The Australian Way is in Bonifacio, Corsica, cycling a segment of the opening stage of this year’s Tour de France. Alongside me is Bernand Hinault, a five-time winner of the Tour in the 1970s and 1980s, but even at 58, he’s not alongside me for long, disappearing into the distance with a grin. Kind-hearted members of a local racing team drop back to give stragglers like me a push up the hills; they hold conversations as they do so, relaxed, not even out of breath. Then they start trying to give me a push me on the downhills too. Mustering the best schoolboy French I can manage while plummeting down a ravine, I try to convey that my current velocity is more than ample, thank you very much.
What a lightweight I am. The following day, in a team car following Confidis rider Jerome Coppell around a time trail, I will see the speedometer hit 80 km/h on a downhill section. As racer Jonathan Vaughters once said: “If you want to feel what it’s like to be a bike racer, strip down to your underwear, drive your car at 40mph, and leap out the window into a pile of jagged metal.”
To see the article as it ran in print, click here Tour de France July 2013 copy
I rode just 25km, a fraction of the actual 212km first stage that will go from Port Vecchio to Bastia via Bonifacio on June 29, and at maybe half the speed the riders will maintain throughout; also, unlike the riders in Le Tour, I don’t have to get up and do this again for 21 stages with only two rest days. But it is enough to teach me two things: a vast appreciation of the strength and commitment of Tour riders; and that the scenery of Le Tour is extraordinarily beautiful.
And this is half the point. “When you design a course, naturally there is the sporting aspect, but also you want to think about what you will see from the helicopters,” Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour de France, tells The Australian Way in Port Vecchio, Corsica. “So when you are on your couch in Adelaide or Kuala Lumpur, what do you see? You see the beauty of France.”
This year’s tour is number 100, and from the outset, Prudhomme and his team wanted a route to showcase everything that is magnificent about France. So in addition to the mountains and the sunflower fields, the coasts and Paris’s Champs Elysees, spectators this time get to see things they have never seen before: a section not only in Versailles, but through the grounds of its magnificent palace; a circuit of the Arch de Triomphe, proposed for many years but always considered too logistically problematic; and best of all, a time trial ending at the majestic sea-bound rock fortress of Mont Saint-Michel. You could make a list of dozens of highlights, but here, we pick three.
CORSICA: STAGES 1-3
The Tour has never come to Corsica before, but this time it starts on the Mediterranean island. And after spending time here, one wonders why it has never come this way in 99 previous incarnations, as the island is perfect both for cycling and for visiting. It has it all: the towns of Bonifacio, Porto Vecchio, Bastia, Ajaccio and Calvi, with hilltop citadels and dramatic harbours; craggy granite mountains rising sheer out of the sea; some of the finest beaches in France, but with far fewer crowds outside the very high season; and wonderful food and drink, such as the charcuterie cuts of meat from local pigs, apparently given their distinctive taste by a diet of acorns and chestnuts.
“We had a theme to have a lot of water in this Tour,” says Prudhomme. “And the idea was to have something aesthetically beautiful and spectacular, in a place the Tour had never gone. There are the mountains, and there is the sea. And there will be a real competition: you have a flat stage and a hilly stage, so you could have the first fight of the Tour right here.”
One could build a holiday doing nothing but driving the first three stages of the Tour on Corsica – well over 500km of road – and stopping at the towns, villages and mountains along the way. The third stage follows one of France’s great drives, across the Vizzavona pass, skirting the jagged granite outcrops known as Les Calanques between the sheer pink cliffs that fall to the Golfe de Porto; driving it is ambitious enough, and one can only imagine what it must involve to race it in a peloton.
MONT SAINT-MICHEL: STAGE 11 INDIVIDUAL TIME TRAIL
Is there another sight in the world like Mont Saint-Michel? One look at it and it is easy to see why this was the only major outpost in northern France that held firm during the Hundred Years’ War. Mont Saint-Michel is Hogwarts and the Disney Castle rolled into one, built impossibly atop a granite rock that, on high tides, is surrounded by the sea (and, when a bridge project is complete and a road causeway removed, will more frequently be so). The Mont’s inhabitants have fought off invaders – particularly English ones – for more than a thousand years, and it wears its impregnable history in its craggy, imposing stockiness.
The Mont itself is by turns forbidding, peaceful and packed, attracting three million visitors per year, but even in high season a visit here is to be transported to another time, of barbarians at the gate and of mighty constructions built with a combination of ingenuity and faith. This has been the seat of a monastery since the 8th century.
Le Tour has finished at The Mont before now, but only in a bunch sprint and in a different orientation to this year. This year’s route has been designed with photogeneity as a priority. “This time will be a time trial, and the rider will almost be able to touch The Mont Saint-Michel,” Prudhomme says. “The idea is to be able to see: to see the riders and to see The Mont Saint-Michel at the same time.”
Also, perched on the edge of Normandy and Brittany, the region is well worth a week of anybody’s time. Barely an hour away is the beautiful walled town of St Malo, by far the most picturesque of all the serving Channel ferry ports (and the finish line of this year’s 10th stage); timber-beamed medieval Dinan; and a little further away, the D-Day beaches and memorials and the Bayeaux tapestry.
ALPE D’HUEZ: STAGE 18
Which of the mountain stages to choose? This year’s route has so many: Col de Pailheres and Ax 3 Domaines in the Pyrenees; the brutal relentlessness of Mont Ventoux, its cruelty to the cyclists in sharp contrast to the beauty of Provence around it; the rarer choice of Annecy-Semnoz in the Alps on this year’s route. But Alpe d’Huez stands out from the crowd in any circumstances, and all the more so this time around: on stage 18, riders will have to summit it twice.
There are 21 hairpins on the way up Alpe d’Huez, and it is renowned for the fervor of the densely packed crowds of spectators who flank the route, not always with a great deal of caution. (As author Tim Moore put it: “When the Tour goes up Alpe d’Huez, it’s a squalid, manic and sometimes lethal shambles, and that’s just the way they like it. It’s the Glastonbury festival for cycling fans.”)
This is part of the reason for going over it twice, on two routes: it spreads the crowd out over a wider area and showcases more of the villages on its flanks. “When you have a stage of l’Alpe d’Huez, all people see is l’Alpe d’Huez, the monster: it squashes everything around,” Prudhomme says. “There are many little villages around it, and thanks to this stage we will be able to see them and gather people together.”
In other seasons, Alpe d’Huez is a top Alpine ski resort; in summer, it’s a beloved place for mountain bikers. Beautiful outdoor sports centres such as Grenoble and Chambery provide a base for the region, and both are easily reached from Lyon.
Prudhomme is clearly passionate about Tour number 100 and the route he and his team have selected; above all, he understands the emotional resonance of the world’s great road race to the people it passes. “The French love the Tour: they have experiences of it from childhood, and maybe they will bring their children to see it.” One can cringe when he talks of the race as “3,500 kilometres of smiles,” but still, it’s clear the race itself is just a part of a much bigger idea. “Of course there is the sporting aspect, but there is also a social value,” he says. “The Tour belongs to all the French people.”