The Perfect Night In France: A House Party, Some Aging Rugby Players, And Billy Joel

I never thought a chance encounter in France would lead to a greater appreciation of a Billy Joel song.

Dee Annis

My wife Dee and I spent the final afternoon of our Tour de France trip drinking with other Sports Tour International clients in the courtyard of our Saint-Gérons hotel. As we swapped stories, another of our teammates, a boisterous, baldheaded Aussie named Chris, walked by looking a bit tipsy and holding a bottle of wine.

On the way back to the Hotel Eychenne, he and some other tour members came across the reunion of a local rugby team, which had turned into a raucous street party just blocks away from the city’s quiet town square. Held in front of the home of a player named Jean-Louis, he and the other players were grabbing bystanders off the street and plying them wine and incredible food. When Jean-Louis realized some foreign cyclists were in their midst, he took them on a tour of his home, ending in his impressive wine cellar. Chris and the others were given some bottles as souvenirs of their trip to France and told to come back later, when the party would really get going.

After dinner, we tagged along as they walked back to the party. But by the time we arrived, the rowdy street party had turned into a slightly more intimate, but just as lively, affair.The remaining partygoers had migrated into Jean-Louis’ garage, a brick and stone structure that held several bicycles, a table littered with the remnants of the day’s revelry and a small stereo blaring classic Bruce Springsteen tunes. Jean-Louis, it turns out, was a massive fan of the Boss and was wearing a T-shirt from Springsteen’s show in Paris the week before.

As we entered the garage, there was a brief uncomfortable moment as the group paused to identify the interlopers. But almost immediately, Jean-Louis recognized Chris, Alex and Elliot from earlier in the day, and grabbed them into a sweaty bear hug. He ushered the five of us deeper into the garage, handing us plastic cups filled with probably the best red wine I’d sampled in France. Five feet from us, a gentleman who looked to be in his late 60s named Toto was dancing with a woman who would become the main interpreter that night.

While she was dancing, Dee and I made our introductions to the party host, struggling to communicate beyond “bonsoir” and “je ne comprends pas.” The three of us gestured and stuttered through some basic English phrases, hoping to get our meaning across, before realizing that we didn’t need words to convey our feelings and appreciation.

Upon finishing her dance, the interpreter pulled out a whicker-covered glass jug, pouring small splashes in each of our plastic cups. A quick whiff revealed its potential potentness, which was quickly confirmed by a taste. As the backs of our throats burned from what we were sure was jet fuel, our translator said the closest equivalent would probably be ouzo, made locally from prunes. We smiled, held up our glasses and hoped no one would light a match near us any time soon.

Shots downed, Jean-Louis stood at the front of the room, making the universal hand gesture to quiet down. With the crowd silenced, Toto began singing a capella what we would later learn was a classic Edith Piaf song. Toto’s deep baritone filled the garage; if you would have closed your eyes, you might have though it was an ornate opera house somewhere in Paris. Moments after the last syllable escaped Toto’s mouth, the room erupted into spontaneous applause.

Afterward, it was Billy Joel’s turn to entertain the crowd. We were already huddled fairly close together from Toto’s song, and as soon as the opening notes of “Piano Man” sounded from the tiny stereo, we instinctively threw our arms over each other’s shoulders, swaying to the beat of the song and singing along with the song’s incredibly poignant chorus. Although few of the Saint-Gérons residents spoke English, they all knew the lyrics to the song even better than the native English speakers, even if it was just phonetically.

As the song faded out, so did we. Hugs and thanks were exchanged, and we walked out into the summer night, our bellies warm from the strong drink and friendship.

In the past, Billy Joel songs were easily ignored like doctors’ warnings or Rush Limbaugh, in one ear and out the other. But in the days and weeks that followed that night at Jean-Louis’, I notice his songs everywhere, and every time it brings me back to that evening in Saint-Gérons and makes me feel alright.

Two-Wheeled Tourism: 10 Cities to Visit If You Love Bikes

Anna Brones

Why spend your summer vacation on subways and buses when you could be out exploring places on two wheels?

Thanks to an explosion in bike-share systems and a general appreciation for bike culture, making cycling a central part of your travels is becoming easier and easier. You don’t have to throw down, pack your bicycle and head off on a full cycle tour to get the pleasure of seeing a place on two wheels; there are plenty of cities around the world that are bike-friendly and perfect for anyone who enjoys the thrills of riding in a new place.

Here are the ten best places to explore by bike.1. Amsterdam
There’s no denying that if you’re a bike lover, Amsterdam should be at the top of your list. Here people are practically born on bicycles, and if you want to experience the city like a real local, there’s no better way. Start off in the Jordaan district, rent a bike at the friendly Bike City and get ready to master the dance that is cycling in the Netherlands.

2. Copenhagen
Bike riding in Scandinavia is truly part of the local lifestyle, and nowhere is this more true than the Danish capital of Denmark. This is the birthplace of Cycle Chic after all. There are over 390 kilometers of designated bike lanes and over 50 percent of locals commute by bike on a regular basis. The Copenhagen tourism office has a round up of top bike rental places to make fitting in easier than ever. Just remember to wear your finest — Scandinavians look good on their wheels.

