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Photo ©: Schaaf

90th Tour de France - July 5-27, 2003

Parlez-Vous Lardbutt?

About l'Etape du Tour

This is the not-funny, informational bit about the Tour's mass-participation angle, so if you're only here for the gags, they're on the left.

Founded in 1993, l'Etape du Tour is a chance for Jo Bikerider to indulge in some dreams of Tour glory by riding the route of one of the toughest stages of the Tour. This year's Etape takes place on July 16 and follows the route of stage 16 from Pau to Bayonne in the Basque Country.

Eight thousand riders will set out at 7.00am for the 197.5km trip to Bayonne. For some it will be a race, but for others the objective will be just to finish and enjoy the scenery - and there'll be plenty of that on a route that includes three major climbs.

Not surprisingy most Etape participants are French, but there's a strong contingent from England and Scotland (17 percent of 2002's riders) with the USA providing the next-largest national group.

This year's tenth-anniversary Etape will be a three-day party with activities and entertainment in Pau on July 14 and 15. However, the numbers are strictly limited and this year's Etape filled up in the week after registration opened. Make it one for next year's diary!

Lance Armstrong doesn't have to worry about the minutiae of packing or all the many disasters that can strike the unwary traveler according to the typical phrasebook. Team Lardbutt's Greg Taylor does have to worry about these things, but he's going to tackle l'Etape du Tour anyway.

Call it focus, call it a sad lack of perspective, but the only aspect of the Centennial Edition of the Tour de France that I am interested in right now can be boiled down to a single, key issue: how many pairs of clean underwear do you think that Lance has packed for his annual trip to France?

Ditto with socks. Do you think that a person can get away with just one pair of dress socks without causing an international incident, or can you skip them altogether? Does anyone even wear dress socks in France?

Such are the questions that arise when you are packing for a bike trip to see the Tour de France.

Oh, it's not just any trip to see the Tour. No way, mon ami. I'm scheduled to fly to Paris in the second week in July to catch several stages of the Tour, including the individual time trial in Galliac. Sweet. And if that wasn't tasty enough, like the cherry on top of a big ol' ice cream sundae I'm also entered in the Etape du Tour, a citizens' race run over the route of this year's Stage 16 - a mountain stage. Oh, it's going to be bike nirvana: ride around, see the big dogs race, and get a chance to stretch your legs in a race of your own over a stage of the Tour. Lots of fun, kinda scary.

So while I don't know how the pre-Tour bag packing is going over at the Armstrong household ("To Do: (1) buy extra sun screen, (2) leave cat with neighbors, (3) climb Alps, Pyrenees"), the situation here ChÔteau Lardbutt is getting a little hectic. I'm not quite at the just-shove-your-crap-in-a-bag-and-race-to-the-airport panic stage yet but, unlike Lance, I am having some trouble crossing things off some things that are on my own personal to-do list.

Right now, my list looks like this:

Learn Some Of The Local Lingo

I started out with the best of intentions with this one. I really did. Going to a foreign country, it is just plain good manners to try and learn a bit of the local language in order to make yourself understood. Basic survival really. So I picked up one of those little French-English phrase books so that I could try and learn some French.

Who knew that it was put together by a bunch of depressives?

Flipping through the book, I started reading the cute little dialogs that they put together to illustrate and guide you through common situations that you would likely experience on just about any visit to France. Hoo boy! Who thought these up? It looks to me like SOMEONE in the French phase book business has issues with France. It would be putting it mildly to say that my particular phrasebook placed a decided emphasis on illustrating "typical" tourist situations where someone has screwed up and highly-animated arm-waving is about to ensue. Take the section on checking into a hotel, for example:

"J'ai reserve. Je m' appelle Ben Dover." ("I have a reservation. My name is Ben Dover.")

"Je regrette, l'hotel est complet." ("I'm sorry, the hotel is full.")

"Merde!" ("Thank you very much! And good day to you too, sir!")

The phrasebook chronicles similar disasters when eating in a restaurant ("Ce n'est pas ce que j'ai commande'" - "That's not what I ordered"), sightseeing ("J'ai perdu mon billet!" - I've lost my ticket!"), plumbing ("Les toilettes sont bouchees" - "The toilet is clogged") and meeting persons of the opposite sex ("Si on allait dans un endroit un peu plus calme? Pourquoi riez-vous?" - "Shall we go somewhere quieter? Why are you laughing?").

What the hell is going on here? According to the authors, the typical tourist using their phrasebook could expect to become a hungry, lonely, poop-encrusted loser sleeping on a park bench within 24 hours of landing in Paris. Page after page of my little phrasebook was dedicated to addressing an endless litany of supposedly common petty annoyances, mechanical disasters, and bad service in the mother tongue of the French. I was getting the distinct impression from the authors that if I used their phrasebook, I would be entering an alternate version of France that was the veritable Bermuda Triangle of Europe; a place where anything associated with tourists could be counted on to just inexplicably blow up at the worst possible moment, and where the natives would greet these frequent occurrences with a bemused look and a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders.

I decided just to chuck the book and stick with English. While I may be sunk if the toilet backs up or I miss a train, my all-English-speaking edition of France will undoubtedly be a more pleasant place to visit. Safer too.

Get Into Reasonable Physical Shape So I Don't Shrivel Up And Die On The Climbs

Okay, I'm going to plead temporary insanity when I decided that signing up for the Etape du Tour would be a dandy way to see the French countryside. It sounded benign when I sent in the paperwork - a big, open race with no qualifying rides or licensing requirements that is run over beautiful roads. The "oh shit" factor didn't kick in until after they announced the route.

This year's edition of the Etape will be run over the route of Stage 16 -- from Pau to Bayonne -- the Tour's last and possibly toughest day in the Pyrenees. It will be 123 miles of just getting down to it and grunting it out with 7,000 of my closest riding buddies. With all of the climbing and a scattering of 10 percent grades, it's a route guaranteed to separate the men from the boys and me from my lunch. Yup, no question about it, it's going to be a festival of pain, a fact that even Lance himself acknowledged back in June at the press conference before the Dauphine Libere :

"In the Pyrenees they look to the Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden. They look to the legendary stages, but they forget about the stage to Bayonne, which goes over two climbs that are probably the steepest climbs in the Tour de France. So for me, there are the famous climbs, but there are also these ones that nobody thinks about and I'm glad we saw, because they're very difficult and they could change the results of the race."

If Lance says that it's gonna be hard, its gonna be hard, so my own personal level of fitness is probably pretty irrelevant at this point. I guess that the best way to look at it is that if it were easy, it wouldn't be fun. And I'll keep telling myself that over and over as I painfully grind up the tallest mountain pass on the route, the front wheel of my bicycle pointing up at the sky. "This is funů.this is funů.this is funů."

And it will be fun. Even if I forget to pack enough underwear or dress socks.

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