Planning 2017 Bike Trips

It’s that time of year. Tomorrow the ISO will announce the official 2017 Tour de France route. Rumors are flying on Twitter and Facebook about some of the stages being more than 400 kilometers. Ugh. When will they learn from the Vuelta and the Giro that shorter stages are more competitive? The race is already an endurance test. As a fan, the main reason you should tune in to the route announcement is to begin planning your own adventure–especially booking your hotel.

You can cycle or spectate with an official tour, such as Trek Travel or Thomson Bike Tours. Or you can plan your own adventure. I recommend looking for places where there are starts and finishes close together. The Pyrenees are also terrific: beautiful, many viewing spots within reach, lots of hotels to accommodate teams and fans.

The catalogs for bicycle trips are also arriving. Trek Travel’s beautiful brochure arrived and I spent several happy hours looking at the possibilities. With Trek you know your hotel will be fabulous, the food fantastic and the guides/support reliable, and you pay dearly for this top of the line experience. The Adventure Cycling Association tour catalog also landed in my mailbox this month. These trips are less expensive, generally a bigger time commitment and a bigger physical challenge than your typical bike tour. Two people in my RAGBRAI 2015 group met while riding across the USA with Adventure Cycling Association and they had all positive things to say. You can select from fully supported, Inn to Inn, self contained or van supported rides (and more).

I’ve been dealing with some health issues so my goal is to work my back to the place where I can consider one of these adventures. My ideal trip in 2017 would include the start of the Tour de France in Dusseldorf, Germany in July. What destination is in your future?

 

Art of the 101st Tour de France

Supporting Greig Leach’s Kickstarter campaign to bring his beautiful drawings together in a book was a no-brainer. I’d seen some of his drawings in the news. We were both following the entire tour. I like how he captured pivotal moments of each day in line drawings with watercolor in his Book du Tour. I received my copy about 2 weeks ago and I have been going through it slowly. It brings back so many great memories.

book du tour

It is also time to sign up for cycling tours at the 2015 Tour de France.  I can personally recommend either Trek Travel or Thomson Bike Tours.

If you are interested in a spectator tour, then Thomson is the only one offering these. The brilliant Jacinta McHale is returning to lead them.

And on a completely silly note, those of us who traveled with Jacinta in 2014 were thrilled to see Enriique Iglesias’ song Bailando won the Song of the Year at the Latin Grammys.

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. 

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!

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 11: The Sun Shines

IMG_1914We set out for the “Arrive” in Oyonnax at 8:15 a.m. after a quick VIP Spectator Team photo. We said so long to the couple of dozen Thomson Tour cyclists who were heading out for a full day of climbing. God bless them.

It took several hours to drive to the plastic and comb capitol of France. Oyonnax is not picturesque. It looks like the kind of planned, sterile manufacturing towns that sprang up in the 1960s and 70s.  We had a good lunch and then focused on le Tour. We walked to the VIP area near the finish line.  Gone are the clouds, rain and cool temperatures of the first 10 stages. Today felt like I was home in Davis, California: hot, very hot. 

IMG_1947 IMG_1948Our zany tour guide Jacinta arranged for a “behind the scenes” tour with Valentina. She allowed us to walk out and take photos on the finish line.  We bumped into Greg LeMond and James from Minneapolis had a good conversation with him. She also made sure we got photos from the official VIP photographer and champagne in the viewing area.

IMG_1970 IMG_1979One of my goals was to find out more about the sponsor liaisons or podium girls.  Today was a relatively quiet finish (far fewer spectators) so access to the sponsor liaisons was relatively easy.  One of the PMU green jersey sponsor liaisons, Lisa, spoke English and answered my questions. I asked if it is competitive to become a liaison. She said no, she just applied and had an interview. Later on the bus Kris and Tony joked that they will apply and I added, you also need to be devastatingly beautiful. Tony and Kris laughed and admitted that this took them out of the competition.  (Then there is the gender difference.) Did I mention that they are all very tall?

