Like tasting notes from a well-crafted Bordeaux, or trying to analyze the complex characters of Bernard Hinault or Laurent Fignon, France’s magnetism as a cycle-tourism destination can be tough to decipher. The sheer volume of companies pitching French cycling vacations can be overwhelming; crowds at major races are difficult to negotiate; and the people of France have long suffered stereotypes about a love/hate relationship with the West. But France is a country that prefers to show, not sell. And all things considered, cyclists just can’t resist its endless country roads, deftly crafted wines, or the voyeuristic thrill of following the sport’s most untouchable showcase.
The French have a saying, “The best part of an affair is going up the stairs.” Let us show you the way to the second floor.
This is you: “I want an exclusive behind the scenes access to private tents, grandstand seating, viewing platforms, and guaranteed mingling with the athletes. An oh yeah, I want to ride, too.”
Trek Travel: Trek Travel’s multiple Tour de France trips grant access to the Wisconsin bicycle-maker’s sponsored teams. The 2010 “Team Access” trip included trips to team busses and visits with Johan Bruyneel, Chris Horner and mechanic Craig Geater. Trek Travel also arranges viewing tents with fl atscreen TVs at key points along the route. The nine-day, 2011 “Epic Climbs” itinerary took in the Tourmalet, Ventoux and L’Alpe d’Huez and can be combined with a finish line package that will hook you up with a private TGV to Paris and a viewing location behind the security line on the Place de la Concorde. $$$$
Bikestyle Tours: BikeStyle is one of only four VIP official operators of the Tour de France. “VIP official” means that, in addition to strategic accommodation and guiding, the friendly Aussie owners of BikeStyle pay the ASO a huge fee to offer clients special perks: crossing the finish line with podium photos, access to the exclusive l’Izoard VIP area to see the stage finish, and a visit to the start village and the riders’ enclosure on race morning. $$$
Rub Shoulders With the Locals
This is you: “I want to soak in the culture of the event at my own pace. I’m an experienced cyclist but prefer not to chain gang with agro weekend-warrior types.”
Adventure Travel Group: Enthusiastic owners Lise Fleury and Gary Bezer are known for personal attention and small group tours, with a 16-person cap. Their 2011 trip, during the third week of the Tour, was designed for “strong and avid cyclists” and climbs 14 classic Alpine cols, with three stage-viewing stops and a 50-70 mile daily distance average. Two riding groups, “fastpaced” and “leisurely” made this trip popular for couples or groups with mixed riding thresholds. Lodging was in three- and four-star inns and hotels. $$$
Ciclismo Classico: For those with limited time, Ciclismo Classico’s seven-day and sixnight Tour trip runs Monday to Sunday and minimizes your out-of-office vacation penalty. Climbs include the Col de l’Agnel and Col de l’Izoard with three stage-viewing days. $$$
This is you: “Screw autographs and waiting around for hours to see these guys flash by for a split-second, I want to spend as much time as possible in the saddle, hammering the Tour’s biggest days.”
Thomson Bike Tours: A fusion of Scottish and American ownership, this company has cut back live viewing on its four Tour trips from four to two days (and that’s only for critical mountain stages) to stay true its motto, “less van, more bike.” For 2011, Thomson organized a “Centenary Alps Celebration” with a focus on the Col du Galibier and L’Alpe d’Huez. The day 4 itinerary cleared L’Alpe d’Huez, Col du Lautaret, Col du Galibier, and L’Alpe d’Huez again, over 121km with 3,200 meters of climbing. Participants were grouped into eight- to 10-person ride teams according to performance level. Accommodation was on racecourse, 1km from the L’Alpe d’Huez finish line. $$$
Alternative Etape du Tour
This is you: “I prefer to watch the Tour on TV. However, I still want to go to France and ride the most iconic stages — it just doesn’t have to be when the race is happening.”
