The Big Tour, continued (and concluded)

[Warning: long entry!]
Here’s the final trip report from France and le Tour… not sure why it’s taken me so long to wrap it up, blame it on “retirement”.

I left off in the Pyrenees, with the Belgians heading north while Andrea and I stayed put; trip 3 was really nice with no places we had to be, nothing in particular we had to do, and beautiful France all around. We did elect to stay in the same hotel one more night thinking that a ride on one of the climbs would be easy to arrange if we were still there. As it turned out we enjoyed a relaxing evening and then headed to Provence the next morning where we got a couple of great rides in.

A chance encounter in the hotel with Spike and Ann was really cool, a couple of folks we had met in Belgium in 2010 and whose company we enjoyed. Passionate about cycling, great people. It was funny to find out we had spent the night in the same little hotel without bumping into each other. We were to bump into them again later…

So off we went to Provence, with a hotel room booked in le Barroux for one night. We have been in that area on a number of trips and have stayed nearby, this was our first time staying there. I would certainly recommend the hotel we had (Les Geraniums) and the restaurant they have. We asked about vegetarian meals and they assured us that the chef would come up with a meal to delight… he succeeded.

Les Geraniums at Le Barroux

A three course meal, delicious

Andrea in Bedoin, one of the places to begin the climb up Ventoux

We had enough time there to get a ride in the first evening and then a longer morning ride before packing up. As this was our “vacation” we opted to ride around in the valley and enjoy the scenery rather than spend the entire time climbing up Mont Ventoux (we have both already climbed it so while it was tempting there was a little “been there, done that”). After the ride, we packed up and made our way through Nyons where we got on the next day’s race route. We followed it all the way to the finish in Gap, amazed at all the campers set up and waiting for le Tour to arrive. It’s something I hope to write about in some future entry after having done it myself. Perhaps that will be part of next year’s adventures…

Driving to Briancon

From Gap we went on to Briancon which would be featured in a couple of the following stages. This was our final night on our own and it was also our first opportunity to ride in the mountains without having the Tour limit what we could do. Andrea decided that Col de L’Izoard would make a great choice and it was certainly an easy climb to reach from Briancon. So we had a great evening in the old fortified village up the mountain where all the roads are either up or down. And then the next day we headed out to ride.

Col de L’Izoard

L’Izoard is about 15km long as it climbs toward Italy and we were attentive to the weather forecasts. The day before, some cyclo-tourists had been stranded on the Galibier because of snow. At the end of the day, it’s good that we were attentive. I opted to ride part way up while Andrea intended to climb to the top. Knowing she’s not excited about descending I said I would go back to get the Traffic and meet her at the top. I got close to 1/2 way up before it was time to turn back. And about then the weather started to turn too. I was fine on the way back, surprised by the 14+% grade as I headed through Briancon toward the hotel and the spot the Traffic was parked. Then the drive up… a little rain at first, then more. Colder, a nip of winter. At the top, I kept the Traffic running and by the time Andrea got in and changed the weather had changed too. Mid July. Snow. As we drove back down, the cyclists on the road were a sorry sight. Determined folks suffering their way up.

 Another drive along the Tour route… from France to Italy, almost to the Sestriere which was on the route the next day. The Tour would climb that same 14+% road out of Briancon that I had and seeing it on TV later was amazing. I know how hard that bit of pavement is to get up and I know it was an easy part of their day!

The whole time of this “trip #3” we were close to the race and didn’t spend any time actually following it. We drove the route when it wasn’t race day, we rode parts of the route when it wasn’t race day, we watched coverage when it wasn’t prime time. We were there and focused elsewhere (for those few days).

Savines Le Lac, one of many beautiful places along the way

Then… it was time to head to Italy and the hotel reserved for the tour group in Susa. We drove over the climb from France to Italy and turned left just before the climb up the Sestriere. Driving the route it was easy to know that when we had the opportunity a day later we would ride it. Around 40km, almost all downhill.

 We arrived in Susa before Wim and the bus full of customers who had signed up for the second Thomas Cook Sport trip (the Alps and Paris) so we strolled around a little and relaxed. When they did arrive (later than expected due to traffic in Grenoble) we all headed out to a nice little restaurant the hotel owner had recommended. This group was made up entirely of Flemish Belgians except for Andrea and me and so most of the conversation wasn’t going to be understood by us. Because of the size of the group they came in the bigger bus which meant they needed two drivers because of the length of the drive. The second driver took the train home the next day, his job done (Note: don’t try to buy a train ticket for someone else in Europe… I’m still not sure if that’s been sorted out). That left Wim & Rudi to drive the bus and the Traffic and my only responsibility now was taking photographs.

