Book Review: The Cost of Courage

The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser is a heart-wrenching,  true story about a French 25579035-_uy200_bourgeois family whose three (of four) children joined the French Resistance during WWII.  This is gripping read and page turner from page one wondering what happens to the individual family members. The Boulloche family repeatedly demonstrated courage, dignity and humility during the most difficult of times and paid the ultimate price for their patriotism. Certain family members would continue to serve their country and the citizens of France after the war.  The author is the the nephew of an American soldier who billeted with the family at the end of the war and who grew up hearing his uncle’s stories about the family.  Thankfully, Kaiser documented the Boulloche’s story in The Cost of Courage.  For those interested in books on WWII, this is another must read.

 

Majestic Megève

Megève is a smaller ski-town located in the Southern French Alps near the Mont-Blanc with about 4,000 residents.  (As a reference point, Chamonix has about 10,000 full time residents which swells significantly in the winter and summer.) Megève is situated in a beautiful valley – the same one that contains Les Contamines and parts of St. Gervais ski resort. The craggy peaks surrounding it makes for a gorgeous setting. The views of the surrounding ranges, the valley and the medieval cobblestone streets of Megève attract some high-end visitors and temporary residents. In fact, the Baroness Rothschild put Megeve on the map around the 1920s.  As the legend has it, she grew bored with Saint Moritz and turned to Megève.  Rovers, Bentleys, and faster Italian rides roam the streets and the surrounding villages.

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On our rader for some time, we headed there after completing the TMB for a couple days to check it out, to hike a bit more on the fabulous trail system in France and for  a little mountain biking.

From Les Houches, we took the Mont Blanc Express to St. Gervais.  From St. Gervais, we took a bus to Megève.  The Mont-Blanc Express is a fabulous, super scenic train that connects a bunch of villages in the Chamonix valley.  It is a super convenient and very efficient way to get around the valley and visit villages like Chamonix, Les Houches, Argentiere, St. Gervais and a bunch of others. (Hotels can give you free tickets to ride).

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Megève is only about 20km from Les Houches, but there not a lot of direct routes on public transportation.  Most visitors drive or shuttle directly from the Geneva airport.

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The mountain biking was great. There is a large network across three different ski resorts with 4 or 5 different main lifts to get you to some of the good spots or help you get back to your starting point.  Some of the trails are a little rough and raw but if you find the right ones, you can link some fun flow trails into a few 90-120 min loops in a day. I am sure there are a number of more EPIC loops if you can find the right bike shop to show you the way. Online info is a little bit limited and more than a few of the bikes shops in town seem to focus more on the electric bike riders (which is a bit of a thing over in Europe now – we have seen it a lot this summer).

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There are also a number of great hiking trails that leave from the center of the city and Susan was able to find a nice one.

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Megève is a beautiful Alps village and worth the visit. It would be hard to justify a visit there from afar given Chamonix and St Gervais  in its backyard, but if you are in visiting the area, it is a sweet spot.

 

Another Round of Mont Blanc

“You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!” ― Dr. Seuss

We received some requests for some additional information on our Tour du Mont Blanc experience.  So here are more details and pictures (in addition to our blog post that we posted earlier).  Enjoy!

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Our Mont Blanc hike was counterclockwise starting and ending in the beautiful mountain village of Les Houches (just a few clicks down the road from Chamonix).

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This route with its Les Houches starting point gets going immediately with plenty of climbing, and some of the best views on the whole route are within the first 3 days but nearly all the views on the TMB are superb.

Les Houches to Les Contamines

15km, 700m up, 1300m down, 6 hrs with Bellevue cable car

We hiked from our hotel to a cable car at the base of Les Houches which took us up to Bellevue to begin our hike.  (We started hiking around 9 am from the hotel and there were plenty of other TMB hikers setting out as well as day hikers and rock climbers heading up in the cable car.

The first part of the day winds through the woods and over glacier rivers.  Then, begins the ascent up to Col de Tricot.  Going up and down is incredibly scenic (you may read that a lot in this post).

