Performance Tour du Jour: Rainy day on Alpe d’Huez

Today dawned cloudy, cold and rainy on top of Alpe d’Huez, but that wasn’t enough to deter us from a ride up the mountain! Since our original ride had to be changed because of the weather, some of the folks on our Europeds Tour Trip decided that a quick assault on the 21 hairpins would be enough for today. While some of us loaded our bikes and gear into the vans for a valet ride down the switchbacks, a few folks from our group braved the slick descent (difficult enough on a dry day). Below you can see our mechanic, Brad, prepping the bikes for the day, as Spencer and John get ready to load their bikes into the waiting vans.

After a few of our crew decided that discretion was the better part of valor, we set off with John for a wet ascent of Alpe d’Huez. Nothing like a constant cold drizzle to make the ride up even more challenging than it already is!

Over the course of the 8 plus mile climb, the road to Alpe d’Huez averages about an 8 percent grade (although it gets shallower at the corners, and steeper in other sections). If you’re having trouble picturing what this grade looks (and feels) like, just take a look at the picture below.  That’s a pretty big gap from one bend of the road to the other!

Up and up we climbed once again, to be rewarded with fog-shrouded vistas overlooking the snaking course of the lower switchbacks that we just finished climbing.

Here’s a shot of David powering his way up to turn 3, where barriers have already been laid out to protect the pros from the hordes of fans sure to descend on the mountain on Friday! But today we had the mountain pretty much to ourselves, except for the handful of other cyclists brave/crazy enough to attempt this climb today.

Once we reached the top, the weather and the view weren’t much improved. The drizzle got heavier and the temperature dropped down to 36 degrees Fahrenheit as we crested the climb! Nothing like summer in the French Alps!

After heading back to the hotel and warming up with a hot shower (and trying to dry out all of our wet gear), we headed out for a tasty lunch and a little shopping (after watching the exciting Tour stage finish, of course – Thor Hushovd is just amazing!) We found a great little bike shop called Cycles Huez, run by a friendly English/Australian couple, that sold cool Alpe d’Huez jerseys. Check them out if you make it up here one day!

Tonight it’s off to a dinner of traditional Alpine fondue, and then to sleep with dreams of better weather tomorrow!

To keep up-to-date on what we’re doing next, or to get in touch with us, be sure to follow Performance Bike on Twitter and Facebook. We want to hear from you as we head into the Alps!

Performance Tour du Jour: Arrive a l’Alpe d’Huez

Day two here in France began with a walking tour of Grenoble, as our Europeds Tour group wasn’t meeting up until the afternoon. As it turns out, Grenoble can be an incredibly pleasant place when it’s not raining and you’re not pulling bike cases 1.5km to your hotel! Nestled in an Alpine valley, Grenoble is filled with lovely cafes, quaint streets, and this peripherique (cable car) that went to an overlooking mountainside.

But soon enough it was time to head back to the train station to meet our tour group (luckily we discovered that Grenoble has a highly efficient tram system that ran right by our hotel, so we didn’t have to drag our bags this time).  We loaded up our gear and headed up to Alpe d’Huez with Charly, one of the guides.Once on the road, we finally saw our first sign for the Tour de France (OK, it was  a warning about road closures, but we knew we were getting close!):

Just about the moment we arrived on top of Alpe d’Huez, we tore open our bike cases and set to work getting our bikes ready to ride! It may have been late in the afternoon, but when you get a chance to ride Alpe d’Huez, you go for it! Here we are at the bottom of the climb, in matching Performance Ultra jerseys and shorts, with Chris on his Scattante Team bike and David on his Devinci Leo bike.

So what can we say about the climb up Alpe d’Huez?  Well, it’s pretty darn hard and unrelenting, but it’s definitely climbable.  You just find your rhythm and count off the 21 hairpins as you go up – the pitch of the road varies a bit, but really it’s a fairly constant (if steep) grade.  But don’t get us wrong, we were still maxing out our bike’s gearing range! Of course we felt a little less impressive when we passed this guy on the climb… towing his child in a trailer!

The payoff for all of your hard climbing work was the view – checking out the hairpin bends from above, after pedaling your way up, was a totally rewarding experience.  Plus there were already tons of folks camped out on the side of the road cheering you on – especially a Dutch contingent who even brought their own DJ (we hammered out a little sprint as we passed this crowd, just to give them something to cheer about)!