3. Portland, Oregon
Beer, baristas and bikes; it’s the Portland trifecta. You can get all three at Velocult, the city’s hub for bike related events and general fun. If you’re downtown you should be sure to hit up the Courrier Coffee Bar, opened by one of the city’s favorite pedal-delivered craft roasting companies. Add Trailhead to the list as well, another bike-powered artisan roaster. And when you’ve had enough pedal-powered caffeine for the day, take your bike, roll over to the bike-centric bar Apex and drink one of their 50 beers on tap.

4. Paris
Ok, so Paris might not be the first place that comes to mind on the list of bike-friendly places – you do have to do a lot of scooter and pedestrian dodging – but thanks to the successful Velib bike-share system, cycling is a big part of Parisian culture. The key in Paris is to identify that bike paths; you’ll find separated lanes around the city that make two-wheeled Paris a true delight.

5. San Francisco
Don’t let the hills scare you off. Through the late spring and early fall you can take advantage of Sunday Streets, a collection of events that closes off streets to cars in different neighborhoods around the city, and in Golden Gate Park there are car-free Sundays and Saturdays. For a longer adventure, make your way to Marin County.

6. Berlin
Berlin is in the top 10 of bike blog Copenhagenize’s bicycle-friendly cities and with good reason. Around 13% of the population ride their bike on a daily basis, and in some neighborhoods it’s as high as 25%. There’s the 1st Bicycle Gallery which is all about showcasing gorgeous bicycles . There’s an online route planner you can use to facilitate your ride, and if you want a different look at one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, cycle the Berlin Wall Trail, tracing the former wall.

7. Rio de Janeiro
A bike-share and over 250 kilometers of bike trails make a normally congested city ideal for the cycle crowd. A large part of the bike push has come for preparing for the Olympics in 2016, and above and beyond the Bike Rio bike-share system, there are plenty of bike rental options around town.

8. Barcelona
Beach and bikes; it’s no surprise that Barcelona is popular with budget-savvy travelers looking for a little warm weather and outdoor strolls. There are over 100 stations for the city’s Bicing program, and a variety of rental and tour options. Top that ride off with some tapas and you have the perfect day.

9. Montreal
Montreal is the place to be if you’re a cycle lover. There are trails, separated lanes and designated biking streets, easily navigable on PedalMontreal. The city is also the gateway to Quebec’s Route Verte, boasting over 5,000 kilometers of bikeways all over the region along with bike-friendly accomodations. You may need a few weeks.

10. Bogotá
Bogotá’s CicloRuta s one of the most extensive in the world. Given that a very small percentage of the local population has access to cars, bicycles make economic sense. If your destination is too far to ride to, the network of bike lanes connects well with the local transportation system, complete with bike parking at several designated stops. As the city’s ex mayor Enrique Peñalosa said, “I think the future of the world has to do with bicycles.”

Aspen’s Rio Grande Bike Trail: Burgers, Bourbon And Basalt

biking a bridge on rio grande trail
Courtesy of Jeremy Swanson

I can probably be kicked out of Colorado for admitting this, but I’m just not that into bikes. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been lugging my vintage, fixed-gear cruiser around for over 21 years. Even though I rarely ride it these days because I live in hilly Boulder, I’m devoted to it. But mountain biking and road cycling plain freak me out, and in this state, that’s like saying you hate snow.

So, when my friend S. urged me to join her on an 18-mile bike ride down Aspen’s Rio Grande Trail to the former mining town of Basalt, I was dubious. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 7. I have terrible balance. What about getting back up valley? Still, there was the allure of flying down a riverside path in the high Rockies on a summer’s day. I caved.

The Rio Grande Trail is a part of the former Denver-Rio Grande Railroad bed. It starts at Aspen’s Herron Park, just off Main Street on the east end of town, and runs the length of the Roaring Fork Valley, all the way down to Glenwood Springs, 41 miles away. The trail, especially the Aspen-to-Basalt leg, is enormously popular with cyclists, walkers, and runners and, in winter, cross-country skiers.

aspen grove
WanderingtheWorld, Flickr

Last week, I met up with S. in Aspen. It was a bluebird day, one that begged for a picnic or al fresco lunch. Our plan of action, after picking up two titanium, single-gear cruisers, was to ride down to the nearby community of Woody Creek (home of the late Hunter S. Thompson), and hit the Woody Creek Tavern (bar of the late Hunter S. Thompson) for lunch. Their famous hamburgers and a margarita on the patio are an Aspen summer staple. Alternatively, if you want some truly excellent breakfast pastries or picnic bread, take a slight detour over to Louis’ Swiss Bakery in the Aspen Business Center.

The first mile of the Rio Grande Trail runs alongside the Roaring Fork River. This time of year, the vegetation is lush: wildflowers are in full bloom, and the aspens and pines provide ample shade. You’ll cross a wooden bridge or two, and after about five minutes, the pedestrians disperse, and can really start moving (do watch out for other bikers, stay in your lane and always wear a helmet).

