The flutter of helicopters gets closer and louder. People edge toward the road. Team cars and photographers on motorbikes speed by. Tens of thousands of eyes look back and forth between the huge-screen television and the narrow mountain road, anticipating the first rider. The crowd erupts as adored Frenchman Richard Virenque pedals past. American Lance Armstrong is not far behind, in the race leader's yellow jersey, gaining ground. Soon more than 150 cyclists of the Tour de France struggle by us up Mont Ventoux.
The excitement had been building all day with music, dancing and freebies, and amateur cyclists making their way up the "Giant of Provence." Most of the spectators had biked there, stopping about four miles before the mountaintop finish. The carnival atmosphere was reward for their tired thighs and thirsty spirits.
This was the Tour de France -- live -- last summer.
With last month's announcement of the route for the 2003 Tour de France (see box, E6), now's the time to plan a trip to see the 100th anniversary of the race, July 5-27, as well as Armstrong's expected attempt at a record-tying fifth straight win. The three-week race is the most famous cycling event in the world, drawing 12 million to 15 million fans as it covers more than 2,000 miles in daily stages that can exceed 150 miles.
My husband, Jim, and I wanted to be there last summer, not only to see the colorfully clad peloton (pack) whiz past our cheering selves but to ride our bikes on the same storied roads we had seen on television.
Our planning began around the first of the year, when we booked a tour with a British company that caters to cyclists who want to follow the race. While Jim is an avid cyclist, I had to do some extra riding to prepare.
We considered going on our own, but the logistics were daunting -- renting a car, plotting a route, figuring out when we should drive and when we could ride our bikes. It can also be difficult to find hotel rooms along the route, especially near the start and finish of each day's stage. There are 21 teams with a total of 189 riders that start the race, and when you add staff, sponsors, officials and journalists, more than 4,000 people travel with the Tour.
The first week of the race is mostly flat, and the riders tend to stay in the peloton and fly by at high speeds. Amid the peaks of the Alps or Pyrenees, the riders split up more and go slower, so it's easier to get a gander at their huge thighs and sweating, agonized faces. The last week is a popular time to go, not only to see the Paris finish but to view the final mountain stages and time trial, where the race can be won or lost.
Because "La Grande Boucle" ("The Great Loop") ran counterclockwise this year (it alternates annually), we decided on a trip through the Alps and to Paris during the final week, from Mont Ventoux to the Champs-Elysees. We traveled on a coach with our bikes in a trailer in back, staying in two- and three-star hotels where breakfast and dinner were included -- as well as maps with highlighted cycling options. We could also take the bus daily to see the race.
We put our trust in our guide, Dudley Hayton, a former professional racer who has been to the Tour about 20 times.
"You've got to know where you're going and you've got to know a lot about it," he said. "It's not easy."
Luckily, we weren't on our own.
We met up with our tour at a Paris hotel on a Friday morning and had 24 hours to play in the city before boarding the bus Saturday morning and spending the entire day traveling to the town of Montelimar in southern France. The first day on our bikes was Stage 14, to Mont Ventoux. We were bused from our hotel to the town of Malaucene, about five miles from the start of the climb. There wasn't much room on the side of the road, so we had to scurry to unpack our bikes.
Once we were on our way, the euphoria of actually riding in France swept over us. We rode through a forested, hilly area before the trees cleared and we were cycling past vineyards and fruit trees. Mont Ventoux loomed in the distance. A number of cyclists were on the road, greeting each other with bonjours -- spirits were high.
In general, our cohorts on the trip were serious cyclists (most of the men had shaved legs -- a racing trait). Alex Fabbro and her husband, Dave Thompson, came from Mammoth Lakes, Calif., to see the Tour for the first time. Fabbro is a national champion in the 24-hour mountain biking relay with Velo Bella, an all-female racing team. There were other folks who were more like me, so Jim and I had the opportunity to ride with others of similar abilities.
Soon we reached the actual Tour de France route. It's officially closed to vehicles, but more than 500 race-related exceptions share the road with cyclists. Every inch of the winding country road was lined with cars and people, many calling out encouragement to the hordes of panting bikers trying their luck. Spectators sold food and drinks from campers and vans that had arrived days earlier in anticipation. People wore crazy hats and colorful flags of their countries. Many men had painted their bare chests. It reminded us of a Grateful Dead concert.
