Fun and games at the Tour de France

It’s all over now. The jerseys and flowers and awards were handed out in Paris last Sunday. But the 2012 Tour de France (TDF) won’t soon be forgotten, and now I’ll offer my own personal view, including some advice on seeing the race, along with quite a few photographs.

A year ago, I posted my TDF thoughts over a three-day period (July 12-14), describing how my wife Jan and I visited the town of Figeac for Stage 10 of the race. The bottom line, I wrote: “It was a rush.” But for the 2012 Tour, and our visit on Friday, July 20,  my bottom line is: “This was even better — truly fun and games.”

Watching the race at a later Stage (Étape 18 instead of 10),  on a quieter stretch of road, with our own picnic, and enjoying the sights, sounds and freebies of la Caravane made the whole experience even more memorable than the previous Tour. With that, here’s my review:

Let’s start with location. When the route for this year’s Tour was announced, months and months ago, we learned that Stage 18 would run north for 222.5 kilometres from Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde — which is only an hour or so from Daglan. Immediately I tried to get a reservation at a good hotel we know in Brive, so we could be at the stage finish and then spend the night. But even at that early date, there were no rooms available for July 20. Hmmmm.

The truth dawned on me: To house all the riders, team managers, officials and others involved in the Tour, the organizers must reserve huge blocks of accommodation well in advance. So Jan and I gave up on the idea of being in Brive overnight, and decided to watch the race pass by us in a small village along the way. Good choice (and much less expensive)!

So on that Friday morning, we drove out of Daglan, through Concores and then St. Germain du Belair, until we came to the tiny hamlet of Pont de Rhodes (about 34 kilometres from Daglan). Hey, we thought, perfect! Near the southern edge of the hamlet, we pulled over onto the grassy shoulder of the road and dropped anchor. Here’s a photo of our view, looking south (from where the racers would be coming):

Sign

Our view looking south.

Having done some planning, we were all set with folding chairs, a cooler with Perrier and rosé wine, and a picnic basket full of treats — from fresh peaches, to cheese and Serrano ham for sandwiches, to chocolate desserts. And here’s our car, decorated with both French and Canadian flags:

Picnic

Just the place to watch a bike race, and enjoy a picnic.

Now we come to la Caravane — a TDF feature that we hadn’t understood last year, and therefore missed completely when we were in Figeac. But this year, we knew that the Caravan was a real highlight of the Tour, and shouldn’t be missed.

The Caravan includes some 180 (!!!) vehicles, all promoting various commercial enterprises which are anxious to make friends by throwing goodies to the crowd, roughly an hour ahead of the racers passing by. The Caravan is loud (both with music and with drivers shouting to the crowd through speaker systems), exciting, and just plain fun. There are enough vehicles that they drive up both sides of the road, so that spectators on each side are sure to get freebies tossed their way.

So…let the fun begin! First up was a crew from LCL (the bank formerly known as Le Crédit Lyonnais ), a major TDF sponsor:

LCL car

The first vehicle in the Caravan.

Naturally, Skoda has a huge presence at the Tour, since Skodas are the official vehicles of the TDF. Not only do many of the officials and teams drive Skoda cars, but there were also Skoda vehicles in the Caravan — like these two:

Skoda

Skoda is the official car of the Tour de France.

There were several vehicles sponsored by Haribo, the huge German candy maker:

Haribo

Jan waves at the Haribo vehicle as it passes by.

Then there was a Haribo vehicle dedicated to marshmallows (in the photo, the young boy on the right, wearing a green shirt, is bending over to pick up the parcel of marshmallows tossed from the truck) :

Marshmallow vehicle

A vehicle promoting Haribo marshmallows.

The Banette group of bakeries had a big presence in the Caravan, including vehicles draped with baguettes made of cloth. From Banette, we received several coupons for a free loaf (which I’ll eventually use at the Banette bakery in nearby Cénac).

Banette

Promoting the Banette group of bakeries.

Of course, there had to be a presence from PMU, the French betting system. (The initials stand for Pari Mutuel Urbain.) All over France, you’ll find bars with PMU facilities for betting, usually frequented by men who look like they’re using their last euro and hoping for a big win before they head home to face their wives. Here’s one of the PMU entries in the Caravan:

PMU

Care to make a wager?

Cochonou is a maker of traditional dry French sausages. So what did I pick up from the Cochonou vehicle? A very small sausage wrapped in cellophane, which I have to admit was pretty tasty (the sausage, not the wrapper). Here’s the smiling young lady who served as the official Cochonou sausage tosser:

Cochonou

Anyone for a little sausage?