 Lisa’s colleague is a model but she is not. She started with the Tour when it came to France. She only represents PMU and the green jersey. There are other PMU liaisons because in the 7 stages in France she has only cheek-kissed Peter Sagan twice.  (Sagan has held the green jersey since England.)  Two of her other colleagues presented the jersey today and rocked the Star Trek inspired dresses.  My favorite costumes are definitely the King of the Mountain sponsor Carrefour (French grocery stores)—those infamous red polka dots.

IMG_2016 IMG_2018I always wondered how the podium girls worked. Was it like the Pasadena Rose Parade court?  Or were they local girls?  In George Hincapie’s new book, The Loyal Lieuntenant, he describes meeting his wife on the podium. He felt an electric shock when she kissed his cheek and pursued her in spite of the sponsor’s frowning on relationships between liaisons and riders. She described her experience in his book: “I had done the Tour (and Paris-Nice too) in 2002, and the custom was you got on year as a sponsor liaison and then moved on. (The casting process was quite intense, starting with over eighty girls who were eventually whittled down to only four.) But two weeks before the 2003 Tour, the head of Credit Lyonnais called and said that a couple of the main sponsors had asked if I could come back and take part in another year. It was just fate that I was on that stage…”

IMG_1977 IMG_2060I also enjoyed watching the press zone after the race. They created a kind of cattle chute for the riders to walk through and pause for interviews and photos before heading into the trailer studio for video interviews. No chance for getting signatures.

The inspirational story of the day was Andrew Talansky of Miami, Florida. He deserves a dedicated post. 

Planning My Tour de France 2014 Adventure

Not sure if it is the caffeine (and sugar) I consumed at lunch or the sheer thrill of booking two legs of my Tour de France Adventure earlier today. I am stoked. I put a $100 deposit with Thomson Bike Tours so they would send me an announcement about their spectator tours as soon as they came available.

Route Map of Tour de France 2014
Route Map of Tour de France 2014

I received the email this morning and already booked two tours! I previously determined that mountain stages are easier to view with help from a tour company. I learned on October 23 that le Tour 2014 has 3 mountain ranges! I looked at the tour operators sanctioned by the Tour de France and zeroed in on Trek Tours and Thomson Bike Tours as they are English speaking.

Thomson especially offers more for spectators in the mountains. This morning I spent some time looking at the itineraries of the Alps trip and the Pyrenees and Paris trip. The Alps trip offers better access to 3 mountain stages, but substitutes site-seeing instead of Stage 12. They organize it so we will stay every night in Albertville and then transport us to the various stages. I can spend my travel energy on le Tour, not shifting hotels.  I weighed not viewing the start or finish of Stage 12 with the upside of a tour operator worrying about the details for me and pressed “Book this Trip”.

The second trip is longer and tackles more challenging logistics. It offers 5 nights in St Lary and 2 nights in Paris. There is another trade-off: travelling to Paris instead of viewing the 20th stage, the time trial. By this time I will have been travelling for a month and I anticipate appreciating anyone who is willing to sort out my details.

I have not gone on organized tours very often. It can be challenging moving about with a group of people (any number greater than 4). Yet there is also built in camaraderie and professional guides offer greater knowledge and access.

I also plan to start le Tour with Trek Tours. This is a trip for cyclists, not spectators. For this trip (not yet published), I am improving my cycling ability and endurance. I am purposefully planning it for the start of my adventure when my energy level will be at the highest level (and before the mountains). I am so excited about riding from Cambridge to London that I want to jump up and down.

One of the great benefits of planning your own travel is that it increases your overall enthusiasm and anticipation for the adventure.  I will be traveling on my own until I get to Yorkshire, and then again when I leave Trek Tours (probably in Reims).  I have to sort out hotels, and transportation between towns (I am not worried about food in France!) until the first rest day on July 15, about 2 weeks into my trip.

The good news is that my friends the Watson-Lovells will be coming from their Germany adventure to join me for one or two days during that period. Brian is very good at travel planning, so it is good to have someone to consult for part of that on-my-own section.

I also have a couple of other gaps that I will need to sort out lodging and/or transportation. Then I will stop planning the details because I want to leave room for the spontaneous delights of the unexpected.