The cyclists get the glory, but it’s the fans who make the Tour de France arguably the world’s greatest race. During my recent trip, I was able to experience this firsthand.
Starting from our hotel in Nice, our group of riders wanted to ride the 75 kilometers to the village of Fayence, where the professional riders were scheduled to pass through around 4:30 p.m. (Race organizers use the difficulty of the terrain and the average race speed to make their estimations.)
The first 10 kilometers were mostly on a well-traveled bike path leading past the airport and out of the city. For most of that leg, we fell in behind a well-dressed young French woman, probably riding to work. The scene might have been humorous to drivers passing by: a woman in a skirt, pedaling a casual townie bike, leading out a dozen or so “serious” riders in full kit and helmets.
Arriving in Cagnes-sur-Mer, workers had just closed the race route to automobile traffic, leaving the roads open for the next few hours to spectators and cyclotourists. The next few hours would become some of the most treasured memories I’ll take away from this trip.Our group quickly splintered into smaller factions as the faster riders pedaled away. About six of us were in the front group, averaging 35 or so kph – not fast by pro standards, but decent for amateurs with careers and mortgage payments. As we rode through towns like Biot and Valbonne, the crowd clapped and cheered as if we were the riders they’d been waiting several hours to see. Riding by, hearing the repeated screams of “Allez!” – the informal cheer of the Tour de France – made my hair on my neck stand up.
French fans appreciate passion, effort and suffering. When they see it, whether it’s a world-famous pro or a pudgy Hoosier travel writer, they react accordingly.
After about 20 kilometers, we were mistakenly ushered off the route by a slightly confused police officer. For the next 15 kilometers, we attempted to navigate back to the race route, stopping every few kilometers to study the map. By the time we found our way back, we were in a race against the clock. We needed to make it to Fayence to meet up with the rest of our group before the publicity caravan rolled through.
Our small group would splinter again. With the others within our sights, a British rider named Keith and I battled to catch the wheels in front of us. Just outside of Fayence, a French police officer called a gendarme leapt out in front of us; we were the first riders to be ushered off the course. In mangled French, we pleaded with him to let us through, but he stood firm and offered us a detour.
“Two kilometers that way,” he said, pointing vaguely at a narrow road behind him. After several climbs already that day and a massive one slated for the next, we both were looking forward to an easy shortcut into town. We didn’t get one. The road seemingly became a wall, easily a 20 percent grade. We cursed our luck, before cursing the geological nightmare that birthed this wicked climb. At the top of the first hill, the asphalt gave way to stone as we rolled into a small medieval village. We stopped a passing car, driven by a tourist from Liverpool here for the Tour. He graciously offered to lead the way to Fayence, which, as our luck would have it, up another hill, albeit one that wasn’t as steep.
Five minutes later, we were descending into the town, eventually coming across the publicity caravan. We would find several other members of our group in an outdoor café, sipping drinks. Two hours later, I’m standing on the edge of the road, camera ready. Nearly a minute before I can see the breakaway riders, I can hear the crowd’s reaction to them.
I’ll likely never experience what it’s like to climb a beyond-category mountain in less than an hour or outkick Mark Cavendish to the finish line, but as the cheers grow louder and louder, I know that feeling. And no one can ever take that away from me.