We arrived in Nice less than 24 hours before nearly 200 of the world’s best bike riders took over 25 kilometers of the city’s streets. The Tour de France is more than a sporting event for the French people; it’s a nearly month-long national holiday and point of immense national pride in France.
Just how popular is the race? Last year, nearly 20 percent of the French people lined the roads to catch a glimpse of the peleton screaming past. Although it’s been nearly 30 years since the last French champion, five-time winner Bernard Hinault — a fact that gnaws at the collective French psyche like bad red wine — it doesn’t diminish their love of the event.
Leading up to the race, Nice was awash in yellow — the jersey color signifying the Tour’s leader — as seemingly every other person wore a hat, T-shirt, or other article of clothing dug from the back of their closet matching the distinctive hue. Tour talk dominated conversation, both among the French and the thousands of cyclotourists who swarmed into the city to catch the action.Sitting in an outdoor café near the Promenade du Paillon the night before the race, fans good-naturedly joked about the team time trial happening the next day. A couple of Britons near us predicted a victory for Team Sky and its leader, Chris Froome, while a table of Aussies rooted for their countryman Cadel Evans and his BMC squad. (They were both wrong. Australia’s Orica-Green Edge would eventually win the stage.) I can only imagine our French waiter was waiting for the next stage more suited to the strengths of Team Europcar’s co-leaders, Thomas Voekler and Pierre Rolland.
Blocks away from our hotel, the Mercure Promenade, thousands of fans crowded an expo sponsored by Tour organizers. The giveaways from the various sponsors were a massive hit with the fans; every other person wore a hat adorned with the logo of LCL Bank, sponsor of the yellow jersey. Nearby, a DJ spun tracks atop a specially modified Skoda hatchback, attracting numerous bikini-clad ladies from the rocky beach below. The cycling kit of AG2R la Mondiale is often ridiculed for its garish baby-blue and brown hues, but fans still lined up six deep to grab a scarf with that same color scheme. We managed to grab several of each as cheap souvenirs for our jealous friends back home.
In the days before the event, the streets were nearly overrun by amateur cyclists of all shapes, sizes and abilities, who took to the streets test themselves on the same roads the pros would later conquer. Bike riders are commonplace in Nice – the city boasts an impressive bike share program called VeloBleu. After a quick phone call, my wife was able to rent one of the heavy, steel-framed behemoths for an hour for a mere Euro. We tooled around the city streets, amazed at how courteous and patient the drivers were. (It shouldn’t be too surprising, given how seemingly important bicycles are in day-to-day French life.)
I’m hoping the rest of the country is equally as bicycle friendly as Nice. For the next week, I’ll be riding some of the Tour de France courses with more than a dozen riders with Sports Tours International, a British outfitter specializing in adventure travel. Included on the route are two of the giants of Tour lore, Mount Ventoux and the Tourmalet, both of which top out around 2,000 meters. For a cyclist who spends most of his time training in the relatively flat state of Indiana, it should be a heck of a ride.