Finally, after a little over an hour, we crested the summit of Alpe d’Huez – although it turns out that this isn’t really the top of the climb for the Tour riders, which is really about 3km further up the mountain! But it does give you some sense of the crowds of folks already filling up this legendary climb, in anticipation of the big day!

Here we are after our little jaunt up Alpe d’Huez, with a pretty amazing vista in the background.  All in all, not a bad way to spend an afternoon. Tomorrow rain is in the forecast, but we’ve got our fingers crossed that we’ll get to share another epic ride in the Alps with you!

Performance Tour du Jour: On the ground in France

As should be expected when traveling from North Carolina to Grenoble, France, we spent most of the first day of our voyage on airplanes, in trains and trying to cram bike cases into tiny elevators! The flight to France was long but uneventful, with a few movies watched and not much sleep to be found. When we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, we ran in to many cyclists ready to ride and watch the Tour, much like ourselves.

We met a nice family on the train – we had met the dad at the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race last year and were pleased to meet his family. We traveled through the airport with them and even competed to see who could fit the most people with bike cases in a tiny elevator:

As you can see, they won.  Eventually we made our way to the famous French high speed train, the TGV, for our high speed escape to the Alps. It was a pretty cool train ride flying through the French countryside, but we have to say that th TGV was not designed with hauling bike cases in mind! Our bikes ended up stacked right by the door of the train, in front of the bathroom – not exactly the best spot for storing some pretty sweet road bikes!

But eventually we made our way to Grenoble (with our bikes), our stopover spot for the night. The weather was wet and rainy when we arrived, but before the day was over (and we passed out from our exhausting day of travel), the clouds cleared and we were treated to our first view of the surrounding mountains where we will spend the next week.

Tomorrow (Monday), we’re off to meet up with our Europeds tour group and head up the Alpe d’Huez for the very first time. Yeah, you could say we’re excited! Or, as the sign says, we’re “fous du tour”:

To keep up-to-date on what we’re doing next, or to get in touch with us, be sure to follow Performance Bike on Twitter and Facebook. We want to hear from you as we head into the Alps!

Wordless Wednesday

Ready for Le Tour

What can we say, other than we’re ready for the Tour! We’re ready for all 3 weeks, 21 stages and 3471km of the La Grande Boucle; from the Passage du Gois on Stage 1, to the Team Time Trial, to the sprint stages, to the Alpe d’Huez and the 100th anniversary of the mighty Galibier, to the finish on the Champs Elysees:

We’re ready for exquisite photo albums from legends like Graham Watson, with shots of gorgeous scenery, of epic suffering, and especially of dream-worthy bikes, all immaculately clean and ready to ride before every stage:

We’re ready for the favorites, the underdogs and no more excuses:

We’re ready to read expert analysis, BikeSnobNYC, and anyone else who’s sharing their insight and opinion!

We’re ready for our daily dose of  Bobke, Paul, Phil and their suitcase of courage.

We’re ready for the scenery, the fans, the publicity caravan, and the excitement of seeing the Tour in person during the Europeds Tour Trip, presented by Performance Bicycle:

We’re even ready for Didi the Devil with 1km to go!

Yeah, you could say we’re ready… bring on the yellow, green, polka dot and white jerseys! It’s time for the biggest stage in cycling. It’s time for the Tour de France!

Europeds Tour Trip: Alpe d’Huez

Alpe d’Huez… the iconic climbing test that every cyclist wants to try at least once! One of the coolest parts about our Europeds Tour Trip is that you will be staying right at the top of l’Alpe d’Huez for 5 nights, in the small alpine resort town.  You’ll get the chance test your legs on this legendary climb every day if you want to,  right before the pros come thundering up the mountain, during Stage 19, to the roar of the thousands of fans who will line the narrow mountain road like a natural amphitheater.

L’Alpe d’Huez may not be the steepest, longest, or highest climb that is used in the Tour, but it’s definitely the most famous.  With it’s numbered 21 hairpin turns (each named after former stage champions), even those who don’t follow cycling have heard of this legendary ascent.  From the base of the mountain to the finish line above the town of Alpe d’Huez, it’s 13.8 km at an average gradient of 7.9 percent.

