With the 100th edition of the Tour de France on full speed I thought it might be time to write about my own encounters with the Tour de France. I have to say these encounters are rather limited, as I love cycle touring, not cycle racing. For me personally, cycling is a great way to enjoy the surroundings and to engage in sightseeing and exploring, the sportive element of cycle racing never had my personal interest. What I find great about cycling is that it allows individuals to engage in sports without any competitive element, so without all the lowering self-esteem an individual can develope when “always loosing” matches or races.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have an interest in the Tour de France, on the contrary! Being Dutch, I was brought up with the Tour de France being the highlight of the year, to be watched on TV and to be listened to on the radio. I wrote previously how in The Netherlands the three-week radio programme Radio Tour de France has an iconic status and I have fond memories of me listening with my dad from young age. Many years later, I found myself working for the TV-version of the programme. This work didn’t take me to the Tour itself as I was studio-based, but I had the opportunity to work with some of the presenters and producers I was familiar with since childhood. In the picture on the right you can spot a young “Cycling Dutchman” in a Dutch TV-gallery next to editor and presenter Ronald Boot...
My first real encounter with “Le Tour” was in 1996, when it started in The Netherlands in the city of Den Bosch. Besides the prologue, there was also a circular first stage. As I had some relatives living on the route of the stage, it was obvious to watch the racers coming through their village. Although it was exciting to be there (naturally I had cycled all the way from Amsterdam), it was also a bit disappointing. Being in the Dutch flat lands, the racers passed through in a matter of seconds and all what was left to enjoy was the Publicity Caravan, the endless procession of advertising cars; not really the experience I was after.
Much better to engage in cycling itself on some iconic Tour de France routes. In 2004 I headed for the Alps to cycle two of the Tour de France’s most famous mountains. Dutch people are crazy with Alpe d’Huez and regard it as “the Dutch mountain” (the 2013 stage attracted approximately 200.000 Dutch holidays makers!). Of the twenty-seven stages finishing at the summit up to 2013, eight stages have been won by Dutch racers. It is obvious I had to give it a go as well!
It is indeed a bit of a climb, rising just over 1000 meters above the valley floor of Bourg D’Oisans village. The fastest ascent during the Tour de France ever was by Marco Pantani. The climb took him just 37 minutes and 35 seconds. Well, I already told you I am not a racer myself, so it took me about three hours the “Cycling Dutchman” way! So; indeed, slow moving, bringing a packed lunch in the panniers and stopping at the many bends to enjoy the spectacular views; a great leisure ride if you ever have the chance to do it!
It is probably not exactly the same way as during the Dutch Alped’Hu Zes charity event in which over 8000 Dutch riders climb the mountain six times to raise money for the Dutch Cancer Prevention Charity. The event has been running annually since 2006 and nearly one billion Euros have been raised since the first edition. There is also a children’s edition now, in which children engage in a full day of cycling or walking from their own local school, Alpe d’Hu Kids. Another international cycling event including the climb of Alpe d’Huez is the Marmotte, a race against the clock for amateur racers. This ride includes four famous Tour de France climbs and is the most prestigious of all cyclo sportives. With "only" about 7000 places available per edition, it is oversubscribed every year.
In my own way, I cycled half of this “Marmotte” as, besides cycling Alpe d’Huez, I also took on the Col du Galibier. Of all famous Alps climbs of the Tour de France, this is the real mountain, rising 2645 meters above sea level. To be able to climb the Col du Galibier, you have to take on the Col du Telegraphe first, which takes you to Valloire village, about 1400 meters above sea level. The steep rocky slopes of the Col du Galibier are clearly visible from here, reducing Alpe d’Huez to a friendly grassy hill. I cycled this route in spring and the road had only just reopened after the winter season.
Beyond Valloire, my cycling comrade Martijn disappeared gradually out of sight, leaving me on my own, admiring the impressive domes upwards with its melting water heading downwards. Going slow and steady has always been my trademark and it is especially relevant on climbs like this! I hit the snow line at about 2100 meters above sea level and I suddenly found myself cycling in between two walls of snow, something I’ll probably never encounter again.
Having been on my way for over three hours, my patient support crew stopped me on about 2200 meters above sea level. “This is going to take you hours” I remember my wife saying and she was probably right. Together we drove by car further up through the walls of snow, catching my friend Martijn just before the entrance of the Galibier tunnel. At the other side of the tunnel we passed the Henri Desgrange monument. As you may know, Desgrange founded the Tour de France, which takes us back to the start of this article.
So yes; 100 editions of "Le Tour", it is an amazing spectacle to watch, every year again. When writing this, Chris Froome is in the lead to win the 100th edition, followed closely by Alejandro Valverde from Spain and Bauke Mollema (yes; a Dutchman!). The peloton still has to take on Alpe d'Huez and this this year they have to climb it twice! New cycling heroes are in the making, not just for Britain, but also for Spain and The Netherlands. Lets hope these new heroes will inspire a young generation to cycle, if it was only for "Dutch style" cruising! Allez "Le Tour"; just keep going for another 100 editions!
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