Etape du Tour: The Etape du Tour is fast becoming one of the most popular single-day cyclosportifs in France; in 2010 it lured 9,000 participants. The Etape, (organized by Tour owner ASO), replicates a Tour de France stage but does not take place on the actual day of the race. For 2011 there were two Etapes: stage 19, 109km with climbs over Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and L’Alpe d’Huez, and stage 9, a 208km flatlanders’ day.
Cyclomundo: Bruno Toutain from Cyclomundo is an Etape du Tour logistics expert and offers two options for the event: 1) self-guided with hotel booking and meals but no transport, 2) fully-supported, adding transfers, mechanical service and post-ride facilities (shower, snacks, etc.). Cyclomundo is also an official tour operator and runs an all-inclusive six-night package for the Alpes Open Tour, the only multi-day alpine cyclosportif in France. This five-stage event rocks some of the most scenic passes of the Tour de France. Several climbs are timed and the ride usually attracts professional riders and teams. $$
Trek Travel: With guaranteed entry, accommodation at a mountain chalet, private rest stops (i.e., no waiting in line), and mechanics along the route, Trek Travel Etape du Tour packages are designed to keep riders as comfortable as possible before, during and after the ride. $$$
Behind the scenes with a Tour de France operator
As the French manager for tour operator ExperiencePlus, Jonathan Hancock has organized trips to the Tour de France for the past 11 years. But in 2011, he decided not to offer a public Tour package. Here’s why: “On the L’Alpe d’Huez in 2004, we had 100 clients on the mountain, mixed-in with one million spectators … it was craziness. Building these trips is wild, too. The key is hotel location. If your hotels are in a bad spot then you’re at a huge disadvantage. Clients will have to spend hours shuttling in vans. But nothing is certain until the ASO releases the Tour’s route information. Up to that point, you’re watching for information leaks, pouring over maps, and brainstorming the possible route. And by the time the ASO green lights the route, they have already reserved tons of rooms in the stage towns for employees and the publicity caravan. Then it becomes a hotel-booking frenzy for tour operators competing for the best locations. This year, we opted out of the Tour de France madness to spend extra energy working on guide training programs, polishing our other French trips and to provide logistical support for partner operators.”
Old school cyclosportifs and the cobbled classics
For everyday cyclists with an interest in riding historical events, the Tour de France is not the only game in town. Cyclosportifs held prior to the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix classics are a grueling alternative. Endurance cyclists are also increasingly testing themselves at the word’s oldest cycling event, Paris-Brest-Paris.
Paris-Roubaix Challenge: On the day before Paris-Roubaix, ASO hosts the 162km Paris-Roubaix Challenge, an all-comers cyclosportif. Roads are closed to automobile traffic and riders are timed for 147km. The route traverses 18 cobblestone sections over 31.6km, with the rest of the ride on charming roads through villages and the countryside. Participation is capped at 3,000. Registration can be nabbed independently online, or through Velo Classic Tours, which specializes in luxury group trips for all of the spring classics. $$
Tour of Flanders: Phil Anderson placed second in the Tour of Flanders in both 1985 and 1988, and lived in Belgium for 12 years. His company, Phil Anderson Cycling Tours, arranges four-day packages that include the 256km Tour of Flanders cyclosportif, followed by viewing the biggest race in Belgium. Phil will be personally leading this tour and sharing his hard-earned Ronde van Vlaanderen wisdom with customers. $$$
Paris-Brest-Paris: In 1891, a French newspaper editor named Pierre Griffard designed a 1,200km ultrarace from Paris to Brest and back, to test the limits of the modern bicycle and its operator. Since then, the Paris-Brest-Paris has survived German occupation and the fame of rival elite races like the Tour de France, giving it the distinction of being the world’s oldest cycling event still run on a regular basis. It’s held once every four years with the next edition flagging off in 2015. To qualify, you’ll need to successfully complete a sanctioned series of 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides. The PBP’s self-supported randonnée ride format has trickled across the pond; Randonneurs USA has over 5,000 members and sanctions hundreds of events around the country each year. $
Tours de Tannin
France is a particularly ideal “bike n’ wine” destination because its best fruit often comes from hilly areas that make for excellent cycling. From well-known meccas like Bordeaux, to sharing a bottle over lunch with a local producer in Alsace, Provence, or the Rhône Valley, these wine-tour picks will leave you thirsty for more.
