The Tour de France always carries a celebratory and jovial atmosphere. The 2015 installment is no different. Utrecht is already gearing up for an apt-named Grand Départ and the remaining stages rightfully honor the accomplishments of its residents. As the peloton leaves from Digne-les-Bains on July 22, however, the mood will be somber for it is in relative proximity to the stage route that Germanwings flight 9525 crashed on March 24, 2015. As I began to research the highlights along the Stage 17 route, I could not, in good conscious, give deference to other sites without first paying respect to the 150 victims that lost their lives near this part of the Alps. It is with a heavy heart and mind that we all have watched with amazement at the revelations surrounding the crash over the past several weeks that I am compelled to remember this event rather than forget it.
The photos that come back from the Germanwings 9525 debris field are scenes of littered plane parts across the rocky but dry slopes of the lower Alps. Snowcapped mountains loom overhead with the foot of one of the Tour’s favorite mountain passes, the Col d’Allos, only 7 kilometers (5 miles) due east. This is the Alps, but truly just the foothills. Indeed, this area is just as close to the Mediterranean as it is to the larger and better known climbs of the Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. In fact, we are in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, which was originally even called Basse-Alpes, or lower Alps until 1970.
Geographically, the stage starts in Digne-les-Bains, only 650 meters (2000 feet) in altitude. From here, the riders gradually climb to 800 meters (3000 feet) at Lac de Castillon before even getting above 2130 meters (7000 feet) 115 kilometers (71 miles) into the stage. But the lush flowing landscape at the Col d’Allos and its ski station, separated by only two ridges, are much different than the dark and barren winter moonscape at the crash site, known as Le Eaux Tortes. An early 20th century atlas remarked about the area that “Scattered whitish rocks stand out like bones, a thin topsoil where bushes languish, some mountain flowers and stunted trees … these mountains form almost everywhere a dreadful desert which will not have more inhabitants: this is the Sahara without the sun of Africa, with the snows of Siberia.” Dreadful is not often a word used to describe the Alps or Provence, but in relation to this tragedy, it might be an understatement.
Scattered whitish rocks stand out like bones, a thin topsoil where bushes languish, some mountain flowers and stunted trees … these mountains form almost everywhere a dreadful desert which will not have more inhabitants: this is the Sahara without the sun of Africa, with the snows of Siberia.
With the crash occurring just over 100 days from the start of the Tour, it is a tragedy that will still be fresh in the minds of the world. Sporting events such as the Tour de France, though, offer an opportunity for communal mourning, remembrance, and an unspoken statement of solidarity and promise for a bright future. With Stage 17 expected to reach an estimated 25-50 million viewers worldwide, the Tour and its organizers, not to mention riders and fans alike, have an obligation to use this venue as a chance to bring honor to the 150 victims of late March and make something magical happen.