably hot day (no local buses were running due to the Tour) and headed for home. Walking long distances in wet socks is not something I recommend. On the way home my train to Nyon got held up for 25 minutes while the police got called to deal with what I presume was an obnoxious fare dodger - the first time I've ever had a train get that heavily delayed in Switzerland. I think that maybe I should have just stayed in bed and hidden under the covers all weekend..

Some people seem to be castigating the organisers of the Tour de France for what happened. Some seem to be castigating the local organisers. In the aftermath, I'm not sure how much castigation is really useful here. Something happened that was a rare combination of force majeure (the storm - rain had been predicted but its ferocity was totally unexpected) and simple bad prediction of traffic (the buses getting stuck in traffic). They certainly should have had more buses and clearly underestimated the numbers and traffic flows. If the storm hadn't happened, all that would have happened would have been a bunch of people being delayed and inconvenienced. It was the storm that was the hard-to-predict factor that combined with the traffic to cause the nightmare. Should the various official Tour vehicles have offered space to people to shelter? I dunno. Maybe.. but when you have thousands of people in trouble, helping three or four won't get you very far, and there's a very real risk of a stampede or a crowd crush which would only make things much, much worse.

Once we got to the sports centre, people were much happier - being warm and out of the rain does that, as does being able to dry off and eat something. Yes, they were frustrated, but the civil defence actually dealt pretty well overall given that they were having to improvise a response to a weird situation. Many people had far worse problems than just being cold and wet - they'd lost family members or even their own children, and the civil defence rightly made it their first priority to reunite people with their families before worrying about the other stuff. People who are cold and wet are miserable, but as long as you make them warmer and drier reasonably quickly nothing worse will happen. Taking care of the most needy first is absolutely fine, and the people I heard complaining about this should be feeling a little embarrassed.

So what did I learn? Well, mostly that you don't just need a Plan A and a Plan B if you intend to rely on public transport to get to the Tour de France, you need a Plan C. I'm a little sunburned and a little blistered from walking 10km this morning in wet socks, and I was certainly pretty smelly by the time I got home thanks to being in clothes that had been repeatedly soaked in both sweat and rain, but I had an exciting adventure (even if I'm not in a hurry to repeat it).

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