Le Tour Detour

We all woke up early, around 6am, and packed everything we’d need: the meat, cheese, bread, and snacks we’d bought the night before, as well as a selection of beer we’d carried with us from Belgium.  The day, Thursday, July 25, was the highlight of our Tour de France trip: the mountain stage.  We’d get to the highlight of the stage, the Col du Galibier, early enough to make our way up and stake out a prime viewing spot where we’d wait for the whole to-do of the Tour to go by. It was only a 30-minute drive from our AirBNB.

The Galibier and surrounding area from our spot.

We had to park about a kilometer away from the start of the mountain, but we eventually made it to a great spot where we could see any oncoming action for quite a while—we were there to get our money’s worth.  On our way up, we switched on and off who carried our cooler full of goodies and stopped occasionally to rest and to cheer on the hordes of amateur cyclists trying to conquer the Galibier. It looked like some of them really needed the extra motivation.

Not a bad view from our parking spot

We set up our camp around 8:30 or 9am and began our long wait in the sun.  The Tour de France caravan wouldn’t arrive until about 2pm, and the riders themselves between 4-4:30pm.

Le Tour

The team buses coming through amazed me at what good drivers these guys were—I would later find out that I’d never be able to take a bus around some of these mountain passes. The caravan was the same thing: it would have terrified me to drive those huge, unwieldy parade floats around some of the curves on the mountain.  But it did give us our last chance to pick up some cheap souvenirs and trinkets and get us excited for the cyclists that would be coming through shortly.

The television helicopter in front of us

Eventually, we heard the television helicopters in the distance and got ready. We had gone for a walk earlier and saw we were very close to the sign that signified 25km to the finish line, so keeping track of where they were on the Tour de France app got us even more excited as we counted down—40km, then 35, then 30. A helicopter appeared, and we could see the breakaway group on the winding road beneath us. We watched it snake its way through the crowd-lined road, and as the four or five riders were on the portion of road right below us, we saw Nairo Quintana put on a burst of speed and leave the others behind. We got into position to wait for the leaders to round a bend.

A poorly-zoomed picture of the breakaway, right before Nairo makes his move

I always thought I would take the opportunity to be one of those guys who ran beside the riders, but Nairo positively flew by us, followed by Romain Bardet and the rest of the leaders.  We cheered them on, and chatted excitedly while waiting for the peloton.  Once the main group was by us, we waited for the grupetto, or the back end of the race.  A car coming up announced that the group behind him contained fan favorite Peter Sagan, and we all cheered him on as he went by.  As someone who cycles (poorly), it still amazed me how fast even the stragglers were going up this mountain.

Nairo on his way to the stage win
Peter Sagan struggles on the Galibier

Rain

As the final riders were going by, the sky began to darken. We put on our rain gear, and there was a light sprinkling rain for part of our descent back to the car.  Nothing too bad, but we could see some intermittent lightning back in the direction of our AirBNB. Taking different routes down, we all met up back at the rental car, where we pulled out and got in line to head back home.

The line of cars barely moved, but it did move.  Every once in a while, an emergency vehicle flew by in the opposite lane, and we figured there had been some fender-benders in the rain and rush to get home. We made it back to La Grave, a small town about halfway between Les Deux Alpes, where we were staying, and the Col du Galibier when we noticed the line of cars only seemed to be moving when a car came back our way.  Then we noticed cars in our line starting to turn around.  Uh oh.

Campers at the Galibier. They were probably fine.

We turned around and pulled into the first open parking lot we saw and headed into a hostel/restaurant called Gite Le Rocher in order to sit down, use the WiFi, and get some food.  They had a prix fixe menu of vegetable soup, goat, and a dessert, but at this point I was getting too nervous to take pictures of my food (a first).  We were originally told by the hippie-looking woman in charge that the roads would be closed for about three hours due to a landslide caused by the rain.  When Beth had her husband back home get online and check (the WiFi turned out to be bunk in the restaurant), he found that the roads being closed for three DAYS was a generous assumption.

