Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Jet lagged...

I've never been as jet lagged as I am today. I guess in the 12 days we were over in France, my body really got on French time. That, combined with staying awake for about 22 straight hours on the flights home, then getting about 4 hours sleep before I popped up at 2:00am the morning (it was 10:00am Paris time) has me all messed up!

Anyway, I know I've got a lot more France posts to write, but they're going to have to wait for tomorrow.

Monday, July 23, 2012


One thing that Nathan and I have noticed is that someone in France loves signs. It may be the people, the government, the road builders, or someone else, but there are so many signs in France it is almost unbelievable. I'm not talking about billboards or other advertisements along the road, but rather the road signs that tell you what you need to do or not do. These things are everywhere!

For example, they have an "end of" sign to match every "start of" sign. For instance, every town has a sign that says the name of the town when you enter it. That's a good idea, but then there is a corresponding end of the town sign when you are leaving. This has the town name with a big red stripe through it. Okay, this may make sense so you know you are out of the town. But they do that for everything, including bridges, tunnels, rest areas, and so forth. For instance, if you get off at a rest area, you get a sign to tell you that you are no longer on the highway or you come out of a tunnel and there is a sign you are no longer in the tunnel. Some seem reasonable, but some just seem ridiculous.

They also do something interesting on the exit from the highway. The speed limit on the autoroutes (the biggest highways in France) is 130 km/h. When you take an exit, they don't just tell you that the speed limit on the exit is 50 km/h, the instead "walk you down" from 130 to 50 in 20 km/h increments. Therefore, you'll see a 110 speed limit sign, then a 90, then a 70, and finally a 50. It's very wierd.

I've already talked about how the signs direct you from town to town. Sometimes they have so many towns to direct you to, they need to split it up onto more than one sign. We saw this a few times on the way to Paris.

They even have some signs ready to go on the off chance that a car or truck breaks down in the left lane on the highway. I guess if this happens, you need to get out of your car or truck and go flip this sign out so people know the road in front of them is blocked. I guess this is a good thing to know, but does this sort of thing happen enough to warrant such a sign? (Perhaps I have the purpose for these signs wrong and actually they get used all the time and are super important.)

Anyway, French drivers must be the best informed drivers anywhere in the world if the number of signs is any indication!

Last day in Paris

As you've no doubt noticed, I'm about 3 days behind in posting. Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to catch up this morning as it's our last day in Paris. We plan to do the Eiffel Tower, the Museum of the Middle Ages and the Arc de Triomphe.

Anyway, I'll see if I can get a post in tonight. Otherwise, I'll have to write some posts up on the flight home and get them up on Wednesday.

Au revoir!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Stage 17 and the long drive to Paris

On Wednesday night, we decided our plan for Thursday:
  1. Watch Stage 17 of the Tour as it leaves Luchon
  2. Watch the rest of Stage 17 (all the way to the finish in Peyragudes) on TV in the apartment
  3. Return the keys to the apartment to Mme Trichereau
  4. Drive to Paris to the Le Meridien Etoile
All of these activities are pretty straightforward except the last one. We were basically about as far south in France as you could be, and the drive to Paris was showing up as about 850km on Google maps! Even at 130km/h on the autoroute it was going to take a while!

Anyway, we got up around around 9:00, ate our breakfast at the apartment, then headed out to see what was up. We found all the team busses lined up along the Allee d'Etigny, the main street in Luchon. We took a bunch of photos (see my previous post) and basically hung out in front of the RSNT bus. In fact, one of the representatives from Radio Shack gave us a copy of the team's magazine while we were there which was pretty cool.

This would be a good time to show a picture of the little passage we went through about 50 times a day in Luchon:

The Passage Sacarrere

This little passage went from our street to the main street of Luchon, and saved us a lot of time getting where we needed to go in town. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for that little passageway!

Anyway, back to the point of this post. As before, the riders started making their appearances, with RSNT and Team Sky seeming to be the last to pop out of their busses. Not sure that's something deliberate or what, but it seemed to happen every day.

There was one funny thing we witnessed while waiting to see the riders. A German lady was standing behind the barricade with the rest of us. Nothing odd there. Then she stood on a bench on the side of the road to get a better view. Still pretty reasonable. Then, she decided she could rest her feet by climbing over the barricade and then sititng on top of it. A few minutes later, since she was basically inside the barricade anyway, she decided to just stand on the inside of the barricade, leaning against it. Finally, she just said to hell with the barricade altogether and just started walking around inside the supposedly off limits area, taking pictures and doing whatever she wanted like she belonged there, and no one seemed to be the wiser. We fully expected her to hop on the RSNT bus before she was done!