Each turn records the exploits of a legendary champion, from the first winner, Fausto Coppi in 1952, to the likes of Joop Zoetemelk, Bernard Hinault, Andy Hampsten, Marco Pantani, Lance Armstrong, Frank Schleck and Carlos Sastre (the last stage winner, in 2008).  The Alpe d’Huez has been included in the Tour 25 times since Coppi first won there, and on 20 of those occasions, the rider who ended the stage wearing the yellow jersey has gone on to win in Paris (as chronicled in the book The Tour is Won on the Alpe). It’s definitely the place to be when the Tour comes rolling through!

Photo of Alpe d'Huez by Eric Walthall (which he earlier posted on the Performance Facebook page, from a trip he took)

There have been many iconic moments on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez, including the famous scene below of teammates Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault finishing the stage arm-in-arm in 1986, the year Lemond won his first Tour.  Notwithstanding the smiles in the photo below, their relationship wasn’t exactly what you’d call friendly that year, as Hinault, the defending champion, attacked every chance he got even though he’d pledged to support Lemond in his bid for the yellow jersey (as told in the book Slaying the Badger).

One of the most famous recent memories has to be when Lance Armstrong gave his German rival Jan Ullrich “The Look”.  After feigning fatigue on the lower slopes, Lance gave Ullrich this famous backwards glance, and then rocketed away from the German after turn 16 of the climb, just past the church at La Garde. If you join us on the Europeds Tour Trip you can try this trick on your climbing companions, but more than likely you won’t be feigning fatigue at this point of the climb!

There’s still time to book your spot on the Europeds Tour Trip, presented by Performance Bicycle, but there are only a few spots left, so book today!  We hope to see you in France, on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez!

Tour Trip Profile: David Martin

Have you been watching the Giro d’Italia and wondering what it’s like to experience a Grand Tour in person? Then don’t miss your chance to see the action up close and personal with a once-in-a-lifetime cycling experience, through our partnership with premiere bicycling tour operator, Europeds!

We’re proud to offer exclusive access to the 2011 Europeds Tour Trip, a dream trip for any cyclist. The 7 day/6 night trip includes five nights on the summit of the fabled Alpe d’Huez, the chance to watch three action-packed Tour stages in person, along with the opportunity to go on some of the most breathtaking bike rides you’ll ever experience.

To give you more insight into the trip, we’ve put together a little Q&A with the head of Europeds, David Martin, a man who knows his cycling and his French cuisine!

How long have you worked for/run Europeds?

I’ve worked at Europeds since 1996. I started as a guide, working primarily in France. In 2000, I bought the company and transitioned to more managing than guiding.

How many times have you been to the Tour?

I’ve been to the Tour de France around 14 times. This year (2011) will be my 12th year of guiding trips to the Tour.

What’s your favorite part of leading trips to the Tour?

To be honest, the best part about leading trips to the Tour is being able to be at the Tour. It’s just the greatest and craziest sporting event ever. The atmosphere, the mix of cultures and the drama that always unfolds makes it an event like no other.

I take pride though in being able to offer people a unique glimpse into this great event. Throughout the years I’ve learned how to best design and operate a Tour trip. The most important aspect starts with the hotels. Once you’ve secured the accommodations in a great spot, the rest is pretty easy. For this year’s Tour trip for Performance, we’ve got the best hotel location possible – literally at the top of the Alpe d’Huez. We’ll be there for 5 nights and we’ll ride every beautiful road within reach. That’s the best part about leading a Tour trip!

What’s it like riding in the Alps? Have you got a favorite ride from the Tour trip?

Riding in the Alps is the best thing in the world if you’re a cyclist. The beauty and magnitude of the climbs make it just breathtaking. On the upcoming Tour trip for Performance Bikes I’ve put together an amazing itinerary that focuses not only on some of the classic and well-known climbs, but also some lesser known yet equally as beautiful roads. We’ll get the chance to ride up the Galibier early in the morning of July 21st, the Galibier stage.

At the Alpe d’Huez, you are surrounded by all of the classic Tour de France climbs such as Galibier, Lauteret, Glandon, and the Izoard.  My favorite rides, however, are probably some of the lesser known climbs. Although some would argue that the Pyrenees are prettier, the Alps are more intense and the climbs are steeper.

One of the more beautiful roads in the area, and one that many people don’t know about is the road that goes out the back of the Alpe d’Huez. It is called Col de Sarenne. It is the most breathtaking road you will ever ride. Seriously. It is not to be ridden if you are scared of heights.

