Our Group Shot (Thanks Bill and Maida!)
The Map of our Ride in France
US Postal and Lance Rolling Through Mirepoix, FR
Jan Ullrich winning the Time Trial
Biking Along the Canals in Toulouse, FR
Scenic French Countryside
Finally, the big day! We had been anticipating this trip ever since Backroads sent their first e-mail notification that they were considering a Tour de France trip. Having taken the Container Store up on their travel items sale, we dragged Big Moose and his new brother, Little Moose to the limo for the trip to Toulouse via London Gatwick. It was a typically hot day and we looked forward to the cooler climate in France.
The British Airways flight was packed but left on time about 4:30 pm. Despite an unhappy baby nearby, we both got several hours of sleep with the help of complimentary wine, eye shades, ear plugs and inflatable neck pillows ("snoozy pillas" as Maxine would say). Anne re-read Lance's book, "It's Not About the Bike" while Stewart made headway in the new "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."
We landed on time, about 8am London time, and it was now Monday.
We only had an hour layover at Gatwick, but it took half of that to get a gate assignment for our flight into Toulouse. The signs to the gates took us on a pleasant scenic tour of the duty-free shopping areas, but we made it to our flight and on to Toulouse with no troubles. And Anne even got her shoes back on after a while. Tip for future overseas flights: get an aisle seat or don't fly coach. Lots of walking around is required to keep circulation flowing and climbing over people is tricky even if they're okay about it.
The security at Toulouse seemed pretty lax. A bored guy looked at our passports and stamped them, no questions asked.
We grabbed a taxi to the Grand Hotel de l'Opera, and after a 25 Euro trip along a beautiful tree-lined canal, our hotel appeared across a wide town square anchored by the Capitoleum, the ancient ornate Town Hall. Festivities were just getting underway for Quatorze Julliet, Bastille Day, similar to our 4th of July. Bands were playing on the square and the restaurants had outdoor seating under umbrellas lining the square.
The hotel staff was friendly and helpful. Despite an elevator seemingly built for one, the clerk managed to get himself, both of us and Big and Little Moose all in the lift at once. Once he heard we were following the tour, we excitedly showed us the channel (2) where we could follow the race every day in high speed, excited French. Hmmm, our French lessons didn't prepare us for this. Oh la, la!
The room itself was amazing! Red walls, thick heavy drapes, and a giant portrait of a woman's head covering the entire wall behind the headboard of the bed! We even had a nice balcony overlooking a decorative swimming pool (for looks only evidently since there were no entrances into it).
After a wonderful nap, we watched some of the tour on TV, trying desperately to follow the French, but failing. Finally we actually found it in English on another channel. Yikes! Beloki crashed with Lance hot on his tail, and Lance had to bounce out into the dirt to avoid him, cutting back in on the opposite side of the switch back. Oh la, la, la! We found out later Beloki was out of the race with several broken bones (thigh, elbow and finger). Lance managed to stay upright and came in fourth.
Headed out to the square looking for some coffee and a place to "regardons les gens qui passent". We walked the side streets of Toulouse, dodging the dog poo, and window shopped, but most stores were closed for the holiday. Lots of cobblestone, ancient churches and sidewalk cafes, and cars parked on the sidewalks despite barricades.
Grabbed a table back at the square and listened to salza, Dixieland and gospel. You haven't lived until you've heard "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" sung by a French dixieland band.
Despite trying to get into the French mode of very leisurely dinners, we gave up waiting for service and ducked into an Italian restaurant nearby. The staff was great, and the salmon lasagna, spinach rigatoni and wine were very good.
Back on the square, a mariachi band was playing and now lots more folks were gathering, dancing and singing along.
We walked on down to the river front , La Garonne, to the Pont Neuf bridge, where lots of folks were now lining the banks. Water skiing was underway and banners draped the bridge protesting something (the French are wonderful protesters). We explored nearby gardens, churches, the old hospital and failed in our attempts to eavesdrop on folks around us since there were so many different languages going on.
The temps were over 90 as we started to wilt so sometime around 10pm we headed back to our hotel. Oddly, it was just starting to get dark. Throngs of people were pouring toward us and we got our first "taste" of typical French aromas: bodies, perfume, deisel, and tobacco smoke.
We sat on our balcony to unwind and listen to the Bastille Day music on the square, only to be pleasantly jarred by the sound and sight of fireworks reflecting off the courtyard walls. We both fell asleep on the balcony with the explosions ringing in our ears.
The hotel served a wonderful breakfast complete with Anne's favorites: yogurt, granola and fruit with dark rich coffee. We charged it to our room, trois cent deux.
