Staying Ahead of the Tour de France

Staying Ahead of the Tour de France

Throughout my recent trip to France, I tried to stay ahead of the Tour de France. It just turned out that way… wherever I went, the Tour seemed to be about to arrive as well. And with the Tour came road closures and other hazards that threatened to play havoc with my schedule.
In the Pyrenees, I climbed the Peyresourde, only to be met by a sign indicating that two days later, the road would be closed for the Tour.
As I reached the top, I saw that the camper vans of the fans already were lined up for the big day. I hope my flash didn’t scare them when I took this photo in the middle of the night.
When I reached Montpellier, the Tour had just left that morning. Shop windows still displayed little figurines of cyclists sprinting for the finish line.
When I rode through the mountains near Lyon, I was greeted by another sign that the road was due to be closed in three days for the Tour.
I went to Grenoble to visit the son of the constructeur Paul Charrel. We decided to climb the Alpe d’Huez. (I had left my bike in Paris, but Frederic Charrel’s son lent me his bike.)
The Tour was to arrive two days later, and the climb to the Alpe d’Huez was a complete circus. Camper vans had taken every available spot along the road. Hundreds of cyclists from all over the world climbed the hill. Many were weaving all over the road as they struggled with the gears that their idols would turn so smoothly two days later.
Photographers were taking pictures that you later could order online (see photo at the top of the post).
The ski village at the top was brimming with people. The pastures above the village had been converted into an overflow campground for those who could not park alongside the course.
The road continues beyond the finish line of the Tour stage, which is in the ski village. Few cyclists ventured here on this day. It was nice to ride on an almost-deserted little mountain road, which led to a picturesque lake. As much as I enjoyed the atmosphere of the Tour, this was more my style of riding.
The game continued as I rented a car to visit friends near Annecy. The road would be closed a few days later for – you guessed it – the Tour de France. Wherever I went, it seemed like the Tour was breathing down my neck. I felt like a rider in a long break-away, desperately trying to stay ahead of the racing peloton.
Finally, I returned to Paris, and the Tour caught up with me, on its very last stage.
Early in the morning, I rode up the Champs Elysées. The Arc de Triomphe was bathed in the orange light of the sunrise. I tried to imagine Greg LeMond speeding past here as he eked out his 8-second victory in 1989. Already, barriers were being put in place, and TV trucks were positioning themselves for the evening’s race.
I spent the day riding with the club of Cycles Alex Singer. We cycled on narrow backroads that seemed incredibly far from the hustle and bustle of Paris. It was a wonderful ride…
When I returned to Paris in the afternoon, the Champs Elysées had been closed off completely. Police were patrolling the street. The sidewalks were crammed with spectators, even though the Tour would not arrive for another six hours!
Sidestreets were packed with police cars, hundreds of them. The mobilization for this big event was incredible.
I decided that I would come back that night and watch the final stage of the Tour. After a great dinner in a little restaurant, I return to the race course.
I decide to watch from a spot about 200 meters from the finish line. I arrive just in time to see the police motorbikes open the road for one of the last laps around the course.
Then come three riders who have broken away. They are going fast!
Then comes the peloton. On the very right, you can spot the yellow jersey. They go by in a huge blur. A few minutes pass, and they come around again. The break-away has been swallowed by the peloton.
At that point I realize that the Tour has caught up with me, too. Like the break-away, I have been overtaken by the speedy racers.
The spectators around me rush to a bistro, where a TV screen shows the finish. In a few seconds, it’s over. I’ll find out tomorrow who won the last stage.
Then come a few groups of riders who have been dropped in the mad dash to the finish. In a moving display of sportsmanship, the remaining spectators applaud these riders with more enthusiasm (and decibels) than they did the leaders.
Then comes the very last rider, followed by the broom wagon.
Then come the team cars which carry the spare bikes needed in case a rider has a mechanical problem. Then comes the tow truck that follows in case a team car has a mechanical problem.
And then it’s all over. The whole spectacle has lasted no more than 10 minutes.
As I ride back to my hotel, the full moon rises above the Ile de la Cité. The Tour de France now seems like a strange dream.
What remains real are my own rides and travels around France.
Photo credit: Griffe Photo (photo at top of post)

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Comments (20)

  • Dax

    Jan, I feel like I am having a strange dream as well… I keep looking at these photos and there is a guy that looks just like you, but he is on a bike with skinny tires and no fenders! Who is that guy?

    July 21, 2013 at 9:44 pm
  • RickH

    A very nice little story of “your” Tour De France.
    Did you feel strange on the modern road bike?

