Vive Lance!!!

Trip Start Jun 13, 2004
Trip End Dec 15, 2004

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Flag of France  ,
Saturday, August 21, 2004

Hello again travel fans. First I must apologize for the delay between postings, but we have been attacking South Africa like a crocodile bringing down one of those cute 4 legged impalas and have had little time to post a report. Of course SA is another days posting...

Returning to France - After some hiking for several days in the beautiful French Alps we decided it was time to join up with Le Tour and see Lance challenging the best cyclist in the world and hopefully cycling into history by winning a 6th consecutive Tour de France (breaking the recored held by a famous French cyclist) in some of France's most beautiful scenery. We were excited to hear he had captured the Maillot Jaune (Yellow Jersey for the leader of the race) the day before and looked to use the mountains to his advantage. In our usual willy-nilly fashion (ok this applies more to me than Amy) we looked at the tour route and found a decent sized city in good proximity to a few stages, the town of Grenoble. Unfortunately due to delayed trains and traveler confusion we did not arrive into Grenoble until 6 PM. Realizing that days stage was long over we set out to find a room and figured we would then figure out how we would get to Alpe d'Huez(the next days stage) later.

On my way out of the train station I was not confronted by any hotel wranglers so I proceede to pop out my handy-dandy Lonely Planet guide to find an inexpensive hotel in the area and off we went. Within exactly one block of leaving the train stations, a severely distraught British couple approached us and asked if we had made hotel reservations. Regular readers of this site of course know that I believe reservations are a foolish waste of time. In this case I learned I was dead wrong when the British couple frantically said they had been looking for a hotel for 5 hours and had come up empty. Furthermore the nearest available rooms were in Lyon which is at least 150 km away. I absorbed this information with some alarm but maintained a stoic look and said I am sure we will find something. After all the Cress non-reservation had been so flawless. As I walked away I remeber thinking "silly paniced British tourists" and they were probably thinking "idiotic overconfident American tourist".

As darkness approached, the plan of attack became to leave Amy at a cafe while I expertly found what the British could not with there thorough all day search. As I approached the first hotel I learned a new French word, "complet" which was posted on the door and clearly meant "full". No problem off to the next...and the next. All of the first couple of doors had the same sign. As I started thinking about how Amy might react to my suggestion that sleeping on a park bench might not be so bad I found a hotel door without the familiar sign. As the owner buzzed me in I saw that he was on the phone but also saw my least favorite French word on the reception counter. Frustrated I prepared to walk out but then the owner gestured for me to wait. As he got off the phone another group walked in (exacly 60 seconds after me) and he informed them that he was indeed full. However when I asked in expert French if he had any rooms he started looking through his books and then quoted me a reasonable price. I then in broken French explained that I was off to get ma femme at the cafe and would be right back. I was so thrilled that I ran up to Amy and yelled "Let's go we got a room". In fact we got the last room for 150 km because I just happened to show up at the right place and I believe the call the owner was taking must have been a cancellation. If only I could have such luck at the casino.

The following morning we woke up quite early to set out for the Alpe de Huez time trial which was about 50 km away. Fortuntely Grenoble was quite prepared and had many city buses taking people to the area where the tour was and after quick consultation we decided the finish was the place to be so we took a cable car to the top of the mountain. Even though the first rider did not start until 2 PM and we arrived at 11 AM the place was absolutlely mobbed for the big time trial that would decide the fate of the Tour. It was amazingly clear that despite Lance's appearance being 6+ hours away most of the good spots were taken but we were determined to be near the finish line. We found a small hill that provided a good look down onto the last 25 meters. The top of the hill was fully scoped out but we manged to find a space on the side of the hill and were able to dig in. We kept slipping down the hill throughout the day only to dig our heels in again. We slipped and scratched and got baked by the sun for 6 hours but we never stopped smiling, we were realizing our dream of seeing the most historic Tour de France ever.

This stage at the Alpe d'Huez is different than most stages because each rider starts by himself with 90 seconds between starts and gets and individual time. With over 170 riders the stage takes quite a while but gives viewers the opportunity to watch for more than the 60 seconds that it takes for all the riders to pass on a normal stage. The other unique thing is that this stage in just one long grueling climb of endless switchbacks from the bottom of the mountain to the top 15 km later.

The Tour is more than just a race it has a massive following and is much like a carnival. One striking aspect of the tour is how many of the tourists are on biking tours so that they are actually following the tour on their own bikes and are actually getting the opportunity to do some of the same stages as the pros either before or after the riders do. The other amazing thing was the staggering number of Americans that were present for this historic race and the opportunity to cheer on Lance. This is in stark contrast to most other places we have been to where Americans are few and far between.

Every stage of the tour starts with a massive procession of funny looking cars that advertise the various sponsors. From cans of cheese, to shopping carts this is like a fast moving Macy's parade with a distinctly French carnival twist.

At 2 PM the riders finally started with the last place riders starting first and everyone counting the hours and minutes to see Lance and his rivals. In addition to being able to see the finish we could also here the commentary (barely helpful since it was in speed French) but more useful we could see the jumbotron screen showing the various riders. When the jumbotron showed Lance finally moving into the starting block the crow erupted with incredible energy despite many having waited 12 hours or more for this moment. Lance's two chief rivals were Jans Ullrich of Germany and Ivan Basso of Italy who started 3 and 1.5 minutes ahead of Lance respectively. When Lance started the crowd went wild but then it was a waiting game to see how he would fair in the torturous climb that requires 40 minutes of total exertion by the riders. As the stage progressed we knew the announcer were getting excited but at first could not understand what was happening. Finally one of the Americans yelled Lance is catching Basso, Lance is catching Basso (meaning he was going to lap him despite Basso's 90 second head start). Again the crowd erupted led by the boisterous Texans and clearly not joined by many of the European onlookers. As we watched on the big screen Lance did indeed shoot by Basso and raced for the finish where we were. As he came streaking by I did my best to snap off a good photo and scream my brains out. Lance ended up beating the next best time by over 2 minutes and virtually sealing his victory in the Tour.

