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.
When thinking of iconic Tour de France climbs, three mountains immediately spring to mind – Alp d’Huez, Col d’ Tourmalet and Mont Ventoux.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of riders flock to France to test their mettle against those three mountains and the ghosts of Tour riders past. On Bastille Day, July 14, the pro riders will race up Mont Ventoux during stage 15 of the Tour. Ten days earlier, it was my turn.
When I learned I would be climbing Ventoux during my trip, I was immediately intimidated. Although it’s considered to be in the Alps, Ventoux is far enough removed from the mountain range that it stands virtually alone on the horizon, rising nearly 2,000 meters from the ground. The steep climb has humbled better cyclists than me; riders have actually died attempting to reach the summit.
Days before the ride, Keith, one of my Sports Tour International teammates, recounted the two nonstop hours of pain and suffering he’d experienced on the mountain years earlier, calling it the hardest thing he’s ever done as a cyclist. The night before the Ventoux ride, his words continued to ring in my ears as I tried to fall asleep, with little success.There are three roads up the mountain, but we chose the “classic” route, starting in the town of Bedoin, about 22 kilometers from Ventoux’s summit. (Malaucène and Sault are the two other start locations.) The first five or six kilometers are relatively easy, averaging about a 4 percent grade. But as you reach the forest, the road kicks up to nearly a 9 percent grade.
Heading into the forest, I clicked into my easiest gear, where it would remain during most of the climb. In the days leading up to Ventoux, my right pedal had developed an annoying squeak, but as the climb passed the first hour, the familiar sound became almost comforting, allowing me to bang out a steady rhythm as I continued up, up, up.
Pedaling up, I recognized the look of concern as I passed riders and riders passed me. We were all wracked with doubts. Am I fit enough to make it to the top? Does my bike have the right gearing? Will this suffering ever end?
Ironically, Keith’s warning made the climb easier mentally. I waited for the road to go from merely steep to monolithic, but it never did (much to my relief). As I passed out of the forest, I knew I had the climb beat.
After the forest, the landscape turns almost desolate. The top third of the mountain is completely devoid of trees. Only a few man-made structures can withstand the brutal wind – sometimes reaching up to 200 kilometers an hour – and winter cold. In the distance, I spied the famous observatory that spelled the end of my journey about six kilometers away.
The first four of those kilometers offered a slightly respite, as the grade shifts to between six and eight percent. But in the last couple of kilometers, the road kicks up a bit, offering you one final test before you’re able to crest the top and coast into the parking area.
A few kilometers from the summit, I passed the Tom Simpson memorial, which honors the British Tour de France rider who passed away during this climb in 1967. It’s a stark reminder of just how dangerous the climb can be. Traditionally, Britons leave a small memento at the monument, whether it’s an empty water bottle or a trinket from home.
The last two kilometers were the hardest of the day, as the road jumped up to nine and 10 percent grades, with a steep kicker during the last switchback heading into the parking lot. My legs screamed as I rose from the saddle and put forth the extra watts needed to crest the summit. It was finally over.
A few minutes after my arrival, other STI riders followed suit. Di, a delightful Aussie who’d been fretting the climb even more than me, was overcome with emotion as we embraced.
“I made it,” she said, her eyes nearly welling with tears. “I didn’t think I could do it, but I did.”
I snapped her and her friend Gillian’s photo underneath the famed summit sign, 1911 meters up. The queue for the coveted photo opp can last several minutes, but riders are quick to get out of the way as soon as the shutter snaps, knowing how hard everyone worked to get there.
Pros can climb Ventoux in about an hour – former pro Iban Mayo holds the record at just under 56 minutes, although there’s no telling what he may have been on when he did that – but amateurs are going to take nearly twice as long. If you’re a relatively fit enthusiast cyclist, expect to finish the climb between 90-150 minutes. The fastest rider in our group did it just shy of two hours. Even in my relatively beefy state, I finished in about two hours and five minutes.
After picking up a small souvenir from the gift shop, I swung my leg over my Cannondale’s top tube and began my descent down. I was glad that I’d put on a wind vest and arm warmers at the summit, as the cold wind cut through me. I concentrated on navigating the tight switchbacks, but my eyes kept creeping back down to my Garmin. During one long straight stretch, I let my speed creep up to 72 kph, but spent the majority of the descent squeezing my brake levers for all they were worth.
It took me more than two hours to complete the climb, but less than 30 minutes to make it back down to Bedoin. Once back in the village, I found the rest of my teammates, where we devoured pizza and recounted our experiences on the mountaintop. We’d taken on a giant of the Tour de France and won.
When I told many of my friends and family I was riding some of the Tour de France routes, they automatically assumed I would be participating in the race. As nice as that would be, I would be shelled off the back of the pack before the Tour had left the start village.
Although I’ve occasionally dreamed of joining the pro peleton and perhaps donning the maillot jaune – the yellow jersey of the Tour de France leader – pro riders are on a whole other level than average cyclists like me.I’m lucky enough to know and have ridden with several domestic elite and professional riders. While I’m a decent enough cyclist – I’ve won a couple of amateur races and lead my share of segments on Strava – I know my pro friends could ride me off their wheel with little effort. They’re on a whole other level, and the elite international pros that contest the Tour de France are at a whole other level above them.
Your typical cycling enthusiast averages up to 18 mph on flat roads and about 10 mph on hills. But according to Bicycling, the pros in the Tour de France average up to 10 mph and 15 mph faster, respectively. Your elite Tour de France rider averages more than double the wattage of the enthusiast, and can top an incredible 1,400 watts in the finishing kick of a stage sprint.
How do they get so fast? A lot of it is genetics for sure, but it’s also insane amounts of training and discipline. (We won’t get into other, less-legal reasons why.) I average about 150 miles a week on my bike; pros can average up to 800 miles during that same seven-day period.
But we do have advantages over the pros. While I can reward myself with a beer or three after a particularly grueling ride (or a not-so-hard ride as well), pro riders need to be cautious with every calorie they consume in order to maintain a body-fat percentage under 10 percent. If I have a bad race, I might be upset at myself for a day or two, but for a lower level or budding pro, a few bad races could mean the end of their career. Best of all, pro riders must look at cycling as a job, while we can just hop on our bikes and have fun.
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 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.