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After a short break at a refuge at the bottom of the ascent, it was up another steep but short climb to Col de Truc.

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And ultimately, the trail winds down a forest road to the hamlet of Les Contamines which is at the top of the same valley where Megeve and St. Gervais are located.  ( We fell in love with France all over again this summer.  Megeve and St. Gervais are another two absolutely stunning villages in France.)  We arrived in Les Contamines on a Sunday, and the shops in town were having a massive market sale that took over main street.  Les Contamines is yet another beautiful spot.  (You will hear that a lot in this post with the exception of Trient which we suggest hiking thru and no staying staying in Trient, if at all possible.)

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Les Contamines to Les Chapieux

18km, 1350 up, 90o down, 6-7 hrs

Today’s route started off on another steep forest road along a river, and then climbed up to an open valley that was just spectacular. We hiked along the valley for a couple hours all the time viewing the saddle where we were heading – the Col du Bonhome.

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This day was another dual Col day.  So after the initial climb, we climbed up to the Col du Croix du Bonhome which is one of the highest spots on the TMB.

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There was a refuge just below the summit to grab some food and cafe.  Then it was a long downhill to the tiny village of Chapieux.  There is not much in the tiny village of Chapieux but a couple spots to stay, a bar and a small store (that sells wonderful sausage and cheese).

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Les Chapieux to La Palud

20+ km, 1100m up, 500m down, 6 hrs, with lift down

Today, we hopped on a public bus and took it up the road about 7km.  Purists hike the whole way, but our bus was filled with about 30 folks looking to cut off the less interesting dirt road that starts the hike.  And then it is up up and away to the Col de La Seigne – today’s primary climb.  The peak is the border between France and Italy.

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Once over the top, you hike down and along a valley that reminded us of some of the hiking we have down in Alaska – open meadows, glacial rivers and towering mountains. Our destination was Courmayeur, Italy, and there are more than a few options to hike to Courmayeur. We chose to hike up to the Col de Checrouit which gives you access to a high route along the valley with astonishing views of a number of glaciers

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After descending from the high route, we found a couple lifts to shorten our descent down to Courmayeur, a classic Italian Alps town. It is large and jammed with tourists in August but we stayed a few kilometers above the city center in the smaller village of La Palud.

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La Palud to La Fouly

18km, 1200m up, 900m down, 5 hours

The start of today’s hike also included a bus start. We hopped on the Courmayeur public bus and rode it to the end of the road, about 10km or so past the city center.  The road followed another valley and a small river until we were at the base of the Grand Col Derret.  It was a bit cold and slightly wet at the top of this climb (the only day we pulled out our rain jackets), but the views and scenery did not disappoint. The peak is also another border – between Italy and Switzerland.

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The descent down eventually winds through woods and along another glacier stream that flows through the town of La Fouly, a very typical Swiss village in the Alps. The town is small – a few restaurants, a supermarket and a bunch of beautiful Swiss cabins.  It was pretty quiet when we were there, but it has two ski lifts and a bunch of Nordic tracks in the village so it is likely more popular in the winter.

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La Fouly to Champex-Lac and Rest Day

20+km, 400m up, 550m down, 4 hours

Today was a relatively easy day until the end.  The route was mostly downhill through a number of small Swiss villages. We passed a number well preserved historical farm buildings and neighborhoods and ended the descent in another classic Alp’s valley

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The last hour or so was a steep uphill through the woods to the alpine lake town of Champex-Lac.

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We had a rest day in Champex-Lac which worked out well as it was the only day on our route where it rained heavily for most of the day.  We took the opportunity for a couple short hikes around the lake and trails around the village, but mostly took the day off from hiking.

Champex-Lac to Trient

15km, 700m up, 1000m down, 5 hours

Today was another relatively easy day. The hike was still long and we had plenty of climbing – some of it very steep.  There was some leftover moisture from the previous day so it was a bit chilly and wet heading up the first Col. But there was a nice refuge up there to get a cafe and warm up a bit.

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The route took us up to the Col de Forclaz which is one of the popular road cycling climbs in the area and was featured in this year’s Tour de France. We took a side hike up to another refuge and a glacier vista which was quite nice.

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The trail up followed an ancient aqueduct so it was relatively flat and also positioned well to follow the valley to our final destination of the day, Trient. Trient is a tiny spot with nothing to offer. There are a couple auberges that are pretty worn and tattered but its location on the trail make it a very popular overnight stop. There were definitely more hikers than residents in town the evening we were there.  (Trient is the only village that we would suggest skipping if you plan to do the TMB.)

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Trient to Argentiere

20+ km, 1200m up, 1300m down, 5+ hours

We woke up early and exited our auberge as fast as we possibly could so we were on the trail at 7:15am. We could not get out of it fast enough (it was really the only spot on our hike where we were not thrilled with our accommodations but it did offer a clean bed, cold beer & wine as well as hot food).  Our first goal of the day was to hike up to the Col de Balme which was a 2 hour steep hike in the woods and then another hour of incredible walking up through an alpine meadow to a refuge at the top of the Col. We watched marmots playing and hawks hunting them as we followed the hairpins to the top.

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At the top (after throwing in an extra Col because of some poor navigation), you are greeted with stunning views down to the Chamonix Valley and can almost see to Les Houches  – still a few days of hiking away.

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There are many trails down that wind through ski areas, forests, and ridges to the towns of Tours and Argentiere – both villages north of Chamonix.  We chose the route along the Aiguilette des Posettes which was along a ridge line that provide views of two different valleys.

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We ended in Argentiere which could be our favorite village on the TMB. It is a short bus ride to Chamonix but not as crowded or developed.  It also has a train stop and a number of lifts that can get you high on the mountains fast for great skiing or some alpine hiking.

Argentiere to Chamonix

11+km, 1150m up, 400m down, 4.5 hrs

We took a trail right out of Argentiere to avoid any buses or lifts that many trails require in the area and headed up to Lac Blanc – which is a very popular day spot for hikers staying in Chamonix.  The trail up was steep but beautiful and very rocky at the top.

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The lake itself was beautiful but a bit busy.  We stopped at the refuge for some water and refueling and then headed down a steep and rocky trail to a lift that took us close to Chamonix where we were able to take nice wooded trail along the river right into the heart of Chamonix.

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Chamonix Rest Day

We had plenty of energy on this rest day. And having spent a few days this summer in Chamonix, we decided to hop on a bus back to Argentiere and climb up to the Argentiere glacier. This is a spot that I have skied in the past so I was looking forward to seeing it in the summer. It was good to see the glacier was still there.

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Chamonix to Les Houches

13+km, 800m up, 1700m down, 5 hrs

Today  was all downhill accept for the parts that were not. We took the PlanPraz lift up to the base of the Col de Brevant and then climbed for 90 minutes or so to the top.  The lift was quite crowded in the morning with paragliders who launch at the base of the climb and sightseers who take another lift up to the top of the Brevant. We really enjoyed the hike up to the Brevant as it was very quiet along the backside of the ridge and offered views of different valleys. The trail was steep with some ladders, rungs and chains to help keep you on the trail. Once at the top, the views were fantastic. It was then a long steep downhill back down to our starting point of Les Houches with epic views the whole way.

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We regrouped with our travel companions in Les Houches for some celebrating and a big meal and then it was off on the train in the morning to the St Gervais valley.

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One of the World’s Best Hikes?

The  Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) trail circumnavigates Western Europe’s highest mountain, the mighty Mont Blanc, up craggy passes, over pastoral saddles and through surreal valleys of France, Italy and Switzerland.  It offers fantastic hiking that is both scenic and challenging while providing the allure of great vino, a hot meal and a comfortable bed in a charming village at the end of the trail every evening. The route winds through famous mountain villages such as Chamonix and Courmayeur as well as smaller villages that will leave you contemplating dairy farming as a plausible profession.