Day 1 of “Trip #4 “was a short drive to the race route for Stage 17 (Gap to Pinerolo) which went through Briancon and along the same road we had driven the day before. Then they climbed the Sestriere, which is where we headed to see the race. Andrea, Wim, Rudi and I all had our bikes loaded in the trailer and everyone was in the bus. We considered riding there from the hotel however it was a long climb to get to the Cat 1 climb so we took the bus and instead planned to ride back after.

Wim dropped us off, just in time to see Ann ride by and then knowing Spike was coming soon we got out and waited to say hi. It was great to see him out riding, and it was great to be out riding too!

Spike and Andrea on the Sestriere

 It was a beautiful day and the ride up was amazing… lots of people, lots of encouragement, lots of anticipation. After coming back down, I waited for Andrea at the spot we started at (knowing that some frites were the reward). Then it was down a little further to where the bus was parked and where there was an unexpected buzz happening… the girlfriend of Belgian star “VDB” (who had abandoned earlier in le Tour) was painting up a storm at the turn we were parked at. This was a preamble to the TV show that evening which was featured on Belgian TV.

Femke Herygers decorating the pavement

 Wim and Rudi had some time to ride too so we all headed up. Having gone up the slope already Andrea and I only rode a little way up, they went farther and totally enjoyed it. With good reason, it’s a great road, a great climb, on a great day.

Then the race came our way, we watched them come down the far slope into Italy and then saw the break begin the climb. Then the chase group, then the peloton, then the autobus. It was early in the climb and not near the stage finish so the race lead was wide open. After the race passed we went down the slope to the village below. Andrea and I waited around hoping to see Ann and Spike come back down… eventually we gave up and looked for our group in a bar watching the race finish on TV.

When the stage was done, everyone hopped into the bus. We got our wind jackets and started riding. It really was almost all downhill, very sweet! And it made the one small uphill section feel incredibly hard… I suspect it was that our muscles had gotten tight and stiff from not needing to do any work. The group had dinner on their own that night so we found a nearby restaurant and had a delicious pizza. Then an early night.

The next day had us heading to stage start in Pinerolo and then back to France to see how far up the Galibier we would be able to get. A group of young Belgians joined up with the group this day and they wanted to ride up the Galibier. Andrea was delighted to have some cycling company so off they went with Rudi driving them to Briancon. It was another bright and beautiful day, perfect for riding and taking photos. Pinerolo is a pretty town nestled at the foot of the mountains and they were very happy to have both a stage finish and a start.

Pinerolo, Italy
Pinerolo, Italy

After the start we drove back along the road to Briancon where Wim worked his magic and got us on the route. We made it well up the Lautaret, stopping with around 18KM to go to the top of the Galibier. Andrea was sitting at the side of the road a little below the 20KM to go sign so she hopped on her bike and rode up to see where we parked. As is often the case with mountain-top finishes there isn’t enough room at the top for all the team buses and media and fans so for this stage everything was stopped at the top of the Lautaret where it connected to the Galibier. Andrea (and everyone else who didn’t do it the day before) had been able to ride up that far and no further.

Look closely, there are team buses on that road
Even though he wasn’t still in polka-dots, Hoogerland was still a hero

We were ahead of the publicity caravan so there were lots of goodies being tossed our way when they did arrive. And when the cyclists arrived, it was Andy at the front doing a huge amount of work to try to get into yellow. You’ll find race photos in my Picasa gallery, I’ll add a shot of the beauty we got to admire while the racers were focused on the wheel in front of them…

The beauty of the French Alps

We stopped in at Briancon for dinner on the way back, the town was filled with the teams and their buses so we spent a little time admiring the dedication of the mechanics as well as the sweet bikes the racers use. This shot of the cassettes was one that caught my eye, others include the custom paint jobs the Pharma-Lotto team’s Canyon bikes have.

Pick a gear, any gear

Back to the hotel in Susa, a long drive over a winding mountain road in the dark made for a late night. And the next day would be a long drive too as we were headed for Alpe d’Huez.

The plan was to drive over the mountains to the race route before the start and then take a detour over the Col de la Croix de Fer and then down to a town next to d’Huez. This was meant to make the exit easier and for Andrea and I it meant a nice ride. We got dropped off at the top of the climb and had almost 25KM of descending to reach the bottom of the valley while the rest of the group drove to Oz en Oisans where they would take the gondola up and over to Alpe d’Huez. Of course, Oz en Oisans is a ski station… so once we finished that lovely descent (about 45 minutes to get down) we had a 9KM climb. D’Huez is “only” 13KM, it felt like we were riding up its steeper little neighbour. It took longer to go up that 9KM than it did to go down the 25. We did find the bus waiting for us and after we changed and cooled down for a minute Wim, Rudi, Andrea and I hopped in a gondola and headed to the race.

