Serendipity, or How I went to the Tour de France
"I'm suffering from Tour de France withdrawal," my husband, Paul, announced over breakfast on a recent Monday morning.
Me, too. For three weeks in July we rose earlier than usual to watch an international cast of bicyclists race through gorgeous European scenery. It looked better than ever in vivid high definition on TV this year. And for me, it was incredible in person on two days in the Alps.
I didn't plan to be a spectator at the Tour de France -- I just happened to be nearby in Switzerland when serendipity, my constant travel companion, kicked into high gear.
Summer travel isn't a priority for me. I'd rather go in spring, fall, even winter, when airfares are lower and life is slower. But I found a great airfare on the Web in June -- $632 on Swiss International, with only one connection (JFK) between Raleigh-Durham and Geneva -- that would bring me for my annual visit to Madeleine Steiner-Pottier. She's known me since I was 2 because she lived in my hometown, Nutley, N.J. It's the North American headquarters of Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company, where her husband was a chemical engineer in the 1950s.
Madeleine will be 90 in September. Over many years she's shared with me her zest for food and cooking, the pleasures of gardening, opera and art, and fond remembrances of my late family. We both love maps and she delights in sending me on excursions in Switzerland, but I never anticipated the Tour de France.
As we looked at the route, Stage 15 would finish in Verbier, an alpine ski resort in the Valais, her native canton (state). Stage 16 would start in Martigny, a lovely town dating to Roman times and known for its pear liqueur and St. Bernard kennels. The Tour had never been to either venue before and the Swiss were thrilled, especially since their national champion, Fabian Cancellera, led it after the first day.
We ruled out Verbier. Too many people already there for a festival, Madeleine said. But the race included the lovely towns of Bulle and Gruyeres in Fribourg, another of the French-speaking cantons. I had visited both on previous trips. Bulle seemed just right.
Bulle was everything I expected. A delightful town, with a crowd gathering early. I had time to go back to Montbovon and find a comfortable spot on the road to see everything.
The participants in the caravan -- the parade of sponsors' tricked-out vehicles that precedes the race -- toss freebies to spectators along the route. I snared a Festina wristband and a Tour de France water bottle. The boutique truck stopped to sell the official souvenir kit -- a T-shirt, cap, bag and some magnets -- for about $30.
Suddenly, the noise from motorcycles and helicopters drowned out the cow bells. The racers came through in a flash. First, a small group -- the breakaway -- then the peloton led by Lance Armstrong's team Astana. Right behind them were George Hincapie's team Columbia. All those pumping legs -- les jambes des cyclists -- that Madeleine teased me about wanting to see. I was breathless and couldn't wait to tell Paul where he could look for me when he watched it on TV.
Going to the start of Stage 16 was totally different than standing on the mountain road. In Martigny, the Tour had a "village" for invited guests dignitaries and sponsors. For the rest of us, there was a stage for introductions and entertainment, and a jumbo television screen.
The 1 p.m. start was ceremonial, with the leading riders in their colored jerseys at the front. When the official flag dropped about three minutes into the ride, the actual race began winding its way up and down the Alps in Switzerland and Italy before ending in Bourg-Saint-Maurice, France, five hours and 159 kilometers later.
I have loads of photos and some unique souvenirs to display from my two days with the Tour, but most of all, I have the memory of feeling what a thrill it was to be part of the excitement.
Back in Pinehurst, Paul and I had a glass of champagne, to watch the grand finale of the Tour de France in Paris on television.
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