Time for another walk exploring Toulouse. We soon got a chance to try out our French, picking up some bandaids (pensements) for Anne's new sandals' souvenir wounds, finding postcards at the "tabac" and replacing Stewart's watchband at the Nouveau Galleries. We were even able to decipher "pay first, come back" after having had half of the band replaced and being handed a ticket with numbers scratched on it. That was actually fun!
We can see already our new camera will get a workout on this trip. We've already taken tons of shots, and here's the Capitoleum with a display depicting the Centenaire of the Tour de France , plus its artwork and wonderful little park. Nearby is this amazing Romanesque church , the Basilique de St. Sernin. We walked to the bridge again and into town searching out a museum, but found it to be closed. We had fun checking out the odd little cars, Peugeots, Renaults, Citreons, and even Smart Cars. The day was beautiful, warm but comfortable in the shade, and we walked back up a side street, picked up a jambon et fromage sandwich on baguette (with "salad": lettuce and tomato), and took it back to our room to eat on the balcony, catching some of the day's race on TV.
Today is the Backroads meeting day, so we headed to the lobby area around 2:30 and found lots of folks gathered around a small TV watching the race. Turns out the trip includes two families from Indiana, so we have a variety of age groups represented as well as many parts of the country (IN, CA, CO, TX, OH, ID, NC, VA).
Our leaders, Dan, Beth Anne and Dylan, met us and took us downstairs to the cave-like basement, a very cool place that felt as if it had been carved out of the rock. They presented us with very cool Backroads/Tour de France jerseys, gave us some stats (over 15 million people line the routes of the tour, and 75% of adult French folks have seen at least some of it live!), had us introduce ourselves all around, and then we met up with our guide, Gilbert, for a walking tour of Toulouse. We revisited St. Sernin (and his sarcophagus), toured L'Ensemble Conventual des Jacobins and heard the differences between the Jacobin, Dominican and Cathar religions. We learned about the pilgrims, including professional ones, discovered St. Thomas Aquinas and one thorn of Jesus' Crown of Thorns housed in the Jacobin church (the rest are in the Notre Dame treasury in Paris), and heard about the inquisition and the extermination of the Cathars. So, most French people are Catholic by force it seems. Finally, we wrapped up the tour at the Place de Capitole.
Dinner was at the Hotel de l'Opera. We filled three tables in a separate room in the restaurant. We ate with the Gates and a few Karrs who were a hoot. Jim was hysterical stuffing himself on "the bean" and Sean had everybody splitting a gut when it got to the fancy chocolate dessert involving a banana shape and a half sphere ("Hmmmm, it's a little nutty.") After several courses, including the cheese course with some bizarre and aromatic choices, Jim couldn't hold back a "What the hell is that?!" as the petit fores arrived. "Isn't that some kind of underwear?" Debate ensued as to whether he was confusing it with a petticoat or pinnafore. Luckily, Michaela was able to decode a lot of it for us and the food was really good.
After a quick breakfast and the fun of packing again, we loaded a bus for a shuttle out to Montesquieu avoiding the Toulouse traffic. Oddly, this bus wanted to take us somewhere but not where we wanted to go, so we disembarked and headed across the street for another bus. Once at Montesquieu, we were introduced to our bikes in a nice park on top of a hill overlooking the stunning French countryside. We got our route rap, safety talk, bike fittings, pedals attached, and grabbed front packs, a trunk for the camera, water and food to go. We were on our way.
The route took us out a bike path for several kilometers, following field after field of wheat and sunflowers. The day was cool with a light breeze and somewhat overcast, a perfect biking day. Windmills joined ancient churches on the hills, along with lines of the spiky tall cedars captured by Van Gogh. Plane trees (a type of sycamore with multi-colored bark) lined the canal in perfect uniformity, and occasionally an expensive yacht took advantage of the locale. Small locks raised and lowered the water level. The view stretched for miles/kilometers across rolling hills. Old medieval towns were set against the hillsides (notice the 19% grade!), complete with the obligatory steepled church. Houses sported orange tile roofs and tan walls, some stucco, some stone, with shutters painted in saturated pastels of aqua, violet, and green.
Near Payra, two future Tour de France cyclists (currently about 6 and 8 years old and bike-less) raced us up the steep narrow road near their home calling, "Allez, allez!"
Our leaders had set up lunch in Laurac so we stopped there and had a typically wonderful Backroads picnic. This one had a French flavor, including baguettes, cheeses and even the optional wine (we opted out).
