Chasing the Tour

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Tour de France Route

THE TOUR DE FRANCE, CYCLING'S GREATEST SPECTACLE, wends its way across France along a different route each year. Some years it starts in the east; others in the west. But there's one constant: At some point during the three-week, 20-stage race, racers must climb through the rugged French Alps. For spectators and riders alike, those days can be the most daunting—and rewarding.

"It's the mountain stages that separate the contenders from the pretenders, says Marty Jemison, who rode with Lance Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service team for three years. "All of the fans will congregate on the upper slopes of the mountain towns. The Dutch and the Germans all stake out their own real estate—the Dutch are the ones in orange, the Germans are the ones with the beer—and they scream like crazy.

And why wouldn't they? They've got front row seats to some of the greatest drama in sports. Like the classic 1986 showdown at Alpe d'Huez—the Tour's most storied climb—between riders Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. The two were teammates, and in his role as a support rider, Hinault, a past champion, was supposed to be helping the up-and-coming LeMond win the race. Instead, the two dueled it out to the finish of this epic eight-mile grunt, up grades averaging 8 percent, tilting to 14 percent in places. Why? Because Hinault wanted to "give the American an education.

In 2001, it was an American who would do the teaching on Alpe d'Huez. Armstrong, who had been faking fatigue all day, attacked with about six miles to go. The Texan sped past his rival, German star Jan Ullrich, but not without giving him what is now universally referred to as The Look—a last-second glare back over his shoulder that silently shouted "gotcha before Armstrong took off into the clouds, reeling in every last rider to win the stage.

But the French Alps, as it happens, are not only host to some of the Tour's most dramatic stages; they're also the site of some of the best summer glacier skiing in the world. And you won't have to choose between skiing and spectating. It's often possible to head up the lift for a few morning runs, then make your way down to the stage's route or even the finish line in plenty of time to see the finale of what is sure to be a thrilling pursuit.

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If you're going to follow the Tour this year, you'll be able to add France's best summer skiing to the mix, assuming the weather cooperates. There are three main glaciers in France that are skiable in the summer months: the Grande Motte in Tignes, the Sarenne Glacier above the aforementioned town of Alpe d'Huez, and Les Deux Alpes. Depending on the year, any one of these resorts might be in the neighborhood of at least one of the Tour stops. This summer, for example, on July 18, the 116 miles of the Tour's 15th stage will come to a breathless stop in Alpe d'Huez. Assuming you can find a room, you'll have a quick opportunity to squeeze in a few turns up on the 10,827-foot face of the Pic Blanc before the day's cycling is over; Alpe d'Huez is scheduled to be open July 1—23.

The area, of course, is not just known for summer racing. Alpe d'Huez was the site of the 1968 Winter Olympic bobsledding events. The town doesn't have a reputation for architectural beauty, but it still offers the skier in need of a quick fix just what they're after—a few turns on the sunny side of the huge Oisans Valley. The area is open between 8:30 a.m. and closes at 12:30 p.m., just before lunch. Which is a good thing: Anybody who has skied on a glacier knows that in midsummer, the snow after lunch is mushier than your mind after two glasses of the local grog. As is the case with most glaciers, the summer skiing at Alpe d'Huez is moderate, although it's known for being among the most challenging of France's glacial pistes. Still, it's July—how picky can you be? There's enough terrain to get your blood flowing, with two chair lifts serving six miles of runs.

Alpe d'Huez, which sits on a geological shelabout an hour outside Grenoble, is reachable only by driving (or biking) up the access road's famous 21 curves, switchbacks from the valley below. Motion-sickness drugs are recommended. Note that if the snow is not good there, you can take an hour's drive (more motion-sickness drugs recommended) across the valley to Les Deux Alpes, France's largest summer ski area, with 2,500 feet of vertical. In either case, remember that glacier skiing is more novelty than challenge.

