Throughout my recent trip to France, I tried to stay ahead of the Tour de France. It just turned out that way… wherever I went, the Tour seemed to be about to arrive as well. And with the Tour came road closures and other hazards that threatened to play havoc with my schedule.
In the Pyrenees, I climbed the Peyresourde, only to be met by a sign indicating that two days later, the road would be closed for the Tour.
As I reached the top, I saw that the camper vans of the fans already were lined up for the big day. I hope my flash didn’t scare them when I took this photo in the middle of the night.
When I reached Montpellier, the Tour had just left that morning. Shop windows still displayed little figurines of cyclists sprinting for the finish line.
When I rode through the mountains near Lyon, I was greeted by another sign that the road was due to be closed in three days for the Tour.
I went to Grenoble to visit the son of the constructeur Paul Charrel. We decided to climb the Alpe d’Huez. (I had left my bike in Paris, but Frederic Charrel’s son lent me his bike.)
The Tour was to arrive two days later, and the climb to the Alpe d’Huez was a complete circus. Camper vans had taken every available spot along the road. Hundreds of cyclists from all over the world climbed the hill. Many were weaving all over the road as they struggled with the gears that their idols would turn so smoothly two days later.
Photographers were taking pictures that you later could order online (see photo at the top of the post).
The ski village at the top was brimming with people. The pastures above the village had been converted into an overflow campground for those who could not park alongside the course.
The road continues beyond the finish line of the Tour stage, which is in the ski village. Few cyclists ventured here on this day. It was nice to ride on an almost-deserted little mountain road, which led to a picturesque lake. As much as I enjoyed the atmosphere of the Tour, this was more my style of riding.
The game continued as I rented a car to visit friends near Annecy. The road would be closed a few days later for – you guessed it – the Tour de France. Wherever I went, it seemed like the Tour was breathing down my neck. I felt like a rider in a long break-away, desperately trying to stay ahead of the racing peloton.
Finally, I returned to Paris, and the Tour caught up with me, on its very last stage.
Early in the morning, I rode up the Champs Elysées. The Arc de Triomphe was bathed in the orange light of the sunrise. I tried to imagine Greg LeMond speeding past here as he eked out his 8-second victory in 1989. Already, barriers were being put in place, and TV trucks were positioning themselves for the evening’s race.
I spent the day riding with the club of Cycles Alex Singer. We cycled on narrow backroads that seemed incredibly far from the hustle and bustle of Paris. It was a wonderful ride…
When I returned to Paris in the afternoon, the Champs Elysées had been closed off completely. Police were patrolling the street. The sidewalks were crammed with spectators, even though the Tour would not arrive for another six hours!
Sidestreets were packed with police cars, hundreds of them. The mobilization for this big event was incredible.
I decided that I would come back that night and watch the final stage of the Tour. After a great dinner in a little restaurant, I return to the race course.
I decide to watch from a spot about 200 meters from the finish line. I arrive just in time to see the police motorbikes open the road for one of the last laps around the course.
Then come three riders who have broken away. They are going fast!
Then comes the peloton. On the very right, you can spot the yellow jersey. They go by in a huge blur. A few minutes pass, and they come around again. The break-away has been swallowed by the peloton.
At that point I realize that the Tour has caught up with me, too. Like the break-away, I have been overtaken by the speedy racers.
The spectators around me rush to a bistro, where a TV screen shows the finish. In a few seconds, it’s over. I’ll find out tomorrow who won the last stage.
Then come a few groups of riders who have been dropped in the mad dash to the finish. In a moving display of sportsmanship, the remaining spectators applaud these riders with more enthusiasm (and decibels) than they did the leaders.
Then comes the very last rider, followed by the broom wagon.
Then come the team cars which carry the spare bikes needed in case a rider has a mechanical problem. Then comes the tow truck that follows in case a team car has a mechanical problem.
And then it’s all over. The whole spectacle has lasted no more than 10 minutes.
As I ride back to my hotel, the full moon rises above the Ile de la Cité. The Tour de France now seems like a strange dream.
What remains real are my own rides and travels around France.
Photo credit: Griffe Photo (photo at top of post)