Back on the road, we were introduced to the first of several hills we would encounter in the days ahead. Granny gears are good, and the payoff at the top is an incredible view. And the downhills were wonderful, with very little traffic and great road surfaces. Once back to sunflower field level, we stopped to take a picture when a passer-by called from his car window "Perdue?" We were unable to convince him that we weren't really lost, so he came over to help us decipher our Backroads directions, then gave two choices of routes, one "suivant le rive". We "merci, monsiuer"'d him to death and pedaled on until his car was out of sight, then went back for our photo.
Several times, we passed nearby elderly folks walking or even bicycling the streets of their small towns. A quick "Bonjour, Monsieur", "Bonjour, Madame" and their faces lit up and they returned our greetings and asked questions we could only shrug and apologize to: "Ne comprend pas!" But they smiled and waved and we could at least offer "Il fait beau!" as we peddled on out of sight. We have been really impressed with the lack of anti-American sentiment. It seems totally US-contrived at this point.
We motored on to the long route, until abouth the 6.1 mile mark, where we met up with Marsha, map in hand, debating whether "veer left" meant taking the first turn or the one at the top of the hill. Several others joined us and we decided to take the first turn, and go about .5 km to see if we found the next milestone. Unfortunately, once on the downhill, the folks in the front (including Stewart!) couldn't see the point of stopping so we barrelled on to the bottom, hoping it was the correct route. The heavy equipment at the bottom had the road completely torn open, answering that question. As some of us forlornly turned to consider reversing the steep downhill we had just done, others attempted to pick up bikes and crawl around the construction. At this point, the construction guys stopped us, and moved the backhoe to let us through. Amazing!
And luckily, some could even decipher the map well enough to get us back on route and heading into Carcasonne. And what a place! It was a medieval carnaval! We envisioned cows being pitched over the castle walls. The cobblestone was so rutted we walked our bikes in, cleats clattering on the stones, dodging the vacationers, and getting quite a few stares. Finally we found our way around to the Hotel de la Cite, near the Basilique. The clerk walked us to our rooms, a very circuitous trip up a floor, down a half floor, up a few steps, past a big set of windows, right then left then right. Then, voila! Our baggage had already been delivered by Backroads but he held out his hand. At this point, Stewart and I realized we had no money handy (it was tucked into the Camelbaks we realized later) and as Stewart held his palms facing out, we saw that they were totally black! Must have been something on his handlebars. The clerk beat a hasty retreat.
The room was big and bright, newly renovated and very nice. We cleaned up and headed to dinner at Chez Saskia nearby, eating with Dan and the two sets of newlyweds. Anne tried the regional specialty, a stew of chickpeas, sausages, and chicken and Stewart got a taste of truffles. It was pretty good, and we once again slept like rocks.
We were up early today, excited about our first Tour de France viewing day. We had a great breakfast at Chez Saskia where they had set up a buffet bar of lots of fruit, meats, cheeses, breads, yogurt, granola and that good dark roasted coffee. We took a few minutes to stroll around la Cite's back streets, window shopping, but not enough time and nothing was open. As we met for the route rap in back alley of the Hotel de la Cite, helicopters were circling overhead! Hey, maybe we'll be on OLN!
The route put us on a Canal de Midi bikepath for 13 km. Despite the dusty road surface (amazingly, Anne didn't get contact problems from this), it was wonderful. The path was very shady which was handy since the day was quite a bit warmer than yesterday. Once off the bikepath, we passed through several small towns, around some traffic circles and back out into the country. We passed a great little bridge with bicyles balanced along its railings and stopped for lunch out of our front packs near a sign marking the Le Pays Cathare Sites Chateaux Cites Medievales.
Today we navigated several more hills, somewhat longer and steeper than yesterday and tougher with the heat. Shade helped a lot, and the Camelbaks were indespensible. "Il fait chaud!"
Finally, we stopped to double check the route and Dan pulled up in the van with Marsha, encouraging us to hop in since the caravan was due to arrive soon. We took him up on it, not wanting to miss any of the circus. As we made our way into Montolieu, we got caught up in our first taste of "le tour" fever. The town was decorated up to greet the caravan and cyclists, with flags and banners hanging from balconies. Dan dropped us off so we could peddle in closer. We ducked in a back alley and popped out along a barricade right on the route. Dylan spied us and called us over to where they were collecting the bikes and stuff folks didn't want to haul while they watched. We got our camera, Anne's USA visor, and sunscreen, and lined up with the other shwag-grabbers. And we were not disappointed! The caravan consists of lots of sponsored vehicles decked out with cheese and sausage, candy, bicycles and even Terminator T3 props. (Rumor had it Arnold was in that car!). One of the first vehicles was pitching "shwag bags" which Anne scooped up right away so she could collect all her other stuff. And she got playing cards, key chains, coffee, instant breakfast, sausage, and some red and white plastic thing that was designed to insert your hands into the sides to create a banner for continued cheering, as best we could tell. One sponsor pitched four decks of cards down an alley near our barricade, and Anne had to race a 7 year old boy to each one, and he beat her every time! But being in the "le tour" spirit, he gave her one after all. Merci!!
