Performance Tour du Jour: Watching the Tour de France

We thought that we would wrap up our Tour du Jour recaps with a series of posts about our experiences watching the last 4 stages of the 2011 Tour de France. Seeing the Tour in person is truly an experience every cyclist should do at least once, but hopefully our posts will give you an idea of what it’s like to see this crazy rolling sideshow live! To see more pictures from each day of our trip, check out the Tour du Jour photo albums on our Facebook page.

Stage 18 – Pinerolo to Galibier Serre-Chevalier

Since the climactic Galibier climb of Stage 18 was about 25 miles away from our hotel on Alpe d’Huez, we had the perfect opportunity for a great ride before we watched the pros rocket up the road. Our Europeds tour group was up early to beat the road closures – closed roads and diverted traffic are a fact of life when the Tour is in town. You never really know when the gendarmes will close the roads to traffic, sometimes even including bikes! Our ride began with a little known gem of a ride off of Alpe d’Huez, the Col de Sarenne – an amazing winding road that plummets off of the back of Alpe d’Huez, and conveniently enough serves as a shortcut to the Col du Galibier.

Once we regained a main road, it was pretty clear that we were headed in the right direction. As you get closer to the route of the Tour, you become part of a gigantic and unofficial gran fondo ride! The road is clogged with riders of all ages and abilities, and you find yourself hopping from group to group, tucking in to different pacelines as you go.  As we neared the Galibier, we were pleasantly surprised to find that our guides Charly and Brad had managed to sneak our support vans up ahead, to lay out this sumptuous spread to refuel us before our day of watching the Tour.

Once we finally intersected with the race route, all thoughts of riding were over – the gendarmes let you know that it was time to lock up our bikes and walk the rest of the way. As you can see, it gets awfully crowded as you near the end of the stage route. But, in reality, if you make your way past the big crowded areas (usually near the big screen TVs), it was never a problem to find a perfectly nice spot to watch the Tour pass by.

We staked out a spot on a bend in the road up the Galibier, and settled in to wait for the race to come to us. If you’ve only watched the Tour in the US, you don’t always think that the stages usually finish around 5PM in France – since we had started our ride early that morning, we had quite a few hours to wait for the race. But there is always a cafe nearby, and the people-watching is usually an excellent diversion as well!

One sure sign that he Tour is only an hour or so away is the arrival of the famous publicity caravan. Passing over the entire route of the Tour ahead of the racers, the caravan is a winding parade of crazy sponsored cars (literally miles long), blaring terrible music and throwing cheap gifts into the crowd. Somehow when they pass everyone turns into a little kid once again, and yells and screams for the chance to grab a free keychain or awful hat!

Once the caravan passes by, you know that the real race is getting near. Then everyone waits for the appearance of the TV helicopters, which swarm above the leaders like angry bees. Looking down the mountain, we saw the choppers swing into view first, then, just barely, we could make out a tiny line of riders headed our way. The excitement builds in the crowd, and the noise level climbs in tandem. Everyone starts to edge farther into the road to get a better look, forming that crazy closed-in pathway that you see on TV (where you wonder how he riders will ever find a path – it really does happen quite naturally when you are there). Then the lead motorcycles come roaring through, and suddenly the race is upon you! As you scream and yell despite yourself, the racers flash by, only inches away from you, in groups of 2 or 5 or 10 – some looking confident, others seeming downright despondent.

And just like that, your day of watching the Tour is over! Everyone starts packing up and heading down the mountain, only parting to let the stragglers in the “autobus” group (made up of sprinters and other domestiques who don’t contest the high mountains) pass by in their business-like fashion. The ride back to our hotel was quite an adventure though, as suddenly the roads were clogged with thousands of walkers, cyclists, cars and campers heading back home. There is no way to prepare yourself for the chaos after a Tour stage passes by – you just try to survive and make it to the next day!

Stage 19 – Modane Valfréjus to Alpe-d’Huez

For the big stage that finished on top of Alpe d’Huez, we decided to try a different viewing tactic for the day. Throughout the morning we strolled around the top of the route to Alpe d’Huez (staying on top of the mountain made this a relaxing walk, as we didn’t have to battle any traffic), making our way down to the turn 1 (the last switchback). As you can see, the crowds were already camped out on the surrounding hillsides, ready for the madness.

