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Finally-- Le Tour de France!

I need to say that the photos from our day at the tour aren't very good. In the excitement of getting ready to go, I didn't remember to charge my camera battery, and as luck would have it, my battery died just before the actual Tour passed by. Kelly took video with her new camera, but we need a little more time to figure out how to post these in the blog... and we need the high-speed wireless back. We promise we'll post her video on the blog, as it's really quite good!

Charley has been quite interested in the Tour de France for several years. In 2003—after our two week trip to France—I think he watched almost every minute of the race on cable television. Later he read several books about the Tour, including French Revolutions by Tim Moore, which he especially enjoyed.

Last summer we were in Normandy when the Tour passed through. We weren’t sure of the logistics, and we hated to take a day away from the rest of Normandy when we were just there for a week…. especially since we would have watched them whiz by on a totally flat stretch of road. And a week or so later just after we arrived in Provence, the Tour passed within two hours of us… again, we talked about going, but it just didn’t work out.

This summer we looked at the Tour map again and saw that the route would take the Tour within two hours of Bonnieux on Stage 10 (Tallard to Marseille) and Stage 11 (Marseille to Montpellier). We wrote it on our list of things to do. And then I saw this post on Slow Travel from our friend Kevin Widrow, suggesting that a group get together to see the Tour on Stage 10. I responded quickly—the Wood family was was definitely interested. Finally-- we were going to Le Tour de France!

Kelly back home after our Tour de France adventure

Le Tour de France is one of the most important annual sporting events in the world and a major national event in France. Twelve to fifteen million spectators watch some part of the Tour every summer, and millions more watch on television. The Tour has been around for a very long time-- it started in 1902 and with gaps for the wartime years, this is its 94th year. Each July the world’s best cyclists pedal around France in a race that lasts about three weeks. This year there are 20 stages and two rest days and the cyclists will pedal 3,553 kilometers or 2,207 miles. The route changes every year to provide some variety and to involve different parts of the country in the experience—because, as we were to learn, it truly is a cultural experience and different than any other sporting event. The race includes incredibly challenging mountain stretches, but also passes through villages, cities, pastoral countryside, and even other countries. This year the Tour started in London and also briefly passed into Belgium.

My view of the Tour isn’t very technical. I was interested in Lance Armstrong and his seven consecutive tour victories, but today I really couldn’t tell you the names of any of the cyclists. Although the winner is an individual, the racers are organized into teams, but I don’t understand how the teams function strategically. And I don’t understand how the race itself is scored. (Okay-- the reality is that I understand very little!) The winner of the stage gets a yellow jersey, but there are also other special jerseys for other types of winners. And in today’s world, there are lots of issues related to doping… the use of drugs to achieve super-human performance, something that’s absolutely not permitted and really detracts from the whole idea of the Tour. This is all too complicated for me. It’s kind of like a UT football game at home. I don’t want to know all the details. I’m really just interested in being part of The Experience.

Spectators wait for the arrival of the caravane

We met Kevin on the east end of Apt at about 10:30 am. He had invited some guests from his B&B to go along too, so there were three cars in our little caravan. We traveled east on the N100 past Cereste, then cut up over the far end of the Grand Luberon through beautiful countryside to the town Manosque and then to the Durance River. We followed along behind Kevin’s mystery guests, not knowing anything about them or even how many people were in their car. As we approached the bridge over the river, all of a sudden we were at the Tour route. There were cars parked on the side of the road, people carrying coolers, then people sitting in lawn chairs, and then police. I saw a sign that said the route was barred beginning at 11:45 for the Tour. It was already past 11:45. Kevin pulled into a parking lot and got out to speak to a policeman. The driver of the middle car jumped out too. When I asked Kevin where we were going, the driver broke into a big smile. “Good! You speak English,” he said. Apparently our family was a mystery to these people too.

Kevin had been told by the policeman that we could go on through, so we continued across the river, stopped and were cleared by another group of gendarmes, and finally headed up a small mountain road. We were traveling in the opposite direction that the Tour would travel, a few miles south of the village of Oraison. Although it was more than two hours before the Tour would pass by, the road was already very lined with people, hunkered down and waiting. It was a hot and very sunny day. Some people had beach umbrellas and even little tables. Many people had chairs or cushions. (These people were much better prepared than we were.) Some people had flags and signs. There were seriouscyclists in their spandex suits, people with campers, family groups. We followed Kevin on up the road. It was already after 12 noon, and we were getting nervous. Where were we going to park? Where would we stand? We were still going uphill (which would be downhill for the Tour), and Kevin had wanted to find a place where we could see the Tour on an uphill stretch. We said this might enable us to see the cyclists for five seconds instead of two….

