July 12, 2012

Le Tour de France

Aside from Machu Picchu, the Tour de France has been the second most carefully planned portion of our trip. This year’s route was announced back in October and we immediately picked which stage we wanted to see and started making plans to be there.

We knew that we wanted to be at a mountaintop finish, so we decided on Stage 11 in the Alps. This stage started in Albertville – home of the 1992 Olympics – and ended in the ski resort of La Toussuire. It’s funny…for as much effort as we put into being at the right place at the right time, we had no clue what we were getting ourselves into. Spectator information online is pretty bare bones. We set ourselves up as best as possible with a car, maps, and food, and then we winged it from there.

The night before, we drove into the Alps and began curving up the final climb to seek out the perfect place to watch the next day’s stage. On the ride up, we were extremely anxious to see how it would all play out. There were lots of camper vans and cars already parked along the course, but we were relieved that there were still some good spaces left. We picked a spot 4.5 kilometers from the finish line above three hairpin turns. Even on climbs the riders go by so quickly; the hairpins ensured we would see them at least 4 times from one vantage point.

The weather had been so hot for the last month that we completely forgot it might be cool in the Alps. We spent a cold night sleeping in our little rental car along the course.

By the time we woke up the next morning, the kilometer markers were being constructed and loads of amateur cyclists were riding the climb. We walked up to the finish line to check out the scene.

By Tour standards Stage 11 was short (140 kilometers or 87 miles), so the riders didn’t start until 1:30pm. An hour before they arrived, the team buses plowed their way through and then a publicity caravan threw out swag to the spectators.

At about 5:45pm, the fleet of helicopters flew over the mountain and the first rider appeared around the hairpin.

Because Stage 11 had 4 big climbs, and we were watching from the last one, there was plenty of time for the peloton to spread out. This allowed us to see each of the riders better.
Sort of...

Imagine watching the Super Bowl on a big screen TV from the comfort of your couch. Now imagine watching it from the top row of the stadium. The Tour de France is kind of like that...but even worse. Being there in person is thrilling and incredibly memorable. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You also don’t see very much of it.

These men are amazing athletes and they bike up alpine passes at speeds that I wouldn’t even dream of hitting on a flat road. We had also just spent the last 24 hours sitting on top of a mountain without Internet or TV or radio to keep us updated. When the lead pack goes by, you want to cheer, run and scream. You're also trying to process which order the riders are in, which team's jersey they have on, and you want to peer into the team directors’ cars all at the same time. It’s just impossible.

My favorite rider, Frank Schleck, came through about 20 seconds after the lead pack. He was all by himself…my perfect opportunity!

My plan was to run after him yelling something clever that I would think up on the spot. But I was so excited to see him, that I forgot to run and just sort of pranced after him with a huge grin on my face.

By the time the leaders were gone, we had become veteran spectators and could relax a bit as we watched the other cyclists whiz by. We saw Americans Levi Leipheimer, Tyler Farrar and George Hincapie. I yelled at George so loudly that he looked up and we made eye contact. Oh yeah.

The final rider came through about 40 minutes later, and then sadly, it was over just like that. We were having so much fun that we were really sad to leave.

Now having been at the Tour in person, we will savor our future opportunities to watch Phil Liggett call the shots in English from our big screen television. If we ever go back to France to see the Tour again (and we hope we do), we will equip ourselves with a camper van, a TV and a method for streaming English coverage.

There have been many times during the last 5 months that I’ve turned to Steve and said, 
“I miss my bike”. Being back around all of these cyclists has felt great. It also felt like a truly international event…much more so than Carnival. We met people from Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, Great Britain, Sweden, America, Spain, and of course France.

When we picked Stage 11 back in October, there was no way we could have known that it would fall exactly on Day 162 of our trip…our half way point. There couldn't have been a more perfect way to celebrate. We’ve dreamt for years about doing a RTW trip like this, but for even longer, we’ve dreamt of coming to the Tour de France. So I guess you could say that Day 162 was a dream come true…within a dream come true.

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