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June 24, 2010

How to Bike the Tour de France

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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Actually, we would start our first day as spectators. Most cycling trips geared around the Tour de France combine watching with riding, and after a brief trip in DuVine’s van we collected our bikes from the back. Justin and Matthieu had staked out a grassy spot on a switchback near the village of La Clusaz. From there we would watch the riders bomb down the Col de la Colombière to the finish of Stage 17.

Being at a bike race is not like going to a football game. You spend an awfully long time waiting for action that zips by in a blur. So watching is a matter of location, finding a spot to witness a decisive moment—and, of course, party. With thousands of people at each stage pounding Gruyère and Chardonnay, the Tour de France is the world’s most decadent tailgate, and you don’t need a ticket.

Many in our group wanted to see Armstrong, including Ryan, a huge fan who’d had a failed attempt five summers ago. “It was my first tour—we’d waited twelve hours,” he recalled. “I had the camera in front of my face, waiting for Lance. Suddenly the crowd parted, and I blinked when I took the picture. I never saw him. I was devastated. But I thought, At least I have a picture. When I looked at the photo, there was a guy in a yellow chicken suit running in front of Lance. All I could see was his leg.”

“Ryan wouldn’t talk for an hour,” Leah said, laughing.

After we were passed by the tour caravan, a 12-mile-long parade of sponsor vehicles tossing party hats, balloons, and snack sausages to the crowd, Justin perked up. “Three riders are coming,” he said. It was a critical moment in the race. The tour leader in the yellow jersey, Alberto Contador, of Spain, had escaped up the Col de la Colombière with the Schleck brothers of Luxembourg, Frank and Andy, and they were tearing down the descent. Armstrong, just a few months shy of his 38th birthday, was close on their wheels.

“Would you look at that,” Louis said, shaking his head, as Armstrong hurtled past on his carbon-fiber Trek. Ryan finally got a full view, chicken suit–free.

That night we stayed at the Hôtel Le Vieux Chalet, a small mountain inn operated by a rakish Frenchman named Bruno who wore a thigh-length navy blue trench coat at all times, even inside. Classic yet meticulously modern, Hôtel Le Vieux Chalet is one of those places where you feel slightly guilty about the creature comforts. Did I really need WiFi and a plasma screen up here in the Alps? But it was impossible to not be seduced by Bruno. For dinner he served a dizzying array of local food: mountain-raised mushrooms, cold tomato soup, grilled lamb, a wheel of gloriously stinky Reblochon cheese. We began to worry about overindulging. “Believe me, you’ll sweat it out tomorrow,” Justin reassured us, pouring another glass of Bergeron.

Our ride the next morning began at 8 a.m. with an 18-mile hairpin descent to the Col de Romme. For me, this was like starting the day hanging off the Golden Gate Bridge in a bag full of crocodiles. Despite years of amateur racing, on a descent I am a nervous, brake-clutching embarrassment. I was last down the mountain. When I arrived, Ryan and Leah were chilling on a park bench, Paul and Linda were on what may have been their third espresso, and Alex, I believe, had finished half of Beowulf. But the Col de Romme would be our first test. A new stage for the tour, it had been a decisive climb the previous day—when the Schlecks and Contador had made their initial attacks. It’s five and a half miles up at an average grade of almost 9 percent. That’s like riding up a garage door.

We sucked down some carbo-gels at the van, refilled our water bottles, and set out. Giovanni and Paul—who turned out to be a former semipro rider himself—separated from the front. The rest of us settled into a steady cadence, remembering the mantra, Ride at your own pace. The mountains are littered with the carcasses of those who tried to hang with the big dogs and went hypoxic (a condition that occurs when not enough oxygen reaches the body’s cells). The key to a successful summit is to avoid the red line.

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But no amount of training truly prepares you for the Col de Romme. Early in my ascent I imagined travelers stretched out on beach towels in St. Tropez, fishing quietly in the Adirondacks, hiking gentle trails in the Cotswolds. Those are the sensible people, I thought.

