Spinning Our Wheels at the Tour de France

By Nancy Bestor

When Bob and I realized we’d be less than 100 miles from Stage 14 of the 2010 Tour de France, we knew we just had to detour to spend a day at the world’s biggest bike race. I had watched portions of the Tour on television before, and knew people stood on the roadside cheering as bikers pedaled by, some waving flags of their home country, others running alongside their favorite cyclist like a crazy person for as long as they could. What I didn’t know was what a fun and exciting spectacle the Tour de France really is, even in the long hours before the first riders appear.

We booked a hotel in Andorra, less than an hour’s drive from Ax-les-Thermes and the mountain finish of the 14th stage, as hotels in the small towns nearer to the day’s finish were completely booked. Other than experiencing the duty-free like atmosphere of the capitol city of Andorra la Vella, our stay in Andorra and drive to the stage was uneventful. We arrived in Ax-les-Thermes at about 10:30 am, and even though the riders would not be coming through until nearly 5pm, the small town was already hopping. We found a parking spot and joined the hordes of people and their coolers, chairs, umbrellas, and such, and began hiking up the climb towards the finish line.

The route was closed to non-official tour vehicles from early in the morning, and fans were either walking, hiking or biking up to find a choice spot to watch the racers ride by. This was the final climb of a 184.5-kilometer stage, and at an average gradient of 8.3%, it was the steepest climb of the 2010 Tour. It was tough just walking, let alone riding! Much to the utter delight of our teenage daughters, we really wanted to get a fair way up the mountain before choosing our spot. We hiked up and up for about an hour and a half, stopping many times in the shade to rest, as the temperature was already quite warm. It was an amazing atmosphere with bike fans and partiers from seemingly every European country represented. Many had obviously arrived the night before to set up their cars, tents, campers, RV’s, barbecues, picnic tables, and more. While the lower slopes of the climb were the most crowded, further up it was only slightly less populated. I expected booths selling food, drinks, and Tour souvenirs to be lining the route, but other than a t-shirt station at the bottom of the climb, there was nothing for sale. Fortunately, we had packed a hearty picnic with plenty of drinks for our long afternoon in the sun.

With a fair amount of pressure (complaining if you will) from the girls, we finally stopped in the middle of a long, steep straightaway, a little less than five kilometers to the finish line. We spread our extra large microfiber towels that double as blankets, and sat down to enjoy the parade of walkers and bikers heading further up the course. In some cases entire bike clubs, with members young and old all dressed in matching cycling outfits, were slowly riding up the steep climb. I couldn’t help but think how much pressure I would have to not get off my bike and walk in front of all these racing fans, as the road was so steep!

The long wait until the racers came by (almost five hours) went by surprisingly fast. Whether it was large European men in full biking gear who didn’t look like they could ride any distance, let alone up an 8.3% incline, going by with relative ease, or costumed boys in lederhosen (and little else!), there was always something entertaining to watch.

About 90 minutes before the racers were due, the Tour Caravan began. Unbeknownst to me, at every stage of the Tour, before the first cyclist arrives, a parade of advertising floats entertains onlookers. The elaborate floats are sponsored by various companies, and most throw out free goodies. We were lucky enough to score laundry detergent (I know, great score right?), candy, keychains, drinks, hats, t-shirts and biking shirts, nuts, bottle openers, bags, and more. It was great fun to dance and wave to the caravan in the hope of being thrown some swag. Much to the chagrin of my 13-year-old daughter, the more you danced, the more you got, so as usual, I embarrassed her but got a lot of stuff!

Once the caravan had gone by, and the excitement had built up, the real event began. We first heard helicopters getting closer, their cameras following the racers up the beginning of the mountain. Then we heard the cheers and shouts of encouragement from the crowds below. It honestly gave me goosebumps. Looking down the steep straightaway, we saw the motorcyclists turn the corner and behind them, the first cyclist. He powered by, and was soon followed by another. About a minute later came a small group with Andy Schleck right on Alberto Contador’s back wheel. They were so close I could touch them (Bob held me back). People were yelling and screaming, taking photos and running next to the riders. It was crazy, fun and a huge energy rush. I couldn’t help but cheer for every rider that went by, being so impressed by their athleticism and concentration as they powered up the incline. I’m sure Lance Armstrong heard me call his name as he went by, and I know he wanted to look and thank me for coming, but he was just a little busy at that very moment. I’m sure he remembers me though.

After all the riders passed by, we began our walk back down, along with the thousands of others who had joined us on the mountainside. The road is now open to cars, but most people who were as high as us (or higher) were on bike or on foot. As hundreds and hundreds of bikers flew past us down the hill, we were quite surprised to see Tour racers start going by as well. Apparently, some of the big racers like Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck and Lance Armstrong come down in cars or helicopters, but the majority of racers hurtle down the hill they just rode up, riding at amazingly high speeds right next to hordes of amateur bikers!

We were all a little let down that our fun day was over, and if we had the time, agreed that we would have liked to become Tour de France groupies, and head to the next day’s stage and do it all over again. Alas though, all good things must come to an end. Au-revoir, Tour de France. Until we meet again.

-Nancy (Travel Essentials’ co-owner) keeps waiting for Team Radio Shack to call and thank her for being such a big fan. Any day now they’ll call. Any. Day. Now.