Le Jour du Tour

Tour info flyer volunteers were passing out at the Annecy train station

Tour info flyer volunteers were passing out at the Annecy train station

Anyone planning a sojourn to a stage of the Tour de France should bring the following three things: a bottle of water, a sense of humor, and an escape plan.

We hopped on a train in Chamonix to head to Annecy on Thursday, where the final time trial of the Tour was held this year. After watching the Tour on the tube for 10 years, we though it was the perfect introduction: We could skip the long walk from a faraway parking area, and unlike other stages, this was an all-day event–the riders wouldn’t breeze by all at once, before stunned fans have time to cry “ALLEZ!” much less snap a photo.

Since the big guns didn’t go off until later in the day (the racers start the time trial in reverse order of their overall standing–thus the yellow jersey starts last), we headed to the team buses first. When you’ve never been to the Tour, it’s exciting just to see the team buses, bikes, the mechanics and their piles of tools and bike parts. Even a domestique rolling by is cause for an ooh or ahh, partly because the stars command crowds that make them difficult to spot. Thus our circuit of the team area went something like this: “There’s the Saxo Bank bus!” (We caught a glimpse, through a horde of people, of Fabian Cancellara warming up.) “Look, it’s Dave Zabriske’s bike!” (Dave himself followed. He lazily swung a leg over his stars-and-stripes ride and acknowledged the crowd gathered at the fence before plugging into his iPod.)

We cruised by the Astana bus, but since it was so early in the day, we figured there was no way we’d see Lance or Contador. Their races were still hours away. Besides, we couldn’t see into their warm-up area through the crowd already gathered there.

I was leaving the edge of this crowd when someone started parting it for a car to come through. I looked up and saw a Astana car, and in the passenger seat was undoubtedly the Lance Armstrong.

Just as I silently gasped, someone else cried “Armstrong!”

One of the photos I snapped overhead--wish I were taller.

One of the photos I snapped overhead--wish I were taller.

Chaos ensued. The crowd was crushing. Personal space and free will evaporated into the hot, humid air. I had no choice but to move with the wave toward Armstrong’s car, which was trying to deposit the legend right at the gate that kept the crowds out of warm-up area in front of the buses. All I could do was giggle and clutch my camera in my hand.

Two or three layers of people divided me and Lance as he got out of the car, and still crushed by people on all sides, I couldn’t see anything but the backs of the fans in front of me. I laughed outright–it was completely absurd, mob-like behavior, and I was trapped in the middle of it. So I raised my camera overhead and held the button down, aiming for where I hoped Lance might be.

The crowd shifted, and I could tell Lance had made it to the team bus. I suddenly found myself pressed against the passenger side of the empty car. But the top of the car wasn’t empty.

Lance's time-trial bike

Lance's time-trial bike

The roof rack held his time-trial bike.

Seeing Lance Armstrong’s bike up close is the next best thing to seeing Lance Armstrong. The same is true for photos–I didn’t get one of Lance until later, when he rode out for his time trial. But I took plenty of photos of the bike up close.

From there, I spotted my companions for the day: my husband, and Michael, our mountain guide from Chamonix (who also leads bike trips and is a huge cycling fan).

“Were you there when Lance got out of the car?!?”

“No,” I said with a chuckle, “I didn’t see him get out at all.”

We spent the next few hours wading our way to the start, the finish, and watching riders and fans all the way. Just after the Lance excitement, we’d figured out that one of the best places to see riders come and go was the sole gate to the team bus area–finishing riders would roll into here sucking wind, and fresh ones headed out to the start from here. We decided the starting line would be too crowded to see the final riders, so we’d park here until the yellow jersey passed by, then bolt for the train while everyone else bolted for the starting line.

Alberto Contador heading to the start of the time trial

Alberto Contador heading to the start of the time trial

Our escape plan worked. George Hincapie rolled in after finishing his time trial just before Bradley Wiggins rolled out. Lance and the Schleck brothers followed, and finally Alberto Contador. Unlike the packed starting line, here we had front-row seats. And an easy walk to the train station.

However, the day didn’t end until we’d watched the television coverage back at our apartment in Chamonix. There’s a trade off when you go to the Tour in person: You get to breathe in the excitement of the often costume-clad crowd and see the riders tear by, but it’s easy to miss what’s so easily captured on TV, like the time splits and the standings. So like any other day of the Tour de France, we found ourselves catching up on our couch–crowd free, with closer, but much less exhilarating, views of the pros.

This summer, I’m conducting a work/play experiment in the Alps. I’ve moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the sixth in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.