By Robin Jenkins,
I thought that chasing the Tour de France might be a challenge but I was very sure I might not survive the chasing of my mother, a fan of all things Tour related.
When I told my mother, Karen, I was invited to the wedding of a college roommate in the south of France early in July 2010, it did not escape her that the wedding would occur just after the start of the Tour. She suggested joining me after the wedding in a city where we could see either the start or finish of a stage and then spend time in Paris.
Memories of recent summers started to surface: daily phone calls relating endless Tour information about stage locations, updates on specific riders, and requests to join silly, fruitless, online contests. All of this information came from one Tour de France fan – my mother – and it came whether I wanted to hear it or not. So being an adventurous person and a thoughtful daughter, I agreed to her suggestion. This would be her chance to see a Tour stage in person and I always enjoy spending time with her, especially when travelling. During Thanksgiving, we got a large Michelin map of France and started to plan.
As it turns out the Tour routes are not made public until about six months before the race, so we definitely needed help with picking a city, finding a hotel, renting bikes, and general Tour information. Fortunately and not surprisingly, my mother worked her contacts to find someone who specializes in bike tours for cyclists to follow portions of the Tour. Joe Tonon, owner of Destination Cycling, offered generous and invaluable advice and assistance. By March, Joe helped us confirm our destination to be Reims, in the Champagne region of Northern France for the end of Stage 4. We got our airline and French train tickets and Joe made our hotel and bicycle reservations in Reims. The rest was up to patience and fate.
My mother arrived in Reims a day before I did and was standing in front of the Grand Hotel des Templiers, our charming and affordable hotel, when I alighted from the cab from the train station. Getting advice from Joe to rent bicycles in Reims was one of the best decisions—that plus the hotel he booked for us which was two blocks from the Tour route into Reims and six blocks from the finish line and the center of downtown.
The next morning we had a pleasant 15-minute walk to the bike rental agency at the train station that also rented cars. When my mother asked about renting bike helmets, the agent insisted no one wears helmets, that we would look silly. My mother, who is a League Cycling Instructor, and never without a helmet when riding a bike, sighed along with the agent as he dolefully said it was better that we did not look like “helmet heads”. We quickly learned that in Reims, bike riders are expected to be on the sidewalks. After several motorists stopped to yell at us for riding in the streets, my mother sighed again as we pulled the bikes onto the sidewalk to ride.
A beautiful city, Reims proved to be a splendid size to explore by bicycle while waiting several days for the arrival of the Tour. We visited majestic townhouses, fascinating museums, interesting historical sites, and enjoyed delicious inexpensive meals. Surprising was the role of Reims in World War II as the headquarters for General Dwight Eisenhower and the Allied Command.
We were awed by the exquisite public library built with a donation from Andrew Carnegie after World War I and still lending books. Perhaps most memorable was the chapel of Our Lady of Peace which was the work of Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita who painted the stunning and mystical interior frescos. The spectacular Cathedral of Notre Dame, which looks beautiful at all times of the day, but especially at sunset, was breath-taking every time we crossed the large cathedral square. While my being in Reims to see the end of a Tour stage was very much for my mother, I found myself enjoying sightseeing and spending time together. Soon, I too was getting excited about the coming of the Tour de France.
Amazingly, the day before the Tour, we could only get a whisper of the route – nobody really knew for sure which roads it would take into Reims. The owner of our hotel did not know and neither did anyone at the local tourist office across the square from the Cathedral.
To Americans, this seemed very strange—shouldn’t the whole town be turned upside down for such a world- class event? None of the shops were selling Tour paraphernalia—T-shirts, postcards, caps, jerseys—anything to indicate that within a day, the Tour de France would roar into Reims. We took the little information we had and hopped on our bikes, intent on finding a good location from which to watch the cyclists pass by. Our criteria was very simple—a cafe along the route far enough from the crowds at the finish line and, most importantly, easy access to restrooms.
We decided to ride our bikes away from Reims and use as markers the handful of barriers along the way, which we figured would be set up to hold back the crowds. We found a small cafe where we had lunch and became acquainted with the owners. They too thought the Tour would go past their establishment and assured us we would be very welcome to return the next day. Everything was set. Or so we thought!
Early on the morning Stage 4 was to finish in Reims there was not a cloud in the sky. The weather was hot but fortunately, not humid. As we left our hotel, we were surprised that overnight the nearby streets had been transformed into a long stretch of barriers with police stationed every 20 feet. We decided to ride first to the finish line about six blocks away and then follow the barriers out of the center of town to our carefully chosen cafe.
