Travel Story Cycling France: Following in the Tour's tracks

Photo of Malcolm Quekett

It's a dream holiday for keen cyclists: not only watching the action of the Tour de France in person, but also getting the chance to ride in the wheel ruts of the greats on the course. 

It was about 25km into the climb and my leg muscles were burning.

I stopped cycling, unclipped my bike shoes from the pedals and looked to my right. Hairpin bends snaked away down the rugged slope towards the valley floor where my ascent had begun.

Then I looked up. The road ahead continued to rise, and rise ... and rise.

And way up in the distance, beyond the lady sitting atop her van and the German flag fluttering in the wind, beyond the next hairpin bend and the others to come, I saw our destination.

It was the 2109m summit of the Col de Vars, a peak in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region of France and one of the climbs that riders in the Tour de France were set to tackle on stage 18 the following day.

For the cycling nuts, the final part of the climb over the Col de Vars features 9.3km at average 7.5 per cent gradient, with some sections about 10 per cent, and is listed as a category one climb.

Every now and then, other cyclists arrived up the road I had just travelled, faces mostly grim and glistening with sweat as they slowly ground their pedals around to move painfully onwards.

Others came flying down from the other direction, crouched low over their handlebars, before slowing and leaning inwards to get around the corner where I sat, hurtling past me and on down the mountain.

And then, just as I was wondering how I would cope with the final part of the climb, salvation arrived in the form of the Discover France van driven by our friendly, highly efficient guide Francois.

It had already been a long day and more cycling awaited.

And so I climbed into the van. Francois clipped my bike on to the roof and I enjoyed a luxury ride up the final 3km to the summit, where others in the group had stopped to enjoy the picnic Francois had laid out for us on a table.

Our group of six was not alone. Already a dozen or so vans belonging to Tour de France fans were parked.

Many gathered outside their vans, chatting and enjoying meals and a wine or two, sitting around their fold-out tables beneath flags of their home nations even though it would be another 24 hours or so before the Tour riders came through.

After we had refuelled on bread, cheese, olives, cold meats, juices and the sweetest of fruits, it was time to descend.

About 20km of road went under our whirring wheels in the blink of an eye as we zigzagged down the mountain.   

The more confident riders among us rapidly disappeared out of view but I went more cautiously. By the bottom of the descent, I’d just about given myself cramps in both hands from squeezing the brakes.

Nevertheless, as I reached the agreed regroup point I came to a halt with a feeling of total exhilaration.

From there, it was another 25km through rolling countryside to our finish at the lovely little town of Embrun, where we found a cafe to watch the concluding part of that day’s Tour.

Afterwards, Francois loaded the bikes on to the van for the trip back to our accommodation at Les Orres, a winter ski resort that was busy with hikers and others enjoying the summer mountain air.

The following morning, we set off early for Briancon, where we had special access to the riders’ point of departure for that day’s Tour stage, which was to take them over the Col we had climbed just 24 hours earlier.   

We enjoyed food and drinks, browsed the souvenir stands and watched as the female riders for that day’s stage were introduced before they made their way through our compound to start their race.

Next we found a good spot on the roadside when the Tour “caravan” began the day’s proceedings.

The caravan is a long stream of vehicles and floats pumping out music and featuring all manner of Tour sponsors and advertisers. It takes a good 20 minutes to snake past any one point, while young men and women atop the vehicles shower the crowd with freebies ranging from lollies to Tour caps.

And then it was time for announcers to introduce the teams of male riders, many of whom also made their way through the compound, some stopping to sign autographs and pose for photos.

Soon we had scrambled back into the van, driving through the closed streets to waves and cheers from the thousands of spectators lining the route.

Our destination was the final part of the day’s stage, the brutal climb up the Col d’Izoard.

The plan had been to park the van at the foot of the climb, cycle as far as we could/wanted, before descending to watch the riders go past.

Francois cautioned that in such situations, things could change quickly according to how the Tour organisers or gendarmes saw the stage unfolding.

If that happened, nothing could be done.

“But that too would be a Tour de France moment,” he added.

He was spot-on. We had scarcely started to cycle when a gendarme signalled me to stop.

“Only walking this part,” he said.

No matter. To be truthful I was a little apprehensive about how the legs would go after the exertions of the day before.

Instead, we found an alfresco area next to a cafe which had set up a TV so customers could enjoy the race on the screen before the caravan’s arrival signalled that the riders were not far away.

And then there they were. To roars of encouragement, constant shouts of “allez, allez” and the odd blast from a trumpet or other instrument, they came past, perhaps the toughest athletes in the world, just metres from our toes.

It was a moment to remember. As were many others to come.

The following two days saw us ride a 30km stretch of the next day’s stage into Salon-de-Provence, including the last 5km of closed road, allowing us to sprint through the finish line and pose for photos on the podium. We also cycled 25km through the glorious morning sunshine lighting up the hills around Aix-en-Provence, and watched the time trial stage in Marseille and the Tour finish on the Champs Elysees in Paris.

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