By Monika Blewett
Mention the Tour de France and responses generally include Lance Armstrong, stories of doping allegations, and, possibly, Floyd Landis. What most people are totally unaware of, even those who fervently watch every stage on TV for three weeks in July, is the immense event that is ‘The Tour’.
The Tour de France has been compared to a Super Bowl occurring every day for 21 days! There are the competitors and their support teams and vehicles, the officials and their cars and motorcycles (over 3000 vehicles), the members of the international press (over 2000 individuals), the event ‘stagers’ who must create/teardown/rebuild the start/finish area and winners’ podium every single day (dozens of 18 wheelers). And then there is The Caravan. Rarely is this part of the television coverage, but it’s the basis of the funding that creates this enormous event year after year since 1903.
The Caravan is a huge parade of sponsor’s vehicles. And what a parade it is—over 200 vehicles stretched out for 20km. Each vehicle is animated by a support crew on board, loud music and attached structures ranging from a team of life size horses, to a fleet of 15 foot high tires—each enveloping a small car to ‘roll’ them along. The Caravan rolls ahead of the racers each day for the three week race. It takes over 45 minutes to pass, much to the amusement of the millions of fans who watch from the roadside.
In 2006 I was one of those fans. However, I didn’t camp by the roadside for days, vying for a great viewing spot as tens of thousands do every day. I rode my bicycle.
With the help of the guys at Toronto-based Alpine Cycling Tours, my husband and I had the opportunity this past July to witness the spectacle that is the Tour de France the best way possible: riding the same route as the racers.
We were a group of twenty, plus two tour leaders and two support drivers. We met once before arriving in France, at a BBQ and ‘shakedown’ ride hosted by the organizers in June. That motivated me to continue the training I had been doing since April, following Chris Carmichael’s program.
I was quite humbled by the ability of the other cyclists. There were only five female riders. I expected to be the oldest but I was unsure of how I would fit in with a professional personal trainer, an Ironman competitor, and a very fit young physiotherapist.
We were greeted in France by a record breaking heat wave with temperatures reaching the low 40’s. I enjoy riding in the heat but did not really need the additional challenges it presented. Adequate hydration became another priority. Once we had our bikes unpacked and built up, we were all anxious to ‘get into the saddle’.
The French countryside is a wonderful area to ride: not only are the drivers courteous but the roads are smooth pavement. However, they are mostly one vehicle wide so we did need to stay alert! On the flatter stages, we usually stayed together as a group, with the stronger riders taking turns ‘pulling’ at the front.
Most of our riding was in the Alps and Pyrenees mountains as we joined the Tour for the last 2 weeks with the goal of riding some of the most challenging mountains in the race, called the ‘classics’.
One of the toughest climbs is Mont Ventoux, the ‘Giant of Provence’. Although it is only a 26 km. climb, it is steep and unrelenting (no flat sections). We had been warned not to underestimate the difficulty of this climb as it starts out amongst gently rolling vineyards. Then it quickly tips up and enters a scenic pine forest which offered some welcome shade. Everyone climbs at their own pace and I had formulated my own ride plan.. My goal was to reach the summit with no stops, so I carried 2 water bottles and 2 power bars. Little did I know that the steepness of the climb made it all but impossible to take my hand off the handlebar for anything but a quick sip of water.
The last 6 km of the Ventoux are known as the ‘moonscape’. Upon emerging from the forest, there is not a single tree to be seen for the last 6 switchbacks. And the finishing grade is over 15 per cent! There is a shrine to Tom Simpson at the side of the road where he died when competing in the Tour in 1965. It took me 3 hours to complete this one non-stop. My husband did much better at just over 2 hours. Of course the trip back down was the most fun and took only half an hour at speeds up to 68 kph.
The climb that we were all looking forward to was next: the Alpe d’Huez where Lance had won a decisive victory in 2004. I had climbed it 10 years ago but this time it was on the race route so I was totally unprepared for all the spectators camped by the side of the road in all sorts of tents and vehicles. Most of them have been there for days to get the prime viewing spots. The road, just two lanes wide, is a mountain access so there is very little ‘shoulder’. On the left is a sheer rock face, and on the right, a foot high curb that passes for a guard rail!
The Alpe is famous for the 21 switchbacks that lead to the summit at 1850m with grades of 8 to 10 per cent. I made one quick stop as I was running out of water in the extreme heat.
Most of the campers had been partying for some time and they were very supportive and shouting encouragement all the way. We were told of two fresh water springs right on the route so I refilled my second water bottle at the side of the road. While climbing I turned down offers of cold beer and water showers (spectators stand at the side with hoses connected to plastic water containers)!
We were the only tour group lucky enough to be staying in a hotel right at the top in the village that is really a ski resort. The rooms are always snapped up by the racers and the media as there is only one road, so everyone must stay until after the race is over and the roads are opened again. The race leaders are often picked up by helicopter and taken to the start of the next day’s stage.
We watched the race go by from our balcony. Wow! The Tour always finishes on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Our own tour was no exception. Our hotel was only a block from the Arc de Triomphe that all the racers long to see. It is the symbol that means their 3 week ‘ordeal’ is finally over. For us, it was a glorious end to an amazing vacation.
|Photos courtesy of John Connors
Alpine Cycling Tours
Monika Blewett enjoys sharing her passion and enthusiasm for cycling. She has raced both mountain and road bikes, competed in time trials and 12 and 24 hour relays. Monika is a Certified Cycling Coach with the Canadian Cycling Association and a technical mountain bike instructor with the Ontario Cycling Association.
Ride Outside was started by Monika to encourage cyclists of all ages to embrace the sport and enjoy riding outdoors on scenic paved roads, trails or singletrack.
Check out Monika’s new web site at: www.rideoutside.ca