We realized, now nearing 9pm, we would have no other option but to take a detour back to our AirBNB. It was starting to get dark, we were all tired from an entire day spent sitting in the sun and drinking, and I was the only one on the car’s insurance, so it would be up to me to take the four-hour detour over the Galibier, over the Col du Glandon, and back to Les Deux Alpes.  Did I mention I’m afraid of heights?  We got ourselves psyched up and walked back to the car, where we realized the building we had parked by had become a temporary shelter for people who had cycled from the area of Les Deux Alpes to the stage and couldn’t get back.  It was a huge inconvenience for us, but at least we had the means to drive over the mountains in the dark—these people were completely stranded.

King of the Mountain

We threw on some podcasts—I wanted something my brain would have to pay attention to, rather than zoning out to music—and headed back the way we’d come.  The line of cars at the base of the Col du Galibier was long and slow-moving, and by this point it was pure nighttime. We eventually made it to the base of the mountain, and my nerves kicked in. If I’d had my own car, which is smaller and something I’m more familiar with, I would have been a lot more relaxed, but I was convinced the SUV we had was going to roll off the edge of the mountain any minute as we climbed higher and higher.

Our original route home.
The detour (without traffic)

I didn’t care about the people behind me who probably wanted to drive faster, and I only moved from the center of the lane when there was oncoming traffic (and once almost not quickly enough, as we were almost hit head-on by someone coming around a sharp bend). Beth and Kelly, both manning phones for directions, kept me braced on when a particularly sharp bend was coming up and what I had to expect, while Ray fell asleep in the back seat—after he made sure to point out how steep one of the climbs we were coming up to was.

Luckily, the Galibier has a tunnel cut through about three quarters of the way up, so we were able to skip going over the peak of the mountain.  This, and the fact that it was so dark we couldn’t see the drop-offs next to us, are probably the only things that kept me from a full-on nervous breakdown on the ride. After the tunnel was a downhill portion leading into the town of Valloire, which gave us an up-close view of the Tour route that we wouldn’t have otherwise received. I could have done without it.

When we explored more of the Galibier, I didn’t realize I would eventually be driving these roads

Whenever there was room, I moved over and let all the antsy drivers behind us pass me, but if we were going up or downhill, I didn’t care how mad they got, I wasn’t getting close to the edges.  If one of you was behind me, sorry not sorry.

After two climbs and two descents, we were back on the highway for a portion, and then once again ascending to Les Deux Alpes. We rolled into the area of our AirBNB and found the last parking spot around 2:30 in the morning, almost immediately before a car behind us pulled in, no doubt in the same situation.

If the buses could do it, I could do it.

It took a while to get to sleep, because my adrenaline was going full blast and my nerves were on edge.  On our way back to La Grave, sitting in traffic, I had nodded off once or twice due to being so exhausted, but on the haul back I’m not sure I closed my eyes once—I knew it was up to me to get everyone home safe, and I knew I had to stay awake and stay calm.  As much as I wanted to panic (and, at some points, full on cry), panic wasn’t an option. We got back into our room, cracked a beer, and calmed down.  What had been a memorable day of watching the Tour de France became one of those unforgettable days of a trip where things go just wrong enough to make it exciting, but not so wrong as to ruin everything.  Had we ridden bikes from our room to the Galibier, I may be singing a different tune, but as it stood we had the ability to get back safely. And the day went a long way to reinforce one of my favorite sayings: it’s always an adventure.

Beth and I, before the dread of driving sets in, but not before the sunburn does.

Tips for following the Tour de France

A few years ago, having friends who were into cycling, I had some time to kill before a beer event and decided to check out the first stage of the Tour de France. While I wasn’t sure of the rules or what exactly was going on, I loved it. This was in 2013, and as the peloton raced to the finish, the Orica-GreenEdge team bus got stuck in the finish line banner. What was going to happen? Would the cyclists have to go around it? Would it be able to move in time? Then there was a crash! Combine the excitement of the finish with the soothing and informative commentary of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, and I was immediately hooked.

It took a few years, but this year I was finally able to go and spectate live with my sister and two of our friends.  We planned on seeing parts of four stages (though that didn’t exactly pan out) over seven days.  While I was happy to take the reins, the logistics took a fair bit of planning.  If you are a fan of cycling and one day want to see the Tour live for yourself—and I very much recommend it—I’ve put together some tips to hopefully help you along the way.  Allez!

