Taking A Break From The Tour De France To Explore The French Countryside

Rob Annis

After tackling some of the most celebrated roads and climbs of the Tour de France over the previous few days, a few of the group decided to gear down for an afternoon and discover some of the French countryside.

Starting from the town of Foix, we would travel south to Ax-les-Thermes, where we would later catch the finishing climb of that day’s stage. I’d hoped to make it to the town early enough to tackle the Cat 1 climb myself, but 15 minutes into the ride, our Sports Tours International guide Ed informed me that was likely not going to happen. “Leisurely” would be the pace of the day.

Up to this point in the Tour, I’d been riding with a faster group of riders. On the first day, we were the de facto breakaway, speeding up the first col and away from the other riders. With our group established, we’d spent the last few days sniffing each other out on the roads, determining a pecking order – Who was the fastest? Who was the strongest on the climbs? Who went out like a rocket, but fizzled by the end? Who was a bit squirrely in the pack?

But today would be different. The group I would be riding with had nothing to prove; they just wanted to ride bikes, take in the sights and enjoy a spectacular race. Every few kilometers I would stop, pull out my camera and snap a few photographs of the beautiful mountains and meadows, something I never could have done with the other group, unless I wanted to make my way back solo.

Climbing the first unnamed col of the day, we arrived at the upper lip of the Ariège valley where we would wind our way through old-world villages with narrow, cobblestoned streets. Although we didn’t believe the Tour de France had ever traveled up this particular climb, painted names, faded with time, were scrawled across the road, remnants of past amateur races.

It was obvious the area wasn’t a popular spot for the cyclotourists, as the bemused residents would stop and watch us pedal up the col, giving us the same look they would give a goat with its head stuck in the fence. Three days before we were riding in front of thousands of cheering cycling fans, but on this day, the only sounds we heard were the birds and the occasional stream passing underneath a bridge.

For lightly traveled rural roads, they were exceptionally well maintained, better than many of the streets I ride on a daily basis back home. Since being in France, I’ve been amazed at the similarities between the French and American countryside. The farms and farmhouses look as if they were torn from my Hoosier heartland, except instead of gas stations and strip malls, you’re riding past 500-year-old castles with the massive Pyrenees mountains as a backdrop.

Rolling into a small village about halfway through our ride, we spied the remains of one of those castles perhaps on a hilltop overlooking the town. We didn’t spy many people and assumed many of them had made the trek down into the valley to watch day’s stage. We pedaled down a side street to a tiny café that appeared closed. Luckily the proprietress was outside, hanging her wash out to dry. She agreed to open for us, serving us coffee and tasty frozen ice cream treats.

The break was short-lived, and after taking a few moments to refill our water bottles at the town fountain, we were off again. Another short climb, and we were at the crossroads for Ax-les-Thermes.

Looking at our watches, we realized we had time before the race caravan would reach the village. At the crossroads, another sign pointed in the opposite direction for the summit of the minor Col du Marmare, a minor mountain rising only a little over 1,360 meters from the ground. After a bit of discussion and cajoling, my two Aussie teammates Di and Gillian pedaled toward the col, while the rest of the riders headed to the resort town.

The 6-kilometer trip to the top of Col du Marmare was remarkably easy, with no grade above 4 percent the entire ride. Thousands of pine and chestnut trees shaded the road, keeping us cool on such a hot day. The summit celebration was a bit muted just a few days after topping Mont Ventoux, so after a few quick photos at the top, we began our descent.

After briefly regrouping at the crossroads, we continued down the mountain, this time on a narrow road that felt more like a goat path. Although not as long or steep as Ventoux, the tight switchbacks and unexpected patches of gravel made it even more treacherous at times.

About 15 minutes later, we were deposited onto the main road leading into Ax-les-Thermes. By sheer luck, we managed to find several of our teammates in a café, enjoying salads and beer.

As we talked about the day’s ride, we didn’t compare speed or power data, but rather our favorite sights, describing the photos we took. The day’s ride wasn’t one I had planned in the weeks leading up to the trip, but it was one I was glad I experienced.

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About The Tour De France, In 10 Minutes

The Tour de France Explained in Animation

Even cycling amateurs have a thing for the Tour de France; if you like travel and have even an inkling of desire to ride a bike, it’s hard not to at least watch a stage or two. The Tour de France is one of those classic events that’s as much a sporting event as it is a cultural one, attracting people from far and wide to come and watch in person (or even ride some of it), and thousands more turning on their computers to live stream it around the world.

