Bonjour and well done! We hoped you would meet us for the Tour de France! This three-week bike race shows off the country and the skill of some of the best cyclists. It’s also holiday season and the roads in the south of France are busy. It took us over two hours to drive here, for this is as close to our area as the race will be this year. I think we found one of the few spots where we could park close to the route yet avoid the crowds. Très Bien! (very good) We can set up our picnic and eat, now that you are here. Besides, it will be at least an hour before the riders arrive but with the roads being closed just before and after the race, you had to get here this early!
Summer is in full cry and fields of tournesols (sunflowers) turn shining faces to follow their namesake overhead. Aside from these beauties, I am sure you noticed the white and pink blossoms of the lauriers-roses (oleanders) on the way here. The heady scent of lavender is a treat at many roundabouts and what about those tumbling orange flowers of trumpet vines growing on fences and village terraces? Golden dandelions and puruple mallows catch your eye on country lanes, while the demur, flat, flowering tops of Queen Ann’s Lace bob cream-colored heads above the ripening grasses.
It takes a few trips to and from the car but soon, our folding chairs sit right next to the road. Other families are also eating. Children are running about playing games and everybody looks happy. It feels like we are waiting for a parade. Far down the road, we see an area lined on both sides with camper vans and trailers. My husband serves us a refreshing chilled rosé in real wine glasses and you and I get the plates out. We each serve ourselves potato salad, carrot sticks, olives, crackers and sandwiches. I would rather wash the dishes at home than use wobbly paper or plastic plates! If something breaks, well, “C’est la vie!” (That’s life)
The plane trees along the road make the warm afternoon feel comfortable and the countryside beyond is a patchwork quilt of green. There is a bucolic peaceful feeling to the scene. Vineyards explode with long leafy tendrils that escape the confines of the once neat rows. We can see distant workers snipping back the unruly vines. The quietude is broken when two motorcycle cops come through to check that the road is clear. We consult the times in our Vélo (Bike) magazine. It lists every town and village the Tour will go through, along with road names or numbers. A chart tells us the earliest and latest times predicted for the riders to appear. We still have about 25 minutes.
We finish lunch just about the time the first team cars go by, each one with racks of spare bikes on top. The crowd around us begins to yell and there is an air of anticipation. Then we see the bright red car of the race referee and it’s time for La Caravane! (next to us is a happy lady waving!) We discover that this is a series of decorated floats advertising race sponsors (this one is an LCL lion). Energetic young people smile and throw souvenirs to everyone. Wrapped candy falls at my feet and you pick up a little packet. When you open it, you find a bright yellow cap that reads, “Le Tour de France 2013“. Magnifique! My husband’s packet contains two green, inflatable tubes. He blows them up and they look like plastic baguettes advertising a local bank. These are noisemakers and as he strikes them together, they rattle for there are tiny pellets inside. Other people have caught yellow flags to wave or amusing giant foam hands. A little girl squeals with joy when she receives a tee shirt. Our chairs forgotten, we stand and crane our necks to see the first riders. Several more team cars and police officers on motorcycles zoom by.
It’s more than a simple bike race to the French people. Each day has a winner and their greatest hope is that on Bastille Day, July 14th, it will be a Frenchman! They are often disappointed, as they were last year. For each of the 20 race days, the television coverage lasts all day. There are interviews and a special called “Le Village de Depart” all about the town where the race begins that day. Celebrities perform in the streets, we see the sights, and commentators describe the history of the town. After the race, there is another show that is called “Âpres Le Tour” and we see a bit of the celebrations in the town where the riders have ended but also analysis of the day, more interviews, and previews for the next stage. The first race in 1903 was planned as a publicity event and, boy, it sure worked! This annual event pulls in an estimated 1 billion TV viewers! (A fun float for one of the teams) Understandably, racing stopped during the war years making this is the 100th race.