The iron Cross at the top

Col de la Croix de Fer

The idea of taking this route made a lot of sense, it takes hours to get down via the main road and then the traffic at the bottom is hellish. So we all went our separate ways with orders to meet back at the gondola after the race was done. It was an exciting stage (I think any stage on d’Huez is likely to be) and this was our third stage finish we have seen here. The spot we picked was about 500M from the finish just before the sharp left to the line. The crowds were huge and we had to defend out little space as latecomers were looking for any free space to squeeze into. Our spot was on some stairs so we wouldn’t have anyone in front of us and we were close to a TV where Andrea could go to get updates.

Contador was trying to redeem his tour with a stage win, however the youngster Rolland would have none of it. With his team captain Voeckler struggling and sure to lose the yellow jersey Rolland was set free to go for the win. When he came by it was clear he just had that little extra that the two Spaniards were lacking.

Camping on d’Huez

We wandered by the podium on our way back to the Gondola and I managed to get a few shots however the crowds were huge and so we just kept going. Once back to our appointed meeting spot, people were slowly trickling in so Wim suggested we all grab a bite to eat in a nearby restaurant while we waited for everyone.

Everyone showed up except one… the oldest member of the group. As it was getting late and the gondolas would stop running Wim had to make a quick decision, sending the group up over the mountain to where the bus was parked and then sending Rudi in the Traffic to drive back to the foot of d’Huez to start searching for him (a human needle in a haystack). Needless to say, it made for a long night. They did find him though and got him safely back to the hotel that night.


Next up was the time trial in Grenoble. We packed up all of our stuff as we were headed to a hotel near Paris after the stage and got off as early as we could (people were a little tired from the late night). At least with the ITT people would be close to the bus so we wouldn’t have a repeat of the previous day. The start and finish used the same stretch of road and Wim got us to a great spot within the final KM. We could see the racers starting, and then watch as they came in about an hour later. For the early racers Andrea and I wandered around a little, checking out the start area and the turn the racers made as the headed the final 100M to the finish. We had a start list so we knew when the racers we wanted to see would show up and I was able to get some great shots. When it came down to the final 10 riders to start, we were glued to our spot so we could see them well. The determination on their faces as the came by us early was impressive… you could see they all wanted to give it their best. The image I see most vividly is that of Evans’ face as he was coming in to finish. Fierce! None of the other riders looked as powerful or in complete control as he did. We knew his time was good, good enough to put him in the yellow jersey. Almost good enough to win the stage, a handful of seconds behind Martin.

The victor, finally

Then it was yet another long drive to the outskirts of Paris. We opted to ride with Rudi in the Traffic as he could make a little better time than the big bus. As the first to arrive, we checked in without problem and were looking forward to crawling into bed for a long sleep. When we opened the door to our room, it was clear we had woken whoever was already in that room! Quickly closing the door, we went back down to get it sorted out… I’ve never had that happen, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be the person in the room having their door opened!

At breakfast, the room filled up with people wearing polka-dot clothes… the entire Carrefour publicity caravan had spent the night there. Once everyone was up we loaded up the bus and headed to the final stage. It was a very short stage and started late so we didn’t need to rush. Wim dropped everyone off and then took us to our hotel (not far from the Pantheon and easy to get to). While the rest of the group went off to explore Paris, we four had a nice lunch and talked about how the trips had gone. There were lots of lessons learned, fine-tuning to be done for future trips, opportunities to provide even more access to the race. Overall though… it was very impressive and I would rate it a big success.

The final ceremonial stage in Paris

Now that’s a cup of coffee

We parted ways after lunch and it was liberating to know we were now totally on our own. We watched the race go by a little, however we didn’t stick around for long. Just long enough to see Evans in yellow. My job was done, trip 5 had begun, and we were going to enjoy our vacation in Paris. I’ve included a few photos in the Picasa Gallery…

I hope you’ve enjoyed this report. It’s taken a while to write and there were lots of little stories to tell along the way. I’ve left out quite a few, the two entries are quite long enough. If you want to hear more, I’ll be happy to spin a tale over a beer : )

Here’s a link to the full 2011 TdF gallery, I’ve added a few more photos as I put this entry together.

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