Our Favorite Sports Season (continued)
Where Sports and Great Travel Merge, Part II
How hard can it be, right? It just a bunch of grown men riding bikes.
I will admit that for years I had lost my fascination with the Tour De France and similar events. I spent so much of my youth on a bicycle, My mother thought I'd eventually have to have my saddle surgically removed from my ass. Back then, the Tour was covered on Wide World of Sports. They basically showed highlights of it. I could relate to it because the athletes were on two wheels.
That interest faded. It wasn't until decades later, having time to actually follow the race, that I really started to reengage and be impressed with the whole concept.
Before I get to the amazing side-show the tour offers, I'll catch you up on what we've been seeing.
The Tour De France is a crucible. It consists of more than 80 hours of riding over 21 days. This is not like racing along a nice, flat beach road. I watched these riders climb up a twisting mountain road for two hours over the weekend. They averaged 14 miles an hour! Uphill! When I first got back into biking, the primary thing I did on long hills was stop. I am not much better now.
That particular climb was followed, as many are, with a heart-stopping downhill run to the finish line to end the day (stage). The better riders reach speeds in excess of 50 MPH. Making the bike go fast at this point is not the difficult part. But imagine, if you will, hanging from the tailgate of a pickup truck, crouching on the bumper. When the driver gets the truck to about 53 miles per hour, let go. Or wait until he slows to 30 or 35 at a turn, and then let go. That is what these riders on ultra light bicycles risk for as much as 8 or 10 miles several times over the course of the event.
One rider recently went down hard when he took a turn so hard, it pulled rear the tire off the rim. The tire wasn't flat. It just got torn from the inside of the rim. That is an incredible amount of torque.
The fans this year are especially rambunctious. It is common to see a many run alongside the riders in order to get their stupid faces on TV. And we're talking adults (in terms of age, not maturity or dignity). This is dangerous and distracting for the riders. They usually take it in stride. But this year, one particular idiot in a loud yellow wig decided he wanted to moon for the cameras on a narrow road.
When he got to close and jostled a rider, Froome's fist popped the man in the face. He got on TV alright. The whole world got to see the stupid look on his face as he got spun around and pushed aside. Even my good-natured, peace-loving wife cheered. Totally worth watching here!
Yesterday, a spectator stepped in front of a network motorcycle pacing a group of leaders with a camera. The motorcycle stopped short. Three riders plowed into the motor cycle. Two bikes were destroyed. Fortunately they were headed a bit uphill at the time. If they were on a flat run, moving a bit faster, Richie Porte would have smashed his sternum on the power supply mounted on the back of the bike. The stage was put into disarray and new precedent had to be set to compensate the riders involved in the crash.
During another stage, a large inflatable marker stood at the 1 km mark ahead of the finish line. As the peloton approached, a lowlife spectator pulled the plug on the pump keeping the marker inflated. Several bikes crashed into the collapsing vinyl. Two riders were injured.
Such incidents are not unusual and are getting too frequent with selfie-crazed "adults" pulling stupid stunts. Here's a short history.
As of today, 15 July and stage 13, Chris Froome is wearing the Yellow Jersey and may have created an insurmountable lead for himself. He edged out Nairo Quintana last year to win the Tour. ow, in 2016, Quintana's hopes faded by Tuesday of this week.
I am not counting chickens yet. With the complex rules and point awards and retarded fans, I won't call Froome a lead pipe cinch yet.
And speaking of which, would someone be kind enough to explain the strategy behind this event? How can four guys, slogging along with a giant gaggle of riders (the peloton) "help" a teammate who is three miles ahead of them? Enlighten me in the comment section at the bottom of this page.
Froome on Port's wheel prior to crash.
Everyone knows a GPS feature will drain your phone quickly. I ride a few long circuits occasionally. To navigate them I need to map them out ahead of time. I have tried using my cell phone, but by the time I reach my destination the phone is very low on power or dead.
Right now, I am planning a multi-day trip. I WILL have a frame-mounted, charger/holder for my cell.
Touring Where the Tour..er,uh...Tours
As riveting as these race stages are to watch, mishaps and all, they are also excellent showcases for the towns the riders pass through. More effectively than the other events in this series, this event beckons the viewer to come and experience France. At Wimbledon and the Royal Troon, the networks must create vignettes about the surrounding area and tell quaint stories to spark interest i the local community, which the strong secondary reason these events actually exist.
