Many moons ago, I once suggested to a Dutch colleague that the reason half the population of Holland seemed to be on the move throughout Europe regardless of the time of year was that the country was physically too small to contain the whole Dutch nation at once and they operated the sort of coloured armband system you used to have in swimming pools on a Saturday afternoon. Every now and then someone in the Hague would blow an enormous hooter and all the red armband holders could go home while the yellow bands had to take to the road.
Alf didn’t disagree that his countrymen could do with a bit of extra lebensraum, but maintained that rather than an armband system, they just held a national lottery twice a year and the losers had to stay at home with the Germans.
If anyone fancies a short break to Holland (and it’s a very attractive country, what with the windmills and the Edam and all the little mice with clogs on and everything), this would be the time to do it, because judging by the numbers of Dutch in the Oisans this week the whole place must be a ghost town.
This came as a rude shock to me this morning, when I pottered out to Casino to do the weekly shopping at a nice quiet time as usual, only to find the place completely infested with Cloggies. As is usual with tourists (I’m sure they all put their brains in a box under the bed before they leave the house) they were milling aimlessly about, standing in the middle of the aisles staring into space and running people over with trolleys. One of them was photographing the coffee shelves, don’t ask me why. The only French I heard throughout the whole grim experience was someone muttering putain des Hollandais while trying to nab the last baguette.
The whole thing was extremely traumatic mainly because a) I am spoilt by usually having Casino almost entirely to myself and b) the store’s management is completely inept and has not the faintest idea about stock control. It’s not as if they weren’t expecting to be inundated with Dutch campers this week (I knew about it as well, I’d just failed to factor it into my shopping plans). But had they ordered buckets of extra stuff? Got the shelves rammed full before opening so their epiciers weren’t adding to the carnage by trying to wheel pallet trucks about? Of course not. Which meant that they had run out of almost everything useful by 11:00, including several of my regular staples. Humph.
We get invaded by half of Holland this week every year, because they run an enormous charity cycling event which involves them riding up to Alpe d’Huez and back down again six (yes, you heard it, six) times in one day. And incidentally raising a whole pile of cash for cancer charities.
The Alpe d’Huez climb is one of the most gruelling mountain stages of the Tour de France. It’s about 14km long, climbs 1150m through 21 hairpin bends and takes about 20 minutes in a car with a local driver behind the wheel. The fastest of the Tour riders, cyclists at the very top of the game, do it in just over half an hour. Six times in a day? You’d have to be mental.
But apparently lots of the Dutch are indeed just that sort of mental. The event gets bigger every year, and riders include everyone from sponsored race teams and pro riders down to rank amateurs and blatant non-cyclists. When I worked as campsite courier a few summers ago, one of my guests was there to do it. She had lost her husband to cancer the previous year and was determined to complete the challenge to raise funds in his memory despite the fact that she had started cycling about five minutes previously. She did it as well, six ascents in a day and the whole of her family and his yelling their hearts out for her as she crossed the finish. Hats off to that woman. I don’t know how much she raised, but I bet she had to sit on a cushion for weeks.
The whole town breaks out bunting and balloons for the day, which is the first big cycle event of the year and pretty much marks the beginning of the summer season. The campsites and restaurants are rammed (as is the bloody supermarket) and everyone does very well out of the whole business, including the cancer charity, which scored for five and a half million euros after last year’s effort. If I have deciphered their website correctly (and I guarantee no such thing) I think you should be able to watch it for yourself here.