You don’t have to go sit by the roadside every day to appreciate the race. French TV airs every stage in almost its entirety, and nearly every restaurant and bar in the country will have it playing. Some of my favorite days involved a handful of hours in the saddle followed by a recovery meal and drink (erm, drinks) while screaming at the TV side-by-side with locals at the brasserie. The network’s fixation with the French riders can be a bit much—at the finish at Le Grand Bornand, there were lengthy interviews with Pierre Roland, Christophe Riblon, and Thomas Voeckler but only a few seconds with stage winner Rui Costa. Then again, at least you don’t have to put up with the vapid yammering of Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett.
It’s inconceivable how the French stay thin. Every meal felt like an orgy of whole-cream dairy, succulent grilled meats (with plenty of duck), and bread, bread, and more bread. It’s safe to say the Paleo Diet will never make it in this country. It became something of a joke—and point of pride—how much cheese we could consume in a day.
Stage 19 at Le Grand Bornand was the high-water mark. At lunch, when the waitress brought a skillet with a five-inch round of Reblochon, we passed it around to share. “Non, non, non, non, non,” she corrected in that inimitable stuffed-up-nose French way. Soon she reappeared with skillets for every person at the table and demonstrated how to use the tabletop grills to soften them: melt cheese, pour on bread and potatoes, stuff down throat. Fist-size servings of sorbet buried in heavy cream followed for dessert. And at dinner, there was not only chèvre on the salad and creamy custard for sweets, but in between came a cultured cheese called fromage blanc shaped into a form and served with a raspberry coulis. It’s not just about the cheese, of course, but about food that’s as memorable as the entire race—and riding each day that justifies loading up.
Unlike many sports that keep their pros cordoned off from the public, cycling provides opportunities to get up close with your favorite riders. (No, not by chasing alongside in a day-glow mankini.) Pre and post-stage, you can wander around among the team buses, watch the guys warm-up, and sometimes even catch a quick conversation and autograph. I managed a word with Contador and Richie Porte before the stage at Annecy.
Specialized upped the ante, though, by arranging for breakfast with Omega Pharma-Quickstep at their team hotel in Chambéry. Mark Cavendish told us that even though he’s already won 25 Tour stages in his career he still has plenty to accomplish. Sylvain Chavanel said he loves his custom Tarmac SL4, though the orange paint job—color-matched to his beloved Camaro—was making it tough for him to get into breaks because he’s so easily marked. And Niki Terpstra said that even though he’s mostly a classics rider, he doesn’t mind coming to the Tour. “It’s the biggest race in the world,” he said. “I’ll never win here. Most of us won’t. But you still want to be here.”
Earlier this summer a friend of mine told me that he wouldn't sell his memories of riding at the Tour for any amount of money. He said this right after I mentioned that I’d be following the final days of this year’s Tour, and his voice was wistful and envious.
I’ve been to Tour stages over the years, and while they were interesting enough I never found the experience all that moving. So I didn’t grasp my buddy’s covetous tone. But at this year’s Tour, I realized that I’ve just done it all wrong in the past. Dropping in on a stage for a few hours is like popping through Rome or Athens on a layover and expecting to feel like a local. To do the Tour justice, you have to spend a few days so you can grasp the mega scope and manic energy. And you have to bring a bike.
I went to France with Specialized, which was promoting their new Evade aero road helmet and, more generally, the Racing Performance Program. Our group was comprised mostly of journalists, though also along for the ride was Greg Wiedle, winner of the company’s #ItsMyTour video contest. The slogan sounds trite at first, but seeing Greg’s prize video, “Expand My World,” and then watching him and his wife experience Europe and the Tour, underscored just how transformative a trip like this can be.
They don’t have the combo of 5,000-foot climbs, Raclette cheese, or any of the pomp or history of the Tour back in the U.S., and the Wiedles drank up the experience. It made me realize that following the race isn’t necessarily about who’s in yellow or how a particular stage unfolds. It’s about channeling the passion of the event.
To wit, when, two hours into a sinuous evening alpine ride with at least another hour to go, we were faced with the choice of sticking to the plan or extending our ride to include the Col de la Croix Fry and missing our dinner reservation, the choice was easy. “It’s my Tour,” someone announced, and up we went. Another dessert or slab of cheese? Le fromage, bien sûr. Forgo a few more hours of sleep for another round at the bar. Not even a question.
In the final week of this year’s Tour, I came to understand the nostalgia and envy my buddy had expressed about his trip to France. If you do it right, there’s arguably no better vacation for a cyclist than spending a week chasing the world’s most important and overwrought cycling event. Here are a few tips. Vive le Tour!
Set aside at least one day to stand by the roadside and watch the hours-long procession before the racers arrive. The high-speed parade doles out melodrama (as in the Chippendales model wearing nothing but French-flag undies who was tethered, day-in, day-out, to the top of a float) and plenty of freebies (mostly useless trinkets and 13-cent branded cycling caps), all to a blaring soundtrack of Eurotrash techno. That might sound obnoxious, and in some ways it is: One afternoon I watched a 220-pound dude poured into blue zebra-stripe riding shorts and a commemorative maillot jaune literally scrabbling around with a group of 10-year-olds to snatch up trinkets being tossed to the crowd. But it’s also priceless to experience firsthand.