Here they come! The RIDERS! Our cheers add to the wall of noise. Oh look, it’s a “Breakaway”! We see a group of seven riders, from four different teams. They have escaped from the main group of riders and are working together to keep up the pace. The front rider gives all his effort for a time, then as he tires, drops to the side and rejoins the back of the line. The leader pushes through the air and reduces the drag on the riders behind him. Every team has workers who go to the front and help their #1 rider to stay in position. As with a flock of birds, the forerunners create an airstream that actually pulls those who are close behind them. If a team does it right, their leader is rested and ready at the end of the race. He then sprints like mad in hopes of winning the stage.
The tour is sometimes dangerous. There are 22 teams with 9 riders each but it would take a miracle for all 198 men to make it to the end of the race. Sometimes jostling riders on narrow roads meet with bad results. Fatigue, heat, wind, mountain climbs, and accidents reduce the number of riders nearly every day. Only the most talented and lucky teams arrive intact at the finish line in Paris.
There is a long break so we sit and chat. Motorcycles go by with cameras filming everything. Finally, we hear the sound of spectators clapping and shouting. A crowd of riders far down the road comes speeding our way. This main group is called the Peloton. There are over a hundred riders in it and here are the men who have earned the special jerseys.
The Yellow jersey, le maillot jaune, belongs to the man with the lowest overall time total for every stage. The Green jersey , le maillot vert, graces the man with the most sprint points earned during flat sections of the race. Le maillot a pois, a red and white Polka Dot jersey, is for the “The King of the Mountain” who has earned the most points on the climbs. Le maillot blanc, the White jersey, is awarded to the young rider (25 or younger) with the lowest overall time.
The American rider,Tejay Van Garderen (#39) won the White jersey one year – maybe this year it will be the Gold – Wouldn’t it be great if he wore it on the ride into Paris? Each day, the man who shows the most spirit and aggression is awarded the Red jersey, le combatif, and earns points for his outstanding effort that day. You will know him by the red number tag he is wearing today. Finally, see those riders with florescent number tags on their backs? That means their team (équipe) has the lowest total time for their three best riders. They hope to lift the team trophy in Paris.
The Peloton is approaching. Official motorcycles with cameras and gendarmes (military police) lead the way. We rise to our feet and yell with everyone else, “ALLEZ, ALLEZ, ALLEZ!” (Go, go, go!) The thunderous pack flies past in a blur. (here are the magnificent riders!) We see one rider drop behind purposely to get fresh water for his teammates. Can you believe he can carry all those bottles he is shoving in his jersey and still pull himself back up to the group? It must be so heavy! They call that “being the team mule”. He strains now as he stands on his pedals and starts the long pull back to the front. For a bit, the road is clear and then two more groups of riders go past trying their best to catch up to the end of the Peloton.
It seems like the end but then an official car goes by announcing that a final group of six men is still on the way. There have been crashes and injuries but they haven’t given up. Would we please cheer for these valiant men who are riding, even in the face of adversity? Of course, we will! It takes a while but at last, three heavily bandaged riders arrive accompanied by teammates who give them an airstream to ride in. Their faces are dark with determination as they pedal and grimace. The medical car pulls up beside one to re-bandage a bleeding elbow.
We clap and cheer encouragement to them and hope that they can recover on the road and make it to last day on July 27th. If they do, we will see them on television as they ride into Paris on what is like a tour of honor. On that day, the wining results are already known, except, possibly for the Green Jersey. Some years the points are so close that it is decided the very last day during the numerous sprinting laps on the Champs D’Élysée. If you wish, you can find out a lot more at the official website and follow the latest news at “Le Tour in English”
The road is empty and quiet. People say goodbye to one another while we ferry the chairs and picnic back to the car. What a great day out! We’re so glad you were here too! May your summer be comfortable, dear Stationary Traveler! August is going to be hot and the whole of Europe comes knocking at the door. We sure hope you have time to swing by and say hi. À la prochaine fois, chers amis! (Until the next time, dear friends!) We hope you can join us for August on Le Côte Vermeille, sometimes known as “The Ruby Coast”!