So you want to go to the Tour de France, but don’t have the vacation time for a multiple-week excursion or the money for a round-trip ticket?
Despite all three of the major Grand Tours taking place in Europe, you can still find top-notch bike racing – and the accompanying fan experience – in the U.S. Here are five of America’s biggest road cycling races.
Silver City Tour of the Gila Powered by SRAM (April 30 – May 4, 2014)
The five-day Tour of the Gila is a bit different than most of these events, because it gives amateur riders the opportunity to race themselves (albeit not with the pros). The race features not only some of the beautiful scenery New Mexico is known for, but also winds its way through ghost towns and steep mountain passes. You won’t see any of the famous European teams represented here, but the domestic pros – including UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team’s Philip Deignan, who won the overall earlier this year – can definitely put on a show.
Amgen Tour of California (May 2014)
Probably America’s most similar race to the Tour de France, the eight-day tour features the world’s top pro teams and travels through the mountains and countryside of the Sunshine State. There’s enough variety of terrain that virtually anyone can ride and feel like a pro racer for a day or two. For $1,000 and up, fans can pay to ride in the team car or get a bird’s-eye view of the finish and behind-the-scenes access to riders.U.S. Pro Road and Time Trial Championships (late May 2014)
Typically held Memorial Day weekend, this race features some of the country’s best male and female cyclists battling for the honor of wearing the stars-and-stripes jersey for the year. The road course around Chattanooga, Tenn., prominently features the 2,000-foot Lookout Mountain climb – difficult, but doable for most amateur riders.
Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah (Aug. 6-11)
The Tour of Utah bills itself as “America’s Toughest Stage Race,” featuring 43,000 vertical feet of climbing over 586 miles. If you don’t like riding up mountains, this probably isn’t the tour for you – this year’s one-day amateur race was 112 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing. Of America’s three top multi-day stage races, this event attracts the least amount of attention, so you can expect the same amount of excitement as the Tour, but with smaller crowds.
U.S. Pro Challenge (Aug. 19-25)
This seven-day stage race features both the world’s top cycling teams and scenery. While there are several stages to test your climbing legs, riders who prefer fast, flat routes won’t be disappointed. Bike racing is a huge deal in Colorado, so expect a massive turnout of fans to cheer on the pros and the amateur riders pre-riding the course.
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.
I never thought a chance encounter in France would lead to a greater appreciation of a Billy Joel song.
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.
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.