One of the Haribo cars during the caravan

Rent a car

As an American, I generally assume you can get anywhere in Europe by train.  While this is mostly true, many of the small towns or mountain passes the Tour winds up in will not be.  We had four days between two large cities, so we rented a car to hit the stops we wanted between the two and took trains the rest of the way—but the car was absolutely necessary.

AirBNB

If you want to be up close and personal, your best chances for accommodation are through AirBNB.  As the Tour starts and ends in many small towns, and there are an incredible amount of people associated with the daily running of the race, most hotels will be booked solid before the route is even announced.  If you don’t mind booking in another town and making your way to the start/finish, that’s fine, but we were able to get AirBNBs within 500 meters of two stage starts.

Don’t try to do too much

If you want to see the start of a stage, chances are you won’t be able to see the finish—and vice versa.  Waiting for the roads to re-open, getting out of the city, and being lucky if the roads are still open when you get to the end of the next stage (and there’s parking) is a very, very slim chance.  Instead, pick one or the other and take your time enjoying the atmosphere.  We lucked out at our first stage, in Nimes, that the end just happened to be about a kilometer from the start—one of the reasons we picked the stage.

The view from the Col du Galibier, with spectators lining the road

Know the route

The route for the Tour will come out in October (with the race being in July), which will give you plenty of time to book accommodation.  Be sure to do it wisely.  For example, we wanted to see a mountain stage on the Col du Galibier this year.  We stayed in Les Deux Alpes, which is about 45 minutes west of the mountain—but the race was coming in from the east.  With the roads the race is on being closed hours in advance—and sometimes days—we wanted to make sure we weren’t inadvertently closed off from the stage. 

Make a day of it (and be prepared to do a lot of walking)

The riders weren’t scheduled to get to the Col du Galibier until around 4:30, but we were there around 8am—and we still had to park about a kilometer away from the base of the mountain.  We made it to the spot we wanted on the mountain by around 10am, which gave us six hours to hang out, enjoy the atmosphere, and dig in to our cooler full of beer, meat, and cheese.  We spent a lot of time cheering on all the amateur riders taking advantage of the road closure to ride up the mountain.  Being there early also guarantees you the opportunity to see the caravan, a 45-minute parade of decorated sponsor’s cars throwing out all kinds of swag.  It comes through about two hours before the riders on every stage, so this is your best chance to get some freebie souvenirs.

Go near the end of the Tour

The first week is generally for the sprinters, without much reason for the peloton to slow down. So, unless you want to see a group of cyclists fly by you at 50km/h, there isn’t much reason to be around. We specifically went for a mountain stage to have a better chance at seeing the riders, even though they went past faster than I could ever imagine going on some of those climbs.

The peloton whizzes past on the Champs Elysees

Don’t expect much from the final stage

Don’t get me wrong—the party atmosphere along the Champs Elysees is amazing.  However, the caravan is done giving away freebies (they just drive by and wave) and while the peloton goes by eight times, they’re getting faster almost every time, so it’s mostly a blur each time.  Walking up and down the Champs, though, is a great way to get some good food, any merch you were missing, some sponsor freebies along the road, and (actually reasonably priced) beer.  And while spectating the final loops on the Champs isn’t going to get you much in the way of the race, I would absolutely recommend being there for the party.

Gorgeous bikes outside the Movistar bus

Stage starts are the best for rider sightings

After the stage, the riders are (understandably) tired and ready to get back on the team bus and back to the hotel.  Before the stage, though, the buses are lined up and riders may come out to greet fans.  They will, eventually, have to make their way out of the bus and to the start line (where they physically sign in before each stage), so if you want to see someone specific, parking yourself outside the team bus before the start is your best bet.

Enjoy the cities

Finally, be sure to enjoy the cities you most likely wouldn’t otherwise find yourself in.  On any given trip to France, there’s no chance I would have gone to Nimes or Les Deux Alpes, and chances aren’t good I would have ever even heard of Albertville.  But they all had their own charm and beauty, and we enjoyed each stage.  Many of the smaller towns also have celebrations or specials the night before of the night of the Tour. Expore!

Our balcony view of Les Deux Alpes

Hopefully this will make things a tad easier to plan your trip to see Le Tour.  There’s a lot of good (and sometimes more specific) information on DC Rainmaker’s blog, which I read a few times while planning our trip. I’m also always up for answering any questions or just talking about the Tour (and travel), so feel free to ask below or shoot me an email.