Le Tour !

Trip Start Aug 17, 2010
Trip End Sep 16, 2011

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Flag of France  , Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur,
Monday, July 18, 2011

After all of the cheap, nasty backpacker places we have stayed in, and dodgy international buses we have taken, we're spoiling ourselves for one week by joining a self-drive tour of the last week of the Tour de France !

Yes, Jim is realising one of his lifelong dreams – to see Le Tour; to sit by the side of the road and barrack for the riders climbing the Alps; to cheer the sprinters on at the stage finish. What an experience this is going to be.

As an added bonus, we get to explore the French countryside, sample the French cuisine, and get to stay in some lovely French country villages. Here we go !

Day 1 : Mon 18th July

The Monday is a rest day for Le Tour, and the day we pick-up the hire car from Lyon and drive out to our first stop in Saint Veran, a little mountain village nestled in the heart of the Alps. The drive is, let us say, somewhat challenging. Not only is Jim driving on the right-hand side of the road, he has to drive through some of the tightest, winding roads he has experienced. Add all of the touring cyclists trying out sections of the race course for themselves, and all of the traffic associated with Le Tour, and you have a potent mix indeed. Oh, and he has not been behind the wheel for a year !

Needless to say, the village of Saint Veran was a welcome sight indeed – and what a picturesque sight, mountains soaring up from a narrow green valley, with the obligatory stream cascading along its length. The Alps had earlier presented themselves as we drove towards Grenoble – blocking out the horizon with their towering presence, snow-capped peaks looming above – welcome to the real mountains. Wow.

We meet the other 3 couples also undertaking the self-drive tour – just by coincidence another Aussie couple from Melbourne ( Michael and Antoinette ) and two American couples ( Nathan and Christina; John and Jenni ). The international pairing helped break the ice as we each exchanged the gossip around our own turf, but it did not take long for the conversation to become all inclusive - the lads expounding Tour de France predications and the girls rolling their eyes at the "boys" enthusiasm for all things cycling. Many war stories about the drive up through the mountains were also told, but Michael & I reckoned that the Americans had it easy – at least they drive on the same side of the road as the French !

I am duty bound to mention our first country French dinner – traditional French onion soup ( including the cheese encrusted slice of bread floating on the top); Lauren had a wild duck carpaccio; entrecote beef casserole with dauphinoise potatoes with green beans for main; and finally chocolate fondue – Lauren took the crème brulee. Mmmm – welcome to France !

Day 2 : Tue 19th July

Today the race travels from Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Gap, so that’s where we are going to catch the excitement of a stage finish ! Up and out early, we reach Gap at the same time as torrential rain – which looks like it is here to stay. Rather than hide in the car, we decide to explore Gap in the hope we will find excitement and festival. Instead we find lots of wet people and officials trying to setup the finish in the rain. Lunch in a bakery sees off the rain, and we soggily head back out to stake our spot – 150m from the finish !

With the sun now out, and the afternoon wearing on, the excitement is starting to build, as are the crowds. Music starts playing from speakers, interspersed with animated race commentary ( in French of course – which just sounds so right for the Tour de France ! ). The sponsors start handing out advertising toys – foil streamers, hats, bandannas, lollies – providing a warm-up for the arrival of the….Caravan.

For those not acquainted with the Tour De France, it has to be explained that what started out as the sponsors driving ahead of the race has developed into a fully fledged event within Le Tour – The Caravan. Consisting of a cavalcade of ever-more exotic floats as the sponsors try to outdo each other, goodies are thrown out to the crowd, who scramble like mad to collect their prizes. It’s completely mad, and many of the floats leave you asking “why ?”

The Caravan passes by a couple of hours before the race – providing a welcome distraction for all the spectators, as you have to be in your spot about 4 hrs early – that’s a lot of waiting ! Here it comes, fronted by a giant cyclist in the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) - and we see a Smurf-float handing out blue lollies; a giant chicken atop a car; a float made of bread throwing out baked goods; Mickey-mouse makes an appearance handing out colouring books to the kids. Dotted crazy cookie cars weave all over the road, throwing almond biccies out at everyone. Its quite mad. And this goes on for about 45mins !

Time to get serious, the Caravan has gone, the sponsors handing out stuff have been swept off the road, and official looking traffic is passing by. The commentary is getting louder and more animated by the moment. A big bunch of Norwegians are chanting and waving their flags, getting excited, as their 2 riders ( Thor Hushovd & Edvald Boassonhave Hagen ) been winning stages, and it looks like another win is coming ! The crowd is reaching fever-pitch, never have we seen such emotion and passion in relation to cycling – it is comparable to an AFL finals match. There they are – a breakaway of 3 riders, up on the pedals, stamping their way to a sprint finish – they go past BANG; then a lone rider just off the pace; then - CADEL ! Yes, we see the great Australian hope for winning Le Tour, Cadel Evans, grimacing in that Cadel way, as he hammers home a finish ahead of the maillot jeune who is tucked in the peloton that comes racing past minutes later. Whooo – what an experience.

We barge our way through the crowd to see the podium presentations, craning our necks, and I saw why the Norweigians stayed so excited – Thor Hushovd did win the Stage, then I witnessed the yellow, green, polka dot and white jerseys being presented for that stage ! Excellent. What a first day, and now we feel we have had a real initiation to Le Tour !

Day 3 – 20th July

We awake to much improved weather, and head out early, for today we want to see the riders come over the top of the Cat 2 climb over Col de Montgenevere, on their way from Gap to Pinerolo in Italy. Our luck is in, as we score a park in the local golf-club, and with the car out of the way, we walk in to explore the village of Montgenever. A cute, little alpine skiing village, with many patisserie and boulangeries giving us the ability to put together a roadside picnic for lunch. We cast our “swedish” skiing eyes over the chairlifts and bare ski slopes, and agree solemnly that the skiing in the Alps looks to be not too bad at all.

The actual top of the Col is in the middle of the village itself, but we camp-out just down from the line, as it’s cramped with all the officials, and we want to enjoy the riders going past. We find ourselves beside another Aussie couple, and while away the hours swapping travel stories. Ah ha – time for the Caravan again – and here comes the craziness, not one whit abated from yesterday. In fact, being at an intermediate spot, the Caravan is more fun and the competition for goodies less. Jim is very excited to score a polka-dot hat from the Carre-Four ( supermarket chain ) float; Lauren has to make do with a sunglass wiper and a noise maker, but does up her popularity stakes with the kids around by giving away all the lollies she manages to catch !

Time to get serious again, and we find ourselves in the crowds drifting onto the roads – not as bad as you see on the TV, but still providing the one young gendarme a handful as he tries to keep everyone back. Here they are – a breakaway of 14 riders – hammering up the last meters to the top of the Col, intent looks on their faces – a long way to go yet ! The peloton is about 5 mins behind and they go past in a blur of colour; can’t see Cadel today, but spot his BMC team all in red and black in the middle of the peleton. One last rider by his team car, and Its all done for another day. Whew.
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Juliana Smith on

Wow! How exciting. I watched all this on TV (the start of most stages live, then sadly had to wait for highlights the next day to see the finish of the stage - live was too late for me!).

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