Besides the Col de Sarenne, there are a couple of other rides that are my favorite in the area, and we’ll ride them both on the Performance Tour trip. I think my favorite ride is probably this great out and back ride up to a very small village called La Berarde. It’s very cool to start the morning off with a 20 minute downhill ride off of the Alpe d’Huez. Once in the village of Bourg d’Oisans below, it’s a classic, gradual climb up to La Berarde where you can get a great meal in a small café on the side of the road. The cruise back down to the bottom of the Alpe d’Huez climb is world class, then the pain begins. The total distance for the day is about 55 miles.

What’s it like being on top of Alpe d’Huez on race day?

It’s really hard to explain what it is like at the Alpe d’Huez on race day. Think mayhem. It is one of the more exciting days you will ever experience. The energy is palpable. This year, we will most likely see between ½ million and 1 million people on the switchbacks and on the route. Being at the top, as you wait for the riders to arrive is like being at the center of the universe. This year, on July 22nd, we’ll wake up and take the day off of riding as we’ll let the pros do the riding today. Most people will probably choose to walk down the switchbacks and find a place on the hill while others will simply walk the short distance to the finish line and stake out a place among the crowds.

Have you got any favorite local food or wine specialties?

When you’re in the Alps, you have to eat Fondue. There are tons of choices for delicious, hearty Alpine cuisine. Another local favorite is a dish called “Tartiflette” – which is a gratin filled with potatoes, onions, bacon and cheese of course. Great riding food.

In terms of wine, the Alps aren’t really known for their wine, but my favorite red wine comes from the Cotes du Rhone, which is nearby. Many of the cyclists on the Tour trip tend to like beer too, but there is never a shortage of quality red wine.

Who’s your pick to win this year’s Tour?

Tough question. Much probably depends on whether or not Contador will be present, but even if he is, I suspect we could see a dark horse emerge. I’d like to say Chris Horner as he’s one of my favorite riders, but Andy Schleck is probably a good pick too. OK – truth be told, I have no idea. You’ll have to come and see for yourself.

Don’t miss your chance for the trip of a lifetime.  Book your spot on the 2011 Europeds Tour Trip today!

Performance Bicycle Presents the Europeds Tour Trip

Le Tour… that’s all you really need to say and any cycling fan knows what you’re talking about!  With the history, the prestige, the endurance, and the sheer pageantry of cycling’s biggest race, Le Tour is the ultimate cycling experience.  Last year, in partnership with premiere bicycling tour operator, Europeds, we sent one of our own employees, David, to France to see first-hand what it’s like to watch the race in person and ride some of the same epic climbs as the pros.  So what did he think?  He’s still raving about the experience, from the riding to the food, and you can read all about it right here on the blog, of course!

This year we’ve partnered with Europeds once again, but this time to offer this once-in-a-lifetime cycling experience to you! We’re proud to offer exclusive access to the 2011 Europeds Tour Trip, with only 16 total spots available.

And what a trip it  promises to be!  The 7 day/6 night trip includes five nights right on the summit of the fabled Alpe d’Huez, plus the chance to watch three action-packed Tour stages, along with the opportunity to go on some of the most breathtaking bike rides you’ll ever experience.

You’ll experience everything the Tour has to offer from a base camp perched at the top of the famous 21 switchbacks of the Alpe d’Huez, in the Southeast corner of France.  The itinerary for the week includes watching 3 Tour stages in person, miles of fantastic Alpine riding with a small group of only 15 other riders, plus the chance to be exactly where every cyclist wants to be on July 22nd, with a front row seat on the slopes of the Alpe d’Huez!  You’ll be there, along with thousands of cycling-mad fans, lining the mountain as the 2011 Tour thunders up to its last mountaintop showdown!  And after the stage is done, you’ll be hanging out in the midst of the racers and journalists while almost all of the other fans fight their way back down the mountain, as you stroll to your hotel atop d’Huez!

