It was no hardship to indulge my husband’s cycling fantasy with a pilgrimage to the Tour de France. (Who needs an excuse to return to France?) But what surprised me was how deeply our 100th Tour odyssey took us inside the two-wheeling French love affair.
Originally a publicity stunt to boost newspaper sales, the notion of an endurance cycling race around France struck a chord from the get-go in 1903 (it was suspended during the two World Wars). And, true to its roots, this year’s 2,115-mile, 23-day route remained a challenge of Homeric proportions for 19 teams with riders from 34 countries.
The high drama of the Tour still beguiles all of France — and a good deal of the world — perhaps most of all in these three very different and defining locales.
The Alpe d’Huez
This is the place that most embodies Tour fans’ unbridled passion for their heroes.
Five days before the the cyclists arrive here, we find prime perches along each of Alpe d’Huez’s 21 switchbacks already claimed by campers festooned with national flags and patio lanterns. Stunning alpine panoramas serve as backdrop while fans share wine over portable barbecues, barely off the snaking road. Everybody waves. The party had begun.
This fabled French mountain 40 miles east of Grenoble has decided winners of the Tour de France since Italy’s Fausto Coppi dominated it in 1952. And for the first time ever, riders will have to face it twice in one punishing 107-mile day.
I’m nervous about my husband Tim tackling it once — and that’s at 6 a.m. on an empty road. By afternoon, Le Bourg-d’Oisans, a no-fuss mountain jock town at the foot of the climb, is buzzing with other Tour pilgrims and groupies.
On the big day, I see many familiar faces among the crush of crazed fans on the sidelines. Many run alongside laboring riders as crowds jump out of the way with only seconds to spare. Think raucous college bowl, but one where the fans are allowed on the field — for the entire game.
It’s completely out of control and that’s just the way everyone likes it.
Mont Ventoux, 12 miles northeast of Carpentras, earns its reputation as “the beast of Provence.” Its immense profile, topped with a distinctive communications tower, dominates the horizon from any vantage point in the Vaucluse. Famed mistral winds up to 200 mph can pound its bald, moon-like summit (venteux means windy in French).
This is the most grueling climb of the tour. And yet, experiencing the race from the sunbaked towns just below is an intimate window into what the Tour means to rural France.
We join the polite throng of locals and visitors under the trees lining Bédoin’s final turn before the Ventoux climb. No barriers, no blockades. Just village police asking folks to tuck in knees and pull in cameras. Everyone does. Hands reach for the sky as swag wagons toss out freebies from Tour sponsors.
Then the blur of riders comes. I feel the wild whoosh of the peloton pass an inch from my lens. In minutes, it’s over. We follow the crowds into outdoor bars to sip beer while watching the heroic ascent on television, with Ventoux right behind us.
I envision only one scenario in which hordes of tourists in blistering July heat make Paris more attractive — the finish of the 100th Tour de France along the City of Light’s most storied boulevard at dusk.
By Tour standards, we arrive late to the Champs-Élysées (four hours before the swag caravan pulls in and five before the competitors) and join the river of humanity that flows up and down the cordoned off concourse. There are Parisian fashionistas teetering in designer shoes, flag-draped Colombians, twig-thin Brits in Union Jack bodysuits, and grandmas in cotton floral frocks.
Our only hope of a decent vantage point lies in gaining a height advantage. Then my husband spots it.
The only thing less graceful than a middle-aged woman climbing on top of a phone booth is one climbing down. People start taking my picture and I don’t mind. It’s a kick to contribute, even in a small way, to the carnival scene.
Being a spectator on the final day is itself a test of endurance, but worth the toil. Finally, near 8 p.m., official tour cars and motorcycles announce the frontrunners vying for final stage honors as the sun sets behind an immense French flag billowing below the Arc de Triomphe. Britain’s Chris Froome, the winner confirmed the day before, rides amid his team, whose one job is to deliver him safely to the finish line. They do.
The mass of riders move like one speeding amoeba, wheels inches apart, held steady over teeth-chattering cobblestones. This 100th finish rewards wearied onlookers with ten laps around a 4.3-mile circuit stretching from the Arc down to the Louvre.
Even after spending three hours glued to the top of a metal phone booth, I’m awestruck by the rawness and vastness of the spectacle. With crowds roaring, it’s a grand return for warriors who would surely make Napoleon smile.
We head home with just one regret. We missed the Tour’s charity gran fondo ride along the Champs-Élysées in the afternoon before the race. Just five euros to sign up for one last bumpy epic ride. Hmm, maybe next year.