Tour de France Finale in Paris

It was a very emotional day: the final stage of the Tour de France. After 21 stages in 23 days I can hardly believe it is actually over. It was also an exhausting and hot day. It took some staying and recovering to appreciate that I was actually on the Champs Elysees watching the last eight laps of the 2014 Tour de France.

IMG_3206My favorite moments were actually trying to snap a picture of the lantern rouge, the only Chinese rider Jl Cheng of Giant Shimano.  At the start of the day he was almost 6 hours behind Vincenzo Nibali. Today he was lapped by the main peloton. Ouch.

We were about 150 feet from the finish line, but it was on the other side of the road so it was only on a distant large screen television that I could see Marcel Kittel just barely beat Andre Greipel. 

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The end of the race was a nice surprise. Much of the crowd stayed and cheered for the riders as they made their way to the team buses. Some even high-fived us as we reached over the barrier. The winner of Stage 19 stopped to speak to his friend. Families helped to celebrate the end. 

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Thomson Bike Tours went on a river cruise. I chose to walk slowly back and see the team buses and savor the last moments of this magnificent event. The Vittel water sponsors were peeling off the logo from the vehicle and I got a section of it. Sounds strange I know, but it looks really cool.

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I paused to see Jens Voigt, Frank Schleck and others at the Trek Racing Team bus. Then I spied Gabe, my Trek Travel guide. It was great to give him a big hug and bring my experience full circle. 

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Now I cannot wait to get the DVD from NBC Sports so I can hear about this year’s tour in English!

Women of the Tour de France

Some people who are unfamiliar with the Tour de France are surprised to learn that it is still a men only sporting event. This year is a grand exception. An inaugural women’s race is taking place in Paris on Sunday. I will be able to watch from my Thomson Bike Tours VIP viewing on the Champs Elysees.

(Marianne Vos, the current world champion, won the circuit race. We overcame many obstacles to be able to see the last couple of laps.)women's race

Meanwhile, most of the staff supporting the teams are men, but women are not relegated to sponsor liaisons only.  For example, Mariah and Alyssa with team Garmin Sharp are a communications director and soigneur, respectively.

The communications director wrangles television and radio interviews, new media as well as managing press releases and Twitter and Facebook accounts.  Both Mariah and Alyssa laughed at the idea of having a narrowly defined job. On the Tour you do whatever is needed.

Alyssa could be assigned to hotel massages when the team bus roles in, or making the bags of food up for the feed zone, or filling water bottles among the many possible tasks. And filling water bottles is not just about filling them with water. Each rider has preferences for their liquids—gatorade, water, water with electrolytes, and so on. Read this article from Ride magazine to learn more about life as a soigneur.

They travel with the team over 200 days a year. Alyssa has been with the “Argyll” team since the beginning and has been living in Spain and will move to Ireland to be closer to family. 

Stage 20: Tony Martin Wins Time Trial!

Today is Stage 20: the one and only time trial. I have been following Tony Martin’s career since he rode for Columbia HTC.  He has mastered the discipline of the time trial where the best in the business maintain their focus and wattage for a solid 50 to 70 minutes.

Tony Martin, 3 time world time trial champion, crushed it! 

This year Tony was put on the spot at the pre-Tour Team Presentation when they asked him how Mark Cavendish is as a leader. He froze. You could imagine the thought balloons above his head as he fished for something to say that would please the home crowd. Mark just leaned across the bikes and grinned at him. It reinforced the image some may have of a reserved Germanic machine.

Waiting outside the Omega Pharma Quick Step team bus yesterday at the departure, I saw the other side of Tony Martin. He has a charming smile and he has charisma. He also speaks English well and is very patient and polite with fans.

Bike camera installed on Tony Martin's bicycle.

Bike camera installed on Tony Martin’s bicycle.

Yesterday the mechanics outfitted his bike with the on-bike camera. (They were going to upload the film to the OPQS website depending on how the race went; did not see anything on site). 

Davide of OPQSI started the tour without a “favorite team” as I admire riders on BMC, Trek and other teams. Then standing at OPQS team area waiting for riders to wrap up their team meeting, I chatted with Davide Bramati, the sport director, and began to realize how many of their riders I admire. Of course there is Mark Cavendish. This video of Mark Cavendish in team car with Davide Bramati is fun. 

Mark’s early departure meant that his teammates were freed up from recreating the lead train on possible sprint finishes and Matteo Trentin won stage 7 and Tony Martin won stage 9 and now stage 20.

This is the team where Brian Holm is also a sports director. I enjoyed watching him in the Tour movie Chasing Legends. Plus they have “Prince Harry” or Mark Renshaw.Mark Renshaw

In the first week, back in Yorkshire, (that feels like a million years ago) one of my Trek Travel teammates really like OPQS and now I can say they are my favorite team too.

Incredible Access at Stage 19 Departure

My last VIP pass to a departure village was in Maubourguet.  Thanks to Thomson Travel we arrived in plenty of time for a coffee and a slice of pear tart in the official Village before the team coaches arrived. Then we went to the area where the team buses park.

Each stage is set up differently depending on the space designated in the host town. This day the road barriers were set up so the buses lined up on one side and the cars parked across in the pedestrian area at a diagonal leaving about one lane for journalists, fans, team cars and racers to pass one another.

Today I noticed how much camaraderie there is among the teams and riders. Racers were stopping on their way to sign in and chatting with friends. Some would get stuck in traffic and oblige signature seekers like me. I had to keep my wits about me so as not to miss an opportunity. Some riders like Marcus Burkhardt spend a lot of time chatting with friends.

Kiwi cyclist Jack Bauer for Garmin-Sharp

Kiwi cyclist Jack Bauer for Garmin-Sharp speaking to Thomson spectator Greg

My top priority today was getting an autograph from the Kiwi Jack Bauer at Garmin Sharp for my friend Barry Bridgman in St Heliers. Then I moved on to Omega Pharma Quick Step. I got so many signatures that my flag is almost full.Young fan systematically collects autographs.

The night before we were awakened by raucous thundershowers. The rain continued lightly and at the start it looked like a wet ride. The wet roads dampened riders’ spirits and created the conditions for a largish crash inside 3 km. This took Peter Sagan out of the sprint finish and may have distracted the peloton enough to allow Garmin Sharp’s Ramunas Navardauskas to stay away and win.

Jens Voigt rides to the start of Stage 19

Jens Voigt rides to the start.

Jens Voigt has a terrific blog on Bicycling.com. He summed up Stage 19 in a very funny and profane rant. I read it on Thomson Spectator Greg’s iPad but it may have been removed for being too irreverent. Bottom line: Stage 19 was s**t!

Stage 18: Great Day on the Mountaintop

IMG_2908As mountaintop experiences go, this was one of the best. About 80 Thomson guests and staff met by bike or van about 1.2 km from the finish on the epic Hautacam. The road is barely wide enough for tarmac and barriers so we hiked up the hill to the finish. We saw Bob Roll again and then I hung out for a couple of minutes and met Christian Vande Velde who is enjoying his first year as an NBC commentator. I asked him if the pace is different than cycling. The days are longer as a broadcaster. And he cannot just ride his bike off the mountain at the end like the racers do. The traffic can be tremendous getting down at the end of a race. Oh yes, Christian signed my flag.

I enjoyed looking at how they set up the finish since there is really nothing but road and mist at the top of Hautacam. Then I took my time scrambling down the side of the road to the Thomson Bike Tours compound of tents. Again they sent people 4 days ahead to reserve and protect our spot. In addition to the televisions broadcasting the race in English, there was a live band. The lovely Gigi and her band got us dancing and added to the party atmosphere. 

The Tour put barriers along the road for the last 3 kilometers. This takes the “piss out of the spectators.” Fine with me. It makes me nervous when spectators run alongside or touch the cyclists. The Tour de France issues all sorts of warnings and there are gendarmes all along the route trying to keep fans in order, yet people will still crazy, especially when alcohol is involved.

The caravan went by and only a few of us went to catch swag. The Thomson cyclists had ridden their bikes up Hautacam after a few big days of riding and many of them were checking their eyelids for leaks. 

The the race came roaring up the hill. We had already watched Nibali attack at the bottom of the climb. He is silencing (I hope) the critics who question if he would be wearing the yellow jersey if Froome and Contador were still in the race. As Sandy from Melbourne says, “Your Aunt would be your Uncle is she had balls.” Give the shark a break, he won the yellow jersey on Stage 2 and his team has kept him safe from crashes and attacks. He is the yellow jersey and nothing but catastrophe or a positive test will keep him from the top of the podium.

As riders went by I found myself possessed with the spirit of Wolverine and I shouted. “You are awesome. Go, go, go!” The other fun part of a uphill finish is the racers are spread out. On the rail I met George from South Africa. There are VIPs and then there are VIPs. He is a Europecar muckety-muck and he has ridden in the team car following the racers for 2 days. I found it hard to believe him when he said he enjoyed cycling up the hill and watching with us from the side of the road more than the team car. 

The hardest part of the day was getting off the mountain. We were sun soaked and tired and the traffic was miserable. Our van driver Collum did a phenomenal job navigating the pedestrians, cyclists and bad drivers. We did not get back to the hotel until 10 p.m. A couple of non-Thomson cyclists crashed including one teenager who thought he was invincible until he was not. (He will be okay after having some bones set.)