Just beyond the Oisans Valley is the world-renowned ski area La Grave, not open for summer skiing, though the telepherique will still take you over glaciers and up to 10,500 feet, where views of La Meije and distant Mont Blanc are spectacular. Just beyond that are the mountain town of Briançon, home of French ski champion Luc Alphand, and the slopes of Serre Chevalier. And from there it's a short hop over the border to Sestriere, Italy, and the slopes that Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso mined for Olympic gold.


If you're trying to pull off the ski-Tour caper, however, be sure to get to the finish town (Alpe d'Huez in this summer's race) as early as two days before the racers pull into town. The benefit? You'll be able to drive the Tour's race route, which is a spectacle in and of itself.

Case in point: On my way to the finish of the mountain stage of Courchevel last year (armed with a magic press sticker on my windshield, courtesy of my American radio employer), I passed scores of RVs and tents, families playing cards while they waited, banners supporting people's favorite riders (both contemporary and historical), and plenty of drunken tailgaters. Fans camped out everywhere—some perched on the most precarious roadside cliffs. I had driven these same roads before, during my days on the World Cup ski tour, but I'd never seen them like this.

Naturally, there were bicycles everywhere, and hundreds of people tested their own endurance on the vicious, 13-mile, 6.3-percent-grade ascent. There was quite a bit of spandex stretched across oversize backsides, but who could blame the fans for their enthusiasm? Imagine if Wimbledon spectators could play a set on Centre Court in the hours before a Federer-Agassi final. Or if you and your family could toss the ball around on the Fenway Park infield on the morning of a World Series game.

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My favorite memory: While stuck at a 45-minute dead stop less than a mile from the top, trying to decide if the pungent smell in my car was a burning clutch or the cheese everyone was serving up on the side of the road, I heard a relay of cheers coming up the hill behind me. As the roar reached a crescendo, a man who looked to be in his late 70s rode past. Clad in a jersey nearly as old as he was and riding a prewar racing bike—with just one gear—the balding septuagenarian resolutely pedaled to the summit, earning cheers as loud as any reserved for the competitors who would zoom up the same climb a few hours later.

In order to see those riders, I had to get myself in place at the altiport—a private airport above Courchevel that doubled as the finish line of one of the Tour's toughest mountain stages. Fans mobbed the finish area. Thousands of them had biked up or hiked over from the village, and now they were drinking and relaxing in the sun. But everyone, regardless of how they got there, waited in anticipation of the athletes who would soon arrive.

Our patience was rewarded. Reporters and fans alike stood staring at a giant video screen that hung over the finish line as Armstrong, chest heaving, drenched in sweat, hammered up the final kilometers. Even as he climbed past hordes of screaming fans, the finish area was strangely, intensely quiet. We stood silent, trying to believe what seemed completely unbelievable—that any human being could possibly make such short work of the switchbacks we'd just covered. When the riders climbed into view and crossed the finish, disbelief turned to cheers and a raucous celebration. Armstrong came through in second place en route to his seventh tour victory.


It's still hard to believe that Armstrong won't race this year, but if anything, that will only heighten the drama. This year the Tour will be anybody's race. And while this summer's route skips Courchevel, the mountains still loom large—and that's a boon for skiers.

At Alpe d'Huez, any spectator with a few euros to spare will be able to spend the morning arcing turns while Tour riders are busy with the first 108 miles of the day. After a few runs down the Sarenne Glacier, they can ditch their skis and have plenty of time to witness the world's top riders conquer the famously grueling ascent. It's sure to be great theater. At this late date, forget about finding a hotel in Alpe d'Huez: The fanatical German fans have long since beaten you to it. But you could stay in Annecy or Grenoble, then drive up a night or two before and camp out and fraternize with other super fans. Bring some wine to share, some cheese and plenty of sunscreen. Perhaps you might even bike the route yourself. But don't forget your skis. Gravity works both ways, after all.