So how exactly did the Tour come to be and why is it popular? Everything you ever wanted to know about this iconic race is in this animated video. For example, did you know that the first year of the race, in 1903, riders rode fixed gear bikes? The original hipsters.

Don’t worry; it’s narrated in a French accent.

Conquering The Famed Tour De France Climb, Mont Ventoux

Rob Annis

When thinking of iconic Tour de France climbs, three mountains immediately spring to mind – Alp d’Huez, Col d’ Tourmalet and Mont Ventoux.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of riders flock to France to test their mettle against those three mountains and the ghosts of Tour riders past. On Bastille Day, July 14, the pro riders will race up Mont Ventoux during stage 15 of the Tour. Ten days earlier, it was my turn.

When I learned I would be climbing Ventoux during my trip, I was immediately intimidated. Although it’s considered to be in the Alps, Ventoux is far enough removed from the mountain range that it stands virtually alone on the horizon, rising nearly 2,000 meters from the ground. The steep climb has humbled better cyclists than me; riders have actually died attempting to reach the summit.

Days before the ride, Keith, one of my Sports Tour International teammates, recounted the two nonstop hours of pain and suffering he’d experienced on the mountain years earlier, calling it the hardest thing he’s ever done as a cyclist. The night before the Ventoux ride, his words continued to ring in my ears as I tried to fall asleep, with little success.There are three roads up the mountain, but we chose the “classic” route, starting in the town of Bedoin, about 22 kilometers from Ventoux’s summit. (Malaucène and Sault are the two other start locations.) The first five or six kilometers are relatively easy, averaging about a 4 percent grade. But as you reach the forest, the road kicks up to nearly a 9 percent grade.

Heading into the forest, I clicked into my easiest gear, where it would remain during most of the climb. In the days leading up to Ventoux, my right pedal had developed an annoying squeak, but as the climb passed the first hour, the familiar sound became almost comforting, allowing me to bang out a steady rhythm as I continued up, up, up.

Pedaling up, I recognized the look of concern as I passed riders and riders passed me. We were all wracked with doubts. Am I fit enough to make it to the top? Does my bike have the right gearing? Will this suffering ever end?

Ironically, Keith’s warning made the climb easier mentally. I waited for the road to go from merely steep to monolithic, but it never did (much to my relief). As I passed out of the forest, I knew I had the climb beat.

After the forest, the landscape turns almost desolate. The top third of the mountain is completely devoid of trees. Only a few man-made structures can withstand the brutal wind – sometimes reaching up to 200 kilometers an hour – and winter cold. In the distance, I spied the famous observatory that spelled the end of my journey about six kilometers away.

The first four of those kilometers offered a slightly respite, as the grade shifts to between six and eight percent. But in the last couple of kilometers, the road kicks up a bit, offering you one final test before you’re able to crest the top and coast into the parking area.

A few kilometers from the summit, I passed the Tom Simpson memorial, which honors the British Tour de France rider who passed away during this climb in 1967. It’s a stark reminder of just how dangerous the climb can be. Traditionally, Britons leave a small memento at the monument, whether it’s an empty water bottle or a trinket from home.

The last two kilometers were the hardest of the day, as the road jumped up to nine and 10 percent grades, with a steep kicker during the last switchback heading into the parking lot. My legs screamed as I rose from the saddle and put forth the extra watts needed to crest the summit. It was finally over.

A few minutes after my arrival, other STI riders followed suit. Di, a delightful Aussie who’d been fretting the climb even more than me, was overcome with emotion as we embraced.

“I made it,” she said, her eyes nearly welling with tears. “I didn’t think I could do it, but I did.”

I snapped her and her friend Gillian’s photo underneath the famed summit sign, 1911 meters up. The queue for the coveted photo opp can last several minutes, but riders are quick to get out of the way as soon as the shutter snaps, knowing how hard everyone worked to get there.

Pros can climb Ventoux in about an hour – former pro Iban Mayo holds the record at just under 56 minutes, although there’s no telling what he may have been on when he did that – but amateurs are going to take nearly twice as long. If you’re a relatively fit enthusiast cyclist, expect to finish the climb between 90-150 minutes. The fastest rider in our group did it just shy of two hours. Even in my relatively beefy state, I finished in about two hours and five minutes.

