Exhausted after two weeks of riding up mountains and hunting like water diviners through the night for WiFi signals on the streets of French towns, we’re attending to the proud interwebs tradition of “the X best reasons to Y”. In this case we’re providing the best reasons to visit the Tour, in no particular order.
On writing it we came to the realisation that all the reasons for coming to the Tour distill down to “because it’s in France”.
1. The Backdrop
On the last ride of the trip we rolled through mist-covered countryside to St. Emilion, a heritage-listed medieval town, before pushing on through country lanes lined by stone walls older than any structure in Australia, toward Bergerac and the ITT start line.
On other days we’ve climbed through thick forest to views of castles and rolled through endless fields of sunflowers. Each small town with shuttered windows and water fountains in central squares is more charming than the last. Reason one — it’s beautiful — because it’s in France.
I can’t attest to whether this is always the case, but riding in France during the Tour you are afforded a respect and recognition from almost everyone. The traffic gives way and locals encourage you from the road side. “Allez, allez!” has been the soundtrack to each ride we’ve done.
That you’re engaged in a pursuit, at whatever level, that forms such an important part of the culture means you’re heroic just in that. You’re part of a proud tradition and one that’s palpable wherever you go, because it’s in France.
3. The Culture
We’re now in the TGV heading to Paris at 300km an hour to see a Tour finish the like of which hasn’t happened in over 30 years — two Frenchmen on the the podium.
As we watched the riders roll down the ramp into the time trial course yesterday — all fly eyes and skin suits, looking more machine than mortal — the biggest cheers were for Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Peraud. They carried a much deeper history with them than any other riders – and with Pinot also wearing the white jersey, a hope that France will have a new champion in the years to come.
Pinot’s emotion when being interviewed was more than just personal — he may represent a new generation of French cyclists ready to reclaim the race as their own. This hope goes deep here and his overwhelming emotion spoke to that – because it’s in France.
4. A Change in Perspective
We found a small restaurant in a back street, a little away from the bustle of the start ramp and sat down after click-clacking our way to the table – yes, we were still in our riding kit. With just six tables the Table de Poets was maybe busier than it had ever been with the influx of people to see the start.
We ate a local speciality, the name of which I didn’t record (duck in a light pastry), drunk a wonderful rose and were charmed to the point of photography by the couple who ran the place.
Bergerac is a small town over-run – on this pedestrian street running parallel to the opening metres of the penultimate stage of the Tour we were easily able to sample a small part of life here. A relaxed, extended lunch that ignored the building frenzy just a street away to attend to food, wine and conversation. It mattered, for the time we were there, more than the race – because we’re in France.
5. Real Mountains
‘Nothing like this’ is the best way to describe the experience of climbing in the Alps and Pyrenees compared to the ‘alpine’ regions of Victoria. I’m sure cresting the Tourmalet and Alpe d’Huez won’t take the sting out of the back of Falls Creek or make the pinches at the top of Mount Hotham any easier, but I’ve not ridden anywhere in Australia where you can look back on endless switch backs falling down to the valley below with a sudden realisation that this is the road you’ve ridden.
It’s all painted in a different palette, maybe even a different media altogether. The way the landscape is folded, the colour of the water, the way the cliffs strike out above the treeline and the sheer scale — it’s both dreamlike and intimidating all at once … because it’s in France.
6. The People
If you do visit France to follow the Tour you’ll be surrounded by people who are here for that same reason. From anyone collecting a bike bag from the oversized luggage to the locals picnicking on the side of the road, you’re connected. We’ve been in a bubble that could fool us into believing that the Tour is all that is going on in France. Of course it is not, but for these few weeks we’ve been travelling with a diverse group of people whose common point of connection is bicycles and the joy and challenge of riding.
And while we are ‘tourists’ we’re having a shared experience of the country and the landscape that would attest to something deeper than that title. Beyond this, wherever we’ve been the French are celebrating the Tour as much as the visitors.
In France the tradition and culture of cycling goes back to the invention of the bicycle — through the generations since then and over a century of the Tour it has become deeply wired into the French psyche. As a cyclist you feel it and become part of it. It’s hard not to tend toward becoming a Francophile – you know why.
7. Because You’re a Cyclist
If you’re a cyclist you have to visit the Tour at some point. Even the elusive glimpses that you can get of the race itself as a spectator make an indelible impression. Being here is as much about experiencing the culture, the crowds, the spectacle and the scenery as seeing the peloton rush past. The Tour binds all these parts into an all-consuming experience.
As we rush to the conclusion of what has been a dramatic, brutal and surprising Tour we can say we’ve seen less of it but felt it more than any other year. With two Frenchmen on the podium this evening we expect the Champs-Elysees to be even more alive with passion and tradition than in recent years – a celebration of not just cycling but, this year, of France itself.
More from Matt & Stefano
– Day 0: The Ultimate Job begins!
– Day 1: Conquering Alpe d’Huez
– Day 2: Having a moment on the Col du Glandon
– Day 3: An interview with pro photographer Mark Gunter
– Day 4: First contact with the race and climbing the Col d’Izoard
– Day 5: The madness of the publicity caravan
– Day 7: An interview with John Trevorrow: his career, the Tour de France and Australian cycling
– Day 9: The fans, festivities and towns of Le Tour
– Day 10: Tackling the mighty Col du Tourmalet