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How to Bike the Tour de France

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© Jason Gay

An amateur joins cycling’s biggest race.

It was a third of the way up Mont Ventoux that I began to seriously reconsider my bike trip to France. And that breakfast bacon. It was a scorching-hot July afternoon, less than 24 hours before the same forbidding 6,300-foot mountain in Provence would be summitted by the professionals racing in the Tour de France, and my legs were moving as sluggishly as a drunken hummingbird’s wings. Sunburned Euro cycling fans who camp out at each stage of the tour, picnicking and sousing, laughed at my misery. Jiggling alongside, they slapped my back, pushed my spandexed butt uphill, and offered swigs of Kronenbourg. And, cruelly, cigarettes.

Until now it had gone so well. I’d come to France for a luxury bike tour, a growing segment of travel that caters to people who enjoy suffering for their wine and cheese—and pay thousands for the privilege. We’re not talking about one of those delightful, meandering trips where you pedal like Pee-wee Herman through lavender fields. This is hardcore stuff: alpine cols, nausea-inducing switchbacks, screaming 50-mile-per-hour descents.

I’d signed up with a small Massachusetts outfit called DuVine Adventures, which organizes trips that combine serious riding with sumptuous vacationing (at a cost: Packages typically run between $4,000 and $7,000, not including airfare). DuVine offers slower trips, too, but this six-day itinerary was scheduled around the final week of the Tour de France, the sport’s marquee event, and we were riding the same mountain passes as the pros. For a cycling nut like me, it was like a baseball fanatic taking batting practice at Wrigley Field. Plus there was the comeback of Lance Armstrong, the U.S. cycling legend who’d returned to racing after a nearly four-year absence.

Perhaps you’ve heard that cycling—the skinny-tire stuff with the formfitting clothes—is the new golf, rapidly gaining in popularity as a recreational sport, albeit an affluent one. (You can easily drop $10,000 or more on a bike.) Cycling, however, offers an adrenaline rush that even sinking a 50-foot putt could never provide. But self-punishment on holiday? It’s a special kind of vacation that makes you question your existence, turns you into Descartes on two wheels. And that’s exactly what I’d become that afternoon on Ventoux.

I met my group for the first time at the train station in Annecy, the lakeside idyll about an hour from Geneva. As my TGV pulled in from Paris, I switched into my spandex, Peter Parker–style, and grabbed my bike, which had miraculously managed to survive a transatlantic flight in rideable condition.

There were nine of us, all Americans, joined by three guides. There was Paul and Linda, a Grateful Deadhead couple from Utah who’d been riding together for years, sometimes on a tandem bike. There was Louis, a friendly doctor from Pensacola, Florida, who kept a BlackBerry attached to his pants by a gold chain and used it to check the Drudge Report. And there was a handsome set of four half-siblings in their twenties and thirties: Alex, Katie, Brooke, and Ryan, as well as Ryan’s wife, Leah. Overall we were a pretty sprightly bunch.

Now I hate to say it, but the first thing one does on a bike trip is look for the fat people. Yes, that’s politically incorrect, but you’re worried about your own fitness, panicked you’ll be the flabby anchor, and you’re hoping there’s at least one out-of-shape traveler who will ensure that you won’t be the slowest on the trip. Then you look for shaved legs. On the guys. If you see a lot of shaved legs, you’re toast.

This group, terrifyingly, was right out of a Jack LaLanne family photo. There was hardly an ounce of fat on anyone. Arms were toned, shoulders broad, calves bulbous and firm. Several sets of male legs were shaved. The DuVine guides, Justin and Matthieu, could have been personal trainers. They’d also brought along a semipro rider from Italy named Giovanni. Great: an Italian semipro.

“Are you guys ready to do some riding?” Matthieu asked energetically. I nodded sheepishly.

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