Nabbing Free Souvenirs At The Tour De France

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.

The Best Way To Experience The Tour de France? From A Bike Saddle

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.

Climbing The Col d’Eze, Hiking Down Ancient Footpaths

Located just outside of Nice, the Col d’Eze is a misnomer; there is very little easy about this climb.

Even some professional riders have trouble with the climb, the showcase peak of the famous early season Paris-Nice race and a favorite training ground for professional riders living in the area. The 500-meter mountain averages about a 7 percent grade at its beginning, levels out a bit for couple of kilometers, then shifts upward to an 8 or 9 percent grade at the 5.5 kilometer mark. The next two kilometers alternate between grades of 4 and 7 percent, before evening out at the end. It’s 10 kilometers of torture.

When I tackled the Col d/Eze, it was the first ride with my new Sports Tours International teammates for the week, and it immediately reminded me of a fact that I was reluctant to acknowledge: I’m not remotely fit enough for this trip a the moment.

Serious cyclists tend to watch their figures closer than the most OCD supermodel. After dropping more than 40 pounds two years ago to begin my amateur racing campaign, I’ve been pretty good about monitoring my calories … until this year. I’ve found myself racing less and drinking more beer, an equation that spells disaster for any rider. Every pound I’ve gained means yet another pound I’m carrying up with me on the bike. I’m carrying the equivalent of twins – or twin kegs, at least – around my waist.

I’m from Indiana. We have hills there. Steep, occasionally. Long, rarely. I’ve climbed mountains on either American coast before, but nothing like this one. I’ve never been afraid when the road turns upward, but as I stared at the nine-percent grade stretching out into the unknown and tried clicking to a gear I didn’t have left, I felt my stomach knot up slightly.As the road continued upward, I felt as if I were propelled backwards as several riders scampered past. Back home, I’m known as a pretty decent hill climber; I’m not used to getting dropped. The only thing I could do is mentally shove the pain in my legs aside and keep churning my way to the top.

As we regrouped at the top, we began making a bit of small talk, getting to know the other riders we’d be spending much of the next week riding next to. A big Brit named Keith reminisced about an early trip he had taken in the area, warning us of even more difficult roads ahead.

“This is nothing compared to Ventoux,” he said, causing many of the assembled sphincters to instantly pucker. “Imagine the steepest part of the climb and multiply it by four, and that’s Ventoux. You’re in for two hours or more of pain on that one.”

Rather than dwell on Keith’s warning, we pedaled on. The trip up the mountain was pure work, so we were all looking forward to a fun, quick descent as our reward. But a navigation error led us down a steep, narrow pathway that corkscrewed down several meters before coming to an abrupt end well short of road. (The European cycling maps on Garmin’s Edge GPS units are rumored to be somewhat unreliable, we would learn afterward.)

Luckily we came across a village resident out for a stroll, who directed us to a crumpled old Roman footpath that would lead us down to where we needed to go. So the group, now swelled to more than a dozen, began to nimbly hike down, the smooth cleats of our cycling shoes making the descent nearly as treacherous as anything we’ve faced on the bike.

As I traverse the path, I don’t think of the history behind it — the ancient residents who built it, the long-dead family members who used it — instead my only concern is not slipping and cracking my head open.

Luckily, I managed to escape the path with my life. Within moments of hitting the road, we’re at the Monaco border, looking down upon the buildings and yachts glistening in their Mediterranean splendor. The rich and famous can have their casinos and mansions; I’ll take the wind and open road any time.

A quick coffee in Monaco, and we’re on the road yet again. A fast, mostly descending route through some tunnels and along the Mediterranean Sea, and we’re back in Nice. Despite my struggles up the Col d’Eze and our hike-a-bike misadventure, I was already looking forward to the next day’s ride.

The Tour De France Takes Over Nice

Nice, the resort oasis in the south of France, may be best known for the intense, steel-blue of the Mediterranean Sea, but for a few days this July, yellow was the color of note.

We arrived in Nice less than 24 hours before nearly 200 of the world’s best bike riders took over 25 kilometers of the city’s streets. The Tour de France is more than a sporting event for the French people; it’s a nearly month-long national holiday and point of immense national pride in France.

Just how popular is the race? Last year, nearly 20 percent of the French people lined the roads to catch a glimpse of the peleton screaming past. Although it’s been nearly 30 years since the last French champion, five-time winner Bernard Hinault — a fact that gnaws at the collective French psyche like bad red wine — it doesn’t diminish their love of the event.