Once the "floats" went by, the media and support cars followed, including the yellow "independent" which could supply bike equipment to any team, mounted with at least eight bicycles on each one. They honked and hooted as much as the sponsors. Finally, the tour security cars took up the rear, announcing something unintelligible over bull horns. Evidently we didn't violate whatever it was since we didn't get arrested.
With an hour to go before the racers would arrive, we joined other Backroad-ians at a British Pub up the street and around the corner. They had great ham & cheese sandwiches (on baguettes of course) and peach flavored ice tea. Yumm!
Finally we stationed ourselves near the top of a hill with a long view down, between two turns, thinking this would slow the caravan enough to get some good shots. We heard the crowd at the bottom of the hill start to roar and here they come! A breakaway of eight riders were muscling up the hill, led by motorcycles that edged the spectators to the side of the road. The cyclists were slowed to about 20mph by the turns and steep hill, and we clicked away wildly. As they rounded the corner up the top of the hill, their support cars chased after them, filling the road and then...
And then they were gone! Just like that. Bizarre. Well, the peleton was still to come and they weren't far behind. We again heard the roar, positioned ourselves, and saw the US Postal "blue train" leading the pack up the hill, with Lance's yellow jersey tucked in securely amongst his teammates. Awesome! The camera continued its motor-drive like clicking and then, just as the peleton moved on past us, it stopped. What the ???? Well, deal with it later. We cheered and hollered as their support vehicles made their way up and then they were gone. A stunned silence took over the street. How incredible was that?! It was not unlike the Kentucky Derby, with lots of pre-race partying, and then in four minutes it's over. Only this time we get to follow it on into the next town.
Later, checking the camera, we discovered the battery had died. Yikes! It was only a few days old, but had admittedly been used a lot. Luckily, we had an extra battery and a converter to allow us to recharge this one back in the room.
We regrouped with the Backroads folks to retrieve our front packs and found several of them chatting with a 92 year old woman. She was very excited and wanted to talk with everyone, whether they spoke French or not. Dan was able to interpret and we found out she had been able to watch the Tour the last time it came through Montolieu, in 1920! There is so much more to this race than the bikes.
As we made our way back to the van, we decided to hurry back to the room to catch the end of the race on TV. The irony of this trip is that we really can't catch the status of the race en route. Dan speaks French fluently and will get a French paper (L'Equipe) in the morning to get the full details of the previous day, and asks residents along the route for updates, but other than that, we only see the action that goes by. So, as some folks rode downhill and battled the traffic back into Carcasonne, we opted for the van and caught the very tail end on TV, enough to see Lance retain his yellow jersey at least one more day. The downside here is that we no longer get the English speaking channel, so we make a lot of the graphics, including the wonderful cartoons the French love to interject in their commentaries.
Dinner tonight was at La Barbacane, a world reknowned restaurant whose chef had just won an international competition among 200 chefs. Believe it or not, Stewart had pigeon and loved it! Anne had "le beouf" and it was nicely done, with a wonderful sauce, fresh peppercorns, and small quantity. Again there were several courses, including the cheese course, and we tried to cut back on the bread knowing what was coming but the bread was wonderful, seeded and aromatic. We actually passed on dessert finally and snuck away, way overstuffed again. Sheesh!
With the pace of the tour, we really have no time to relax, roam the backstreets of Carcassone, window-shop and people-watch. We'll definitely have to come back.
We were up early for a quick breakfast, again at Chez Saskia, then packed a lunch, filled our Camelbaks and boarded the bus to Gaillac. Today's tour route is an individual time trial, and we get to watch the riders launch at the beginning and then we'll bike an alternate route and rejoin the route at the end. The riders leave every two minutes, in reverse order of general classification standings, so we'll see the slower riders launch, then take our time getting to the other end and by then the faster riders will be starting. The TT route is only about 30 miles, so these guys will do it in an hour.
The bus was a tall funny bus with very narrow seats. We were behind the driver which meant our feet were propped on some kind of bump-out. We ran into some traffic and were concerned about being late, but the TT was pushed back half an hour to 11:45, which is about when we arrived.
