L’inspiration de la Tour

4 07 2011

July is traditionally my Big Mileage Month.

Since I started logging my rides online in 2005, I’ve broken 1,000 kilometers every July but one. My best month ever was July, 2008, when I rode 1,600,6 kms.

July is so prolific partly because of the good weather and lingering daylight, that allows me to ride for 60 or even 70 kms after dinner in addition to my long weekend rides. But mostly it’s because of the Tour de France.

Long daylight means longer rides in the evening

There’s no better inspiration to ride than watching the pros cycle through France for three weeks.

I started taking Tour de France holidays in 2002; I would book a week or two of vacation time during the Tour’s final weeks so I didn’t have to worry about getting to work on time if the stage went long. Then, duly inspired by what I’d watched in the early morning, I’d go for rides in the afternoon.

Live coverage of the Tour starts early here on the West Coast, usually 5 a.m.; but extended coverage of mountain stages can start as early as 3 in the morning. I set my alarm. I could watch it at a more reasonable hour on the PVR, but I figure if the riders are out there suffering for hours on end, then I can sacrifice a little myself to bear witness. I usually watch the recording, or parts of it, in the evening as well.

That first summer of Tour de France holiday, I was sitting at the computer while watching, idly surfing websites during quiet moments of the stages, when I searched for tour companies that specialized in trips to the Tour de France. I had no idea whether such companies even existed. I was enchanted by the idea of seeing the Tour live in person, maybe even bringing my bike along to do some riding.

My searching led me to an Australian company, Bikestyle Tours, that offered just that, riding tours to the Tour. Before I knew it, I had signed on and sent in an initial deposit to secure a place for the 2003 Tour, its centenary. It may have been the most impulsive thing I’d ever done; I’d never been to Europe as an adult on my own, I had limited knowledge of French, I didn’t even have a valid passport.

My tour would be for the Tour’s last 10 days, as it went to the Pyrenées, up to Bourdeaux, then inland to Nantes before the grand finish in Paris. As it was the Tour’s 100th anniversary, there was to be much hype and pomp;; plus Lance would be riding for his chance to join cycling’s immortals as a five-time champion.

To say going to see the Tour had been a lifelong dream would be an exaggeration, though I had been beguiled by images of the race in the 1980s, during the Greg LeMond era when CBS showed highlights on Saturdays and Sundays. I loved the spectacle of the peloton speeding through little villages, past fields of sunflowers, up perilous mountain passes, the riders squeezing through the throngs of crazed fans like multi-colored toothpaste, to be spit down the speedy, lonely descents.

I trained for my holiday; I was determined to climb some of those mountains, to ride as much as possible.

Signing on with a tour company afforded us me those opportunities. After a long bus ride from Paris, with an overnight respite in Cahors, we unloaded our bikes from the special trailers just outside Foix for the 60 km ride to our first encounter with the race, at Ax-les-Thermes. It was a sweltering hot day, and our route included two grueling climbs. By the time we got to the race, the sidewalks were packed three deep and my water bottle was empty.

We watched the publicity caravan speed by in the village, caught a few knicknack souvenirs, then headed a little way up the climb in search of shade. I settled into an early hairpin and waited. The pavement was decorated with painted flags and the names of favored riders in chalk. There was no way to know what was going on.

But at the sound of a distant helicopter, everyone perked up and edged closer to the roadway. Then, the first of the sedans carrying media, VIPs and race officials sped by. Then gendarmes on BMW motorcycles. Then more motorcycles carrying photographers and even commentators. Then finally a motorcycle with a tv cameraman, And then the first riders.

My first day at Le Tour

It was a magical, surreal moment. I think I was trembling. For years I had watched this event on television, and here it was, passing only feet in front of me, with all the organized chaos and roadside bedlam that makes the Tour one of the world’s great sporting spectacles.

In all, it took maybe ten minutes from the first sound of the chopper to the passage of the broom wagon.

Over the next week and a half we were able to see the Tour pass by another half dozen times or so. We rode to stages from our hotels in Lourdes and Bourdeaux, and we were able to ride parts of stages up to Luz Ardiden, where Lance had his famous encounter with a spectator’s musette, and from Cognac to Maxient St. L’ecole, where we evaded the gendarmes and had our own sprint finish to within 100 meters of that day’s finish line. Our plan to ride the full length of the decisive time trial into Nantes was washed away by a driving rainstorm that also cost Jan Ullrich his last chance to beat Lance when he slid out on the wet pavement and into a hay bale. We were right on the finish line, peering between two commentary trailers when Lance crossed with his fist punching the air, his fifth Tour victory a lock.

Crazy Basque cycling fans on the ascent up Luz Ardiden

The trip culminated with a special ride in Paris; as the Tour organizers closed the last 30 kms of the course to allow 10,000 pre-registered riders to have their own ride along the Seine, up past Bastille, the Tuleries, around Place de la Concorde and then, finally, up and down the Champs Elysée as a public celebration of the Tour’s centenary. Everyone got a yellow jersey, and a taste of glory on the Champs.

My own Yellow Jersey moment on the Champs.

It was an amazing holiday, life-altering. It affirmed my love for road riding and piqued my love for France; I’ve been back three more times, all with Katie. Hopefully there will be more. Katie says she too would like to see the Tour in person.