After about 15 minutes, we arrived at the Tavern, which is essentially a roadhouse/bar/tribute to all that’s weird (there’s a reason Thompson was a regular). The burgers really are all that, if nothing fancy, and the Mexican dishes also win raves.

biking the rio grande trail
Courtesy of Jeremy Swanson

Post-lunch, we hopped back on our bikes and rode to Basalt, which has become an alluring little hamlet in its own right. Don’t expect much in the way of excitement, but it’s a cute, quiet place to kick back for a few days, and enjoy the many outdoor activities the Roaring Fork Valley has to offer.

The ride from Woody Creek to Basalt changes from sub-alpine terrain to open valley and ranchland. Horses and cattle graze ipeacefully, and the rust-red hematite cliffs so indicative of this region loom to the right. Below us, on our left, was the river. The path remained smooth and the light was so bright it almost hurt. I started to remember why I’d been hauling my old cruiser around with me all these years. Being on a bike was exhilarating, especially in a place so geographically blessed. I certainly didn’t care that I wasn’t hammering it on half-track.

When we reached Basalt, S. and I pulled into a nondescript business park. We’d decided to cap off our ride with a visit to the the four-month old Woody Creek Distillers (they’re killing it with their whiskeys and vodka made with Colorado-grown ingredients, including Polish Stobrawa potatoes farmed up-valley on co-owner Pat Scanlan’s family farm.

woody creek distiller's copper still
Courtesy of Woody Creek Distillers

The gorgeous, state-of-the-art distillery houses a gleaming, copper-and-stainless steel German still, which can be viewed from the tasting room. Distillery manager David Matthews walked us through a whiskey tasting, which made me long for an accompanying wedge of bandage-wrapped farmstead goat cheddar from Basalt’s own Avalanche Cheese Company (pick some up at Whole Foods just north of Basalt, off of Highway 82, along with some famous Palisade peaches, grown just over the mountains on the Western Slope).

Back in Boulder, I paid a visit to my dusty cruiser, which has been languishing in the basement for nearly a year now. I’m going back up to Aspen in September to see the fall foliage; my newly-tuned up bike will be making the trip with me. Thanks, S.

The details
If you’re not bringing your own bike, the best place for rentals in the Aspen/Snowmass area is Four Mountain Sports (various locations). Note that many Aspen hotels, like the The Little Nell (which will comp rentals September through the first snow), have bike rentals for guests. The easiest way to return to Aspen is to catch the Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) bus from Basalt.

For more summer biking ideas, consider one of these great coastal beach cruiser bike rides.

Photo Gallery: Flowers From Michigan’s Upper Peninsula


Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is lined with beaches along Lake Superior to the north and Lake Michigan to the south. The Keweenaw Peninsula in the greater U.P. is also lined with Lake Superior beaches to the east and west. Views from each side vary, but are beautiful across the board. I spent the afternoon at a small beach on Lake Superior called Betsy Beach. Aside from a kayaking pair, we had the sandstone beach to ourselves and I did what anyone with a camera in the summer on a beautiful beach would do: took photos of pretty flowers. Enjoy.

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Wildfires in Michigan's Upper Peninsula Cause Record-Setting Damage
[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]

British Cyclist Chris Froome Wins 2013 Tour De France

Tour de France winner Chris Froome
Courtesy Sky Sports

The 100th edition of the Tour de France will come to a dramatic end today when the riders arrive in Paris at last. For the past three weeks the best cyclists in the world have been battling it out on the roads of France for the right to wear the famed maillot jaune – better known as the “yellow jersey” – that designates the current leader of the race. As the peloton turns toward the finish line later today it will be Chris Froome, captain of the Sky Procycling team, who will be in yellow, and since the final stage of the race is uncontested, he’ll head for home knowing that he is already the winner.

Froome, who was born in Kenya but carries a British passport, took control of the race early on with a stunning ride in the early mountain stages of the Pyrenees. His impressive climbing skills left all other contenders in the dust, including former champs Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck. Later he was able to widen his lead by dominating two individual time trials and although he looked a bit more vulnerable in the Alps, he still managed to gain time on his closest rivals.

While today’s ride is technically the final stage, there is an unwritten rule in the peloton that you don’t attack the yellow jersey on the ride to Paris. With more than a five-minute advantage on the next closest rider, it would be impossible for a competitor to actually make up that much ground anyway. Instead, Froome will enjoy a leisurely ride into Paris where the sprinters will take center stage on the Champs Élysées. That will prove to be a fast and furious scene that the race winner is generally happy to stay well clear of.

Since this was the 100th anniversary of the Tour, the organizers of the event went out of their way to make things special. In the opening days, the race visited the island of Corsica for the first time ever. Later, they punished the riders with some of the toughest stages that have ever been a part of the race, including a double ascent of the famed mountain stage of Alpe d’Huez, on the same day no less. Today may be the best day of all, however, as the riders will embark late in the afternoon from the gardens at Versailles and will arrive in Paris as the sun is going down. They’ll then pedal through the courtyard at the Louvre before making their way to the Champs Élysées, where they’ll race around the Arc de Triomphe for the first time. It should make for a very memorable finish that will leave fans of the race counting the days until its return next year.