Exploring the Australian Outback? Know your venomous spiders.
Hiking in the Pyrenees? Stay away from cows. That’s the lesson learned recently after an 85-year-old hiker tragically died in the French Pyrenees after being charged by a herd of cows. The man was neither gored nor trampled, but was knocked to the ground by a cow and her calf, resulting in his death. Four other hikers were injured in the attack.
Many hiking areas around Europe are often near agricultural lands, and walking close to livestock is a common occurrence, but the accident is a reminder that even though cattle are a domesticated animal, they are not to be provoked and passing near them should be done with care.
As is proved by cow fighting in Switzerland, cows are far from a calm animal, especially if they are with their young which they will aggressively work to protect, and locals are known to complain about travelers who provoke their herds, treating them like pets.
Spending a week following the Tour de France was a dream come true, and perhaps even the trip of a lifetime. But is it the trip of a lifetime if you plan to go again?
Want to plan your own trip following the la Grande Boucle? You have plenty of options.
The first, and probably easiest, option is to purchase a tour package. I booked mine through Sports Tours International, a British outfitter. (Full disclosure – STI gave me a significantly discounted rate, but my wife paid full price.) For the first-time visitor, a tour package is ideal. The hotels we stayed at were always clean and well appointed. A tour bus allowed us flexibility where we rode and how far. On most evenings, the hotel served us multiple course meals that hit the spot after a full day of riding and race-watching. There were options for those with bikes and without, so if you have a non-riding spouse, it’s ideal.
But there are some caveats. First, don’t expect any handholding on one of these trips. If you don’t feel comfortable changing flats or navigating the roads of a foreign country on your own, this is probably not the tour for you. Also, our tour guide was a terrific guy, but didn’t speak a lot of French and wasn’t too familiar with the history or topography of the areas we rode. Luckily, we were never in a situation where we couldn’t communicate with a local – either one of the group knew some French or the person we were speaking to knew English.
Some tour operators, the biggest one being Trek Travel, offer additional perks – more guides, team access, more luxurious hotels, etc. – but you’re going to pay a premium for them, and they can quickly add up.
If you have a desire for more control of your itinerary, you could always plan your own trip, book your own hotels, find your own meals and plot your own rides. This is a great option for experienced folks who only want to follow the Tour for a day or two, or might not want to share space with strangers for a week or more.This approach is going to be somewhat more expensive on a day-to-day basis, and depending on your mastery of the French language or Kayak.com, perhaps a bit more difficult. Finding empty hotel rooms near the Tour de France route can often be hard, particularly for towns not equipped for the massive crowds attracted by the Tour. And if you’ve been riding all day, one of the last things you’re going to want to do is hike from restaurant to restaurant, searching for a place to eat.
During one of the stages, I ran into a couple from Ohio, who had rented a RV for a week. After talking to them for about an hour and doing some additional research, this may be the route we choose the next time we follow le Tour.
You should be able to find a six-person camper van for between €150 and €270 a day, depending on options. A quick google search should give you some nice options for rentals. If you watch the Tour coverage on televeision, you know RVs are a very popular way to follow the race, so it’s best to book early or, better yet, fly into a neighboring country and drive into France. The camper van will allow you to move from stage to stage with ease and allow you more flexibility when riding. You can also save a ton of cash by buying groceries and utilizing the RV’s stove and microwave rather than eating in restaurants two or three times a day.
However, while modern French highways are nice and wide, some villages’ roads were designed with pedestrians and horse-drawn carts in mind, not cars. The tighter quarters makes navigating a large RV through the twists and turns a bit of a challenge for American drivers. You should also be sure you can survive living in tight quarters with your friends for days, if not weeks, at a time. Following the Tour de France may be the trip of a lifetime, but is it worth losing lifelong friends over.
The best time to start planning your trip is in October, when the next year’s route is announced. Hotel rooms tend to fill up quick, so it’s best to make reservations early. If you’re planning to ride the route, decide how difficult you want to make it on yourself. If you want to tackle the legendary climbs, the Tour typically spends three to four days each in the Alps or the Pyrenees. Just be sure to train leading up to the trip, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for hours upon hours of pain – I know this from experience.
There’s a lot of hoopla and excitement in the hour or so before the riders pedal out of a departure city; you should check it out at least once during your trip. Spots near the finish line fill up quickly, so get there early or, better yet, find another spot a kilometer or two down the road when the sprinters’ teams are winding up for their big push to the line. It’s just as excited and not quite as packed.
On flat stages, the peleton can pass in seconds, so if you’re trying to get photos, aim for hillier stages, where the riders are spread out more. That said, steer clear of the big mountain finishes, such as Col d’Tourmalet or Mont Ventoux; officials will shut down the roads to vehicle traffic days before the stage and often won’t allow bike traffic up a day before. Even with those restrictions in place, more than one million fans jammed Alp d’Huez during this year’s stage finish.
If you do attend a mountaintop finish, don’t be one of those guys that runs next to the riders shouting. Everyone hates those guys.
