12 July 2011

Tour Travel - Tour de France, Stage 10

So you want to go to the Tour de France?
Have you noticed the scenery lately? We've moved from the Atlantic coast and the windswept lands of Brittany, through the tiny roads, over the volcanoes of the Central Massif and now we are heading south toward the majestic Pyrenees mountains, one step away from Spain. Doesn't it make you want to go!

You have watched the Tour for years, become familiar with the names of the climbs, recognize the key players, know some history, and have ridden all the local neighborhood rides you can. Well maybe it is time to broaden your pedal stroke, step up your game, and take on the climbs of the Tour de France. A trip to France might be just what you and your riding buddies need. Let's have a frank discussion about the nuts and bolts of cycling in France. Nut: total blast worth every penny. Bolt: you gotta plan. 
Now if you have no time to plan because you are too busy doing long rides [read] working and being with family, pass Go and go straight to a Bike Tour Company offering tours in France. If however you are on any sort of a budget, and want to have the flexibility to move as you want, [read] not move if there is inclement weather. And more specifically are willing to go with the travel unknowns of chasing the Tour - you can make the dream happen for yourself. 

Tour Travel Tips by PedalDancer.com
  • I study the bike tour company itineraries to get ideas, why reinvent the wheel. 
  • 3-a-day - three major activities a day is more than enough.
  • Some areas are good for cycling, some are better suited to being a tourist, they are not necessarily the same.
  • Travel super extraordinarily light. 
  • Bring your own bike, when you ride at this level you do not want a knee tweak to ruin your fun. 
  • Be spontaneous. Join in any local festivals you happen upon. Change your plans.
  • Let every person in your group pick 3 things I want to do in France, try to do them, anything else is icing on the cake. 
  • Keep and leave a list of contacts of people at home (with a credit card #) that can help you if needed on last minute travel changes. 
  • Learn and practice all of your communication/tech devices before leaving home.
  • Expect the unexpected, don't make your itinerary too strict. 
  • Be kind, no matter what. 
  • Ride, eat, drink, reminisce. 
The biggest secret I have learned about traveling in France is that it is all good.  The person on foot is enjoying his day as much as the person on a bike who rode 60 miles to get there. The couple in the cafe are enjoying themselves as much as the group who slept out overnight on a mountain top. The point is wherever you find yourself, will be your story and it will be one to remember. You can't go wrong, it is all good, and the things your remember most later will surprise you. 

The Valleys of the Pyrenees - Where are the best bike rides in France?

The Valleys of the Pyrenees in Pictures

Information to help you plan a trip to the Tour de France - here we go, pump up the tires, this will be a long ride ...
LeTour route: This year's route (Grand Boucle) zigzagged counter clockwise, that means in 2012 it will flow clockwise, and in 2013 it will again flow counter clockwise. This will help you plan. Even if you do not know the exact route (announced in October/November every year) you can begin planning now. In 2012 the Tour will begin in Liege, northeast of Paris, go through the Alps by the second week, into the Pyrenees the third week, and up to Paris. In 2013 the Tour will begin in Corsica, hit the Pyrenees in week 2, and then to the Alpes in week 3 before the finish in Paris. If you know where you want to watch the Tour, ride, and be a tourist, you will know where to fly into France and begin your journey. 
A two-week trip to France is ideal, but it means you will have to chose two of these five options: the Tour start, Alps, Pyrenees, Paris, or riding in areas where the Tour is not (the tour companies have learned this secret). Chances are you are naturally drawn to one option more than the others, so pick that area and then think about where to enter and exit France, and voilà you have yourself a vacation. 
Start learning about the rides, towns, and options for travel now, create your bucket list. Once the Tour de France route is announced decide if you want to see a stage start, a mountain top, on the route, or stage finish. Also time trials can be very fun to see. Plot your key points on a map (your top 3 mentioned above), look for rides or other activities near by, locate towns with accommodations within your budget. You will need to sort out transportation, bike and bike case management, accommodations, itinerary, communications and finances, packing, and learn some French.
Plane: traveling with a bike is expensive and limiting. Airline baggage fees can be upwards of $300 for a bike case each way for travel between the United States and Europe. Weight can be limited to 50 lbs total. That means nothing extra goes in the bike case like the good old days, nor does it count as your second piece of luggage. Also bike cases do not fit through turnstiles, or small cars. Consider all these extra fees before booking your airfare and transportation.
Maps are the ticket to a peaceful journey in France. I have some old traditional paper Michelin road maps that have my favorite highlighted climbs and history of the Tour de France routes scribbled across them. As a cyclist I like the detailed Local maps that give tiny details. I also buy a large France Atlas, cut out the pages and stick them inside a baggie in my jersey pocket when I go out for a ride. Still I have to admit - I love car GPS systems. Nothing is better in France when I am trying to navigate through a city with no co-pilot to bark commands at me, then hearing the gentle voice of the GPS navigator. I am a lover of technology on phones, in cars, just about anywhere (except when speaking one-on-one to someone)  

HELPFUL LINKS - Map My Ride , Bikely.com , Climb by bike , Grenoble Cycling Pages , Google Maps Bike There , Good Earth Software , Michelin Maps for France. Velopeloton maps. Climb by bike has collected maps for the climbs included in the 2011 Tour de France. 