At the top of the hill there was a large area with a lot of advertising and many people gathered. Soon after we came to a big empty field where many cars and campers were parked. Kevin pulled into the field and the rest of our caravan followed. Surpringly, there was no entrepreneurial farmer charging for parking. (In America, of course, there would be!) Two young men in a car with Belgian plates were dressed in fuzzy costumes—hard to imagine in this hot weather. One was in brown—perhaps a dog?—and the other in pink seemed to be a pig. Surely they were drunk to be doing such a stunt!

The mystery guests were Americans from California—a family with a 14 year old daughter—Farris, Kit and Olivia. Kelly and Olivia instantly connected, both delighted to find a new friend. We followed our leader Kevin back out to the narrow road and then down the hill. This was the Côte de Villedieu with a peak of 384 meters or 1260 feet, not a big climb, but a climb nonetheless. Our spot was about halfway through the day’s distance—a total of 219.5 kilometers (136 miles). (Just imagine—every day for three weeks!)

Four of our group: Kevin, Kelly, Olivia and Farris (note the cool Skoda hats!)

There were lots of people who had already staked out their spots on this incline… an area that didn’t offer much space to squat. On one side of the road, the hillside rose steeply up into the woods. This side of the road offered the possibility of some shade. On the other side (in full sun), the hillside fell down sharply behind a guard rail. We first claimed a spot on a low stone wall at the top of a sharp curve, but we couldn’t possibly stand there for two hours, as the sun was brutal. Kevin and Charley found another spot, further down the hill and just below the curve. Our little group could climb up a steep bank above the road to a small (very small) clearing beneath the trees to wait in the shade, and then come down to stand on the road below when the action started. There were several hundred people in this half a kilometer stretch of road.

Charley watches from our little spot up above the road, while Kevin and Kelly wait for the next caravan car

The action actually started soon after we found our spot. I was glad we hadn’t arrived any later, as I don’t think we would have been allowed to drive up the road, and it would have been a long, hot walk. We would have ended up watching the Tour down on the flat road. A car with loudspeakers came through announcing the expected arrival times of the “caravane” and the Tour. The caravane would come through at 13:05 and the Tour would pass at 14:44. The logistics of this event are incredible, and everything was obviously very well planned.

A couple of bright yellow vans came by selling Tour souvenirs. One stopped just up the hill, and I sent Kelly up with 20 euro to buy herself the sourvenir Tour kit, an early birthday present. She got a Tour bag, t-shirt and hat (all in the bright yellow) plus some other small Tour trinkets. Kevin had forgotten to bring a hat, so Kelly lent him her new Tour ball cap. And then some other cars came by, with young people passing out a Tour newspaper. There is actually a little paper printed and distributed every day of the Tour! We were given several copies, which actually came in quite handy later.

We didn’t know much about the “caravane,” although Kevin had said it was the major reason he wanted to go to the Tour—to get “stuff” for his son. Afterwards we all agreed that the caravane was one of the best parts of our trip to the Tour and certainly the most fun. The caravane is an opening parade of sponsors. This year there were 45 sponsors and 200 vehicles! All the vehicles were decorated to represent their sponsor, and many were more elaborate—kind of floats. Since all the vehicles had to be able to traverse some narrow mountain roads, these weren’t the same sort of floats you would see in the Macy’s parade in New York City.

The caravane passes by... this was one of Skoda's cars

But the best part of the caravane is that they passed out (usually threw out) all kinds of “stuff,” supposedly more than 11 million objects during the course of the Tour. According to the Tour newspaper, the caravane stretched out over 25 kilometers and lasted more than 45 minutes. For the spectators, the idea was to stand on the side of the road and wave frantically to get the attention of the people in the sponsor vehicles (who were strapped in for safety on the curvy mountain road) and hope that the timing would be right that they would throw out something that would land in your hand or at your feet. When items landed in the road or between groups of people, then you dash over and try to be the first to claim it. Charley stayed up in the shade on our little hillside, but the rest of us stood down on the road waving and whooping and gathering up our stuff. Kelly was especially happy to jump up and "catch" a bottle of water that was dangled from a fishing rod on one of the more creative floats. They certainly couldn't throw bottles of water!