Most importantly, have fun and get to know the people around you. The Tour de France is perhaps the greatest bike race in the world — the fans are understandably passionate and love to share that love with fans from other countries. Just don’t rub it in when a foreign rider is wearing the yellow leader’s jersey. It’s a bit of a sore spot.
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.
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.
Once upon a time, in the days of gluttonous yore – the 1980s – the celebrated Burgundian hill town of Vézelay, crowned by the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, was known as “a site of gastronomic pilgrimage.” Rarely did anyone evoke Magdalene’s relics or her UNESCO World Heritage Site shrine. Rarely did gastronomes notice the strangely attired pilgrims trudging up the looping, lichen-frosted lanes to venerate the longhaired, wild-woman saint.
In the 1980s, pilgrimage wasn’t in fashion. Hedonism seemed the thing. The Michelin-starred hotel-restaurant in crusty Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay at the saint’s feet was the shrine. Thousands offered up wallets on the altar of haute cuisine. Only zealots spoke of the moldering bones inside the basilica’s gilt reliquary.
Now nearly 2 million visitors climb the cobbled streets of upper Vézelay. This medieval aerie hovers above vineyards and those emerald-green pastures where romantic writers writhe in ecstasy. Legions of the pious brandish staffs, scallop shells and other tokens of religiosity. They besiege the ramparts, starting at Easter, the kick-off date for pilgrimages in France. Culture vultures, busloads of package tourists and brightly attired trekkers join the scrum.
Saint Bernard preached the Second Crusade at Vézelay on Easter day, 1146. It happened on March 31, like this year, a reason for numerological pilgrims to rejoice. It might also explain the numbers of visitors in Vézelay when I was there a few days ago.
Confession time: I’m not religious and am only partly reformed. I admit Vézelay was where my wife Alison and I started our trek: it lasted nearly three months and took us across France and over the Pyrenees. Vézelay surprised me then for the changes that have transformed it. This time around the upper part of town looked like a cross between Mont Saint Michel-France’s most visited site – and Montmartre. The formula is familiar: elephant trains, souvenirs, iffy food and parking lots packed with garishly painted buses.
What to do? Montmartre is wondrous at dawn. At Mont Saint Michel and Vézelay the trick is to spend the night. When the buses roll away, the magic steals back. It lasts until mid-morning.
We did not stay up all night. Arriving at dusk, we checked into an old favorite: the Hotel de la Poste et du Lion d’Or. Then we strolled up the storied streets. The crowds were headed out.
Spit-polished for the trade, the village still has a “real” side. We followed locals to a street paralleling the main drag, Grande Rue. The last day-trippers filled the wine bars, cafés and crêperies sampling the Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, the cappuccinos and Burgundy treats.
The residents roosted in the PMU-tobacco shop, knocking back an 80-proof distillate called marc de Bourgogne. They also wagered on pari-mutuel horse races, and watched with puzzlement as the neo-pilgrims vanished into the night.
Vézelay’s tourist office calls the basilica of Mary Magdalene “an extraordinary book of stone and light.” Beyond the troubled translation, the Romanesque shrine does seem to have been rewritten by ten centuries of heavy weather, lightning and strife. The façade definitely looks better when spotlit at night.
Over the doors three tympanums crawled with figures. The almond-shaped center one showed Christ surrounded by Apostles and strange beings ready for induction into the Universal Church. Giants and pygmies, dog-headed men and others with huge ears: the message was clear. All are welcome-sinners, miscreants like me, pagans, heathens and creatures only part human. This is Mary Magdalene’s basilica. She had been a prostitute.
It dawned on me why Vézelay’s central tympanum should resemble an almond or vulva. Hadn’t Mary’s first profession depended on the forbidden fruit? The cult of the Virgin, virginity, chastity and abstinence had come late to the church, ditto the rule against married priests, and women in the clergy. The reformed party boy Saint Francis of Assisi had come to Vézelay in its heyday. Maybe it was time for jocular Pope Francis to make a pilgrimage into the future by rediscovering the past?
Miracles happen, we’re assured.
The nave, daubed with dusky light, stretched a football field long. Having walked 750 miles, seeing a thousand churches en route, I now thought the nave looked vaguely Moorish. Its vaults and arches are rimmed by alternating pale and reddish stone, as in better mosques in Spain. Blasphemy?
The demons and monsters torturing sinners on the basilica’s carved capitals seemed to me to prove that progress is possible after all. In some places, notably France, the grin has overwhelmed the grim.
We were overdue for hedonistic relief. A girl in the hotel’s dining room was dressed like an Easter egg, lost in her Louis XV-style chair. She rose up and announced that the snails were “good and garlicky.” This prodigy then consumed a large pork jowl and several potatoes – as did I – savored ripe, smelly Epoisse cheese and gobbled a giant chocolate dessert. The child was a French paradox in the making. Healthy hedonism was alive and well in Vézelay. There was hope. Maybe miracles happen after all.