As it was getting close to the start time, we decided to move to a location where we could see the riders go by after the start. We walked down the street, past the start line and all the hubbub to a place where we could get a good look at the course and had some room to stand behind the barricade. When we got there, we waited until they came through. Sure enough, about 5 minutes later, here they came.

As I saw them coming toward me, I decided to take a video to capture what it was like. I guess I didn't reckon just how long it would take for the Tour to go by. I figured it would take 2 or 3 minutes, but I wasn't even close. In fact, I was amazed how long the entire Tour took to pass our spot. It must have been about 10 minutes or so.

After we watched the start, we went back to the apartment to pack up and watch the Tour on television. One funny thing that happens watching the Tour on French TV is that it switches back and forth between channels. We were watching an important climb when all of a sudden the station went to commercials and never came back. In a panic, we started channel surfing and there it was on the other channel!

That afternoon I called Mme Trichereau and let her know we would be leaving at 5:30 (after the Tour ended). This was without question my greatest French-speaking accomplishment of the trip! When she actually arrived at 5:30, I was elated, but then pushed things one step too far. I decided to use some of the other words I know to tell her that we were going to Paris. Unfortunately, I think I instead told her that "We have to Paris." Oh well...

After we gave Mme Trichereau the keys and loaded up the car, we were off. We took a different route that required no cols which was just fine by me. We encountered a bit of Tour traffic early on, but nothing too bad, and by the time we got to the autoroute, it was smooth sailing.

The journey was long and uneventful, and we navigated successfully all the way to Paris with no problem. Of course, once we arrived in Paris (around 2:00am) we proceeded to immediately get lost (even with the Google Maps directions on my phone). We had to call the hotel and get some guidance which did the trick. We were actually quite close to the hotel, but it was a good thing we made the call; we might still be circling!

We did see this while we were driving around lost in Paris:

The Arc de Triomphe lit up at night

Anyway, with that, we were done with our wild ride around France. The rest of our time would be spent in Paris (with the exception of our planned trip to the time trial finish in Chartres).

We finally got to sleep around 4:00, and while it was an exceptionally long day, at least we would wake up in Paris and not have to waste a whole day of our vacation driving.

The Tour leaves Luchon

The Tour left Luchon on Stage 17 around noon. We decided that it would be cool to see the riders ride by, so after we hung out around the busses before the race, we headed down the street, passed the start area to a place where we could catch the riders coming by.

As a bit of background, the Tour actually does two starts. The first they call the départ fictif (I guess "fake start"). This start is the one where you see the 4 jersey wearers lined up at the start line and they all take off together. During the départ fictif, no one is allowed to attack, and basically the riders do a leisurely ride through town so all the people can get a good look at them.

The départ réel usually happens about 10 minutes later, and is when the real racing can begin. Riders will often attack almost as soon as the flag is dropped for the start of the départ réel.

We were waiting around a corner for the fake start and I captured a video. I wanted to see the riders go by, but quite honestly I didn't expect it to take quite as long as it did. Then, after filming so of the pre-rider part of the Tour, I figured I ought to get all the post-rider Tour as well. This meant two things:
  1. The videos are exceptionally long with little view of the riders, and
  2. There is not much action in the videos.
That said, if you are a Tour junkie, you might enjoy seeing just how massive the scale of the Tour is. I haven't counted, but I think there is probably 1 motorized vehicle for ever two bicycles that ride the Tour course everyday.

So here is the main video. It shows all the vehicles that proceed the cyclist, the cyclists themselves, and nearly all the team cars.

The actual cyclists come by around the 4:15 mark if you aren't a glutton for punishment.

The second video is very short, and just catches the tail end of the Tour, including the truck to carry any vehicles that break down en route. (I wonder what truck carries the truck that carries broken down vehicles if it breaks down?)

What I didn't capture was the team coaches that came a few minutes later. I don't think they follow the Tour route everyday like the other cars and trucks do, but I did capture some pictures:

Team Europcar heading out...

The Saxo Bank coach leading a bunch of others

I'm guessing the coaches took the road straight to Peyragudes, a very short (probably 20-30km) drive.