If you want a little bit of the flavor of the Alpe d’Huez on Tour day, check out this video of the finale of Carlos Sastre’s victory atop d’Huez in 2008 (which propelled him to the yellow jersey):

Watching the Tour in person is truly an experience that every cyclist needs to do at least once in their lifetime.  From the chance to watch the pros up close and personal:

2010 Tour passing over the Col du Soulor

To the opportunity to challenge yourself on some of cycling’s sacred ground with new friends:

David and the Europeds group on top of the Tourmalet

To riding on some of the most beautiful roads you could ever imagine:

David in the Pyrenees in 2010

We can promise that it will be an experience you won’t forget! So we hope you’ll join us on the 2011 Europeds Tour Trip, presented by Performance Bicycle.  Spots are filling up fast, so don’t miss your chance to see “Where great rides begin… in France!

David’s Tour du Jour – Individual Time Trial and Tour Wrap-Up

The last day of my Europeds Tour de France adventure was a great one.  The weather was fine, and we were only a few miles from the finish line of Stage 19, the individual time trial that would determine the outcome of the 2010 Tour.  Everyone was excited to see the last day for the yellow jersey contenders (since the final stage into Paris is just for the sprinters), so we were up early to grab our petit dejeuner on the back porch of our hotel, the elegant Chateau Pomys (although calling it a back porch doesn’t quite do it justice, does it):

Before watching the excitement that was sure to come at the time trial finish in Pauillac, most folks broke up into groups to cruise the French countryside for one last ride.  I headed out into the vineyards with TJ, and we were amazed that the roads were so free of any traffic while the pandemonium of a Tour de France stage finish was only a few miles away.

Did I mention that there are a few chateaux in this part of France?

After a nice 30 mile jaunt, we headed to the coast of the Gironde, where it was a straight shot down to Pauillac and the finish line village.  While riding along the water, we got a little taste of the breeze that would devastate the Tour riders during the time trial itself.

When we arrived in Pauillac, the excitement level and crowds were already building.  While not overwhelming at all, the crowd was definitely in full effect near the finish line (along with the press booths that are erected overnight for every stage).  It’s pretty amazing how quickly this infrastructure is put up and taken down every day–just the night before none of these structures or signs were in place on this final stretch.

And soon after I arrived, I saw my first rider of the day (someone from the Cervelo Test Team).  After a while watching the time trial, you kind of found a rhythm for watching the race, as riders came by every 1 minute (and later every 2 minutes).  You could hang out and talk to people, and then, when you saw the lead motorcycles and officials’ cars zoom by, rush to the fence to see the next rider (or 2, if someone got passed on the road).

Here is Tony Martin, from Team HTC-Columbia, powering his way to nearly the fastest time of the day.  The riders who went out early definitely had the advantage of not facing as bad a headwind as started blowing later in the afternoon.

But the man that almost everyone picked to win didn’t disappoint; reigning World Time Trial Champion Fabian Cancellara, of Team Saxo Bank,  blistered the 52km time trial course in a time of  1 hour 56 seconds (that’s an average pace of 32 miles an hour, for those who didn’t do the conversion–insane!)

The setting for the last kilometer of the course was quite pretty, as it ran down a waterfront promenade, with shops and restaurants along one side and a stately line of trees along the other.  Here’s a rider from Team Milram cruising by the marina on his Focus bike:

Some fans found a higher vantage point to watch the race, and the nationalities were pretty mixed judging by the flags on display.

But there’s no missing who this next rider is, with his Captain America attire.  It’s none other than Dave Zabriskie, the American Time Trial Champion of Team Garmin-Transitions, who did the Stars and Stripes proud with a 5th place finish on the day.

As the afternoon wore on, I started to wander down the course a ways just for a change of pace.  Here I am passing the flamme rouge, or the 1km to go banner, as a Team Katusha rider blurs past.

And here’s a rider from Team Astana, Bejamin Noval Gonzalez, barrelling around a corner, not even getting out of his aero tuck:

If you walked far enough along the race route, you reached the vineyards and open fields where the wind was blowing right into the riders’ faces.  The only thing blocking the wind were the hundreds of camper vans parked along the side of the road, like this cluster shielding a BMC Racing Team rider:

I’m not sure what the theory was with the outfit, but this guy said he was a Contador fan (and he did match his dog, which was a nice touch):

Back in town, the fans were getting fired up for the final riders to appear on the home stretch:

One of the best places to get a better look at the riders (since they were moving so fast out on the road) was the stretch of road after the finish line and before the team buses.  Here’s American Road Race Champion George Hincapie rolling along after finishing up the time trial (too bad he wasn’t wearing that cowboy hat, though, as that would have been a great picture).

