by Garrett Lau
In July 2001, Jeff Tse and I went on a three-week VeloSport Vacations bicycle tour that followed the Tour de France. My report is in three parts:
18 July 2001: I wake up to the sound of heavy rain. At breakfast, I discover that todayís ride is canceled. Miraculously, the rain stops and the sky clears after lunch, so Jeff and I walk out to the TT course. The main road from our hotel meets the course at a roundabout, at the base of the climb to Chamrousse. We watch the race from the middle of the roundabout until the gendarme chases us away. Jeff goes one way, towards the start, while I go the other, up the hill. The crowds get thicker further up the hill, so I stay close to the bottom. This is not the ideal location, since the riders will be zipping by pretty fast, but at least I have an unobstructed view.
One by one, each rider speeds by me. When Bobby Julich approaches, he sits up and rides no-hands. Whatís he doing? Heís taking off his helmet! I snap a picture, and then watch him hand his helmet to the spectator standing across from me. Julichís follow car stops to get the helmet back. Cool. This location is not too bad after all. When Lance Armstrong comes by, he does the same thing, except that he holds his helmet out toward me! Iím seeing this through my camera, so by the time I remove the camera from my face, itís too late to grab the helmet. Lance hands it to someone 10 yards up the hill from me. Well, at least I got a good picture.
As usual, we watch the end of the stage on TV. This time, itís at a conference room in our hotel. I donít even notice Frankie Andreu until Jeff comes in and sits down next to him. After spending the whole tour with the other Velosport groups, Frankie is spending the final night with us.
Our farewell dinner is this evening. Itís sad to see everyone in our tour group go, but Jeff and I are staying on for the second half of the tour. Although weíre switching to another group with different guides, our guides assure us that we will see them again.
19 July: Jeff and I board the bus for Lourdes with our new guides. Sammarye Lewis is also on the bus, as she is the only other VeloSport client doing both halves of the tour. Sometimes, motorists honk excitedly because of Sammaryeís Lance Armstrong Fan Club banner in the window. Aside from that, the trip is just another long, boring bus ride in the rain.
20 July: Since our guides are busy with the arrivals of everyone else in our new group, Jeff and I are on our own today. We ride out of the valley to a nearby town for lunch. On the hills on the way back, we mix in with a couple of very strong local riders.
21 July: Our first ride with the new group features the Col díAspin, a Category 1 climb that is very similar to California Highway 9 in terms of gradient and distance. Of course the scenery is vastly different, including huge cows standing in the road, and RVís camped out at the top (even though the race doesnít go on this road until tomorrow). Our destination is the base of the Col de Val Louron-Azet. Just like our first day on the first half of the tour, we arrive at our picnic spot way before the car with our lunches, but this time, there are only five of us in the lead group. Everyone else is significantly slower.
After lunch, we scramble for more swag from the publicity caravan, watch the racers on the climb, and then crowd into a bar to watch the end of the stage on TV. Everyone in the bar cheers as Armstrong wins the stage convincingly and dons the maillot jaune.
22 July: The main climb today is the Col du Tourmalet. It is 10.5 miles to the top, but our lunch spot is only eight miles up, in the town of La Mongie. I cover these eight miles in less than an hour, so I keep going. This is where it gets difficult. As if the 10% grade isnít hard enough, I also have to deal with crowds on the road and oppressive heat. Even though I slow down to 5 mph, I still manage to pass one of the guys in our group who was ahead of me. This makes me the third rider in our group to reach the top. Not bad.
Whatís worse than trying to ride through a crowd of rowdy Basques? Trying to take pictures among them when the racers come by. Similar to our first day, the crowd is a sea of people that parts just enough for the riders to pass, but this time, the sea is rougher, and it is orange, the color of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team. Once again, we watch the end of the stage on TV in a bar. There is wild celebration in the streets when Euskadi rider Roberto Laiseka wins.
Our return trip is supposed to simply reverse the way we came. However, even with three guides, we get lost and donít get back to our hotel until after 9pm. I am very upset.
23 July: Frankie Andreu has arranged for us to take pictures with the USPS team on their rest day. Itís not as exciting as it might sound. We wait outside their hotel all morning just to take a group photo. We canít even ask for autographs. Fassa Bortolo is at the same hotel, and their riders are more accessible, but nobody in our group is interested. We havenít even heard of them. Whoís this guy Petacchi? He looks like a model. Can he ride?
Back in Lourdes, the ride on our itinerary is Hautacam, but Iím pretty tired, so Frankie recommends ďthe forest.Ē Jeff and Andy, another strong rider, go with me. Unfortunately, we miss a turn and end up climbing a significant hill. Well, at least I know the way back. At dinner, we celebrate Andyís 40th birthday.
24 July: We ride the last 40 miles of the race route into Lavaur. The folks Iíve been hanging out with decide to watch the race on TV at a bar, but I want to be at the finish line. Unfortunately, since Iím three rows back from the fence, I only see the riders for a split second. Petacchi wins the field sprint for 3rd, six seconds behind Verbrugghe and Pinotti. The best photo I get is after the race, when the Texas bikini girls pose for me. We then board the bus for our next hotel in Cahors.
All pictures from this trip: