Like tasting notes from a well-crafted Bordeaux, or trying to analyze the complex characters of Bernard Hinault or Laurent Fignon, France’s magnetism as a cycle-tourism destination can be tough to decipher. The sheer volume of companies pitching French cycling vacations can be overwhelming; crowds at major races are difficult to negotiate; and the people of France have long suffered stereotypes about a love/hate relationship with the West. But France is a country that prefers to show, not sell. And all things considered, cyclists just can’t resist its endless country roads, deftly crafted wines, or the voyeuristic thrill of following the sport’s most untouchable showcase.
The French have a saying, “The best part of an affair is going up the stairs.” Let us show you the way to the second floor.
This is you: “I want an exclusive behind the scenes access to private tents, grandstand seating, viewing platforms, and guaranteed mingling with the athletes. An oh yeah, I want to ride, too.”
Trek Travel: Trek Travel’s multiple Tour de France trips grant access to the Wisconsin bicycle-maker’s sponsored teams. The 2010 “Team Access” trip included trips to team busses and visits with Johan Bruyneel, Chris Horner and mechanic Craig Geater. Trek Travel also arranges viewing tents with fl atscreen TVs at key points along the route. The nine-day, 2011 “Epic Climbs” itinerary took in the Tourmalet, Ventoux and L’Alpe d’Huez and can be combined with a finish line package that will hook you up with a private TGV to Paris and a viewing location behind the security line on the Place de la Concorde. $$$$
Bikestyle Tours: BikeStyle is one of only four VIP official operators of the Tour de France. “VIP official” means that, in addition to strategic accommodation and guiding, the friendly Aussie owners of BikeStyle pay the ASO a huge fee to offer clients special perks: crossing the finish line with podium photos, access to the exclusive l’Izoard VIP area to see the stage finish, and a visit to the start village and the riders’ enclosure on race morning. $$$
Rub Shoulders With the Locals
This is you: “I want to soak in the culture of the event at my own pace. I’m an experienced cyclist but prefer not to chain gang with agro weekend-warrior types.”
Adventure Travel Group: Enthusiastic owners Lise Fleury and Gary Bezer are known for personal attention and small group tours, with a 16-person cap. Their 2011 trip, during the third week of the Tour, was designed for “strong and avid cyclists” and climbs 14 classic Alpine cols, with three stage-viewing stops and a 50-70 mile daily distance average. Two riding groups, “fastpaced” and “leisurely” made this trip popular for couples or groups with mixed riding thresholds. Lodging was in three- and four-star inns and hotels. $$$
Ciclismo Classico: For those with limited time, Ciclismo Classico’s seven-day and sixnight Tour trip runs Monday to Sunday and minimizes your out-of-office vacation penalty. Climbs include the Col de l’Agnel and Col de l’Izoard with three stage-viewing days. $$$
This is you: “Screw autographs and waiting around for hours to see these guys flash by for a split-second, I want to spend as much time as possible in the saddle, hammering the Tour’s biggest days.”
Thomson Bike Tours: A fusion of Scottish and American ownership, this company has cut back live viewing on its four Tour trips from four to two days (and that’s only for critical mountain stages) to stay true its motto, “less van, more bike.” For 2011, Thomson organized a “Centenary Alps Celebration” with a focus on the Col du Galibier and L’Alpe d’Huez. The day 4 itinerary cleared L’Alpe d’Huez, Col du Lautaret, Col du Galibier, and L’Alpe d’Huez again, over 121km with 3,200 meters of climbing. Participants were grouped into eight- to 10-person ride teams according to performance level. Accommodation was on racecourse, 1km from the L’Alpe d’Huez finish line. $$$
Alternative Etape du Tour
This is you: “I prefer to watch the Tour on TV. However, I still want to go to France and ride the most iconic stages — it just doesn’t have to be when the race is happening.”
Etape du Tour: The Etape du Tour is fast becoming one of the most popular single-day cyclosportifs in France; in 2010 it lured 9,000 participants. The Etape, (organized by Tour owner ASO), replicates a Tour de France stage but does not take place on the actual day of the race. For 2011 there were two Etapes: stage 19, 109km with climbs over Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and L’Alpe d’Huez, and stage 9, a 208km flatlanders’ day.
Cyclomundo: Bruno Toutain from Cyclomundo is an Etape du Tour logistics expert and offers two options for the event: 1) self-guided with hotel booking and meals but no transport, 2) fully-supported, adding transfers, mechanical service and post-ride facilities (shower, snacks, etc.). Cyclomundo is also an official tour operator and runs an all-inclusive six-night package for the Alpes Open Tour, the only multi-day alpine cyclosportif in France. This five-stage event rocks some of the most scenic passes of the Tour de France. Several climbs are timed and the ride usually attracts professional riders and teams. $$
Trek Travel: With guaranteed entry, accommodation at a mountain chalet, private rest stops (i.e., no waiting in line), and mechanics along the route, Trek Travel Etape du Tour packages are designed to keep riders as comfortable as possible before, during and after the ride. $$$
Behind the scenes with a Tour de France operator
As the French manager for tour operator ExperiencePlus, Jonathan Hancock has organized trips to the Tour de France for the past 11 years. But in 2011, he decided not to offer a public Tour package. Here’s why: “On the L’Alpe d’Huez in 2004, we had 100 clients on the mountain, mixed-in with one million spectators … it was craziness. Building these trips is wild, too. The key is hotel location. If your hotels are in a bad spot then you’re at a huge disadvantage. Clients will have to spend hours shuttling in vans. But nothing is certain until the ASO releases the Tour’s route information. Up to that point, you’re watching for information leaks, pouring over maps, and brainstorming the possible route. And by the time the ASO green lights the route, they have already reserved tons of rooms in the stage towns for employees and the publicity caravan. Then it becomes a hotel-booking frenzy for tour operators competing for the best locations. This year, we opted out of the Tour de France madness to spend extra energy working on guide training programs, polishing our other French trips and to provide logistical support for partner operators.”