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There are countless hiking options of varying lengths and difficulty as well as many options to leverage buses and lifts to navigate the hike around the massif.  And both directions of traveling the loop offer their benefits and challenges.  You can plan on about 10 days of actual hiking give or take your speed of walking, and it is worth considering an option that includes 1-3 “rest” days to check out some of the bigger villages and side trails along the way. Some travelers carry their own gear, but there are plenty of guide and transport companies that will transport bags so you only need to hike with a day bag. And with plenty of refuges, some of the best potable water supplies and villages along the way, day packs can be light.  Most stay in hotels, auberges or refuges so carrying a tent or even a sleeping bag is not required. Guided trips are available and may be the way to go for those less experienced with walking and hiking, but we found the navigation and hiking pretty straightforward and enjoyed the flexibility of a self-guided version where we walked at our own pace but met up with a group often on the trail as well as at the end of the day.

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The surreal scenery makes this hike one of the best that we have ever done, but that is not the only reason why this hike is consistently rated one of the best in the world.  Here are some more reasons to love it:

  • Hiking thru three stunning countries with different cultures, food and languages- France, Italy, Switzerland.

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  • Trekking 132 miles on well marked trails with about 32K of vertical (up and down) not only gives one a sense of accomplishment, but burns a lot of calories on the gorgeous trails and allows for guilt-free enjoyment of the wonderful food and wine every night.

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  • Days are filled with surreal natural beauty.

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  • The only sound you are likely to hear are the bucolic chimes of cow bells or the rush of running mountain water.

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  • Gorgeous wildflower strewn fields abound in alpine back country.

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  • No need to worry about grizzly bears. The only wildlife you should see on the trail are more benign- ibex, marmots, hawks

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  • A hot shower and comfortable bed awaits every night in charming hotels and villages.

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  • Eating is taken seriously in Europe.  (France takes two hour lunches and many places are closed from 12-3 pm.)  In the Alps, regardless of where you are whether at the top of a col or in a valley where there appears to be nothing for miles, refuges are plentiful on the TMB offering wonderful food, drinks and shelter.

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  • Plenty of vino, cheese and great food every night.

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Bakery in Les Houches where we picked up sandwiches for our first day on the TMB.
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This spread was in a small refuge quite far from anywhere

There are so many ways to do this hike- on your own, guided or self-guided.  We used Sherpa Expeditions, and they were fantastic.  Sherpa offers a self-guided model that involves transporting your luggage every day but one.  We also started the trek with 8 other people and stayed in the same hotels every night making for a social but flexible trek.  So for those that want to hike at different speeds, this is a great option.  

The TMB is definitely one of the best hikes in the world and one of our best experiences this year between the stunning views, fresh, clean mountain air, fabulous food and wine, charming villages in three of our favorite countries!  We loved it so much we will likely repeat this trek sometime in the future.  Stay tuned for more details on the TMB.

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Beautiful Bourgogne, No Beaune(s) about it

Burgundy for kings, champagne for duchesses, claret for gentlemen – French Proverb

Beaune ( pronouced “Bone”) is in the middle of the French Bourgogne wine region well known for its Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and Chablis (Chardonnay) wine. The city has a long history of wine making and is surrounded by vineyards, many hundreds of years old. Wineries, large and small, are integrated throughout the new and old parts of the city. It is an oenophile’s paradise for sure.

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We must admit, we are not huge fans of Chardonny and Pinot. It is not that we have a “Beaune of contention” with them or that we need to “Beaune up on them” (I could go on if my editor would let me).  Oregon which is very close to home in Seattle has allowed us to enjoy many of the new world Pinots (which can be pleasantly very earthy). It is just that we prefer bigger reds, clarets, in fact, so perhaps that makes us better suited as a duchess and gentleman.

