I love the end of June. It’s always been the most exciting time of year for me. Even now, years after finishing as a pro-rider, I still get that tingle in my stomach; there’s something indescribably special about the Tour de France. Each year before boarding that plane to Paris I find myself following the same routine as I pack my gear and tear down my Malvern Star Oppy after making my final training preparations.
Of course the training regime today isn’t quite as intense as it was when I was riding for Peugeot. For the past 12 years I’ve been lucky enough to guide small groups cycling enthusiasts through France on a cultural, culinary and cycling tour-de-force. In year 1 we tried to follow all 21 stages to see as much cycling as possible, but the pace was a bit intense so we pulled it back and over the years we’ve refined to a perfect blend that takes in all the essential elements of the Tour, with ample time for our guests to experience the magic of France at the height of summer.
A lot has changed at Le Tour since I first got my hands on the yellow jersey. Back then you were condemned for speaking English; French was the only language spoken and respected. Now the commentators and teams speak in both English and French. In 1981 I was one of a handful of riders from outside Western Europe whereas now we have riders from as far as Colombia, Australia and Uzbekistan. Back then there weren’t many ways for fans to really experience the Tour from a rider’s point of view. That’s how we got started; by using our racing contacts to put tours together. We wanted to give enthusiasts a way to experience the Tour the way we experienced it.
Today our tours usually begin with a welcome dinner where we all share a few laughs and swap stories over a couple of glasses of the local produce. Of course we all pretend to have the knowledge and experience of Phil Liggett or Mike Tomalaris as we discuss the teams’ strategies and try and share our expert opinions about who’ll be this year’s winner. This is one of my favourite parts of the tour; sharing and talking about the excitement ahead of us is even more intoxicating than the wine.
On the first morning we rise early for a ride to get the blood flowing and take in the beautiful surrounds of France. My team is brilliant at accommodating all levels of fitness and knows that there are usually a few who like to ride faster and few that like to enjoy the rolling hills at an easier pace. I spend my time rolling up and down the groups listening to everyone share stories as the camaraderie between us grows. Last year we rode between 80 and 100km on the first day and slowly extended our rides throughout the tour and took in some of the great climbs like the Col du Tourmalet, Alpe d’Huez, Col de Galibier and Most Ventoux.
Our first ride generally takes in part of a Tour stage. It may be a stage finish where we secure ourselves a good position and cheer the sprinters home to see who takes the stage win, or we may head to the start and experience the hustle and bustle before the riders roll off. This year we’re excited about seeing the finish of Stage 16 in Gap, a stage that will surely affect the final standings.
For a stage finish we will get to our place at least two hours before the riders come through. The time flies by as we watch the caravan roll through, pick up some free gear from the sponsors and hang out with cycling enthusiasts from all over the world. In the past few years we’ve been lucky enough to run into some of my mates from the 80’s and jump the fence to the VIP areas. This is always a treat.
After watching the jersey presentations we grab our belongings and ride back to the hotel with a bit of a spring in our peddles after the excitement of watching a stage finish. The guys are a bit tired when we get back so my team and I wash all of the bikes, check the oil on the chain and make sure that bikes are secure for the next day.
Taking a leaf out of the book of our European hosts, our group rests during the late afternoon and some of us take the opportunity to get some shut eye. I always get teased for my afternoon ‘nanna naps’ but it is amazing the difference they make after a long first day. We don’t like to have anything formal planned for dinner on most of nights; this way our guests don’t feel pressured to meet deadlines. Normally though a group of about 10 to 12 of us head to dinner together to chat about the day and further analyse the tour standings. The guys love to hear some of my war stories and I have to admit it’s fun to dig them out over great French food and wine; this is what the Tour’s all about.
Days vary but we try and cater for everyone’s needs and stay flexible. We’ll always take in the key elements from Le Tour including a stage start, finish, climb, sprint and flat. We’ll get on the bike almost every day and tackle the roads either before or after the pros roll through. The rest is an opportunity to make life-long friends, share stories and enjoy the magic of the greatest cycling event in the world.