We navigated the throngs lining the barricades and our heads whirled as a rider shot past every two minutes. We found a few good photo spots and shot to our hearts content, amazed at the camera's ability to stop the cyclist in mid stride. The starting line included a count-down in seconds above the cyclist head, so we knew just when they'd shoot out. They wore special clothing and sharply angled helmets and used different bikes today, with solid or 3 spoke wheels. There were tents set up but we discovered the end of the TT time had not been moved back, so, pressed for time, we headed back to the van and picked up our bikes. On the way out, some tour officials stopped us to chat and although they didn't speak English, they got their point across: They held up both hands parallel to each other and moved the left hand forward. "Lance Armstrong", they said. Then the right hand shot forward: "Et vous! Whoosh!" Damn straight, whoosh.
As we headed out to Cap'Decouverte, we discovered it was much hotter today, possibly near 100. The countryside was every bit as stunning as the previous days, with more ancient churches, friendly and excited locals, and bikers with other tour groups. We were caught on the road by Mike, our Velo Biking Vacations buddy we had met briefly in Toulouse. We stopped to grab a bite just before Albi (the squarish cookies with the chocolate eyes and mouth were really good!), in a parking lot that served both the church and the mairee (town hall), and a local stopped to talk with us. We told him we had biked from Gaillac and he couldn't believe it. We all agreed it was very hot (il fait tres chaud!). He wanted to know more and we managed to convey that "Il fait chaud" in Dallas "tous les jours", 40 degrees Centigrade. Oh la la la la!
Soon we were in Albi, meeting up with the Backroads crew. Our new buddy whizzed by in the traffic circle, calling out the window "Gaillac!!". We were told we couldn't miss the cathedral so we stopped in for some quick shock and awe, and grabbed a few photos. It was another amazing example of Gothic artistry, full of awesome carving, sculpture, stained glass, and much more color than we saw in Toulouse. Well worth the side trip.
On we charged to view as much of the remaining time trial as possible. The day continued to heat up and there were several gasping climbs on this route, so we swerved into shadows as often as we could and made judicious use of the grannies. We should do this route in the spring or fall sometime since it was so beautiful.
As we arrived in Cap'Decouverte, we heard that Lance had just left the starting gate. We found the Karrs and Gates holding actual rail space about 200 meters from the finish line. The opposite side seemed to have more space so we tried to work our way around there. We took a few shots of riders doing interviews after the finish line but they were barely discernible, surrounded by media, so we continued on around. But we gave up hopes of getting to the other side when we heard that Lance was now about 1/3 of the way there. So, we rejoined the Indianians, both flags in tow. Kelly and Michaela held the US flag along the inside of the railing, while Stewart and I mounted the Texas flag on the monopod and alternated the grand wave with big swoops. Unlike in the US where the competition's flag would meet with jeers, no one gave us any grief. Each fan just cheered on their own team and enjoyed the race.
This was the day the camera proved worth its weight in gold. The battery replaced, we left the camera on the sport mode where holding down the shoot button caused it to take up to nine shots as fast as it could. As the riders approached from the left, I found the best approach was to put my right eye to the viewfinder just as the crowd began to cheer and slap the side walls. As I detected the lead-in motorcycles out of my left eye peripheral vision, I pressed the button and held it until the rider's support vehicles went by. Then I reviewed the images and was often surprised to find that I'd framed a cyclist since they FLEW by so fast!!! The image of Jan Ullrich came out so good, it made it even more exciting that he gained a minute and a half on Lance with his stage win today. When Lance zoomed by, the General Classification leader and therefore last rider of the day, even this camera couldn't freeze him. Despite his speed, he came in second behihd Ullrich, but retained the yellow jersey by 18 seconds. That was sooo exciting!
The crowds then streamed to the finish line for the interviews and jersey awards, but knowing our odds of actually seeing anything there, and not having any other time to grab official goods, we headed to the tents and grabbed a few shirts. We tried to get pins and keychains but they were out! And, totally unlike a US event, the tents starting folding up almost immediately after the race. How bizarre! Folks were being turned away from buying stuff.
We made it back to the bus not quite last... well, not even close to last since McLean never materialized. We shifted the Karrs to another van to wait for him and ours finally took off, way overheated and the A/C in the bus didn't work well. With lots of post-race traffic and later a traffic accident, we weren't going to make it back to the hotel until about 9:30 pm. Unsure how dinner would happen, Beth Anne had us stop at a mall for a restroom and snack pickup break. Somebody had a great idea and supplied baguettes and Babybel cheeses for the bus which had a wonderfully mellowing effect on the passengers. Back at the hotel, we had an hour of re-packing to get done after we showered so rather than go out, we ate the leftover half a ham sandwich we brought back from the British pub in Montolieu. Along with a few beers from the minibar, and some raisins, nuts and fruit from our front packs, we were good to go. Unfortunately, we never did get a chance to see much of Carcassonne.
