Every July, the world’s best cyclists gather in France for the biggest event on the cycling calendar – Le Tour de France. For 23 days in July, France belongs to the Tour. This year, they had to share the roads with one more cycling-crazed fan – me.
In the wake of the almost 200 cyclists participating in the event follows an entourage of support staff and organisers that overrun the towns and cities fortunate enough to be on or close to the race route.
And then there are the supporters, many of whom will follow the race from start to finish. For some it is an annual pilgrimage to this monument of cycling, while for others it is the culmination of a lifelong dream; a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Chasing the Tour de France around Europe might not be everyone’s idea of a relaxing holiday. Doing it for three weeks is downright exhausting. However, for those with an interest in the sport of cycling, it provides an opportunity to experience the circus that surrounds the world’s biggest annual sporting event up close. And nothing can truly prepare one for the full scale insanity that is France in July. Everyone gets involved. All along the route, farmers will plant and plough their fields into artistic shapes representing some aspect of the Tour. Brightly painted bicycles can be found displayed everywhere, whether in shop windows or hanging from construction cranes hundreds of feet in the air. The riot of noise and colour that accompanies the passage of the Tour is not merely limited to the supporters either.
The massive publicity caravan that precedes the race on every stage is a spectacle well worth the trip. With companies associated with the Tour de France eager to introduce cycling fans to their products, the caravan includes floats and other promotional vehicles, as well as loads of free goodies. Small cars in the shape of massive tires and even in the shape of a big, fluffy lion representing the sponsor of the yellow jersey precede the race in what must appear a truly surreal spectacle to anyone caught unawares.
Of course, the free goodies handed out by the publicity caravan only add to the general insanity.
Free sample packs of sweets can lead to scuffles as adults and children alike forget every single thing they ever learned about road safety and ethics in a mad rush to secure one of the tasty morsels. Caps from various sponsors fly freely, while the team t-shirts are much more sought after, with race followers putting themselves through all manner of indignity to attract the attention of those handing out the precious mementoes. Then there are the key rings and fridge magnets which can cause minor injuries as they are flung at sometimes inattentive spectators while the race caravan rushes past.
As I was travelling with my wife, we devised various tactics for great swag-gathering success, including patrolling different sides of the course, or even standing close to small children who seemed to attract much more attention from the caravan than a skinny 6-foot-2 journalist clad in lycra.
As the race travels through France and neighbouring countries the changing scenery provides an ever shifting backdrop to the sporting spectacular. From the tranquil coastline of the south of France through the rugged peaks of the Pyrenees to the rolling foothills of the majestic Alps, the Tour encompasses all that makes France special.
Of course the shifting terrain brings with it very changeable weather condition. Even though it is high summer, past editions of the race have seen stages in the high mountains shortened due to snow storms. This also affects anyone following the race, as it means packing everything from skimpy swim suits to arctic survival gear and then lugging a very heavy suitcase around Europe for a month. At least the cold weather gear came in very handy when we decided to take a cable car ride up to the Mont Blanc glacier. At 3800 metres and under a permanent blanket of snow and ice it is about as far as one can get from a low-lying tropical island like Grand Cayman.
The timing of the event also means that yellow, the colour of the leader’s jersey in the Tour de France, is everywhere. Endless fields of sunflowers stretch as far as the eye can see in early July, but towards the end of the Tour the fields start to lose their lustre. In contrast to the vibrant yellow of the sunflowers, the muted purple hues of fields of lavender also entertain the eye.
Sampling the gastronomic delights of each region also adds to the experience.
In Provence I sampled local dishes with a strong Italian influence, such as the mixed seafood stew bouillabaisse. In the Midi-Pyrénées, close to the border with Spain, I consumed more calories than the average person needs to stay alive for a month when I sampled cassoulet, a rich bean stew with mixed meat. However, I steered clear of foie gras, as images of geese being force fed flashed through my mind every time I saw it on a menu.
The Rhône-Alpes presents a good opportunity to sample coq au vin, while the Germanic influence in Alsace means a prevalence of pork-based traditional cuisine quite distinct from what is available in the rest of France.
Of course, all of France is famous for its wine and cheese and one would be amiss not to sample these delights as often as possible. Then there are the baguettes, croissants and other types of pastries, available fresh from the corner patisserie, not to mention the poached pears in red wine, the crème brûlée and all the other decadent desserts.
Taking a chance on a hitherto undiscovered dish can lead to the beginning of a love affair that could last a lifetime, while those who play it safe are bound to lose out. Even in France, the home of great food, the ubiquitous McDonalds fast food outlets are everywhere and sadly enough so are the people who would rather stick to a Big Mac than take a chance on a small corner café.
It is certainly a good thing that following the Tour can be rather strenuous, as even the many miles of cycling and hiking I endured could not quite manage to keep my weight down to pre-Tour levels.
The overall classification of the Tour de France is usually decided in the high mountains, so this is where the most dedicated fans will spend their time.
Tourists in camper vans will stake out their spots days in advance of the race. With time to kill, the sights and sounds on the mountain can astound even the most seasoned traveller. From guitar soloists to small marching bands and even Alpenhorns, the music can only be trumped by the dancing. Where else in the world are you likely to find a conga line of Dutch cycling supporters, resplendent in bright orange shirts, making their way up and down the mountain?
The eccentricities of the Tour de France followers really come to the fore on the big mountain passes. Some like myself merely carry along a big flag and try to encourage my favourite cyclists by screaming at them like lunatic.
The Tour also draws out a number of regular eccentrics. The most famous among these is Didi Senft, a German cycling fanatic, who has been following the Tour de France dressed as the Devil since 1992. In German, the red banner that indicates the final kilometre of the race is known as the red devil’s cloth. Senft had often thought it strange that he had never seen the devil at the Tour de France when the red devil’s cloth plays such an important role. His answer was to attend the tour dressed in red tights and carrying a big pitchfork.
The devil has become such an institution at the Tour that many tourists go out of their way to find him and have their picture taken with him as the definitive proof that they attended the Tour.
In the years since he made his first appearance, Senft has inspired many imitators, some of whom attend dressed as angels in order to counteract his evil presence, while others dress up as gladiators, cavemen, or whatever else captures their fancy.
And then there is the cycling. Many fans bring their bicycles along on their Tour trip, hoping to emulate their heroes in scaling the dizzying heights of legendary mountains like the Tourmalet, the Col de Madeleine, Arcalis, Alpe d’Huez, or even the feared slopes of the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux.
The voice of cycling, Phil Liggett, often refers to the Tour’s top climbers ‘dancing on the pedals’ as they go up the climbs. In my experience, dancing is somewhere on the opposite end of the scale from the word you would use to describe my attempt at scaling Mont Ventoux. The ascent from Bedoin is roughly 22 kilometres long, with an altitude gain of 1600 metres. Although the average gradient is around 7,5 per cent, although many sections are much steeper. On the day I climbed the mountain, the temperature reached 38 Celsius on the forested lower slopes, wringing every last bit of energy from my body. Although the barren upper slopes are generally more feared, the cooling breeze up there was a great relief compared to the closed-in feeling in the forest. My time of 1h45 was well outside the record for the climb, held by Spanish climber Iban Mayo at just under 56 minutes. However, the sense of accomplishment and exhilaration experienced upon reaching the summit is impossible to describe. Thousands of cyclists attempted the Ventoux the same day I did and through dogged determination most of them reached the summit, regardless of shape, age, and actual cycling ability.
Yet regardless of the number of people who overrun towns and villages during the tour, once the race has passed on, very little remains to indicate the Tour was ever there. The banners and barriers are packed up, while all the route arrows and other Tour related signs are snapped up by eager memorabilia collectors, usually as soon as the race has passed. Life returns to normal once more, at least until next July.