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Trip Report Chasing the Tour de France 2014

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My DH’s 60th birthday was this July and without a doubt, that requires a special, if not somewhat adventurous trip to celebrate! It was decided we could do three weeks in England, Scotland and France, exploring some new places and returning to a favorite, Dordogne.

We’ve been cycling fans for quite some time and “see the Tour de France in person” was at the top of our travel bucket list. Once we discovered that the route for the Tour would pass through Bergerac, both as an arrival and a departure city, we reserved a friend’s gite in Monsac, less than 20 kilometers away. Later, we learned we would be arriving in London, by coincidence, on the afternoon the third stage finished there. And, of course, how could we not take in the finale in Paris? So that would mean we could attend four stages quite easily. We were thrilled at the prospect.

Stage 3 – Finish in London
Our first challenge was to make it to the London race course just hours after our plane touched down. We were fortunate that our flights were on time (Denver-Reykjavík-Heathrow) and getting through Immigration upon arrival wasn’t worse than usual. We hopped on the Tube, quickly checked into our hotel in So. Kensington, threw our bags in the room and immediately headed on foot to Buckingham Palace where the finish line was. It was nice to have a brisk walk past Harrod’s and the parks surrounding the Palace. After a quick look and some typical tourist photos, we fought the crush of crowds along the Mall to find a spot less than three deep just inside the one kilometer arch. We waited about an hour in a light drizzle and were rewarded with a decent view of the speeding cyclists jockeying for position in the finishing sprint. I was fully prepared not to see anything this stage, but was elated that we got as good a position as we did!

Stage 19 – Hill Climb in Monbazillac
This was the stage we planned to take it all in, camp out all day, get the full TDF experience. Therefore, I thoroughly researched where we should plan to watch the race, studying route maps and even viewing a video on Youtube of some guys biking the exact route a few months earlier! It was good fortune that the only hill whatsoever in this day’s stage was about ten kilometers from our gite, in Monbazillac, a picturesque town with its renowned vineyards and hilltop chateau. If you’re going to attend the Tour, it seemed like the perfect venue.

Several days before the race, we did a reconnaissance mission to scope out exactly where we wanted to park and stand. It was charming how the town was decorated with yellow flowers on every fence and edifice, even on the guardrail on the hill! We ate lunch there and found out about the time the roads would close and where would be the best place to watch. We checked out the suggested vantage points, which served us very well on race day.

On that Friday morning, the skies were dark and rain fell as we drove the short distance to Monbazillac. The race was scheduled to come through around 4:30, but the roads would close by 11:00, we were told, so we wanted to be parked by 10:00. It was good we did our scouting mission because the road we wanted to park on was full, but we found another side road and a good spot without a deep ditch. At this point, it was raining chats et chiens! We stayed put for at least an hour, reading and watching the soggy vineyards and a donkey waiting out the storm under a nearby tree. At last, the steady drumming on our rooftop subsided and deluge gave way to a sunny, muggy, misty landscape. We made our way to the route where the crowds were building quickly, up the hill towards town. What a festival atmosphere, lots of flags and signs, happy families, music on a loudspeaker, people in costumes, just a big party! The town was actually giving out free yellow t-shirts and hats (straw fedoras!) with their slogan, “Monbazillac – a la folie!” (loosely translates, “to craziness!”) which they had also spray-painted on the road at frequent intervals! We found a small winery offering plates of fresh-grilled sausage and fries for 5 euro, and guests were invited to sit inside the garage on long folding tables. Delicious! We marched up the hill and picked a good spot about halfway up, with a view of approach, even down a few kilometers to where the race would turn the corner when it was minutes away. It was sunny at that point, but the very ominous clouds were starting to build in the distance and move in our direction. An hour before the race, we could see the Caravane on its way. We were soon engulfed by the commercial looniness that is the sponsors of the race in their decorated vehicles, loudspeakers blaring, with lots of swag to throw to the throngs of outstretched hands! Trinkets, toys, food samples, coupons; it was hilarious! I managed to wrestle a few tidbits from the claws of the little children around me…