Random photos from the start of Stage 17 in Luchon

I don't have time for a full post of the start of the race in Luchon, but here are some random photos to tide you over:

Maxime Bouet

Nibali or Sagan (or both) are probably in there

Federico Canuti

Name that rider!

Francis De Greef (Lotto) and Dries Devenyns

Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) and
Sabastien Minard (AG2R)

Sergio Paulinho (I think)

Ivan Basso

Stephen Cummings

Maxime Monfort (I believe)

Peter Sagan (coming)

Peter Sagan (going)

Now I'm going to see the finale! See you later!

Sorry for the delay in posting

Following the Tour and seeing Paris is taking most of my time. I'm still getting lots of great photos and stuff, but i need some more time to get them posted. Apologies...

Friday, July 20, 2012

Stage 16 Finish - Bagneres-de-Luchon

This year, stage 16 is considered the queen stage of the Tour, which means that it was the hardest stage. The stage had two HC (hors categorie, or beyond classification) climbs and two category 1 climbs: the Col d'Aubisque (HC), the Col du Tourmalet (HC), the Col d'Aspin (Cat 1) and the Col de Peyresourde (Cat 1). In addition to having the toughest mountains to climb, it also was the longest mountain stage of the Tour, running 197 km. Finally, the weather decided to clear up and the temperature rose about 10 degrees C, to 35. Everything was conspiring to make this stage an epic challenge.

We woke up Wednesday ready for the stage. I made eggs and toast for the two of us, then went down to the office of Tourism to use their Internet and send a few messages, check Facebook and post a blog post or two. Then we went on a little walkabout to see how the town had been transformed overnight.

First, we saw that they had put up the flamme rouge:

The flamme rouge on Allee d'Etigny in Luchon

We wandered down to the finish area to see what it looked like. They had the finish line all done:

The finish line in Luchon

In addition, they had set up a stand right on the finish line to get dramatic footage of the sprint probably wouldn't happen today.

A great camera angle for the finish line!

We also saw where they put the TV trucks, including the NBC Sports Channel truck where Phil and Paul work:

They apparently sit in the bumped out part up top!

Finally, with the walkabout complete, we went back to the apartment to actually watch the Tour on TV since it would be hours before even the publicity caravan arrived.

One thing that is interesting about watching the Tour in France is that it is covered by two stations: France 2 and France 3. We were happily watching France 2 when the telecast just stopped and went to back to back commercials. We were puzzled until we thought to tune to France 3 where sure enough the Tour was playing!

We watched the two HC climbs on TV then headed out to the street. We found a great location where we could watch the race from the front row (unlike in Pau where we were way behind the barricade and loads of people). In addition, the place was very close to a television in the Aussie bar nearby that we used to monitor progress. When things got really exciting, either Nathan or I would run to the TV to see what was happening since the French announcer of the PA system wasn't helping us.

We say yet another appearance of the publicity caravan and got some more swag, including the ever elusive PMU green hands:

The Kleber driving tire

A giant chicken advertising something!

Nathan with his prized PMU green hands

I took very few photos of the riders coming into Luchon as I wanted to make sure I showed them my appreciation for their hard work by cheering wildly for them as they came in. This was especially true for Thomas Voekler who is becoming an absolute deity in Luchon having won the last time the Tour finished here as well winning this year. Oh, and he's French so that helps with the popularity thing too!

I did get some pictures of the stragglers coming in, and here they are:

That's Cav in the very back...

Most of these guys were just happy to be done soon.

After the race, we hung around the apartment a bit, then grabbed a sandwich on the main street for dinner. Following dinner, we went back to the apartment and I absolutely killed Nathan in Mille Bournes. (FYI: he did the same to me the night before...)

We did a bit of reading and then were off to bed in order to be up and fresh for the start of stage 17.

Rest day

Tuesday was a rest day for the Tour, and we used it as a rest day as well. We slept in, and got out of bet around 11:00 or so. We basically had a wander around Luchon, grabbed a sandwich at a cafe on Avenue d'Etigny (the main drag in Luchon) and then went back to the apartment for more resting. (I said it was a rest day, right?!)

Here is the one photo we took on our wander:

Apparently Luchon is proud to be a Ville d'Etape
(start or end town for a stage of the Tour)

We were having difficulty finding a breakfast place, so Nathan and I decided in the afternoon to go pick up some supplies at the small grocery store on the main street. We got some ingredients to make eggs and toast with jam, as well as a few additional essentials (Diet Coke, baby!) With that major task out of the way, we went back to the apartment for some more resting!