Today's route took us out of Carcasonne and evenutally back to Toulouse. Being packed already, we had a liesurely breakfast, checked out, caught the route rap and walked oiur bikes out, hopping on once we cleared the cobblestones. We immediately met up with the Indiana guys, coming back up a hill we had just decided was the correct route. We convinced them it was and we all continued, stopping briefly for a great shot of Carcasonne's outer walls.
The sunflowers were everywhere and the Indianians braved the nettles to get a picture amongst them. They offered to get one of us together, despite our unwillingness to plunge all the way in after watching them jump and scratch on exit. The temps were cooler this morning and the biking was magical. There were long gradual climbs, but not as steep as previous days. Now medieval communities were dotted with newer housing, albeit also stucco with tile roofs. Shutters now came in varieties: sliding, folding, even automatic.
The heat picked up as the day wore on and we grabbed water from the van often, refilling our Camelbaks from the water bottles when they emptied. At the Y intersection marking the long vs. basic route turn-off, we debated. Anne wanted to do the long route since it followed the Tour's road, albeit backwards, but Stewart wanted to have some time to relax in Mirepoix and enjoy the local scene. Unwilling to go it alone without a pump, we agreed on the basic route. With the heat of the day, it was a good decision.
We rolled into Mirepoix mid-day while the caravan was passing through. After dropping our bikes off with Dylan at the van, We walked over to the viewing area near downtown. There were tons of people lining the route, more than Montolieu but less than Cap'Decouverte. The sidewalks were narrower here as well, and gendarmes roamed to keep folks from setting up on the inside corners. We met up with Jim, Kathy, McLean, Kelly, Michaela, Danielle, Russ, and Scott at a great viewing point were we could see the riders approaching from a distance.
We again set up the flags with Kelly and McLean taking US flag duty and our Texas flag mounted on the monopod flagpole. A French flag appeared in the balcony beyond us. Anne moved around to the very top of the hill and stationed herself next to some British folks, who commented that they were saddened to hear of Lance's horrible crash and that he was out of the race. Anne caught a twinkle in an eye over the shoulder of the speaker and replied that it was lucky David Millar had avoided the crash, being safely so far back of the peleton.
Stewart took over camera duty since the crowd height became an issue, and then here they came! Helicopters heralded the arrival, then the crowd came alive, and up the hill came the gendarmes, motocycles, breakaway cyclists, their support vehicles and zoom! They were gone. No one moved. Silence. Two to three minutes later, the helicopters returned, the roar started again, and here came the peloton, once again led by the US Postal team with Lance tucked safely in their midst. Attempting to swoop the Texas flag was problematic since the wind generated by the peloton was amazing! The support cars of the peleton rolled on out and voila! It was over. What a rush.
We strolled the streets of Mirepoix, found out they had a medieval festival going on, and then joined Marci, Leslie and Buck at a little cafe in the town center, near a display of a disembodied head mounted on an iron grillwork and a skeleton hanging from a tree. Recorded Gregorian chant poured from the cathedral. Stealing Marcie's good idea, Stewart climbed a pole and nabbed one of the chartreuse TdF signs used to point out the turns to the cyclists. It matched Anne's jersey nicely. We sat back and enjoyed the taboulie and artichoke salads, mussels, giant shrimps, more wine and beer and lots of sharing. Stewart got his wish of a relaxing afternoon, and Anne didn't complain of bypassing the long route.
Seemingly hours later, the long route bikers arrived, and we directed them and then joined them in the sports bar where other Backroad-ians were catching some of the ongoing race. Stacey had bought a round, and was trying to unload the remaining beers since her 10 euros had bought 5 beers!
Sadly we had to return to the bus at 3:30 (15:30), but this bus was much better. The AC worked and we had lots of room. Back in Toulouse at the Grand Hotel de l'Opera, we got a first floor room this time and arrived just at the end of the race. Lance's lead is being whittled down, now just 15 seconds over Jan Ullrich.
We met back in the basement for some pre-dinner shenanigans, where Beth Anne, Dan and Dylan set up a men vs. women contest. The men won the Tour de France trivia contest (yes, over 400,000 sausages were thrown from the caravan throughout the Tour), then the women picked up a win on what some considered an easy question that escapes me now. So the final winner was decided by a game of rock-scissors-paper, where Michaela and Andy tied a record-setting seven times before Michaela secured the win and her keg of beer. After lots of champagne toasting, cheers and hoots, we enjoyed our last extravagent 8 course dinner that was fantastic, albeit way too much. This time we got to join the Karrs and got a kick out of their vacation stories, from the Costa Rican howler monkeys and wild pigs to the eastern Canadian oddyssey. We finally called it a night, after midnight again.