In the case of the Tour De France, all the network has to do is cut to a camera flying high above the peloton and the beauty of French mountains and valleys, rivers and small towns, and cities like Bern, Switzerland open up before you. Having hiked mountains in Europe and ridden a racing bike through France, I can tell you; as beautiful as these vistas are on a wide-screen TV, they are much more so when experienced first hand.
Imagine coming to a clearing at the top of a cliff. You are high enough for local air traffic to pass below you. You look down across a valley and see a village, hundreds of years old, nestled at the foot of the opposite mountain.
Or imagine instead, rolling into that same village after a morning ride along the valley floor. You'll likely find an ancient but well maintained building on a small street. There is a sidewalk cafe at the front. Waiters in starched aprons greet you as you set your bike aside and choose a table. In a world of simple pleasures, you haven't tasted perfection until you've spend late morning enjoying a ham and cheese sandwich and coffee at such a cafe.
At moments like these, you really do find yourself marveling that such places really do exist and you are there!
To Consider When Riding:
PC magazine gives this camera four stars in the point and shoot, compact catagory. It will fit easily into your jersey pocket or a small saddle bag. It has the added advantage of being rugged and waterproof (you know you will get a least a little bad weather on a long trip. And minor mishaps are sometimes unavoidable. So consider what kind of camera you want to keep handy for that sudden shot-in-a-million.
While the point of this post is France by bicycle, you should, by no means limit yourself in that regard. Many areas the Tour travels through can be enjoyed on foot or by car.
There are an infinite number of ways you can see France on two wheels. You can be a part of an organized bike tour. There are companies that will take you all over Europe for riding adventures. If you want to experience some of what Tour competitors experience, you might try a company like Discover France Adventures. Ask about their Tour De France packages. Shop around. There are lots of companies that offer imaginative and well-organized bike tours.
If you are really adventurous, you might try arranging your own itinerary. We'll talk about preparation and precautions in a bit. But sites like this one are a good start in preparing for your self styled rides. The more the merrier. If you have nutrition, safety, routes, elevations and bike maintenance covered on your checklist, the rest of your trip should go like a typical vacation.
In the way of recommendation, unless you a very familiar with the area of travel, you may not want to wing it. My typical approach is to bike or hike in an area where I am staying. I will scout the routes I want to take and ask local people about the area. This wouldn't be practical if I wanted to ride everyday and get from point A to point G in the course of a week. So I would likely use a tour package.
It is important to make those decisions early in your planning. You don't want to haul your velosipede to champagne country and expect to start pedaling. Do your homework, especially if you are not an experienced rider.
- Remember that you will ride on varying terrain. I always make it a point to prepare for the terrain I will ride on. I will admit, I love flat biking. I will do hilly rides for the views and exploration, but I don't seek it out. So make sure your riding ability matches the terrain you'll ride.
- Be sure you can handle the rides point-to-point. It would truly suck to find yourself miles from a destination as darkness falls with little knowledge of the area and only a bike to soldier on.
I once hiked Vigilius in Northern Italy from the peak to Lana in the valley below. The walk was taking longer than I thought. And I finished the hike going through a vineyard; also unexpected. Had my miscalculations been worse, I'd have spent a very uncomfortable night on the side of a mountain and my wife would have had the local constabulary looking for me.
- Even if you are going to make the run on your own, you might want to use the assistance of a travel agent to help you book accommodations. There are a ton of benefits to this. Not the least of which is the changing demographics in Europe. I will state unapologetically that there are parts of Europe that are now unsafe due to the influx of highly unsavory characters who have emigrated there. Using information from travel warnings and input from an agent experienced with freelance tourists, you may find the arrangements are made easier.
- While preparing yourself, prepare your machine. Know your equipment and what it is designed to handle. If you intent to spend several days on the saddle, climbing up and zooming down hills, you want to be on a quality bike. (See tire ripped from rim, above)
- You can pay to have your bike fly with you, going to Europe. There are fees and space restrictions that have to be considered. Discuss this with your airline. You can also ship it ahead. The simplest option is using one provided by a reputable touring company. As part of pre-ride checks, they'll likely have the bike ready and tires fully inflated.
Whatever you decide, if you follow a Tour De France route, use your head. Engage the local people and bring a good camera. You WILL come away with an experience you'll treasure for a lifetime.
It's a big beautiful world out there. Gather it into your arms! Then pass it along to your grandchildren.
Matt Jordan is a travel writer and political commentator. See my profile.