2001 Tour de France: the view from the roadside

The Tour is a mighty effort for the riders, constant effort for the support crews and a whirlwind for dedicated spectators. Ted Arnold* followed the 2001 edition with Bikestyle Tours.

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A Texan gendarme
Photo: © Ted Arnold

"Whirlwind" is the only way to describe it. If you ever have the chance to see the Tour de France do it. No matter what sacrifices you must make, do it. Most people think it would be too hard or too much money. Any excuse short of death is not a valid one.

I started making my plans for my second Tour in only May. After a few weeks of shopping around I picked a Bikestyle tour headed up by Lawrie and Natalie Cranley. Deciding to travel with a group was a big step. I traveled TdF 2000 with a good friend and we were self-supported. It was a moving experience but so far I can't picture anything that would beat that past few days. Traveling with me are 31 new friends and none other than TdF stage winner Neil Stephens. His Tour insight and attitude is outstanding.

Stage 9 - July 16: Pontarlier - Aix-Les-Bains

Walking the finish line in Aix-les-Bains I saw my first true sprint finish. We arrived in Aix after lunch and an early morning ride. After a stopping at a local bike shop we headed off to the finish line. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon, lying in the grass soaking up the surroundings. I was most impressed by the organization of the event. From putting everything together to tearing it apart the TdF is very well oiled machine. As our group returned to the bus the work crews were tearing down the structures only moments after the last stragglers rolled off the course.

I was also impressed by the presence of so many more Americans than last year. The Australian presence was very high as well. The beauty of the tour is that you feel proud to display your flag. It seems like we take it for granted at home sometimes. Here, it is your identity. In a funny way it seems like a nametag. An easy way to approach people and start a conversation. As I made my way up Alpe d'Huez I must have spoken with 25 Americans all here to watch Lance try and put his stamp on TdF 2001.

Stage 10 - July 17: Aix-Les-Bains - L'Alpe d'Huez

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Our hosts
Photo: © Ted Arnold
Alpe d'Huez was every bit as inspiring as you can imagine. From Grenoble I headed out with the group to the base of the Alpe. After 50km of very gradual incline we were near the base. Having your bike for the trip makes all the difference in the world. After great ride to near the finish, fellow Bikestyle group member Richard Brown and I headed down the mountain for the games to begin. Rich is a real stand up bloke from Sydney and meeting fellow Aussies with him on the mountain was a treat.

Picking the right spot is an art. While many people enjoy the thrill of the top I try to find a nice spot away from a huge crowd but still high enough for the race to be spread out. I like to be able to show my favorites riders some support. Rich and I hooked up with Chuck List from Telluride Colorado and Terry Peters, one of our Bikestyle guides. It amazes me how much the mountain comes to life as the riders approach. It's hard to describe but to me it borders on sensory overload.

Your whole day centers on those few minutes as the riders parade past. The crowds screaming below and the choppers overhead mean the leaders are close. Laurent Roux's suicide glory was fleeting as Lance put the hammer down. Roux gave a nice smile to the crowd as he passed. It was like even he knew the end was near. For myself and the rest of the Bikestyle group our fun has just begun.

Stage 12 - July 20: Perpignan - Ax-les-Thermes

Another monster day. We transferred to the Pyrenees and are based in the town of Lourdes. Friday we hopped on the bus off to the stage in Aix-les-Thermes. A few of us decided to hop off the bus and suit up to ride to the stage.

It was a beautiful ride through a valley along a river. The Pyrenees seem a bit more green and lush than the Alps. We were told to expect rain and snow and instead were treated to beautiful warm skies. From the valley we made our up the Col d'Port which is part of the stage 13 parcours. My descending skills were put to a good test and I found an even deeper appreciation for what the riders do.

After a few mechanical stops we were a bit behind schedule and skated into Aix with just a few minutes to spare. Because we turned up the pace the last few kilometers and had skipped lunch the group was ravenous. I'm sure the site of a pack of Lycra clad bike geeks taking over a café must have been quite an amusing site. We bought any and every piece of food we could find and the most popular was the Eurodog. Take a baguette sliced in half, poke a hole all the way through the middle of the bread, drop in two wieners and voila, the Eurodog is born. Like I said, we were ravenous.

No sooner had the post-gorging guilt began when it time for the race to roll by. We did not get a great spot on the climb but instead settled for the downhill that lead into the base of the climb. We are near the Spanish border and the Basque people were out in force. They are very passionate and were ecstatic that David Extebarria was in a break.

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Photo: © Ted Arnold
As the racers sped by we all ran en masse to the Eurodog café to catch the finish on Eurosport. Packed like sardines in a can, the bar erupted as Lance finally attacked Jan with 2km to go. I did not expect to hear "allez Armstrong" quite so much from the mixed crowd but it was nice not to be the only one. After a long day in the saddle it was back to Lourdes delivered by our super bus driver Franck. He can drive a bus like no other and rides a mean bike too. His driving skills are earning him a cult status amongst the group.

Stage 13 - July 21: Foix - Saint-Lary-Soulan (Pla d'Adet)

It was a HUGE day on the mountain today. We started out early and rode the bus to the base of Pla d'Adet. From there it was time to hop on the bike for a sweltering trip up the climb. As we reached the base of the climb the Gendarmes had decided no more bikes were allowed on the mountain. Needless to say I did not travel 5000 miles to be told no. After cutting through a farmer's field and clawing our way up a hill we were back on the course. As we rode up I kept praying for a spot of shade and finally found one around 8 kilometers up. Today's stage was the toughest of the tour and was by far the hottest.

