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.”

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.

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.