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We stopped by Beaune and the Bourgogne region for a bit more cycling and a little bit of wine tasting as we made our way to Chamonix to leave our cycling behind and tackle the Tour du Mont Blanc. Beaune is an incredibly beautiful city with a very large old town, a historical hospital and wineries that are older than the U.S.A. There is a ring road that circles old town which decreases car traffic and provides a nice walking and short cycling path.  It is a beautiful city but we recommend avoiding in August because of the hordes of tourists that are here and many of the good restaurants which are closed as the locals get out of Dodge for their own holidays.

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We stayed for about  a week and spent most of our time visiting the surrounding areas via bikes but used Beaune as our base.  Not surprisingly, there are grapes everywhere. You hit vineyards in less than 1 km from the city center and it is amazing how integrated some of the vineyards are to the villages surrounding Beaune.  Grape growing was in full production so you shared the roads and bike trails with plenty of farmers, tractors, and trimming machines.  The vineyards are stunning.

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The cycling routes are well mapped out in the region with plenty of signage and routes. Some direction and route guidance helps to put together a full day ride, but for the most part you can pick a village and distance and then follow the routes.

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The countryside is scenic. There are a few hills and some elevation but for the most part it is undulating.

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The villages are gorgeous and there is one every 5km or so in any direction you choose. There are a number of parks and preserved lands about but for the most part, you cycle through villages and vineyards.

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We enjoyed a lot of the villages, including Pommard, Volnay, Puligny-Montrachet, Savigny-les-Beaune, Nuits Saint-Georges, Villars-Fontaine, Bigney-sur-Ouche, and Vavilly-Mandelot. Meursault was one of our favorites. It is only about 10km from Beaune and has a number of great lunch spots so it is a very good ride for casual cyclists but it is also a good stop on the way back from longer rides.

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We had a blast riding for a few days in Burgundy; a few of our routes offered some 3-4km climbs that offered some challenges.  Wine was very good.  When we compare it to our recent trip to The Loire, I think we would rank the Loire higher for value and cycling. Even though the cycling was a bit flatter in The Loire, there are many more routes and options.  Wine, restaurants, and hotels are more reasonably priced and the villages are just as stunning.  But Burgundy offers more wine, no doubt about that. Wineries and vineyards are older and more renowned.  There is no right answer and you can never go wrong with some pedaling through French vineyards!

 

Slaying the Badger

This was a fun read – especially while we were spending a couple weeks following this year’s Tour de France.  With a bit of bus travel and more than a few hours waiting for the peloton during our trip, we knew that we would have some time to dig into a few good books.  Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France fit the bill for me. This was a fantastic read that sucked me in from the first pages (yeck!).  It is a fascinating reporting on the 1986 Tour de France which was the first Tour that featured a team from the States and ended with the first winner from the States, Greg LeMond. It was also the last Tour for Bernard Hinault – a hugely popular French cycling legend who today is still very influential and prominent in French cycling.

The story line revolves around the inter-team fireworks between the two leaders Hinault and LeMond and their agreement that frustrated both but also set the context for one of the most entertaining races in its history. Ultimately,  the outcome solidified Hinault’s French popularity and position as a bit of a folk hero and LeMond as the first winner of the race from the USA and also a pivotal player in increasing salaries and the free market model in professional cycling.

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Really? No helmets in ’86

It’s a story of characters – from the leaders, the managers, the owners and even the Tour’s officials. All involved seem to have been a bit off balanced at best.  It’s a fast, enlightening and fun read. Though, it is very much an “inside baseball” story that may be difficult for a casual fan, if you follow cycling or are intrigued by this race, it is a good one to pick up.

And if you want to know why you shouldn’t have your favorite Mexican food delivered from California to France the night before an important ride, definitely check this one out (or at least review the Amazon Kindle sample which will give you that answer)

Allez, Allez Tour de France

“The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most .” Eddie Merckx, famous French professional cyclist.