After a quick bowl of pasta I crashed.  This morning we go to our last VIP departure.  Only 3 stages left. 

The Queen Stage in St Lary

Thomson Bike Tours regularly stays at the Mercure Hotel in St Lary Soulan for the Pyrenees portion of the Tour de France. This year it just so happens to be on the course of Stage 17 and a quick gondola ride up to the finish line. 

Thomson Cyclists rode their bikes the 10 km straight up to the finish line. Spectators took the gondola. We all messed about this morning watching the finish village come together. Jacinta introduced us all to Phil Liggett and I scored his signature. He is a huge favorite with all of us and he was very down to earth and lovely about posing for pictures and giving autographs. I returned to the village and hotel and did a couple of chores and then checked in on the race in the bar.

It was fun watching it with the Thomson cyclists and other hotel guests. When we thought the caravan was passing, we left the comfort of the bar lounge and stood in the hot sun for more swag. Then we returned to watch the race. It was an exciting day. Although only 124.5 km, it included 3 category 1 climb and ended with an HC finish in St Lary Pla d’Adet.  When the leader “Kiri” had 20 km to go (a quick descent into St Lary Soulan), we dashed back to the roundabout right by the hotel and waited.

The race leadership got rejiggered on that descent and suddenly the breakaway was consolidated and Kiri was no where to be seen. We waited for the yellow jersey and then dashed back to the hotel lounge to watch the finish. The newly anointed polka dot jersey (King of the Mountains), Rafal Majka with Tinkoff Saxo, was in the lead. We could not tell exactly how close everyone was on the last climb because the announcing was all in French. Finally, it was clear that Majka earned his 2nd stage victory and the 3rd stage victory for Tinkoff Saxo. 

After some fun kibbitzing with my fellow spectators, I walked outside to find the team buses. It took a while to walk there and I decided to gravitate to Trek and Cannondale. I arrived at the Trek bus at the same time as Jens Voigt! Someone grabbed his bike from him and took off the computer and put the bike on top of a team car. Jens signed an autograph and jumped on the bus. 

I turned around and found Jacinta and Lisa at the Cannondale bus waiting for Peter Sagan’s return. All of the riders rode back down the last climb because it is faster than dealing with the crazy traffic jam. Peter has to receive his green jersey on the podium and do media interviews before he can ride down. All the other team members had already returned and showered on the bus by the time he returned. Lisa did not get a picture with him; however, she and Jacinta had a ball talking to the mechanics and other riders. 

It is good to grab a slice of pizza on the way home and have an early night. Tomorrow we are up with the robins to drive to within 1.5 km from the finish on Hautacam. Tomorrow the racers go up both Tourmalet and Hautacam. I really look forward to riding my bike when I get back to Davis, and I am perfectly content being a super fan and leaving the riding to others in the Pyrenees.

 

Stage 16 in the Pyrenees

Michael Rogers realizes that he has won the stage and sits up and enjoys his first Tour de France win.

Michael Rogers realizes that he has won the stage and sits up and enjoys his first Tour de France win.

I am so excited that Michael Rogers won the stage. He rode a brilliant tactical ride and sailed into the finish with time to celebrate. We were watching from the Izoad bus in the VIP section and we were not sure how close the other riders from the breakaway were so we all reacted with a little bit of shock and worry. So many riders have been caught at the line. Great to see one of my favorite riders from HTC Columbia enjoy his first Tour de France stage win. It was also the first by an Aussie in 2014, so many of my group members were very happy. 

IMG_2536We have a new group of spectators to work with Jacinta on world domination. It is a larger group so I am focusing on getting to know a few people each day, otherwise it is overwhelming. Our days are long because we have to get places before the roads close and then the traffic back to the hotel is always challenging. They are made longer because we wait and eat at the same time as the Thomson cyclists. Tonight dinner was at 9:30 p.m. 

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Once again we have a core group of Australians who keep us going. I have learned a new car game. When you see a yellow car you yell “Spotto.” I am a little suspicious about the rules. When we spotted a tractor and a van, they did not count. But then Phil spotted a photo of a yellow car and it counted. 

IMG_2577IMG_2581I had a delightful experience at the yarn shop buying stitch holders. The proprietress was gracious and helpful–she even brought out some wool she thought I had dropped. I asked her for a recommendation for a place to eat lunch. She recommended a place just down the street. It did not open until 12:30 and I was one of many waiting by the time they opened. I guess I am invisible, or my American accent makes me so because I finally gave up and walked away.

I bought a ham and cheese croissant and a chocolate eclair at a Patissier instead. I chose the place because of the window display with the macarons as paint on an easel.  The race finished in Bagneres-de-Luchon. It was decked out with banners and celebrations that I have not seen since England. The crowds are swelling and getting louder too.