So what was the stuff? Our family ended up with a couple of different hats, several bags of pretzels, bottled water, three copies of a music CD, key chains, Haribo candy, seven packs of Café Grand Mere coffee, two packs of washing detergent, discount coupons, a snap-on bracelet, a Simpsons mask, a Mickey Mouse comic book… I’m forgetting some things, I’m sure. We missed out on some things: several other hats, a little bullhorn, hand cream and (what I most wanted) little packets of La Vache Qui Rit cheese. Kevin very quickly got a polka dotted hat from Champion and then another hat from someone else, and then perhaps a third… so he didn’t need Kelly’s Tour hat any longer.

The Haribo cars tossed out little packs of their gummy candy

There was a family with a camping van in this same area who seemed to have a very good strategy for gathering as much as possible—two little boys who scampered up and down both sides of the road, running back and forth to store their loot in the back of the van. One little boy felt sorry for me when I didn’t get a Skoda hat, and gave me one of the five he had managed to get. I don’t think his mother liked him giving this to me…

Too soon it was the end of the caravane, and our group gathered up on our little plateau to enjoy a picnic lunch. We tore some branches off the trees to expand our space and used the Tour newspapers as our seating pads. It was a little uncomfortable and prickly, but I enjoyed the camaraderie of our group.

And then it was time to get our places for the Tour itself. We were right below a sharp curve in the road. At the curve—if you climbed over the guardrail and out onto a clifftop—there was a beautiful view of the farmland below and then east across the Durance River to the end of the Luberon mountain.

The view from the Côte de Villedieu

And if you looked from this point to the north, you could see the road where the Tour cyclists would be arriving at this little mountain ascent. Several people—including Farris, the American father from Kevin’s B&B—waited out on the point for the first view of the Tour.

The peleton approaches our mountain pass on the road below (photo by Kelly)

Kelly, Kit, Olivia, Kevin and I took places on the road, on the sunny side where we would be able to see the cyclists approach and then watch them make the turn and head up to the top of this little pass. Perhaps with this view in two directions we would be able to see them for ten whole seconds. Charley stayed on his perch on our shady plateau, keeping watch over our stash from the caravane.

The caravane's over... now waiting for the Tour

Then a helicopter overhead! Farris and the other people on the cliffside came running out of the bushes and over the guard rail. Farris was very excited and ran down the road toward the riders. The Tour was coming! There were police cars and escort cars, then finally—the lead riders. The spectators pressed closer, waving and screaming. Charley said there were 11 cyclists in this lead group, someone else said they counted 12. The leaders were in a tight little bunch, really not even breaking a sweat. Did I say we could see them for 10 seconds? Perhaps even less…. Then I think there were other escort cars…. it all happened very fast.

I had taken several photos of the caravan… and then—of course—my camera battery ran out just before the actual Tour arrived. So I have no photos of the cyclists! Kelly took a video with her camera, which I will have to post at another time. Farris said he was so busy taking pictures that he didn’t even see the Tour. But it all happened very fast… it’s kind of a blur to me.

Four more helicopters swirled overhead, surprisingly close together. The people who had gone back to watch from the clifftop shouted again, and then the rest of the cyclists were there—in a large cluster called the peloton—arriving about five minutes after the leaders, a surprising gap to us. It was a blur of bright colors… young men wearing helmets and sunglasses, moving in mass, at least 100 of them. Everyone was right there together—not one person lagging behind. With them came more police and escort cars, television crews, photographers, then a huge fleet of team cars with extra cycles on the top, painted in bright colors for the team sponsors. More police cars. And then it was over for us… though the Tour had more than 100 kilometers to go. Had we seen anyone in a yellow jersey? Or perhaps we saw several people in yellow jerseys? How could that be? There was too much to see in just those few seconds.

Ten minutes after the first cyclists appeared, the spectators—who had waited patiently for several hours—were packing up their lawn chairs, tables, umbrellas, picnic baskets, and caravane stashes and heading back to their cars. The two Belgians in their heavy costumes were still leaping around. We trudged back to our cars and decided to end our Tour adventure with a cold beer in the nearby village of Oraison. Other people had the same idea, and we enjoyed our cold drinks on an outdoor terrace along with several groups of cyclists. Kelly and Olivia had a great time together, and we enjoyed Farris and Kit—and of course the time with Kevin. We invited Farris, Olivia and Kit to come over and swim the next afternoon.

I really enjoyed our experience at Le Tour de France. I can’t say much about what we actually saw of the bike race, and it would have been a long drive and a very long wait to see just a few minutes of the actual Tour and less than 30 seconds of the cyclists. But I loved being outdoors in a beautiful part of France and sharing an experience with millions of people all over the country. Kevin picked an ideal spot for us to watch the Tour. The congenial group, the caravane, the picnic lunch and the after-Tour happy hour definitely were an important part of the Tour experience.

This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 18, 2007 3:57 AM.

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