Teisseire is a French company that sells a variety of syrups for making drinks, from iced tea to colas. Here’s their entry in the Caravan:

Teisseire

Promoting their soft drinks.

Then there was this entry from Nesquik, the chocolate drink:

Nesquik

Quick — here comes the Nesquik people!

And this vehicle from Vittel, with a young woman handing out bottles of “L’Eaufficiel de la Caravane,” as Vittel cleverly calls itself. (Eau is French for water, and is pronounced like the English “Oh.”)

Vittel car

Handing out that precious life-sustaining fluid: Vittel.

Even better was this Vittel vehicle, featuring a young woman spraying a fine mist of cooling water on the crowd:

Vittel spray

Spray for me!

And the last vehicle in the Caravan was this one sponsored by Festina, which is the official timekeeper for the Tour:

Festina

Watch your step — it’s the Festina vehicle!

As much fun as the Caravan was (and it really was), the main event of the Tour is of course the race. As you no doubt know, the cyclists are really flying, so it’s hard to pick out much detail while also trying to take pictures. But here’s the first group of cyclists approaching us — the so-called “breakaway” group:

Breakaway

Here they come — the boys in the lead!

In case you’re wondering how close to the action we were, by the side of the road, the answer is: Pretty darn close. You’ll get a feel for it in the next photo, although what you miss is the exciting sound of whirring machinery and hard-rubber tires whizzing on the asphalt road.

Up-close

How close to the action were we? You be the judge.

When the bulk of the riders approached us — the group known as the peloton — we could easily see Bradley Wiggins in the front of the pack, wearing the yellow jersey of the leader. I only had time to yell out “Go Bradley!” (which I’m pretty sure was just the final bit of encouragement he needed to push him to ultimate victory), and then swivel around and take a photo of the last part of the peloton.

Notice the first rider at the left of the photo, with what looks like a shiny yellow tongue hanging out of his mouth; it’s actually a package of energy gel that he’s sucking down. And at the very end rides the excellent French cyclist Thomas Voeckler, who could afford to be taking things relatively easy by this point, since he had clinched the King of the Mountains title, as the year’s best hill-climber in the Tour:

Peloton

Well now, who’s that in the polka-dot jersey at the back?

We’ll return to M. Voeckler in a few moments, because of something he did as he approached my wife and me. But first, here’s a look at the end of the race, as all the team cars start to show up, trailing behind the peloton:

Team cars

Here come the team cars, following the peloton.

In this final photo of the actual race, you can see a helicopter over the road. In the photo, it looks pretty far away. But in real life, it was actually pretty exciting (and noisy) to have a helicopter swooping in low over the road, no doubt to provide TV coverage of the race.

Chopper

A chopper takes in the view.

Now, back to the goodies we picked up from the Caravan — hats, publications, coupons, key chains, cookies, candies, a small sausage, and more. Here is the whole lot, spread out on a table at home. Whereas last year we spent 20 euros on a bag of Tour memorabilia, this year’s haul was all free. (Dietary note: All the sweeties we picked up were donated to the two children of English friends who are currently staying at their holiday home near our house in Daglan.)

Goodies

A table-full of goodies from la Caravane.

Now back to M. Voeckler. As I wrote earlier, he is an excellent rider, and very popular with French cycling fans. Here’s a sign that someone installed at the main intersection (actually, I think it’s the only intersection) in Pont de Rhodes, to encourage him along:

Sign

“Go, Thomas Voeckler” urges this sign at Pont de Rhodes.

You may remember from a few paragraphs earlier, that when M. Voeckler approached the spot where my wife and I were standing, he did something memorable. What he did was to finish the small can of Coke he had been drinking, and then toss it at the very feet of my wife Jan — who quickly snatched it up and then starting bouncing up and down with excitement. A true memento of the 2012 Tour de France and one which, Jan is fond of saying, has been touched only by her and by Thomas Voeckler. And here it is, just before Jan placed it in a spot of honour on our fireplace mantel:

Can

Jan’s latest treasure.

Now let’s wrap all this up with some specific advice, based on the two Tours we’ve now visited.

Get informed in advance. The Tour has one of the best websites around, easy to navigate and loaded with information. If you’re thinking of being in France in July, be sure to check the website well in advance to see the route, and decide where you might park yourself. For each stage, the organizers have detailed itineraries, showing precisely when the Caravan will pass a certain place, and when the riders are likely to pass by (based on various speeds). At Pont de Rhodes, the breakaway group raced by us just two minutes later than the organizers had predicted; amazing accuracy.