With the biking behind us, we woke up late (well, 7:15) and spent a long time at breakfast. Anne spotted a Deutsche Telekom van outside and there were some support folks at breakfast speaking German. Turns out US Postal had stayed here last Thursday.
Anne wanted to let Backroads know how much the trip had meant to her after her diagnosis last October, but there was never a good time so she finally told Beth Anne at breakfast. Beth Anne was very supportive and passed on contact information for Jeff Garver, Lance's Cancer Foundation coordinator, who Beth Anne had run into at the hotel and gotten his card.
At 10:15 we said our goodbyes and took a taxi to the TGV station in Toulouse. We got our tickets stamped and negotiated the escalators and stairs with both moose in tow, but had plenty of time to wait on the platform, convincing ourselves we were in the right place (the ticket number corresponded roughly to a train car position).
Views from the train were often blocked by vegetation and more industrial in the cities, but more of the charming French countryside went by, now with steep grey slate roofs.
The train rolled into Austerlitz station, on the southeast corner of downtown Paris, about 5:30. The station was packed with all nationalities of humans and dogs. Some friendly old hippies helped us understand the aggressive approach needed to take your rightful taxi. Stewart helped an old French lady get hers after she was stiffed twice by more aggressive customers. The taxi driver cheated us a little, but we kept a vacation attitude about it.
Our hotel, Bourgongne et Montana, was small but near the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Musee d'Orsay and other attractions. We had to manhandle our luggage into the single person sized lift, one at a time, to our room on the 1st (aka second) floor. Once freshed up, we walked to a restaurant with outdoor seating and had some great couscous poulet, salmon, wine and espresso. Welcome to Paris.
Now energized, and with lots of daylight remaining despite being near 9pm, we decided to see the Eiffel Tower and maybe catch a boat ride on the Seine. The tower was lit up with strobe lights forming interesting patterns, and was surrounded by a mass of humanity. If Americans were avoiding France, I would have hated to see it when they were flocking here. We were entertained in the hour long line by young soccer team from Scotland playing with their blue flashing lights, a Korean man excited by our camera, a man from Memphis attending a conference in England, and all the interesting smells (again the bodies, the perfume, the cigarette smoke). Stewart had secured our valuables so the pickpocket warnings were not an issue. The view from the top was phenomenal, and since the sun had finally set while we waited in line, the city was lit up in all directions. We took our time comparing milestones on the graphics that surrounded the interior wall to the views outside and our maps, deciding what we would see in the few short days we had ahead of us. And to avoid a final line, we took the stairs down, and walked through Les Invalides to our hotel. Many people lolled on the grass, enjoying late evening picnics and the view of the tower. We opted out of the boat ride since it was now after midnight, but we were so excited by the events of the week (or perhaps the espresso) that we weren't even tired when we arrived at our hotel near 1 am. Anne was very impressed with Stewart's owl-ish behavior on this trip that she's decided he's European.
The hotel had a buffet breakfast similar to those in Toulouse and Carcasonne, so we were up and out with plenty of energy. The day was unusually warm for Paris, so we both went with shorts and sandals again.
We took the Rick Steve's Historic Paris walking tour , going backwards: Ministry of Justice (old prison, beheadings), Samantaine Dept. Store where we found out the top floor view is only for customers of the terrace cafe now, the beatiful old clock. We stopped at the park on the western end of the Ile de la Cite and wrote out postcards on a bench near the beautiful garden. Then on to the stunning stained glass windows in Sainte-Chapelle and the lush gardens and ponds of the Jardin de Luxembourg (where we could easily envision Mareille, Robert and Marie Laure). We ate lunch at a brasserie in Place de St. Michelle (beaucoup mayonnaise, but so good we first scooped it off but then ate lots of it anyway). And on we walked, taking in Notre Dame, the Tuilleries, the Place de la Concorde and its Obelisk of Luxor. There was construction underway and crossing six lanes of a traffic circle without a light was interesting. We opted to pass on the Louvre, knowing we would miss it since it is closed on Tuesday, but we were ready for a breather. As we said many times on this trip, "We'll just have to come back."
Back to our room by 4pm, we were able to catch the end of today's race. What a spectacle! As Lance and Jan Ullrich climbed standing neck and neck up the Col du Tourmalet, an HC category mountain, Lance was hooked by a spectator's shwag bag and went down, with Mayo landing on top of him and Ullrich doing some fancy bike dancing to avoid the pile-up. Lance recovered, only to fall out of his peddles, again impeding Mayo, with some mechanical malfunction. Luckily, the peleton lived up to its good sportsmanship rep and waited for him. Once caught up though, Mayo attacked and Lance responded, passing him up and jogging on his bike to the top of the mountain. He even passed up the lone breakaway cyclist that had been leading the peloton virtually the entire stage, gave him a "good job" tap as he passed, and left the whole lot in the dirt, taking the stage! It was classic Armstrong, and he regained a minute on Jan Ullrich today. What luck we made it back in time to catch this. We rolled back on the bed and kicked our feet in the air like maniacs.