Leading up to the race, Nice was awash in yellow — the jersey color signifying the Tour’s leader — as seemingly every other person wore a hat, T-shirt, or other article of clothing dug from the back of their closet matching the distinctive hue. Tour talk dominated conversation, both among the French and the thousands of cyclotourists who swarmed into the city to catch the action.Sitting in an outdoor café near the Promenade du Paillon the night before the race, fans good-naturedly joked about the team time trial happening the next day. A couple of Britons near us predicted a victory for Team Sky and its leader, Chris Froome, while a table of Aussies rooted for their countryman Cadel Evans and his BMC squad. (They were both wrong. Australia’s Orica-Green Edge would eventually win the stage.) I can only imagine our French waiter was waiting for the next stage more suited to the strengths of Team Europcar’s co-leaders, Thomas Voekler and Pierre Rolland.

Blocks away from our hotel, the Mercure Promenade, thousands of fans crowded an expo sponsored by Tour organizers. The giveaways from the various sponsors were a massive hit with the fans; every other person wore a hat adorned with the logo of LCL Bank, sponsor of the yellow jersey. Nearby, a DJ spun tracks atop a specially modified Skoda hatchback, attracting numerous bikini-clad ladies from the rocky beach below. The cycling kit of AG2R la Mondiale is often ridiculed for its garish baby-blue and brown hues, but fans still lined up six deep to grab a scarf with that same color scheme. We managed to grab several of each as cheap souvenirs for our jealous friends back home.

In the days before the event, the streets were nearly overrun by amateur cyclists of all shapes, sizes and abilities, who took to the streets test themselves on the same roads the pros would later conquer. Bike riders are commonplace in Nice – the city boasts an impressive bike share program called VeloBleu. After a quick phone call, my wife was able to rent one of the heavy, steel-framed behemoths for an hour for a mere Euro. We tooled around the city streets, amazed at how courteous and patient the drivers were. (It shouldn’t be too surprising, given how seemingly important bicycles are in day-to-day French life.)

I’m hoping the rest of the country is equally as bicycle friendly as Nice. For the next week, I’ll be riding some of the Tour de France courses with more than a dozen riders with Sports Tours International, a British outfitter specializing in adventure travel. Included on the route are two of the giants of Tour lore, Mount Ventoux and the Tourmalet, both of which top out around 2,000 meters. For a cyclist who spends most of his time training in the relatively flat state of Indiana, it should be a heck of a ride.

The 2013 Tour De France Begins Today!

Cycling fans across the globe are celebrating today as the 2013 Tour de France gets underway for the first time from the Isle of Corsica. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the race and to commemorate the occasion Tour organizers have put together a course that is designed to create drama and test the skill and endurance of the riders. For the next three weeks they will be battling it out on the roads of France, with the winner ultimately being decided on the slopes of the Pyrenees and the Alps.

Typically the first day of the Tour is a short prologue that is over quickly and helps to determine the initial positioning heading into the first real days of racing. That won’t be the case this year, however, as the riders hit the road in Corsica this morning for a 213-kilometer (132-mile) ride from Porto-Vecchio to Bastia. The course won’t feature any massive climbs just yet, but it will undulate through the hills, nonetheless. It does include some relatively flat portions, particularly near the end, that will allow the sprinters in the field to stretch their legs and show off their early form.

Last year’s Tour winner Bradley Wiggins is out of this year’s Tour while he nurses an injury to his knee. That means the race is wide open, although the odds on favorites heading in are Wiggins’ teammate Chris Froome of the U.K. and Spanish cycling legend Alberto Contador who returns to competition after sitting out much of last year for a failed drug test. Contador is one of the best riders of his generation and he has won the Tour on three separate occasions, although one of those was stripped due to the aforementioned doping violation. The Spaniard is riding well this year, however, and he seems as determined as ever to win the race.Other contenders include Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde and Andy Schleck of Luxembourg. Schleck missed last year’s race due to an injury and has finished as the runner up three times in the past. He is hoping to be in contention in the final days once again this year. The 2011 winner, Cadel Evans of Australia, hopes to return to form and claim a second Tour victory, but should he falter as he did last year, his team could rally around 23-year-old American Teja Van Garderen who shows signs that he is ready to contend for the coveted Yellow Jersey worn by the race leader.

The famous maillot jaune isn’t the only jersey up for grabs, however. The world’s top sprinters will be battling it out for the Green Jersey with the U.K.’s Mark Cavendish likely to be in the mix along with Slovakian rider Peter Sagan. The Polka Dot Jersey is awarded to the race’s best climber in the King of the Mountain category, who should be in the mix with the top riders heading into the final stages in the Alps.

The next three weeks will be exciting ones for fans of the Tour. Last year’s race was often described as “lackluster” with little drama in large part because Wiggens and his team were just so dominant. That isn’t likely to be the case this year with more mountain stages to challenge the legs of the leaders. It is very likely that race won’t be decided until the final few days, with the winner enjoying his victory lap on the Camps Élysées on July 21.