Dudley had warned us that the race route would be patrolled by gendarmes trying to keep order amid chaos. So we, and everyone else on two wheels, would ride about 1,000 feet, get ordered by a weary gendarme to dismount, walk past him and then continue riding up. (We weren't sure whether they actually wanted us to stay off our bikes.) It was slow going, but the rests were welcome on the steep climb.
Suddenly we were above the tree line, at a wide place in the road called Chalet Reynard -- as far as we were allowed to go, since the gendarmes had closed the summit. Cyclists covered the hillside overlooking the race route, where soon arrived the Publicity Caravan, an advertising parade with sponsors' crazy vehicles blasting music and ferrying comely young lads and lasses who lob trinkets to the crowds.
Cycling is a difficult sport to watch in person, since you can't see the whole race, so organizers and sponsors maintain a festival of activity at key locations. Experiencing the race the way the locals do is much different from following the sport on TV at home.
A few days later, on the lower slopes of La Plagne, the gendarmes were far more determined to keep cyclists off their bikes, sternly threatening us with jail time if we continued riding. So we rested our bikes next to the road and camped out about a mile into the climb for the show.
A fellow in a van nearby had a television tuned to the tour, so we could keep tabs on the riders' approach. But the real show was the Publicity Caravan, known to our tour group as the "schwag wagons." On Mont Ventoux, among untold throngs, we could barely see the caravan, never mind catch goodies. But here, with some elbow room, we raked in the loot and had a blast. Hats, candy, comic books, cheese, magazines, key chains, a deck of cards, temporary tattoos, pens and a shoulder bag to carry it all. Really a tremendous amount of excitement for a pile of worthless crap.
After the leaders zoomed past, most people in the area crowded around the TV to watch the finish, some six miles up the mountain. This was one of the indelible scenes from our trip: 25 or so strangers huddled around a static-riddled 10-inch TV, babbling at one another indiscriminately in French and English.
When we returned to our bikes, we found a sweat-soaked Belgian Lotto team cap that one of their riders must have tossed. More swag!
For the rest of the trip, our rides were much less hilly. One day we joined up with Dudley and a couple of fellow cyclists for a beautiful, rolling, 25 mile-ride through Albertville to Beaufort, a small Alpine village decked out in flowers and known for its sharp, hard cheese. We sipped drinks at a sidewalk cafe, then napped on a stream bank next to the route. After the caravan rolled by (more loot, including a miniature ice cream cone), the riders roared through. They had a good two hours in the saddle ahead of them, so we rode back to the hotel to watch the finish on TV.
The day of the final time trial was our last of seven days to ride. The rolling, rural terrain from the hotel in Villars-les-Dombes to Macon in Burgundy was just what I had pictured from my years watching the Tour on TV: villages with 12th-century churches and clustered stone houses, sycamore-lined byways and fields of sunflowers.
We lunched at a riverside cafe, keeping an eye on the racers' progress on TV, before positioning ourselves at the "1k-to-go" banner. We stood right against the barriers to watch the last few racers -- including Armstrong, who won the stage -- speed past about a foot away. It's typically difficult to get near the actual finish line because of crowds, officials and sponsor grandstands.
The climax of the crowds -- no surprise -- is in Paris for the finish on the Champs-Elysees. The only place from where we could get a clear view was along the Seine, far from the excitement along the cobblestones, near the finish.
After the race ended, we headed over to the Champs-Elysees for the Lap of Honor, when all the teams ride around together and wave. Since there were still big crowds, a helpful Frenchman on a ladder (there were many along the sidewalk) took some pictures with my camera.
At first it was disappointing not to see the cyclists cross a finish line: We realized we'd had a better race vantage from our living room couch. But sharing with other strangers in a roadside frenzy, in addition to the excitement of anticipating the riders' arrival, made it worth it.
The trip was not only about seeing Lance Armstrong win again. Nor was it just about seeing the beloved French rider Laurent Jalabert and screaming "Jaja" as he pedaled by. It was about riding up famous mountains while being cheered on by locals lunching on the side of the road. It was about riding past vineyards and lavender fields. It was about succumbing to the French countryside, without regard for aching thighs.