It is hard to argue that France does not have the best cycling in the world. The scenery, the road engineering, the towns, the drivers, the feeling of being on the climbs of the Tour de France - it is simply unmatched. Riding 30 miles or 100 miles will make you a happy cyclist. Consider riding a cyclosportif or even the Etape du Tour while there. 

Cycling to or from a stage of the Tour de France is a totally different experience then riding the climb on a non-Tour day with little traffic and a few friendly fellow cyclists. Try to experience both. I wished someone had explained to me in 2003 when I first rode many of the stages of the Tour, that my training should have included, riding in and out of the Superbowl, strengthening my arms to brake on descents to a rolling 2mph through cars and people, and eating basque sausages and cokes as a recovery meal. Compare that to a leisurely photography session ascent, followed by lingering in a cafe before an all out decent, and you'll get why it is worth cycling in France even when the Tour is not in town. 
HELPFUL LINKS - Please visit this page for much more information FRANCE CYCLING. Also visit: The best climbs in Europe in the Grand Tours by PedalDancer.com. Cycling Challenge - Pyrenees Trip Summary (map with location of all the big climbs). VeloPeloton Cycling the great road climbs of the Pyrenees (map and description of every climb, also guide services and accommodations). Climb by bike - go cycling in the Pyrenees (map, climb profiles, accommodations). Native Planet - What are the 10 most famous climbs of the Pyrenees?  Or buy the book: Rapha guide to the great road climbs of the Pyrenees.
What a rider eats in a day at the Tour de France
Food & drink
Enjoying the food of the region while traveling is the essence of adventure. Eat the local fresh food, drink the local wines, try the specialties of the region. You never know, your next memorable meal could be one plate away. Whether it is a picnic roadside, a Peage rest stop, a 4-course meal, a home-cooked bed & breakfast dinner with conversation, a prix-fixe meal, sampling local cheese or fresh fruit from a morning market, the experience of eating in France is right up there with Italy. Also I can drink the wine, and lots of it, and ride just fine the next day. What more could I ask for from a vacation destination. 
HELPFUL LINKSHow to order a Coffee in France , Lunch Time in FranceFrench Vocabulary - Food , Eating the Tour de France (by The Hungry Cyclist) , Eat like a rider eats What's tougher, riding or eating? (by Joel Stein). Please also read through the tips at France Food and France Travel. Or buy the book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child (but don't pack it with you).
Tour Companies 
There are individuals who love cycling so much they want to share their passion with others. Most have spent years learning the ins and outs to create the perfect cycling trip for their clients. If you can afford the cost, they will save you tons of planning time, provide support, and ensure that you pack a lot of action into your trip to France.
HELPFUL LINKS - Take a Tour - bike tour companies in France. Or visit Velo Peloton Cycling Tour Holidays, Velo Classic Tours,  Thomson Bike Tours,  Velo Echappe,  Chainring Tours in Belgium, In Situ,  Marty Jemison Cycling Tours,  Pyractif,  Trek TravelCiclismo Classico.
Websites, Blogs and Tweets
Whether it is Tour de France time or not, I read and follow the individuals who travel around France for a living. Journalists, staff, riders, tour guides, hotel owners, frequent travelers. A simple tweet about a hotel here or there can add to your treasure trove of gems. Tag along with these fans of cycling currently living or traveling around France:
HELPFUL LINKS - O'nev , Cycle Sport Tour Diary , PezCycling Travel , VeloPeloton , Andrew Hood , Peter Easton , Thompson Bike Tours , Bikestyle Tours, Denis Jouglard , Graham Watson
Cycle Sport on Tour: Our Tour Diary
Part one: press conference hell and hotel heaven
Part two: The boys are suffering from protein overload, and it’s only stage two.
Part three: The awkward conversation about room-sharing

So what were my 3 things I want to do in France the last time I visited? Have a fabulous regional meal at a lodging where I was staying (so I could drink wine!), return to the Col du Soulor, stay at my friend's farm outside of Pau again. I did all three and more. I sat at a cafe lingering over a coffee reading a novel, I found the perfect little beach, I picked fresh berries by a river, I saw all my favorite riders at stages of the Tour de France, I spent my birthday in Paris. Spending 5 weeks in France last year changed my perspective on life, I learned I don't need more, I want less. Whatever your lesson learned, goal or moment to remember, I hope you have a wonderful journey. 

A sampling of the Pyrenees (click any image to enlarge)