With plenty of mountain stages, an uphill mountain time trial, terrifying descents, heavy rains, and crushing winds, there were plenty of opportunities for suffering in this year’s Tour de France.  Long on our bucket list, we were both excited to spend two weeks riding and following many stages of the Tour de France.  For those unfamiliar, the Tour de France is a 3 week cycle race that attracts the world’s most elite riders. There are grand tours in other European countries (Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana), but the Tour de France is the oldest (started in 1903) and considered the most prestigious.  There are a few longer stage races that are growing in popularity back in the States (Tour of Utah, Tour of California as examples), but most do not come close in attendance, global awareness, and marketing and sponsorship dollars as the Tour de France.

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The Tour takes over France every July, and you best not be in its way. It is extremely popular among its European fans and is one of the only premier sporting events in the world where fans can show up and watch for free. It is also one of the only professional sporting events where fans can get so close to athletes and teams. Of course, there are many options to spend money to enjoy premier viewing experiences to get even closer – such as riding along with a  team or sponsor cars or watching it from above in an helicopter.

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In both the large cities and small villages that the Tour visits, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of fans come out to watch.  Many drive campers and RVs around following the race for the full three weeks.  At the pivotal and popular stages, usually mountain stages in the Pyrenees or the Alps (such as Mt. Ventoux or Alp D’Huez), it would not be unusual for 100-200K people to congregate on the roadsides to watch the riders. Many mark their territory days or even weeks in advance.

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Fans are varied and diverse.  There are the rowdy beer-drinking youth, families, couples, grandparents with tricked out RVs and tablecloths, jacket and tie folks at the VIP areas in the beginning and end of the races each day, and of course, cycling fanatics with all types of bikes and gear.  And not a small amount of penguin suits and other such outfits.  Then there is the iconic Tour de France devil who is credited with starting the trend of wearing costumes to sporting events.

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If you are not going to use them, we’ll take them!

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Logistics for watching this race are not for the faint of heart.  There are certainly many that jump in their cars, pack their camping gear and go, but having some experience or traveling with those that have some is the way to go.  We found a UK-based company, Sports Tours International, that have been taking folks to the Tour for decades and offered a great mix of viewing options along with daily rides and climbs. We were a group of 30 or so from all over the globe – Europe, Britain, Australia and New Zealand and even Belize as well as the Cayman Islands.  About half of the group were riding and the other half just watching. The cycling crew were mostly serious folks with couples tricked out in matching team gear and many sporting their new Rapha kit. Our guides were a couple retired firemen from Southern Cal (go figure) and our seasoned bus driver (so key for avoiding the post race traffic) was from Belgium.  We were equipped with a full on motor coach with a trailer for the bikes and a minivan for getting in and around the race circuits. We did not have laundry facilities on our bus like the pro’s but then again, we had built-in coolers stocked full with cold beer.

 

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Generally, there is a lot of waiting while watching the tour.  If you are only at the stage for the day, you need to arrive at least a couple hours early if you want to claim a spot with an interesting vantage point. Climbs are a popular spot to watch as riders will often be slowed down if the grade is steep (although it is amazing how fast these guys climb). So you camp out for a few hours with friends, beers, kindles and all sorts of other means of occupying your time. Excitement builds throughout the day until Tour car traffic increases and the Caravan rolls through. The Caravan is basically a parade of sponsors that zooms thru throwing out free chotskies to the crowds. It is a good way to amp up the crowd before the racers arrive, but the competition for free hats and key chains can get crazy.

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But the real excitement comes when the sound of the TV helicopters overhead along with the chants of “allez, allez” from the crowd down road can be heard. This is when you know the riders will be coming in fast.

 

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Much of the route, including the important climbs, are open to the public up until a few hours before the riders arrive so everyday there are fans out on the routes cycling the course for the day. Riding some of the big climbs a few hours before the Tour when all the fans are out in force, camped out on the road, and well into their beverages was one of our favorite experiences. We were able to ride a number of classic climbs including Mt Ventoux (ouch), Grand Colombier, Col de Joux Plane, Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc le