big>2004 Tour de France

When I mentioned to some friends that I intended to cycle the route of the 2004 Tour de France (TDF) several asked if I was in the race. While it was flattering to think that they put me in such an esteemed group as Lance Armstrong, Jan Ulrich and Greg Le Monde, it in fact showed the extreme ignorance of many people as to what the TDF is. Words such as brutal, insane, impossible come to mind, but they don't suffice.

Every year many of the best professional cyclists compete in the TDF. The route changes every year but basically consists of preliminary rides in the north of France and Belgium, travelling south through France to the Pyrenees mountains on the Spanish border in Basque country, then up to the Alps. In all, the cyclists typically travel 200 km/day for 17 days (called 'stages'), with two or three rest days. The map below shows the route of the 2004 TDF. To cycle a single stage is very difficult. To complete all of them - an amazing feat. Typically, about 20% of the riders fail to finish, mostly due to injuries.

The race is done with teams and, although individuals such as Lance Armstrong get the glory, it would be impossible to win without the support of the team. The teams have riders who are sprinters, climbers, and the aptly named domestiques who do all the various rank and file jobs. Their role is to support the leader and ensure that he is in the best possible position to win the stage. However, it is possible to win the TDF without actually winning any of the individual stages, but this detracts from the strength of the win. The best cyclists crush their opposition by winning stages, especially the time trials, and therefore have the honour of wearing the yellow jersey of the race leader.

The yellow jersey is a relatively recent invention (the TDF is over 100 years old) and was a solution to spotting the leader among the myriad of colours that the different teams wear. It is greatly respected in France and during this year's TDF a young Frenchman (actually from Martinique with a German surname but close enough) held the jersey for some 10 days. It was literally front page news on most newspapers.

I had followed the TDF at a distance, especially last year when it was on during my cycle trip along the Lewis & Clark trail. I would often try to end the days at a town with a motel where I could watch the TDF on cable TV. It was the year when Lance came very close to losing the race and it was touch and go all the way to the final time trial.  Right then and there   I decided that my next trip would be to watch the TDF live.

There are two basic options to watching the TDF: self-supported or organised. Even though all my previous cycle tours had been self-supported I decided that I would join an organised tour for the TDF. There are quite a few companies that offer organised tours, such as Trek Travel and Backroads, but I blanched when I saw their prices. I didn't need 5 star accommodation or pampering.

Our Motueka cycle shop owner Daryl put me in touch with a kiwi who had been on a tour and he directed me to Sporting Tours of the UK.  They were less than half the cost of the American companies, and I liked the fact that there was a lot of riding and we could pick a tour which suited us best. I chose the Alps and Pyrenees since that is where the winner becomes evident.

How does one train to cyle the Alps and Pyrenees? By spending a lot of time on ones bike of course. Unfortunately, I had to go to Asia for two weeks which cut into my training programme, but otherwise it was going well until 4 July. I had gone for an 80 km ride in the morning on my racing bike and in the evening I decided to watch the fireworks over Waashington D.C. on my mountain bike. Going too fast for the conditions I lost it on a wet pavement and crashed smashing my left wrist, pulling some muscles in my rib cage, as well as a few contusions. Bother. My wrist was the biggest worry as I had damaged it years before in another bike crash (occupational hazard) so I ended up with a wrist brace, not much cyling, and lots of pain killers for the 10 days before I left and the first few days of the TDF.

I flew to Paris from D.C. via London, arriving the day before Bastille Day. Due to a late departure, I only made my Paris flight by running through the terminal so my bags didn't make it. Unfortunately, British Airways then lost my bike box and it only arrived in Paris 36 h later, after my harassing British Airways to no end. I would definitely not fly them again as I met another of their passengers who had a similar experience. They justified their poor performance by saying mine was one of over 2000 bags they were trying to clear --- not the best advertisement for effenciency.

Bastille Day was spent with an old friend Alison and her step-son Matthew in Paris watching military parades and doing tourist things, then I went to the hotel where I met the others from the tour. There were four buses and one was completely full of New Zealanders. I hadn't seen so many since we had moved to the USA eight months before.

There were many people unpacking bikes and it was interesting to note the differences between the North Americans and everyone else. North Americans had, almost without exception, hard cases to protect their bikes while the Kiwis, Australians and South Africans almost always had cardboard boxes. A reflection of the fact that outside North America the hard cases are very very expensive (as opposed to just being expensive). After dinner with a French colleague who consults to the World Bank in China it was to bed with no bike in sight, but no sense worrying either. Either it would catch up with me in Toulouse or I would hire one. After all, it was out of my control.

The following morning we assembled on our bus and the photo below shows the people who I travelled with for the next 10 days. It was a great group of Americans, Australians, Canadians,  English, New Zealanders and South Africans, with a Belgian bus driver named Eric and our English guide Jonathan.

We travelled to Tolouse which was our base for cycling the Pyrenees and then the fun started.

It was a great tour with a great bunch of people. If you are at all thinking of doing it - don't hesitate -- even if you aren't the stongest cyclist you''ll enjoy the comeraderie and excitement of being there. Great company, great cycling, amazing countryside and even good weather -- what more can one ask for?

Click here for my other cycling journals.



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