Consider the open road. While it’s tempting to view the Tour in a city or town, we found that things were generally easier and more comfortable in the countryside. We could enjoy our own picnic, have plenty of space around us, and deal with much less traffic when it was all over.

Try for a later stage. Having a good sense of this Tour’s dynamics made for more enjoyable viewing. We had watched most of the televised coverage of the Tour before Stage 18, so we knew which riders had been eliminated by injury, who was leading, and so on. When the yellow jersey flashed into view, we knew that we were cheering for the almost certain winner of the 2012 Tour. The TDF is somewhat like a major golf tournament — on the first day, some newcomer gets everyone excited by leading the way, only to falter on Day 2, while the eventual winner usually comes from a group of three or four leaders on the final day.

Take the kids. We honestly did enjoy the excitement of the Caravan, but it’s really a show for the kids. There was a Dutch family near us at Pont de Rhodes, and it was clear that they were getting more goodies tossed their way, because they had children with them.

Don’t forget the TV coverage. Following the Tour de France is (again) like following a golf tournament, in that you get a better overall sense of things from television, where the commentators have access to much more information. So, for me, it wouldn’t make sense to try to follow very many stages in person.

What about Paris? One of these days, Jan and I will probably arrange to be in Paris for the final Sunday of a Tour de France. But seeing the riders zoom along the highway in Pont de Rhodes was a real thrill for us, and then we were able to enjoy the excitement of the final sprint on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, two days later, in the comfort of our TV room.

As for next year? The Tour de France of 2013 will be the 100th race in the series. Seems like a good time to be visiting, don’t you think?

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8 Responses to Fun and games at the Tour de France

  1. Kevin says:

    Great post Loren. I’m a huge Vockler fan. He made the mountain stages very exciting. Must be exciting to be so close to the riders and the action.

  2. loren24250 says:

    Thanks Kevin! You’re right about the excitement — and I think the most surprisingly exciting part is actually when the peloton races by, with a great whooshing sound. Quite something.

  3. Paul says:

    Thanks, that brought back memories of a holiday we took in Carcassonne way back in 2003. The TDF came as a complete surprise when we tried to get out of the city for an afternoon of touring only to be beaten by barriers and crowds, we really had no choice but to join in the fun.

    It was still quite early so we managed a place at the barrier but soon the crown was six deep, Chris and I could not move even if we wanted to and we had no idea what we had become involved in.

    Two police motorcyclist, blue lights flashing, deee daah sirens screaming zoomed by and were closely followed by the caravan. Surrounded as we were by mostly young families with children meant we spent a lot of the time ducking the flying freebies. It tuned out to be one of the highlights of the holiday and very exciting, something we intend doing again.

    We have watched on TV since then, are quite avid fans and for the last couple of years we always keep a watch out for any waving Canadian flags on stages close Daglan.

    This year was something special for us Brits with Bradley Wiggins making it so extraordinary.

  4. loren24250 says:

    Great report, Paul — thanks so much for adding to the TDF “fun and games” reporting. And you’re absolutely right about the British victory this year — it was superb. I thought Wiggins really handled himself as a true professional, very classy, not to mention being a terrific rider. Once our man (the Canadian) was knocked out of the Tour this year by injury, Jan and I were pro-Wiggins all the way. (On a sorrier note, too bad about the Olympics road race yesterday. I’m a real fan of Cavendish, as I think he has more personality than just about anyone else in bike racing. Plus, he’s fast as heck!)

  5. Lesley says:

    This year it would have been 100km to watch the TDF pass closest to us around Souillac, so we saw it on the TV. But we were able to see yet more places to visit between there and Brive thanks to the helicopter shots. As we record the coverage, I was able to re-run the shots of the three donkeys with yellow, green and spotty coats that were in a field on one of the corners of the route. They were my favourite shots of the day other than Cav sprinting and winning the stage in Brive. Paris was brilliant for us. We too were sorry that the individuals of Team GB were unplaced but the Road Race is not really like a stage of the Tour. Good Silver for our Lizzie Armistead though.

  6. loren24250 says:

    Thanks, Lesley, for adding yet more to the Tour commentary. And it really is something worth commenting on, isn’t it? The sheer organization of the whole event is amazing — I know that next year’s Tour starts in Corsica, so the route planners must be already beavering away!

  7. Thank you for posting your story. My husband is a TDF devote, and every year, I’m amazed at how many people show up to cheer them on as they race through towns.

  8. Sharon says:

    Hi Loren. I haven’t had a chance to respond to tell you how excited Julie was to hear that Jan has such an amazing souvenir from the Tour. It was fun when the riders went through Auch, where Julie spent a few weeks when she was in high school. We enjoyed reading about your experience at the Tour!

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