Seconds after he crossed the line we were streaking down our little hill to beat the throng of people to the victory area. We got ther quickly and were well postioned to see Lance be awarded the Maillot Jaune and the trophy for winning the stage

After the exhausting day watching the stage we decided to spend some more time in Grenoble and let the Tour move on without us. Grenoble is a nice medium sized city with great restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. We watched the Tour on the TV for the next few days and were relieved to see Lance win additional stages and further pad his lead.

After Grenoble it was on to Paris to see the final stage and the procession along the Chmps Elysees. In an act of extreme kindness, my sailing friend Frederique let us use her apartment even though she was on holiday. It was in a terrific neighborhood with lots of nightlife and gave us the opportunity to rest and even have a few homecooked meals. When it came time for the final tour stage we were met by Frederique's friend Bill who had relocated to France from the US and had helped by giving us the keys to her apartment. When we scoped out the race route we knew the Champs Elysees was the place to be and based on our prior experience we knew we had to get up early to get a good spot. We talked it over and decided a 6 AM wake up call was necessary to get a prime position (even though the racers were not expected until 4 PM). As we rushed to get ready and onto the Paris subway I suddenly worried that we would not get a spot on the rail and might have to look over someones shoulder to see. As we bounded up the stairs from the subway I waas met with a sight that I did not anticipate. As I looked up and down the Champs Elysees in all directions there was absolutely nobody save a few drunks who were on there way home from partyin all night. Despite my fatigue I had a good laugh and found a perfect stpot along the rail from which to watch and even hung out with a few equally eager Texans who also felt it necessary to be early. Throughout the day we played card games, met lots of cool people from the US and took turns eading to the internet cafe. When the racers did finally arrive there were 3 cyclits that had bronken away and the rest were packed in a tight group known as the Peloton. From our perfect position we were able to the riders streaking by 12 times as they did their laps on the Champs Elysees. Lance was easy to spot with his Yellow Jersey and was surrounded by his US postal teamates who were protecting hims since only a calamity could prevent his vistory. All the spectators relished the sight of over 180 cyclists flying by in this time honored tradition and when it all ended Lance had made history.
As I mentioned before, some of the Europeans were unhappy and implied that his dominance must be attributed to drugs. We did not let it spoil our mood as we knew it was just sour grapes.

After the race all the riders went around in a final procession with the victorious Lance and his team recieving the honor of being last around. As I watched him complete his vistory lap and saw many American flags waving I was very proud to have been there and proud to have grown up in the same Country as this amazing man who fisrt beat cancer and then beat cancer and then became the best cyclist in history. A remarkable man and a remarkable day...

The rest of our days in Paris we did the usual things like visting the Louvre, seeing the incredible Cathedral at Chartres and visiting the grandiose Versailles. Speaking of the Louvre I am always dumbfounded by the behavior of the average tourist who runs by countless paintings to get to the Mona Lisa so they can snap a picture and then look at it when they get home. This "check the box" method of touring focuses more on being able to tell your friends you did something than actually taking a moment to truly experience something and reflect on its meaning. Anyway I could go on for a while on this topic but I will spare you the rant at least for now.

After spending a wonderful time in Paris we hopped a train and headed to Normandy. Based on recommendation we stayed in Bayeux which is near to all the beaches. Normandy is of course the sight of the massive allied invasion on June 6, 1944 but is also the home to wonderful food and incredibly nice people. After all the amazing French food and wine we had been having we decided we would tour the beaches on bicycles to get some exercise. It was tougher going than we expected as the strong winds, hillier than expected terrain and swarms of minute gnat-like bugs which covered us as we road through the rolling farm country. Still we pressed on and visited a number of the sites including a large German battery site and the American cemetery. Many will remember the rows of crosses from the beginning of the movie of Saving Private Ryan but no camera can do justice to the vast scale of the American Cemetery in Normandy. As we walked through I was flooded with so many emotions, and found myself tearing up as I stared off into the endless sea of crosses and thought about what my grandfather's generation had endured. It was hard knowing each of the 10,000 crosses representing a young man, mostly aged 22 or younger who died for his country. It was a stirring and moving day in learning how so many sacrificed everything in the name of freedom. The loss of so many young men also reminded me that if at all possible we need to find ways to avoid war or face the need to build more large fields with crosses bearing the names of our best young men and women.

After the cemetery we visited Omaha Beach which was the sight of the toughest landing for the Allies. As I stood atop a high bluff with a perfect view of the beach knowing the Germans were well armed with machine guns and massive amounts of artillery it is amazing the invasion succeeded and those men were able to move forward through that hell. The other impression I had was of the absolute terror the German soldiers also must have had as they awakened to see thousands of ships and planes lobbing shells that created craters (many still visible today)big enough to hold school buses at them and then landed thousands of men.

The other thing I have also learned to appreciate is the role of the many other nationalities which took part including the British, Canadian, French, and of course German had enormous roles in the outcome of events. As Americans we sometimes focus almost exclusively on our role in this historic battle.

While in Normandy I also had the wonderful occasion to celebrate the birthday of my fantabulous wife. She picked out some nice dresses in Paris and then we had an amazing dinner at one of Bayeux's best restaurants.

Well despite the extreme wordiness of this entry there is still much I am leaving out. Coming up next...South Africa.

A bientot (until next time)!
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