Travel Stories: Watching a recent Tour de France on TV wasn't enough, so Frank Mungeam packed his bike for the main event
07.11.04 | 9:39 PM ET
“Your bike is not lost,” the Paris airline agent informed me in a tone one might use with a small child. “It is simply in Amsterdam.”
A friend and I had flown across the Atlantic to see the Tour de France in person because watching on TV was no longer enough. We wanted to ride the same stages as Lance Armstrong, to witness his heroics firsthand.
To do so, we’d not only have to overcome the Alps, we’d also have to surmount a frosty French reception. Chasing Lance across France would be even more difficult, it occurred to me, without my bike.
“No worries,” Pauline reassured me. I had the perfect partner for this two-wheeled overseas adventure. Pauline’s very long and very blonde hair had already eased international relations with the airport security staff. But it was her relaxed attitude I appreciated.
Five hours after we arrived, so did my bike. We crammed luggage and two bikes into our rented Renault and sped toward Bordeaux in southwest France to join the race, already in its tenth day.
Each July, 200 cyclists race for 21 days, pedaling 2,100 miles around the country on the way to the finish in Paris. Fifteen million fans watch this free spectacle from the towns, roadsides and mountain passes along the route. And each morning, thousands of amateur cyclists pedal portions of the day’s route before the pros take over the road in the afternoon.
For the next week, our plan was to alternate riding and driving, chasing Lance across the south of France. I’d made reservations at B&Bs strategically spaced along the race route. Chateau d’Agnos in Bordeaux was our first destination. Our host, Heather, a kindly and compact transplanted Brit, pleaded with us to join her for afternoon tea, but we were already ripping our bikes from the trunk.
Heather offered that it was 30 kilometers—about 18 miles—via a back road to the day’s finish in the town of Pau. Thrilled to finally be on our bikes, we pedaled for more than an hour past rolling, verdant vineyards swelling with the region’s famous grapes. But where was Pau? After 18 miles of riding, I was aghast to encounter a sign that read, “Pau—18 kilometers.” Heather had confused kilometers with miles. Suddenly, our leisurely tour transformed into a desperate sprint. We reached Pau as waves of spectators streamed away from the finish area. Lance beat us to the line.
In the mob scene that ensued, I got separated from Pauline. This was not good. Pauline’s French consisted of “bonjour” and “merci.” Fortunately, she was wearing an electric-yellow cycling jersey. I spotted her a few minutes later encircled by two teenage admirers, signing autographs. In France, bicycles were a two-wheeled passport to acceptance.
The next day, we rose early to be sure we actually saw the race. Breakfast that morning, and every morning in France, consisted of a heaping platter of breads and jams, and aromatic coffee served in saucers the size of soup bowls.
Fully fueled, we wheeled toward 5,100-foot Col d’Aubisque. For two hours, we plodded uphill into the mist-shrouded Pyrenees. At the summit, I collapsed in the grass, happy to rest while we waited for the professionals to arrive.
We shared the roadside with cycling fans of every nationality. The damp alpine air swirled with the accents of Italians, Spaniards, Germans, French and even Aussies. Many had camped overnight to reserve the best viewing spots.
“Those darned Basques,” I overheard a tired woman with a British accent complain. “They were up partying and singing until 3 a.m.”
The Tour came through Basque country, here on the French-Spanish border, just once a year. Sleep would have to wait. Suddenly, the Tour’s motorcycle escort burst through the fog below. The crowd spilled into the road in anticipation. Would Lance be in the lead? I felt like a six-year-old tossing and turning in bed on Christmas Eve wondering what I’d find when I opened my presents.
Moments later, the pack emerged from the mist. The cyclists rode shoulder to shoulder, spanning the road as though in military formation. Lance and his U.S. Postal team were driving the train.
They snaked up the switchback road, churning like a giant locomotive. In moments they were beside us, whirring past in a mass of wheels and metal, reeking of power and speed. Yet their faces were relaxed and they chatted easily, like businessmen taking a meeting at the office. The air filled with the screaming of fans and the grinding of two hundred bike chains. As the cyclists disappeared over the summit, I felt a rush of wind in their wake.
Watching the Tour on TV had not prepared me for this. Pauline and I just stared at each other, slack-jawed.
The agony of defeat
Our senses still reeling, we coasted back downhill and stopped at a café for a late lunch. Inside, the smoky bar overflowed with locals. Every face was riveted on the compact TV that dangled from the wall, broadcasting the race.
Cheers erupted each time Frenchman Laurent Jalabert—“Ja Ja”—flashed on the screen. Jalabert had taken the lead and now he was trying to hang on. Looming in his rear view mirror, like an oncoming semi truck, was Armstrong.
As the finish neared, the patrons chanted “Ja Ja, Ja Ja” in unison while their gladiator toiled inside the picture box. One man, swept away with joy at the prospect of a Frenchman’s victory, broke into song.
Then, the cheering became less boisterous. Slowly, inexorably, Armstrong was catching Jalabert. When the pass finally came, a cold silence fell like a shroud over the bar.
I wanted to scream “Go, Lance, go!” but the collective grief was too palpable. We slipped out of the café like distant relatives excusing themselves from a wake.
It’s a small world
That night, we moved on to Foix in Provence, where we stayed at a farmhouse turned B&B perched on a hillside just outside of town. We and eight other guests—all locals on vacation from the north—gathered on the back deck and shared a sumptuous dinner of lamb as the setting sun cast a pink glow over the lush valley below and the imposing castle of Foix.