    July 21, 2013 at 9:50 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The aluminum bike climbed OK, but the descent on 23 mm tires was something else. You just don’t have the grip that I am used to, from my wider, more supple tires.

      July 22, 2013 at 3:06 pm
  • svenski

    Beautiful post! :-)) This very morning, Paris ist again, just: Paris.
    You’ve captured some of the central points of the beauty of travelling in France: The loneliness of the mountains (And the passage of le Tour over the almost spectator-less col de Sarenne provided some of the most impressive images of the race). Paris on the early morning of a hot summer day is just incomparable! An maybe no other country has these endlessly cyclable backroads…
    Enjoy on!

    July 21, 2013 at 11:37 pm
  • William

    Look at that. Jan Heine on a carbon racebike. No fenders, no frontbag, no lights. Who imagined the day would come!?

    July 21, 2013 at 11:43 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We’ve tested and liked a number of modern racing bikes in Bicycle Quarterly over the years, so I am no stranger to them.

      July 22, 2013 at 3:08 pm
  • Gert

    I love the Tour, but cycleraces are much better on TV, than watching it on the road. Although it is a great adventure seeing the Tour pass by. I bought my first sporting bike during the Tour in 92, so I could ride in the morning and watch the Tour on TV in the afternoon. And then I got hooked.
    By the way on the last stage the Tour took a swing by “Gymnasie des droits de l’Hommes” after starting in Versailles.on the last stage.
    The bike You are riding on your trip in France has a “number-plague” on. Was that for a Super Randonnee ?
    Do You travel with Your bike, or do You have one stored in France?

    July 22, 2013 at 3:40 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The number plate is for the Raid Pyreneen. It’s my own bike – I wouldn’t want to ride an event of that magnitude on any other bike. Usually, I just borrow a bike when riding in France.

      July 22, 2013 at 3:09 pm
  • jon

    Thanks for sharing another cycling adventure in France. I loved the desolate looking road and landscape after the riders went over Alpe d’Huez in their return to climb it again!

    July 22, 2013 at 8:07 am
  • James Jacobs

    Nicely done, Jan. It is good to have your perspective.

    July 22, 2013 at 8:21 am
  • Zbyszek Kolendo

    What a way to celebrate the 100th Tour de France Jan! Compare & contrast: I followed it virtually on my computer, whereas you in reality made it follow you!!!
    It’s un maillot jaune for you -:)

    July 22, 2013 at 9:50 am
  • Alex

    a propos being just in front of a tour: how about doing that for all three grand tours, on purpose!

    July 22, 2013 at 10:34 am
    • Zbyszek Kolendo

      they went full gas on the grand tours! – thanks for the link -;

      July 23, 2013 at 1:54 am
  • Drew

    What a great read. I gotta get to France someday. Thanks for posting about your trip!

    July 23, 2013 at 8:00 pm
  • Todd

    Do you have maps or a guide you might recommend for routes around France? I’ve recently relocated to Paris for work, and am hoping to get out riding in the countryside very soon…

    July 24, 2013 at 7:42 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I usually buy the 1:150,000 Michelin maps and look for the “small white” roads that promise little traffic. If you look for routes around Paris and like riding at a good clip, check out Cycles Alex Singer. They have a ride every Sunday (or almost).

      July 24, 2013 at 9:53 am
      • Todd

        Thanks! I’m not sure if I’m up to joining the Cycles Alex Singer group just yet, but I’ll be picking up some Michelin maps in the next couple of days.

        July 24, 2013 at 10:55 am
  • Rory

    Don`t you sometimes wish you had a demontable ?.

    July 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I have two friends with coupler bikes in my size, but so far, I haven’t borrowed them. Either I need my own bike (PBP, Raid Pyreneen), or I can use a bike of a local friend or acquaintance. In the end, I don’t travel that much by air, since I prefer rides that start at my doorstep.

      July 24, 2013 at 10:47 pm
  • Jon Blum

    Joining a local group is a great way to learn the best roads. A member of my club (Western Wheelers) has e-published a book on independent bicycle touring. His approach involves traveling with a very light load, flexibility and spontaneity, and use of a GPS, but he recommends using maps as well as the GPS. There is a slide show with touring tips, including some comments on maps, and information on how to buy the book, at Just to be clear, I have met Piaw only briefly, have not read the book and cannot vouch for all its content, and have no financial or personal interest in his book sales. So this is informational, not a sales pitch.

    July 24, 2013 at 8:37 pm

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