But, thanks to an invite from our friends at Powerbar, our plan for the day was to check out the VIP trailer (l’Espace Tourmalet), located 50m from the finish line! With 3 levels of viewing platforms, the view from the VIP space was pretty sweet, plus there were free snacks, beverages and flat screen TVs to watch the progress of the race. Like we said, not a bad way to spend the afternoon (even if it did get crowded by the time the race rolled by).

As we watched the race develop on TV, we made the move down to street level, to subtly insinuate ourselves into a prime viewing spot along the railing (this takes some skill, since people tend to stake their claims early for the best spots). As you can see below, we got a great view for the final sprint to the finish, won by Frenchman Pierre Rolland, much to the delight of the home crowd (and if you listen closely, you can hear that the crowd still boos Alberto Contador!):

 But the best part about our VIP access came after the ride. As soon as all of the riders finished this grueling stage, they were directed down a road right behind our VIP space. We got to see most of the riders up close and at ease (well, as relaxed as they could be after this brutal stage) as they headed back to their team buses or stopped to give interviews. We even got to give a few words of encouragement to American Tom Danielson, of Garmin Cervelo, as he passed by (here he is saying “Thanks”):

VIP access gives you a different experience of the Tour than just viewing it from the side of the road – not necessarily better, mind you, just different.

Stage 20 – Grenoble Individual Time Trial

Next up was the pivotal time trial stage in Grenoble – the ultimate mano a mano test. Watching a time trial at the Tour is a more relaxed affair, since riders are heading out on the course over many hours. You can wander around and enjoy the atmosphere, then head over to the barriers to watch a rider or 2 fly by (they are usually spaced out at 2-3 minute intervals). However, one of the more interesting aspects of the race to watch is the pre-race inspection. As you can see below, UCI officials inspect and weigh every time trial rig right before the rider heads off, to make sure it meets all of the arcane rules as determined by the arbiters of the sport (all in full view of the public).

Reading the body language of the riders before they started, it looked like Cadel Evans was super confident of his ability to make up his time difference to the Schleck brothers in this time trial (as, of course, proved to be the case).

As the time ticked by, the crowds around the finish line grew, everyone glued to the big video board for time split updates.

Then suddenly it was time, and the leaders flashed by in quick succession. Here’s Evans powering to the finish line with the second best time of the day, with more than enough of a lead over the Schlecks to earn the yellow jersey, the first ever overall win for an Australian!

After the end of the stage each rider had to make their way through the scrum of fans, journalists, trainers and more. There was a small fenced in area for the riders to cool down and give interviews, but then they were unceremoniously dumped into the street to make their way back to the team bus (about 1km away). Andy Schleck was hustled off down a side street, but his brother Frank (wearing Andy’s skinsuit), was left to walk part of the way through the mass of people, until a team assistant brought his bike up so that he could escape. The look of disappointment on his face was clear.


Stage 21 – Créteil to Paris Champs-Élysées

Ah Paris, the site of the final, partly ceremonial, stage of the Tour de France. We strolled about “La Ville-Lumière” without much of plan on this, our final day in France. We caught the peloton just before they made it to the Champs-Élysées (where the race would finish with a series of laps). Cadel Evans, resplendent in yellow, was led onto the Champs in his place of honor, behind his BMC teammates.

Once the peloton hit the final circuits, the race really started! A breakaway forced the pace at the front, and the pack commenced the chase soon after. But the most entertaining part of this turn (right before the tunnel under the road from the Louvre), was watching the support cars roar through the corner at full speed, squealing their tires!

We checked out a few different spots to watch the end of the race (except for the Champs itself, which was too crowded to even attempt), and then had a moment of inspiration and pure luck. We decided to try an aerial view of the racing from the Ferris wheel on the Rue de Rivoli, and (unplanned beforehand) we managed to be at the top of the wheel as the racers poured down the Rue de Rivoli for the final lap of the Tour de France! Below you can see Phillipe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd putting in one last effort, before giving way to the HTC train of eventual winner, Mark Cavendish.

It was a fitting end to 4 straight days of watching the Tour de France live and in person! We hope that you enjoyed our Performance Tour du Jour coverage, here on our blog and on our Facebook & Twitter pages. It was truly a great race to watch and we had a blast covering it with our friends at Europeds, who organized this amazing experience. Maybe next year we’ll see you on the roads in France!

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