We had decided to take the rest day to drive down to Spain so Nathan and I could say we had been there, so that's exactly what we did around 5:00. We figured we would go to the first Spanish town inside the border and have dinner there, so off we went over the Col de Portillon. This was a really cool col in that it had houses, restaurants and lots of other stuff on the way up. This is not to say that they hill was covered with buildings, but there were some things here and there to make the mountain seem a bit friendlier and less intimidating.

More Pyrenees

A switchback on the Col de Portillon

Another peak on the way to Bossast

More Pyrenean views

Bossost off in the distance...

Another view of Bossost down in the valley

An awesome view (in my opinion) up a valley
in the Spanish Pyrenees

When we got to the top, we realized that we'd not brought our passports, but there was no need; there wasn't even a sign that said we were entering Spain (literally!) let alone some border guards.

We came down the mountain into the Spanish town of Bossost. It was very cute just like the French towns, but had signs in Spanish instead of French. We looked around and decided that we really didn't see anything that we wanted to eat, so we just drove back to France and our apartment (where we rested some more!)

Here are some photos of Bossost that I took while we are there:

The town hall of Bossost

A nice restaurant in Bossost

A windy street in a Spanish town

A very cute little restaurant with the mountains
in the background

The central square of Bossost

A view of Bossost from the distance

That night we had pizza in a little pizza place on Allee d'Etigny and then went back to the apartment, rested and played Mille Bourne (in actual French!) Not a bad rest day!

The road to Luchon

We left Pau and made our way southeast to Tarbes on the autoroute, then got our first taste of the Pyrenees. We turned south on a little road and after a bit of driving through valleys and small towns (there are ALWAYS small towns!) we got our chance to experience two classic Pyrenean cols: the Col d'Aspin and the Col de Peyresourde. These are both Category 1 climbs, and let me tell you: getting up them in a car was difficult. I can't imagine how tough it is on a bike.

The Col d'Aspin was the first col we encountered, and was by far the scariest to me. It is really in the middle of nowhere, and there are no buildings, towns, roads, or anything else to make it more interesting. It's just a twisty road with a steep dropoff on one side.

Eventually, you pass the tree line and it is just grass and rocks. It is really an uninviting place, and nowhere you'd want to go unless you had to be somewhere on the other side. That, or you were watching the Tour, in which case you'd drive up there two days before the Tour arrived, found a tiny spot of land where you could fit your camper and then parked!

We didn't really take many pictures on the Col d'Aspin because I was freaked out driving and Nathan was freaked out (I think) being driven by me.

The Peyresourde was a much "friendlier" col. While it still had some pretty hairy switchbacks and steep sections, there were fewer moments where you felt like a slight slip of the hand on the wheel would send you plummeting to your death.

On both cols, it was absolutely amazing when you get down far enough to see the bottom of the valley below you. In both cases, there were picturesque towns sitting at the bottom of the mountain on the other side, and seeing them from 1,000 feet up (or more) was really cool.

At the bottom of the Peyresourde, we arrived in our destination town of Luchon. We drove around a bit to find the main street where we were supposed to meet Madame Trichereau who would get us into our apartment, and eventually fond our meeting place, the post office (La Poste).

There was a bit of a Tour-related party going on when we arrived (around 9:30) and things on the main street were pretty lively. We called Mme Trichereau, and after a bit of chatting (she does not speak English!) we worked out who we were and were we were at.

About 5 minutes later, Mme Trichereau arrived and escorted us to our apartment which was just around the corner. She let us in, gave us the keys and showed us (with gestures and French with tiny bits of English) how things worked. For instance, she showed us how to operate the remote that opens the gate into the parking lot in front of the building as follows:
  1. Say something about "voiture" (car, in French) and make an opening gesture with her arm
  2. Point to one of the buttons on the remote and say "La"
  3. Point to the other button on the remote and say "Non"
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 about 6 times
Anyway, here's what our building looked like:

Home sweet home for the next few days (And, yes,
that is a Mizzou flag flying!)

Here are some photos we took on this part of the journey:

Approaching the Pyrenees with a group of
cyclists in front of us

Hopefully this captures how steep these
mountains are

Some nice farms right in the foothills of
the mountains

From one of the cols

Another photo from one of the cols. See the road
down below? We're headed there!

Not a great shot, but attempting to show the rugged
nature of the mountains

That's a big hill!