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2013 trip to Tour de France

on Fri, 07/26/2013 - 15:45

This year was the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France. Assuming you know me a bit, you know I'm a cycling guy - both a rider and a fan of the pro sport. This, therefore, was an event I somehow needed to be part of. So late last year, I signed up to ride the Alps alongside the Tour, and then go to Paris to watch the finish. My very wonderful wife gamely said she would ride with me - though I could tell she had some trepidations. Here's a few reflections from the trip. (Shortcut: Skip to Flickr photo set.)

First, a free, unsolicited endorsement: If you ever want to go ride a great, riding-oriented cycling trip in France like this one, use Thomson Bike Tours. It's a really well-run operation with rides oriented towards serious cyclists. This isn't a wine-and-cheese ride; you're going to ride some tough days. You're not there to stay in luxury; you'll be in 2 or 3 star hotels that give you a clean bed & shower, but not much fanfare. Breakfast & dinner are included, and you get lunch on the road. Great staff, and they know their way around, and do an extremely good job. I give them a no-holds-barred endorsement - for that kind of (performance-oriented) trip.

Thomson tour pickup

The Thompson folks picked us up at the Lyon Airport and whisked us to Les Deux Alpes, where we assembled bikes, and did our "checkout ride". Yeah, just a wee little 17 miles, but straight down - then straight back up - 1,500' of elevation. For you riders, that's an 8 mile climb at an average around 7% grade, after doing no real warm-up other than a downhill coast of about the same distance. For the "short, checkout ride."

Welcome to the Alps.

Sadly my Garmin bike computer didn't catch that day's data; uploading ride routes into it pre-trip seemed to put it on the fritz, and I didn't check it out before the ride started. So, lesson one: If you want to capture ride data, make sure you check your Garmin out well BEFORE the ride starts rolling (as in "not 2 minutes before…"). Happily, I got it working that night, and got the rest of the tour's data.

Over the remainder of the days, we climbed many of the famous climbs (link to PDF) ridden by the pro teams - many on the same days as the pros were riding them on the tour. In my book, the toughest of the week isn't the most famous.

On Wednesday, we climbed Col de la Croix de Fer.  This nasty climb is really freaking relentless because it hits you hard three times, but teases you with little respite in between each. It starts with about 8 kilometers that averages something like 9% grade. But as we heard often throughout the week, "average" neglects to tell you that there are steep bits next to the less-steep stuff, and those steep bits hurt. A 10% average section might have some 14% grades for a few hundred meters, backing off to "only" a 7% grade for a while. Throughout the week, I've never been happier to see those 7% "respite" grades! Normally here in Boston, I'll sputter & curse at a measly 5% grade. Boy, how context changes your attitude!

Halfway up l'Alpe d'HuezHappily, on the Croix de Fer and other famous climbs (like l'Alpe d'Huez shown here), the payoff is amazing. You see stunning vistas, and feel fantastic for having accomplished a hard thing that most people on the planet won't have done. Plus, many of the climbs have lots of cycling-oriented "stuff". Like the percentage of the climb you've completed painted on the road. Or signs marking the numbered corners of L'Alpe d'Huez where pro cyclists have launched winning attacks in years past. And markers at the summit where you can take your photo to prove you've been there.

Plus, it's totally fun that there are a TON of cyclists on the road. This is an area of France where people come to ride bikes. Happily, it seemed all the car drivers there were wonderfully good at navigating these narrow roads while clogged with cyclists, with nary a foul word or gesture exchanged. (It was great to see motorists & cyclists living together peacefully on the road - a none-too-frequent situation, I'm afraid.) And narrow roads - with precipitous drop-offs - were quite abundant. The French seem perfectly happy to carve a road out of the side of a cliff, connecting little clusters of homes. Not a very inexpensive proposition, and not done in a way that our conservative road builders here in the U.S. would do it. But the results speak (well) for themselves in France: They provide amazing vistas to enjoy.

I'm not the thinnest cyclist on the pavement, so I often was passed on climbs frequently by young, lightweight riders who are ascending machines. And that could be a tad frustrating to me at times. But truthfully, there were so many types of cyclists on the roads that I really did feel at home amongst other people who, too, were accomplishing something big in their lives.

That was another nice thing about the Thomson tour organization. They had five (5!) separate tour groups going (with I suspect an average of 30 people in each group, but handling it with error-free aplomb), each with different difficulty levels & locations. Within each group, the riders grouped themselves into A, B and C levels. So over the course of the week, we got to know the people in our group well, as we labored alongside them for hours on climbs. We met a wonderful couple, recently retired from lawyering in Alaska, and on an extended (many-month) cycling holiday. There was another truly nice couple from South Africa, an emergency room doc and his daughter (who were both REALLY good riders), and essentially a great collection of people, and of whom we'd love to keep in touch with.

If for no other reason than sharing this feeling of extraordinary accomplishment with new friends, I recommend this kind of trip be on your "bucket list."

We rode Monday - Wednesday away from the Tour, and mostly missed the live action in the race, learning of the day's results only when we got back to our hotel and checked the Internet. Thursday - Saturday, we rode the same routes as the pros did, only hours before they did, and stopped at the tops of the mountains to wait for the race to come by. Thomson bike tours provided big tents with food & drinks, plus satellite TV for us to watch the race approaching the summit. When the race came by, we all ran from the tents and crowded along the road to create the human-tunnel you may have seen in the TV coverage of the Tour.

On Saturday, when we were at the finishing climb on Semnoz, I jumped out and gave one of my team favorites (Tejay van Garderen) a push for 10-15 feet as he raced up the hill - sadly, out of contention for the day, and the tour. But this is what's great about pro cycling vs. other big-money sports: fans are close to the competitors to actually physically nudge them towards their goal. The pros take this as it comes; it's just part of the sport. It's mostly harmless - though there have definitely been fans who have recently taken this a bit too far and carelessly interfered with racer's climbs. I did my best to NOT affect the race (I think successfully), but was happy to have participated in the time-honored tradition of "the push."

We were also fortunate enough to be able to get tickets to the grandstands along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris to see the final stage of the tour. Historically, the overall winner (the rider with the lowest total time) will have been determined by this day, and there isn't a practical way for competitors to change the overall winner. So the bulk of that stage is a bit of parade. But it's always a show for the spectators on the Champs. The Boulevard is fully decked out, and the peleton will put on a good show. Racing up and down the Champs 10 times, stage-win hopefuls surge off the front for laps, only to (inevitably) get swallowed up by a charging pack during the final lapThe speedster sprinters putting on an inhuman surge of speed to try to cross the finish line at over 40mph. It's all an wonderful pageant, and something France can be proud of. And I'm thrilled to have seen in-person.

We took tons of photos. I'm sure you won't want to look at all of them. But there are a few in a set on Flickr. I hope they give you a flavor of what we experienced.

Oh, and I can't say enough thanks to my enduring, and wonderful wife, who gamely trained, and rode difficult stuff in support of her husband's bucket-list checkoff.


luc frenette's picture

Excellent blog about the tdf . Nice pictures also

I will never forget how difficult those climbs are.... We were climbing for hours ...   ;(

The descent were spectaculars 

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