And in case you didn’t think that this time trial was a totally draining experience, just look at the glazed expression on World Road Racing Champion Cadel Evans’ face as he was ushered back to the comfort of the team bus:

Lance Armstrong didn’t waste any time when he finished up  his ride, slicing through the crowd to find the safety of a camper van, setting off a chase by fans and reporters alike:

Finally we were getting close to the big finale, as everything would be settled by the last few riders.  The announcer was calling out updated split times all day long, so we definitely knew where things stood as the time trial was winding down.  The energy in the crowd was building to a fever pitch as the last riders hurtled down the final hundred meters.  Fans would start cheering and slapping the barricade signs as riders approached, like here with Robert Gesink of Team Rabobank:

By far the most impressive ride of the afternoon was thrown down by Denis Menchov, whose time of 1 hour 4 minutes 47 seconds was a good 3-4 minutes faster than the average time for the later finishers, and was easily enough to vault him into 3rd place overall.

But the duel that everyone was waiting for didn’t disappoint, as Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador battled back and forth all day long, just as they had for the rest of the race.  As the split times rolled in, Schleck seemed to be closing in on Contador’s overall lead, at one point cutting the “on the road” gap down to 2 seconds.  Alas, it was not to be (much to the dismay of most of the fans), as Schleck faded just a bit down the final few kilometers, and couldn’t close out those last 8 seconds, even though he turned in a fantastic time trial.

Then there was only one man left on the course, and, in a blaze of yellow (and the roar of the crowd plus a few helicopters), Contador went flying past. He finished in a time of 1 hour 6 minutes 39 seconds–31 seconds better than Schleck’s time, assuring him another Tour de France victory.

I hustled over to the awards’ podium to catch the winners’ presentation, braving the crush of fans who squeezed in with me.  First up was Cancellera, who was awarded the stage winner’s bouquet by the PowerBar girls:

Then, without any preamble, it was time for the yellow jersey presentation.  Contador was hamming it up a bit much, but it was undoubtedly a long 3 weeks of racing as the favorite, so the relief he felt after this stage was evident:

And what Contador victory would be complete without his “pistolero” salute (sorry, I only caught the recoil):

Next up was Alessandro Petacchi in his recently re-acquired Green Sprinters’ Jersey (which he held on to during the final stage in Paris):

Then Anthony Chartreau of French Team Bbox Bouygues Telecom did the host nation proud by donning the final polka-dot Climbers’ Jersey (and you’ve got to love those wacky umbrella dresses worn by the podium girls):

The final jersey awarded was the White Jersey for Best Young Rider, which of course went to Andy Schleck, who was oh-so-close to winning it all for the second year in a row (and quite possibly would have won if not for that untimely mechanical on Stage 15 when he was in the yellow jersey).  But there’s little doubt that we’ll see a lot more of this duel in the next few years, as both Schleck and Contador are just hitting their prime years for racing!

With all the jerseys handed out, there was nothing to do but clean up and clear out.  The Tour is always moving, and as soon as a stage is done, the barricades and temporary structures are disassembled and the thousands of fans start streaming home (luckily for me, this meant only a short ride through the vineyards back to my chateau!)

But the finish of this stage also meant that my adventure in France was at an end.  It was an amzing experience, both watching the spectacle that is the Tour and riding the same roads and mountain passes as the racers, sometime just hours before the race passed by!  It gave me a whole new level of respect for what these pro riders are capable of, plus it was a total blast to test myself on these famous and jaw-dropping roads.  The experience was made even better by the camaraderie of everyone on my Europeds tour group, including my fellow riders and of course our guides David, Chris and Charly.  I would be happy to go riding at any time with any of the people I met on this tour (or at least enjoy another fantastic meal).

It’s a bit of a shock to return back to your home roads after a trip like this (there are far fewer chateaux in North Carolina, for example), but I’ll never forget my week chasing the Tour through the Pyrenees.  If you get the opportunity, this trip is definitely one you won’t regret if you are a true cycling fan (and having great guides doesn’t hurt).  The other fans, the roads, the atmosphere… just being there is a magical experience.  I hope you got a little sense of what it was like through my daily updates, and maybe next year we’ll see you on the roads in France!

