Biking the Tour de France Route Hours Before the Main Event
Making our way onto a crowded New York subway car during rush hour with a massive bicycle case in tow was no easy task. Along with having to skip a couple of trains for sheer lack of space, we were also greeted with looks of disgust (and a fair amount of expletives) as we tried to maneuver our large cargo through the crowds. My fiancé Ross and I were on our way to France to watch—and ride—part of the Tour de France. For Ross, the bike was more necessary than underwear. It was coming with us, no matter how difficult the journey.
It wasn't until we were greeted by the concierge at the Meliá La Defense hotel in Paris—who not only knew what the case contained but also seemingly every stat about the Tour—did we feel like we had come to the right place. "I'm home," Ross turned to me and said after several minutes of exchange with the concierge about this year’s full rundown of riders and upcoming stage details.
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As an avid athlete competing on a national level, Ross has always dreamed of riding in the world’s most famous cycling race. Throughout our 11-year relationship, there isn't one July I can remember that didn't involve him waking up early to watch the Tour.
This year, as a birthday gift, I sprung for the Tour de France 2015 – The 3 Pyrenean Stages tour offered by Sports Tours International, where guests can actually ride a section of the race’s three Pyrenean stages mere hours before the pro riders pass through. The thought of biking up the almost 7,000-foot-high Col du Tourmalet—the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees—would make most people cringe. For Ross, it was a chance to set foot on hallowed ground.
I loved that the tour provided supported transport (ideal for someone like me, who doesn’t even own their own bike) and guides for spectators and cyclists at all levels. While Ross was off on a five-hour ride up the mountain, I was able to watch from the roadside. But even sideline watching proved to be a sport unto itself.
On the first two days, it took us spectators two hours to walk up both La Pierre-Saint-Martin (the Tour’s first summit) and Cauterets in order to catch the coveted battle for the yellow jersey. As I watched the hours-long caravan of music-blasting sponsor cars, police vehicles, and countless team cars come through for the nearly 200 riders (all things you don't see on TV), I began to understand the scale of what I was watching. Unlike a football arena, which can hold thousands of people, the Tour de France welcomes 12 to 15 million in-person spectators each year—and you feel it, standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the side of a remote road with fans who’ve trekked their way to the same spot.
Fans camp out no matter the weather, often parking campers precariously on the side of a cliff for days in order to secure the ideal viewing post along the route. Only an utter passion for the sport makes the wait for a single minute of action worthwhile. I listened as others on my tour discussed possible strategies teams use and compared marketing techniques between well-funded teams like Team Sky and the more social-media savvy Australian Orica-GreenEDGE cycling group.
Meanwhile, on the road, Ross was experiencing first-hand the massive scale of the race and stature of the climbs. Cyclists' days usually begin by rolling through small towns in the valleys, sharing the road with locals, and occasionally bumping into cattle as the shadows of the Pyrenees loom larger and larger.
Once his group reached the final climb, ominously listed as HC (Hors Catégorie, or Beyond Category), the ride became an individual push to the summit. "I've never encountered anything like that hour of 10% gradient climbing," he later told me. But between the moments gasping for breath and switching down to the lowest gears on his bike, he was able to take it all in: the stunning views of the Pyrenees and the surrounding mix of people from all walks of life (including dads towing kids with bungee cords rigged between their bikes and even a dog on the back of another) making their own way up the mountain.
Much like standing along the roadside, the scene at the top was celebratory, teeming with excitement to see the pro peloton come through in a mobile village of campers, bikes, tents, and cars, all of which had somehow made it to the treeless summit.
After Ross watched the riders and countless support vehicles roll through, the caravan of spectators began their own descent, dispersing as quickly as they had assembled. Careening down the slopes, at times reaching over 51 mph, he—and those rides who’d made the same arduous journey—were left with memories sure to last a lifetime.