After a nice picnic lunch race time was near. For entertainment we decided to throw the publicity toys back in the cars. The Basque were all over the mountain today again and very vocal. I found a nice steep spot for some Captain Texas runs with the Posties and other American riders. JaJa was out front but his lead was shrinking fast. Judging from his arm he suffered a spill, as it was pretty bloody. Next it was Lance and Jan Ullrich time. True to my word Captain had a nice "fly by" as well as my good friend Chuck List from Telluride. My main sidekick Randy Phillips scored some nice photos of the whole scene. I hope to have them to you all soon.

I kept splits on my watch and with 5km more for Lance to ride he was the leader on the road. As the Posties made their way by I made sure to tell them Lance was in the lead. Chuck also filled them in; he told me George was actually conversing with him and quite happy with the good news. My new favorite rider is Jose Luis Rubiera. He loves the cheering and over the last 3 stages he has winked or smiled as I ran beside him cheering on. It's good to be acknowledged and it is was separates cycling from so many other sports in my opinion.

Terry Peters one of our excellent guides from Bikestyle tours had a birthday today on the mountain. He's an Aussie and true to form he gave a great cheer and push for Stuart O'Grady. It was quite a site to see Terry in the middle of the autobus handing off a cold coke and giving a hearty push to help out the green jersey charge. Happy Birthday Terry! As a special treat Lawrie Cranley -- the fearless leader of Bikestyle tours -- arranged to sneak Terry's wife to Lourdes for the occasion.

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Beer in Paris
Photo: © Ted Arnold
As Paris Draws closer it looks like Lance will be in Yellow so get ready for a wild pack of yanks taking over Paris for a third straight year.

Stage 18 - July 27: Montlucon - Saint Amand Montrond ITT - 10 AM

Willie Nelson ain't got a thing on me. I am a genuine road warrior after nearly two weeks of the Tour. Today is stage 18 and it is time trial showdown for the real road warriors of the TdF 2001. Lance wants a win and Jan is barely holding on to second place but by the time you read this you will have far more race info than I could ever provide you. It seems odd but since leaving home I only get small bits and pieces of the race action. When you don't speak French and can't get online you only get the basics. Sure, I am at the race most days, but miss the blow-by-blow race analysis. I am sure all of you back home must feel very badly for me.

The past few days have been pretty crazy. We have seen some beautiful chateaux while riding through the Loire Valley. This region is a big change from the mountains. The heat and rolling plains remind me some of Texas but the demeanor of drivers on the road is very different. The cars understand how to deal with cyclists and vice-versa. It's not all perfection but the riding is so much safer. Stoplights have special low mounted lights for cyclists. I tried to picture myself in Texas to riding through a traffic circle yesterday and had a good laugh at the mayhem it would cause. Billy Jack can't hold the wheel, swig Lonestar beer, and look for cyclists all at once.

It's funny because in the States you hear so much about rude French but to me they have been very pleasant. It seems that the only rudeness I have seen was deserved. The whole culture is very pleasant and as long as you smile and talk politely in broken French phrases you get along fine. Numbers seem to be my biggest stumbling block. I am just very happy the cash registers all speak stupid American. Time to split for now as the bus is stopping and time trial fun is waiting.

6 PM

Another big win in the books for the man in yellow and a wild day for the Bikestyle group at TdF 2001. The finish was very warm today. Not much shade to make things better either. We kicked back had a snack and watched the lower placed riders make the way to the finish. It's cool to see all the riders geeked out in their TT outfits and bikes. You have to look fast or else they are gone.

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This way to the Texan
Photo: © Ted Arnold
We took our time checking out the boutiques for all the gifts everyone at home is expecting. That is all our bike geek friends are expecting anyway. My personal favorite are the course markers. The TdF people don't reuse them so the fans all help clean up by pulling them down on their way back to the cars. I think the best thing is that I can give a friend something unique they can't buy on any website.

As the last hour several of the group scouted and picked our favorite spot to check out the parade of top ten GC riders. I took refuge on a nice French families concrete fence to get above the crowd. In my full Captain Texas regalia I did my worst imitation of a photog using my friend's new digital camera. Let's just say Graham Watson's job is still safe. It's amazing but as most of final riders came in they had virtually no camera bikes or coverage. Lance on the other hand had an armada. His escorts had escorts. It was clear Lance was coming about five minutes prior to his arrival because all the choppers appeared like some kind of scene from Apocalypse Now.

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Stuart O'Grady
Photo: © Ted Arnold
It's two days till the finish and the most exciting race left is between Zabel and O'Grady. The group is all pulling for Stuart very hard. As we loaded the bus tonight Mr. O'Grady himself was stuck next to us in traffic. He was hanging out the window chatting with Bikestyle superman Neil Stephens. Stevo has been perfect putting up with every question we could ask. His stories have kept us in stitches laughing or hanging on every word. The best part of it all is he is smiles most while talking about his wife and two beautiful children.

As the bus nears Paris it is time to sign off for now and hope that you have enjoyed what you have read so far. Time to play tourist for a day and then the big party on the Champs Sunday. Also remember next year when you read "see the tour in 2002" on Cyclingnews click through and mail my friend Lawrie Cranley. His hard work and passion shine through every day and next year I hope to see you join us!

*Ted Arnold runs the Web site TourFanatics, which features other tales of American cycling fans following the world's biggest bike race.

Bikestyle's 2002 Tour de France package information