I wasn’t riding, I was creeping. Insects passed me. But over time the Col de Romme’s heaving grade became my reality. It got…not easier, but manageable. I rode with Giovanni and Ryan to the summit, past granite walls, disabled Fiat trucks, and resting dairy cows. At the top I surged and took my hands off the bars, pretending to salute like a champion. A gust of wind came up and nearly knocked me off my bike. Giovanni howled with laughter.

We lunched at the top in a small restaurant overlooking the descent to the Col de la Colombière. And that’s perhaps the best part of a grueling bike trip—the guilt-free eating. Having just expended 2,000 calories, dietary restraint is for suckers. Want a glass of wine? Oui. Kronenbourg? Wheel of Reblochon? Oui. Bike touring groups actually compete with each other in gastronomical excess; a famous American outfit, Backroads, is nicknamed Snackroads, not derisively, for all the eating its riders do.

Still, I had to take it a little easy. That afternoon we were off to watch a time trial, where the riders wear funny aerodynamic helmets and use special bikes. But tomorrow we’d rise early and make a three-hour drive to the heart of Provence. Any satisfaction with today’s climb would be short-lived. We had a date with Mont Ventoux.

By the time we arrived at the Château du Martinet, where we were staying in Provence, we’d fallen well behind schedule. (Our French driver didn’t help matters when he firmly told us that per Gallic law, he had to pull over for a half-hour respite.) Then Justin grimly broke the news: We’d have to do Ventoux without the massages afterward—an egregious violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Still sulking, we checked into the château, an immaculate, two-story home surrounded by gardens and run by a French-Dutch couple. The property, which had been burned to the ground during the French Revolution and restored in the early 19th century, looked straight out of a princess’s dreams. Crystal chandeliers dangled from the ceilings; a foyer held a pair of beige velvet bridge tables; double-doored guest rooms led to deep baths.

There was little time to get settled—we had to get to Ventoux before they closed the road for the race. Scrambling into our spandex, we headed out in the van for the village of Bédoin, where the climb begins.

For cyclists, Ventoux occupies a rare, almost sacred place. It’s 14 miles at an almost 8 percent grade—an unrelenting French stiletto to the chin. After nine-plus miles in an oven-like forest, it disgorges riders for a three-mile finale on its bald, blustery top, which looks like the surface of the moon and is often buffeted by howling winds. A Tour de France rider, Tom Simpson of Britain, died just short of Ventoux’s summit in 1967, his body wracked by dehydration, heat exhaustion, and the amphetamines he’d been popping.

This scared me, but when we arrived in Bédoin and saw all the cyclists, my heart skipped. Cycling is still a marginalized sport in America—it’s cool to laugh at our clothes, to try and plow us off the road. But here were thousands who looked like me, dressed like me, and worshipped the same idols as me. I’d found my Star Wars convention.

Already late afternoon, the temperature was pushing 90. Justin stuffed his pockets with water bottles; Matthieu would follow in the van to collect stragglers. As on the Col de Romme, Giovanni and Paul bolted away. Ryan and Alex followed closely behind. I simply spun my pedals and repeated to myself: Do your own climb….

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Fans were everywhere—clogging the sides of the road, grilling sausages, and cranking Eurodisco. Men with sunburned guts knelt on the pavement, painting the names of their favorite riders: go lance, viva schleck. (Men outnumbered women 50 to one, and Leah ended her ride on Ventoux with a yellow handprint on her butt, courtesy of an eager fan who hadn’t finished painting.)

Not long after I hit the forest, my existential crisis began. The heat was intense and my skin had the goose bump flash that often signals an oncoming bonk. Justin rode up beside me, and I took water from him and poured it over my back. Fans along the road laughed. This was not a good sign. I was barely a quarter of the way through and I was going to have to stop. What an epic fail.

But then something clicked. A cool mistral breeze kicked up, and miraculously I peddled into a rhythm. I kept my bike in its lowest gear and spun as fast as possible, careful not to put too much stress on my legs. I listened to my breathing and fixated on the ten feet in front of me. Amazingly, I began to enjoy it. When I rode out of the forest, I started climbing harder, leaping out of the saddle. Spectators leaning against the guardrail cheered wildly. That’s a nice thing about Ventoux—the fans are sophisticated enough to know when you’re really going for it.

I felt like I had someone else’s legs. I reached Alex, then Ryan and Justin, and kept propelling forward. On my right I passed a rider praying beside a memorial to Tom Simpson.

After endless switchbacks, Ventoux finishes almost suddenly. There’s a sharp turn that hooks upward to the summit, where a radio tower sits. I was done and in shock. Hundreds of cyclists posed triumphantly, taking photos. People called their wives, husbands, coaches.

I asked Ryan if he had any idea what my finishing time was.

“I was around 2:03,” he said. “You were maybe 2:02? 2:01?”

Aw, come on.

“Alright,” Ryan said, smiling. “1:59.”

Our secret, I told him.

We took iPhone pics in front of the Ventoux summit sign and bought cookies and saucisson from a vendor. Because really, that’s exactly what you want after a 14-mile climb. We descended carefully to Bédoin, leaned our bikes against a tree, and I enjoyed the two best beers I’d ever had in my life.

There were other adventures on the trip. The next day we went for our longest ride, a 45-mile jaunt around the limestone gorges of Provence, where we saw seven cars in an hour and Matthieu apologized for the road being so busy. That afternoon we watched part of the Ventoux stage outside Moroimon and caught the climb on a TV at a roadside café. The following day we took a train from Avignon to Paris and watched the final stage from the cobbles of the Champs-Elysées. At our farewell dinner we toasted Matthieu, Justin, and Giovanni, thanking them for making us true cyclists. And for all the cheese.

But for me, nothing compared to pulling out of that forest on Ventoux, seeing those sunbaked rocks, and feeling a surge of energy I never knew I had.

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The Race

The 2010 Tour de France starts with a time trial in Rotterdam on July 3 and finishes on the Champs-Elysées in Paris on July 25. In between, riders will compete in 20 stages, covering 2,237 miles.

Joining the Tour

Cycling trips organized around the Tour de France have become increasingly popular, and several outfitters offer a range of options that combine riding and watching with first-rate accommodations and meals. DuVine Adventures typically organizes two trips for small groups (16 max) that focus on the tour’s Alps or Pyrénées climbing stages (from $4,295; duvine.com). Best known for its aerodynamic time-trial bikes, Cervélo recently launched its TestTeam four-day trips, pairing serious amateurs with pro riders ($6,900; cervelo.com). Discover France offers a handful of trips, including an Alps VIP Cycling Tour that provides special access to the starts and finishes of the race’s key Alpine stages (from $4,800; discoverfrance.com). Trek Travel offers a five-day trip that includes entry to its annual L’Etape du Tour (9,500 amateurs bike a full stage of the tour a few days before the pros) and use of its Hybrid and Madone bikes—just like the ones Lance rides ($6,995; trektravel.com).

Biking Up Mont Ventoux

Bédoin This is the starting point for the 14-mile southern ascent up Ventoux, the most iconic summit in all of cycling. Torched during the French Revolution, the town is now sort of a cycler’s Woodstock. Grab plenty of water here and maybe a chocolate croissant for later in the climb.

The Forest Ventoux is famous for its lunar landscape, but much of the ascent is through a dense, relentless forest. During races this area is packed with fans barbecuing and boozing. It’s essential to conserve energy here—you’ll need it when you emerge from the shade.

Chalet Reynard When you finally come out of the forest, this restaurant (think mountainside Tavern on the Green) is among the first sights you see. Seats here are coveted during the Tour de France. This is the most difficult section of Ventoux—exposed, sunny, always windy.

Tom Simpson memorial A sober marker on the course, this is where a British rider died during the 1967 Tour de France. Cyclists often stop to pray and pay their respects.

The Summit Congratulations! You’ve made it to the top, where there’s a hulking, ugly radio tower but also incredible vistas, ideal for your celebratory photo. And, this being France, there are vendors selling cookies and (yes!) sausages.