This was going to be the summer when, after three decades of armchair spectating, I finally got to see the Tour de France in the sinewy flesh. We had planned to catch one of the mountain stages, and not just for the pleasure of sitting on a sun-warmed rock with a cold beer watching other people work. The siren call of the Alps themselves is an even stronger draw than seeing defending champion Egan Bernal and home favourite Thibaut Pinot doing battle before my very eyes.
It’s a landscape I can’t think of without a pang of longing so powerful it briefly sucks all the breath from me. Magnificent as they are draped in snow, the mountains are, for me, best in summer, when the freshness of the air hits you as you climb from the muggy valley floor, carrying with it the herbal perfume of the meadows and the gentle plink of cowbells below the looming peaks.
Having crammed bikes into the back of the car with the dog, we were hoping to tackle the final section of stage 17, from Grenoble to the ski resort of Méribel, once the Tour itself had moved on. Grinding up the Col de la Loze road from Courchevel, we would have passed the jump built for the 1992 Winter Olympics: still used for the World Cup every August it is, like the lifts dangling idly above the tarmac, a reminder that in a few months’ time this will be a ski run again.
The last 6km to the top are newly paved, but closed to motorised traffic, which is handy for those of us who make slow progress above 2,000 metres. The way down into the village should be somewhat speedier, even without the prospect of a huge caramel fleur de sel ice-cream from the patisserie opposite the tourist office.
Right now, the idea of squeezing past fellow fans in the Sherpa supermarché, clutching nutty cheese and musty saucisson for our packed lunch, feels as far away as those peaks after weeks of flat London horizons. If the 2020 Tour does go ahead in August, it’s safe to say I’ll be cheering from home again – but this year not from the sofa but from the bony saddle of the exercise bike that now takes up half the sitting room. After months of comfort eating, some training might be in order for 2021.