After picking up a small souvenir from the gift shop, I swung my leg over my Cannondale’s top tube and began my descent down. I was glad that I’d put on a wind vest and arm warmers at the summit, as the cold wind cut through me. I concentrated on navigating the tight switchbacks, but my eyes kept creeping back down to my Garmin. During one long straight stretch, I let my speed creep up to 72 kph, but spent the majority of the descent squeezing my brake levers for all they were worth.

It took me more than two hours to complete the climb, but less than 30 minutes to make it back down to Bedoin. Once back in the village, I found the rest of my teammates, where we devoured pizza and recounted our experiences on the mountaintop. We’d taken on a giant of the Tour de France and won.

Cycling Pros, Average Joes At The Tour De France

Rob Annis

When I told many of my friends and family I was riding some of the Tour de France routes, they automatically assumed I would be participating in the race. As nice as that would be, I would be shelled off the back of the pack before the Tour had left the start village.

Although I’ve occasionally dreamed of joining the pro peleton and perhaps donning the maillot jaune – the yellow jersey of the Tour de France leader – pro riders are on a whole other level than average cyclists like me.I’m lucky enough to know and have ridden with several domestic elite and professional riders. While I’m a decent enough cyclist – I’ve won a couple of amateur races and lead my share of segments on Strava – I know my pro friends could ride me off their wheel with little effort. They’re on a whole other level, and the elite international pros that contest the Tour de France are at a whole other level above them.

Just how much better are they than your average Joe squeezed into spandex? According to an article in Bicycling magazine, quite a lot.

Your typical cycling enthusiast averages up to 18 mph on flat roads and about 10 mph on hills. But according to Bicycling, the pros in the Tour de France average up to 10 mph and 15 mph faster, respectively. Your elite Tour de France rider averages more than double the wattage of the enthusiast, and can top an incredible 1,400 watts in the finishing kick of a stage sprint.

How do they get so fast? A lot of it is genetics for sure, but it’s also insane amounts of training and discipline. (We won’t get into other, less-legal reasons why.) I average about 150 miles a week on my bike; pros can average up to 800 miles during that same seven-day period.

But we do have advantages over the pros. While I can reward myself with a beer or three after a particularly grueling ride (or a not-so-hard ride as well), pro riders need to be cautious with every calorie they consume in order to maintain a body-fat percentage under 10 percent. If I have a bad race, I might be upset at myself for a day or two, but for a lower level or budding pro, a few bad races could mean the end of their career. Best of all, pro riders must look at cycling as a job, while we can just hop on our bikes and have fun.

Nabbing Free Souvenirs At The Tour De France

Rob Annis

So you’ve promised all your friends and family you’d bring them back souvenirs from your Tour de France trip. Although buying everyone a €20 T-shirt will help solve the lingering effects of the European financial crisis, it’s also going to put a bigger dent in your bank statement than those $1,300 plane tickets to France.

Before the start of each stage, a massive convoy of vehicles called the publicity caravan travels the day’s stage route. Imagine a massive carnival on wheels, filled with water-spraying acrobats, comically oversized plaster bike riders and lots of students throwing out free candy, hats, laundry detergent and more to the fans waiting for the race action to begin. Depending on the number of stages you see, you could easily fill an extra carry-on bag with the trinkets.
Advertisers pay tour organizers more than €150,000 for three or more spots in the caravan, which numbers in the hundreds. But with millions of people lining the route over the 23 days of the Tour, it’s probably a solid investment.

An estimated 11 million items are given away during each year’s Tour, and I managed to snag more than a few of them. But there’s one thing that stands out more than any of the others.

Standing on the side of the road leading up to the Col de Portet-d’Aspet, I desperately tried to nab one of the more prized freebies of the day, a green T-shirt modeled after the Tour’s sprinter jersey, but came up just short. When a couple of candy packages landed at my feet, I handed them to the excited young boy standing next to me rather than stuffing them into my jersey pocket (and later, my mouth). His happiness was contagious, and as more items kept landing next to me, I, in turn, handed them to him.

As the caravan began winding down, I began walking away when I felt a tap on my shoulder. The boy’s grandfather held out one of the T-shirts I attempted to grab earlier, the boy standing behind him with that same smile on his face. I held up my hands, attempting to decline the offer – after all, it didn’t seem like a fair trade – but the grandfather put the T-shirt in my hand and clasped my fingers around the fabric. I offered a heartfelt merci, and the two walked away to rejoin their family. I was grateful for the shirt, but the boy’s generosity will stay with me forever.