ExperiencePlus Alsace: ExperiencePlus runs a 10-day “Cycling the Vineyards of Alsace” package that straddles France’s eastern border with Germany. Alsace is an up and coming cycling region that’s also gaining popularity for its unique gastronomic fusion (German and French) and for consistently producing some of the world’s best white wines. Tour Manager Jonathan Hancock says, “every meal on this tour includes local white wines, and though our primary focus is cycling from village to village, we also stop in several wineries along the route.” $$$
Cyclomundo Self-Guided Alsace: French-born Bruno Toutain from Cyclomundo knows his Alsace whites, but he wants you to discover them on your own — without a guide. His self-guided, seven-day “Alsace Tour for Avid Cyclists” spins along the region’s La Route du Vin and allows riders the freedom to go at their own cadence while following a carefully researched tour plan. Bruno will pre-book accommodations in two- and three-star properties, arrange transportation, and provide GPS support and detailed maps.
Peter and Nancy Martin had ridden with Cyclomundo for four years as of 2011: “Alsace is a wonderful opportunity to see a French region with German flavor. It was so relaxing to ride along the canals, seeing the swans, the storks, and pretty villages. Strasbourg may be our favorite city in France — not overwhelming like Paris, but with great culture and history.” $
Insider Wine Tours: Former bike tour guide John Giebler wisely states that the good news and the bad news is one and the same: “To really get a handle on wine, you’ve got to taste a lot of it. And that can be a problem for cycling.” So he founded Insider Wine Tours, a cycling-free wine tour company. His Provence and Rhône Valley trip kicks off in Lyon, the culinary capital of France, winds south through the birthplace of Syrah, and finishes in Avignon. The trip visits three to four wineries per day and lunches are with local experts. $
REI Provence Cycling: Take a recovery day from John Giebler’s wine tour and then link up with REI’s Provence Cycling trip in Avignon, and let tasting take a backseat to learning about the region’s Roman architecture and history while pedaling through limestone mountains, pine and oak forests, and fields of sunflowers. $
Wine corks & missed connections
She was French but the rear hub was Italian.
I could tell by its un-muffled clatter as she wheeled her bicycle onto the train. We were sitting next to each other on a regional coach bound for Paris with my folding bike tucked between the seats. Cycling was our icebreaker. Over a bottle of red, conversation eventually shifted to steak tartar, print versus e-books, and the decisive moment for making a perfect photo. Vibe was happening.
Somewhere in eastern France there was a mechanical failure — a hiccupping of gears. We were told to quickly change trains at the next station. Two conductors insisted on carrying her bike and luggage. She offered to stay behind and help with my panniers. I mulishly declined. “Then I will save you a seat. No?” she replied. Her legs looked like the skyscrapers of Dubai as she walked away. I gave in to fantasy. That afternoon, we would pedal to her favorite crêpe stand in Montparnasse. That evening, we would lose ourselves in Belleville’s gallery district. Later, our trans-Atlantic genetic tinkering would produce offspring the likes of whom the cycling world had never seen.
My daydream was interrupted by two substantial flights of stairs. The effort required to descend and climb was further doubled since I had to haul my bicycle and bags on separate trips. By the time I reached the departure platform, my train was already in motion. I hurried down the track. She saved me a seat in the last row of car number seven. I know because I saw her through the window there. Her left hand was pressed against the glass while her right hand waved goodbye. The train trundled on. I never even knew her name — but I still have the cork from that bottle of red. —GREGG BLEAKNEY