The area for the finish had a great energy and excitement. Souvenir stands had appeared in the same streets where the night before we strolled and had dinner. Most impressive were the large gleaming double decker broadcast booths. We could look down the street past the VIP stand and see the finish line being painted. By 9 a.m. the crowd was growing. We spoke to a number of dedicated fans that had claimed their spots while holding large national flags. They would be waiting for six or seven hours for a chance to see their heroes finish—true dedication.
We started to ride away from Reims, following the barriers, to get to the cafe we had chosen the day before… and surprise… the route was different than we anticipated. Our cafe was now an eighth of a mile away from the route into Reims putting our view and access to restrooms in jeopardy.
Fortunately, my ears heard a wonderful sound—American Soul music coming from a cafe with empty tables right on the route just at a corner. Fate had intervened and helped us find an even better location. We would be able to see the cyclists as they approached the corner and as they made the turn to race into Reims. Since this was France relaxing at a cafe for many hours at a table is never an issue, it’s a requirement. So we introduced ourselves to the owners and settled in to wait. My mother was thrilled and the music was rocking!
By about 1 p.m., it seemed the entire neighbourhood was going to turn out for the passing of the Tour De France and we were among them—families, teenagers, seniors, shop owners, postal workers, delivery people—all filling the sidewalks with children pressed against the barriers for the long wait, while chatting with each other and the police.
We spent the next few hours talking to our fellow onlookers while drinking sodas and water, eating lunch, reading newspapers, taking turns sitting in the chairs, and being part of the growing excitement. At one point, I was even able to apply a fresh coat of nail polish. Then the long parade began. There were local groups that rode their bikes or marched past. It was not a typical parade, but rather many community groups that went past in no particular order, some had one or two instruments to accompany them and great gaps of time between each.
In between were small vendor trucks with all the Tour souvenirs unavailable in the shops. People would jump off the trucks and dash to the barriers to sell t-shirts, musettes, caps, balloons, pens and other assorted Tour items. We joined in the shouting for the desired items, quickly shoving euros at the vendors and miraculously getting back the correct change.
Then, the Tour de France caravan (or parade of floats) slowly passed by. Sponsored by French banks, businesses, and bicycle-related companies, the floats were colorful but small in comparison to floats in American parades. People on the floats and walking along the sides energetically threw free merchandise to the crowd—everything from candy, small toys, packets of laundry detergent, cycling caps, small bagged desserts, and the prized large green foam hands.
Kids scrambled to grab candy and toys while the police and adults obligingly moved out the way or gave away what they had caught. Caps were generously given to the elderly who did not have hats to shield them from the sun. We happily gave away the laundry detergent we grabbed in the scramble. I gave away one of the two polka dot (King of the Mountain) hats I caught while my mother clutched the big green hand she managed to secure. Amazingly, it seemed that everyone got something.
Meanwhile markers for the benefit of the cyclists were being put in place. A large white and red polka dot balloon jersey was blown up and secured at the corner where we were positioned to indicate it was 3km to the finish line. Then, a different kind of caravan rolled past, this time the huge brightly painted team busses; the equally colorful cars, each loaded with bikes on top; and a small army of support vehicles and photographers sitting precariously on the back of countless motorcycles. The crowd clapped, waved and shouted as the parade of busses, cars, and support vehicles went past. But after nearly six hours of waiting, where were the cyclists?
All of a sudden my mother shouted she could hear a helicopter, which soon was overhead. The cyclists must be near. We joined in the cheering with the crowd. The air was electric—and then it was over in less than 15 seconds, maybe 20! We knew it would be over fast, and I must admit it is still a blur of color and movement, but one of the greatest blurs I have experienced. I thought I had joined my mother so she could see the end of a stage of the most famous bicycle race in the world. Instead, we both found ourselves in the middle of long, boisterous, colourful, and generous community party to which everyone was welcome!
I’m sure some of you have been lucky enough to participate in something after dreaming and perhaps seeing it for so long on television. If so, you might appreciate and understand the happiness and enjoyment of my mother. Because I came to the adventure with no agenda and ready to absorb whatever craziness might occur, I had a great time and can now easily report that if it is your dream, it is very possible to see part of the Tour de France up close and personal.
My mother wants to see a stage of the Tour de France next year, but she wants to be a Podium Girl—one of the lovely women who each day hand awards and offer kisses to the stage winners. PLEASE drop me a line if you have any ideas on how to pull this one off… anything is possible, right?
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