DETAILS
>L'ALPE D'HUEZ
SUMMIT ELEVATION 10,827 FEET; 6.2 MILES OF RUNS; 2 LIFTS. HOURS OF OPERATION: 8:30 A.M. TO 12:30 P.M. TICKETS: ADULT $25; YOUTH (5--—16) $21; 4 AND YOUNGER FREE. SUMMER SEASON: JULY 1—23, WEATHER PERMITTING. ALPEDHUEZ.COM

>LES DEUX ALPES
SUMMIT ELEVATION 10,496 FEET; 300 SKIABLE ACRES; 13LIFTS. HOURS OF OPERATION: 7:45 A.M. TO 1:30 P.M. TICKETS: ADULTS FULL-DAY $37, HALF-DAY $30; YOUTH (5—13) AND SENIORS (60—71) FULL-DAY $30, HALF-DAY $24; YOUTH 4 AND YOUNGER AND SENIORS 72 AND OLDER, FREE. SUMMER SEASON: JUNE 17—AUGUST 26. 2ALPES.COM

>TIGNES
SUMMIT ELEVATION 11,480 FEET; 12.2 MILES OF RUNS; 16 LIFTS. TICKETS: ADULTS FULL-DAY $39, HALF-DAY $28; YOUTH (5—12) FULL-DAY $29, HALF-DAY $21; SENIORS (60—74) FULL-DAY $32, HALF-DAY $24; YOUTH 4 AND YOUNGER AND SENIORS 75 AND OLDER, FREE. SUMMER SEASON: JUNE 17-—SEPT. 3. TIGNES.CO.UK


JUNE/JULY 2006

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celebration. Armstrong came through in second place en route to his seventh tour victory.


It's still hard to believe that Armstrong won't race this year, but if anything, that will only heighten the drama. This year the Tour will be anybody's race. And while this summer's route skips Courchevel, the mountains still loom large—and that's a boon for skiers.

At Alpe d'Huez, any spectator with a few euros to spare will be able to spend the morning arcing turns while Tour riders are busy with the first 108 miles of the day. After a few runs down the Sarenne Glacier, they can ditch their skis and have plenty of time to witness the world's top riders conquer the famously grueling ascent. It's sure to be great theater. At this late date, forget about finding a hotel in Alpe d'Huez: The fanatical German fans have long since beaten you to it. But you could stay in Annecy or Grenoble, then drive up a night or two before and camp out and fraternize with other super fans. Bring some wine to share, some cheese and plenty of sunscreen. Perhaps you might even bike the route yourself. But don't forget your skis. Gravity works both ways, after all.

DETAILS
>L'ALPE D'HUEZ
SUMMIT ELEVATION 10,827 FEET; 6.2 MILES OF RUNS; 2 LIFTS. HOURS OF OPERATION: 8:30 A.M. TO 12:30 P.M. TICKETS: ADULT $25; YOUTH (5--—16) $21; 4 AND YOUNGER FREE. SUMMER SEASON: JULY 1—23, WEATHER PERMITTING. ALPEDHUEZ.COM

>LES DEUX ALPES
SUMMIT ELEVATION 10,496 FEET; 300 SKIABLE ACRES; 13LIFTS. HOURS OF OPERATION: 7:45 A.M. TO 1:30 P.M. TICKETS: ADULTS FULL-DAY $37, HALF-DAY $30; YOUTH (5—13) AND SENIORS (60—71) FULL-DAY $30, HALF-DAY $24; YOUTH 4 AND YOUNGER AND SENIORS 72 AND OLDER, FREE. SUMMER SEASON: JUNE 17—AUGUST 26. 2ALPES.COM

>TIGNES
SUMMIT ELEVATION 11,480 FEET; 12.2 MILES OF RUNS; 16 LIFTS. TICKETS: ADULTS FULL-DAY $39, HALF-DAY $28; YOUTH (5—12) FULL-DAY $29, HALF-DAY $21; SENIORS (60—74) FULL-DAY $32, HALF-DAY $24; YOUTH 4 AND YOUNGER AND SENIORS 75 AND OLDER, FREE. SUMMER SEASON: JUNE 17-—SEPT. 3. TIGNES.CO.UK


JUNE/JULY 2006

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