As the caravane passed through, the clouds we’d been watching for the last hour finally let loose with heavy rain upon us. Luckily, it wasn’t cold, but the worst part was the lovely yellow t-shirts and hats that everyone was wearing had to be covered up. We could judge the approach of the cyclists by the position of the many police cars and motorcycles and a couple of helicopters that were still flying. After dozens of cars in the vanguard, we finally saw our first racers, a breakaway of two. It’s a little frustrating how many motor vehicles there are surrounding these leaders and it’s hard to get a clear view of them. After about 30 seconds, the peleton emerged through the sheets of rain. They did not look happy! The climb wasn’t a terribly steep one (a Category 4, pretty mild for them) but I believe they’d been riding in the rain for the last hour and it was miserable at this point. I was very happy to see my favorite competitor, Tejay Van Garderen, pass right in front of me, and I screamed encouragement (“Allez vite!”) After the peleton, there were a few groups of stragglers for another minute, then it was over, about three minutes total, maybe. We started back down the hill, when the horns and sirens indicated one more rider; he was a Chinese rider, the first ever in the Tour. Dead last, about five minutes off the lead, but still chugging along! I hope he was encouraged by the warm reception. Back to the car, we sat in traffic gridlock for another hour. When the gendarmes say a road will be closed until 6:00, you better believe it! All in all, despite the weather, we were very excited with our experience and enjoyed the day immensely!

Stage 20 – Time Trial in Bergerac
The only time trial of the race was the Bergerac-Perigueux stage and we planned to get as close as possible to the starting line where a lot happens pre-race. It was due to begin around 10:00 am, so we knew we had to be in town pretty early. We had to check out of our gite that morning and left in a pea-soup thick fog blanketing the sunflower fields and vineyards. We weren’t sure exactly where to go in Bergerac center, but as soon as we crossed the river, the street closures which made it obvious which direction to go. We parked on a residential street and walked about 20 minutes towards the church and the main pedestrian area. The crowds hadn’t formed yet, so we enjoyed a coffee and a croissant at a café directly on the course. I wasn’t sure if time trials had Caravane action, but sure enough, we were showered with more trinkets, toys and food. The dancing baguette giving out shopping bags was very entertaining!

We were about 250 meters away from the start, with a position right on the barrier. I was able to get some great photos of the riders coming down the street, if I was quick enough. There was also a big screen TV which we could see. These weren’t the top riders we saw, though; they go in order of last to first in the overall standings. We watched for two hours until the clouds cleared and the sun started to get uncomfortably hot. We took a break to have lunch in café not far away and came back in about an hour to watch more riders. We had no trouble getting our old spot back which surprised me. It seemed the crowds lost interest in the race, which was confirmed by the broadcast on the big screen TV. They weren’t showing the race any longer, even though riders were still taking off every two minutes. They were now displaying a cooking demonstration, followed by a teen pop idol singing on stage. (“Race? What race?”) My DH is still laughing over that!

Stage 21 – Finale in Paris
From Bergerac, we drove to Bordeaux to spend the night (lovely visit, we want to spend more time there some day) and took an early morning flight to Paris. Since we were leaving out of Charles de Gaulle very early the next morning, it made sense to get a room there, at the Ibis right at the RER station. Not the greatest hotel, but we literally spent less than six hours, mostly asleep, there. Upon arrival, it was another case of throwing our bags in the rooms and a quick departure for the finish line!

Research indicated that the best place to stake out a spot to watch the race was in a corner of the Tuileries Gardens overlooking the Seine which was part of the cyclists’ eight circuits of the Champs-Élysées. We arrived before noon, hours before the race’s expected arrival in the city. Once we realized we didn’t have to claim a spot along the wall so early, we enjoyed lunch at one of the cafes in the park, strolled around the gardens, and took in the iconic view up the boulevard past the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. One great aspect of waiting in the gardens was the availability of chairs and shade trees. As the crowds started to grow, one of us would guard our spot on the wall and the other could sit down and cool off under the tree. Our neighbors on the wall were a congenial lot, one British couple was also celebrating the husband’s 60th birthday! At last, the helicopters and police vehicles signaled the approach of the race. We really were in the best spot, with an unobstructed view of the riders for their eight passes. Although the ultimate winner of the Tour wasn’t in doubt, it was still exciting to watch the lead changes each time the group passed.

Although it wasn’t the only reason we made the trip to Europe, watching the Tour was a huge thrill for us, completely worth the effort! Also, thanks to the Fodorites who gave me advice about watching the Paris action!

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