Re-energized, sans the espresso, we cleaned up and headed out for an Italian restaurant recommended by the desk clerk (this guy had great suggestions!). The restaurant he directed us to looked to perfectly fit the bill, but we poked our heads in about 6:30, only to find they didn't open until 7:30. But one of the fellows said, "Mangez maintenant?" and walked us around the corner to a deli-like Italian place, with lasagna dishes in a display case and only two tables. We took one and they heated us up some eggplant lasagne, surprised that "aubergine" had anything to do with "oeuvre". We were too, frankly. The local wine was reasonable and tasted fine, and we finished up our postcards.
Next we grabbed a boat ride on the Seine, and saw many of the sights from the river that we had just visited on foot. It was just sunset, and was warm but with a nice breeze. We got a great view of the one woman's head on Pont Neuf, the Ile de la Cite, and some sights we hadn't seen such as the Ile de St. Louis, and the park with the dancing people, first jitter-bugging, then kung-fu dancing. There were lots of bridges, and barges cruising the Seine.
As we walked the side streets back to our hotel, it was still light out so Anne convinced Stewart to stop near the Place de St. Michelle again. Now sreet musicians were taking their spots, with a soprano sax, bass and drum trio on one corner played light jazz and a flautist at another played classical music. We took a table at La Bonaparte in between them and enjoyed the night breeze, writing in the log as we checked out the green drinks our neighbors enjoyed while they read over our shoulders, and we enjoyed more French wine, sorbet and yes, espresso. I could sit in one of these cafes for the rest of my life.
Finally we strolled back to the hotel, another wonderful day leaking into the wee hours.
Today we decided to do the Rick Steve's Champs-Elysees Walk which starts at the Arch de Triomphe. Since we walked there from our hotel, we got an awesome view of the arch from a median in the middle of the Champs-Elysees on our way there. Again the day was comfortable but promised to warm up, so shorts and sandals worked again. We found a Post Office and sent off our postcards, then finally found a drug store near the arch that had Tour de France pins, keychains and magnets, so we stocked up on easy to transport goodies.
Once at the arch, we climbed the stairs (all 285 of them) and the view from the top was incredible , and we spied all the noted markers: Montparnesse Tower, La Defense (the high tech area), avenue Foch (the schmancy part of town), Montmartre and Sacre Couer, the massive traffic circle, and of course, the Eiffel Tower. We were more intrigued by the roof top gardens , that looked like entire city blocks themselves. Back at the bottom, we noted the Tomb of the Unknown WWI French Soldier, then headed down the Champs-Elysees.
We checked out the car dealerships and Lido's (bummer, the cabaret was closed). Then, I couldn't believe it, but Stewart actually recommended stopping in Sephora's. For a man who can't stand aromas at home, he was totally intrigued by the perfumery . We spritzed lots of the little paper samplers and sniffed away, trying to recognize the citrus or fruits each perfume claimed to include. The woman in the circle of smell offered us samples of the favorite 2002 seller: eau de chocolate. We passed on the Rick Steve's suggestion to try the one that smelled like "cow pie." The place was very cool though and even though we opted not to bring any home, I would definitely recommend this to others.
The Grand and Petit Palais were both under construction and wouldn't reopen till next year, so we made our way back down the Tuilieries, grabbed yet another wonderful baguette ham and cheese sandwich with peach ice tea and sat in a quiet part of the park to eat them.
After lunch, we made our last tourist stop of the day: the Musee d'Orsay. To maximize our short stay, we headed straight to the 5th floor to see the Impressionists we both loved. Again we used Rick Steve's book to get details on the highlights and were wowed by the original Monets, Manets, Gaugins, Van Goghs and Pissaros. Words can't convey this part, you just have to see them. We took a breather in their cafe and got one last espresso while we planned the remainder of our stay. Since we had 7am flight out the next day, we needed to be at the airport by 5am, so we decided to go on soon enough to catch some of the day's race.
We were nearly back to our hotel, where they had graciously stored our luggage despite our morning check-out, before we realized it was a rest day for the tour. But we had picked up a newspaper on the Champs-Elysees, so we stopped in a nearby park, grabbed a bench in the shade and read our paper for a while. Then on to the airport Hilton, London via British Airways, then DFW and a farewell to our wonderful weeks in France!