There are many experiences at the top of my bucket list that have been fighting for attention for a really long time. If it were up to the list, I would see a New Year’s Day concert in Vienna; climb Machu Picchu; take my camera on a voyage from Tunis to Cairo in a sturdy Toyota; wine-taste my way through Bordeaux; see at least one Formula 1 race, a big football match, one grand slam tennis tournament … a multitude of places, cultures, music, and sporting events across the world.
High on this list are several ways in which to see Le Tour: start, mid-stage, finish, mountain, and of course … the whole thing from start to finish. That’s a lot of bucket list items for one event!
The thing is that forcing bucket list items into reality can end up costly. More costly than necessary. It’s not really the intention to deplete savings in just this one aspect of life though I do believe that having a bucket list item(s) is the most enriching life experience one can have. Why? Because of the potential! The chance to learn, to taste, to fill the senses by feeling an experience against your own skin and processing it with your own brain.
There’s many a thing coursing through the blood of a Belgian, like fries and mayonnaise, a well-built house, the love of good food and drink, football … and koers. In English, that’s bicycle racing. We have two seasons of it: road racing in summer and cycle-cross in winter, plus a six-day velodrome event in Ghent every year. Oh yeah!
The holy grail of road racing is, of course, the Tour de France. For as long as I can remember it’s been a yearly part of my life. One of my fondest memories growing up are summer holidays by the seaside with my parents. We always stayed in a little hotel two streets away from the beach and just an hour away from home.
And it was always in July when the Tour was in full swing and my dad was torn between being chill on the beach or in front of a television, focused entirely on goings-on in France, sun and sea be damned.
Most years he took his koers news from a young newspaper vendor on the dike shouting “Tour de France. Tour de France. Ne-ewws!” He’d buy his paper and read it on the beach, and when the baker vendor came by with a tray full of Boules-de-Berlin carried on his shoulder, he’d buy us all a boule and his the paper would get sticky with delicious apricot jam.
Why we never actually went to see the Tour up close and personal, I’m not sure. Maybe my parents thought it would be too busy? Many are of that opinion, but as we discovered when we tackled our first Tour de France bucket list item, it just depends where along the race you want to enjoy the experience.
The route led the riders through Normandy for two stages. We simply could not let the opportunity pass! I studied the race’s time schedule and Google Earth map on the Tour’s website. We picked a road close to our home but outside of where most of the traffic would be once the race had passed, so that we could get out easily. Our first event would be a mid-stage experience.
As it worked out, we were there right in time before they closed the roads. In our case it was 5 hours before the race but in a stage following, there were spots where they’d closed the streets 8 hours before the race. I’m sure it all depends on spectator and traffic logistics, i.e. how easy or difficult it is for the spectators and support vehicles to get up a narrow mountain road.
We were only 10 km away from the finish in Le Havre with plenty of space for parking, tailgating, chatting, observing, and shooting a few decent pictures. We observed the team putting up the arch and 10km flag after they tailgated by the road, drinking beers and cooking out on a grill.
We learned a lot from being there. First, the organization must be tremendous and it would be interesting to be a part of the team that handles the logistics as well as the team that handles the budget. Just like any big concert tour, it’s pretty fascinating to think through all that is needed.
This has been a horrible race so far: riders are falling and getting hurt left and right, and so there were only around 187 of them left by Stage 6. But there must have been three vehicles for each rider and we later learned that there are 10 doctors, 5 nurses on motorcycle, 7 ambulances also with nurses, opticians, camera people, photographers, a mobile x-ray hospital, several helicopters, the team cars with directors and mechanics. Incredibly huge buses, the riders’ temporary homes. We even saw a flatbed truck that was brought in in case of a vehicle breakdown. And—to escort them all down the 3360km route—the presidential motorcade.
To boot, there is a commercial caravan of 1.5 km with vehicles in the front, middle, and end indicating that position in the procession. Van shops drive along the route to sell Tour de France memorabilia at surprisingly soft prices. They travel from start to finish every day and from one stage to the next. The vehicles that can’t drive themselves are put on a semi-truck.
Needless to say, the carbon footprint of one of the most awesome yearly sporting events is not small.
But the ambiance is fantastic. Some 14,000,000 coupons, key-hangers, hats, bags, and other product samples are thrown to the spectators. The people who handle this part of the event—mostly college-aged—provide high-energy entertainment, and the more you dance, the more loot comes your way.
We met lots of people. It’s a lot like going to a concert. You arrive there hours before the music busts loose, and what is there to do but to drink beer, tailgate, play cards, and meet your neighbors? Who are they and how far did they travel to attend?
And then, when the moment comes … the adrenaline picks up because the traffic on the road suddenly becomes thicker, and in the distance, the helicopter filming the event, hovers ever closer. You hear the buzz of the bikes as the peloton approaches, like a pack of bees zooming through the air.
It goes by in mere seconds.
It’s exciting. It’s fast. It’s hard to recognize all the favorites in such a split second but you know they are up front. People shout and holler. This is what we’ve all come to see. Five or more hours of waiting, for 30 seconds of mind-splitting fun.
Bucket List Item: Tour de France mid-stage
Cost: just gas money, toll and time
How far from home: an easy 1.5 hour drive
Overall experience: learned a lot, had great fun, met new people.
Repeatable? Hell yeah!
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