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David’s Tour du Jour – Watching Stage 17

Day 5 of my Tour de France adventure with Europeds was all about Stage 17.  I was up early to catch a ride to Pau with one of our guides, Charly, to see what the chaos of the start of a stage is like.  When I arrived, the weather was raw and rainy, and not many of the team buses were there yet.  However the start line was already set up, and freebies were already being handed out:

And it wasn’t too long until the caravan started up their parade of vehicles, full of hats, keychains and food to toss at the many thousands of people they would see along the day’s route:

Finally the team buses and cars started to arrive (later than usual, because of the lousy weather).  It was remarkable to see the amount of controlled chaos that comes with a Tour start.  Gendarmes and Tour officials try in vain to control the crowds and traffic, and then the team vehicles make their way to the area near the starting line and just sort of make room for themselves in a less than rigorously organized fashion.  Yet somehow it all seems to work out in the end, as all the assorted vehicles find a home.

What was really interesting was the way that team cars and bikes were set up for the day.  Average fans can just walk right up to the team cars and bikes, and touch, photograph or otherwise ogle the equipment without any kind of barrier or even much hassle from the team.  There were very few barriers erected to keep people out of the team’s way, but the riders stayed on board their team buses (for the most part) until they were ready to get on their bikes (here are the Astana and Saxo Bank buses parked right next to each other, a foreshadowing of  the day’s action on the Tourmalet):

Of course this afforded me the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the teams’ bikes.  Here is Team Fuji-Footon, with their infamous kits (which really weren’t that bad in person), plus their excellent gold SST bikes, casually leaning against the team bus:

And here are the sweet Focus Team Izalcos of Team Milram:

When it was close to the time of the stage start, the riders just hopped on their bikes, usually alone or with another teammate, and then head out, through the throngs of people, in search of the official sign-in before the stage start (sadly I was stuck on the wrong side of the barriers and missed this excitement):

Finally it was time for the stage start (at about noon).  The riders lined up, with the jersey holders in the front row, and then rolled out at a fairly casual clip (so everyone could get a good picture of the action):

With the mayhem of the Tour start behind me, I made my way back to the little town of Argeles-Gazost, where our hotel was, as the town happened to be smack in the middle of this stage as well!  The riders would descend the Col du Soulor (just like I had done 2 days ago when they were climbing the Aubisque) and would be dumped out right in the town center.  The town was already hopping with people, so I scoped out a couple of spots, and made sure to grab a few more freebies as the caravan cruised by (after seeing the caravan early in the morning, I appreciated what long days these guys must have):

After the Tour caravan passed by, I only had about an hour to wait, so I went ahead and settled on a spot in the square in front of the town church, where there was a little chicane to navigate.  Just like on the Soulor, you knew that the riders were closing in when you heard the choppers overhead.  Then you wait for the roar of the crowd to build, and the lead motos and official’s cars to come flying through town.  And then it was time; the lead riders came flying through the little square, braking hard to funnel through the corner and then accelerating away down the straightaway:

A couple minutes later the peleton came flying through, with all the favorites in the same group, and then the rest of the stragglers followed on in smaller groups (but without massive time gaps between them):

After less than 30 minutes, the last riders had rolled through, and the crowds started to disperse right away.  Many folks headed to the town square (or a bar) to watch the rest of the race on the big screen, but most people just headed back to their cars, the excitement for the day over with:

Most of my group headed back to our hotel to watch the epic battle on the Tourmalet.  I would have to say that everyone was in the Andy Schleck camp instead of Contador’s, but it was amazing to watch those 2 battle it out up the slopes of the Tourmalet, mano-a-mano.  After descending the same slopes they were climbing just the day before, it was practically inconceivable to me to see how fast they were climbing.  It was truly an amazing display of cycling talent from both of them.

So now the Tour basically comes down to the final individual time trial, from Bordeaux to Pauillac.  And our group is perfectly positioned to catch this last gasp for glory, as we made the long drive from the Pyrenees all the way up to a beautiful chateau right outside of Pauillac (nestled in the famous wine country around Bordeaux–Chateau Lafite Rothschild is about 1 km away from our hotel).

On our way to the hotel, we actually drove down the route of tomorrow’s time trial.  The road was already lined with fans in camper vans,  but you can also expect to see some tricky corners and roundabouts to make this race exciting (plus some stunning vineyards and chateaux).  And I can’t forget to mention the wind!  If it is blowing like it was today, then this will be a true test of strength, both physical and mental.  Whatever happens, I will be there to document the action first-hand, and report back to you soon!

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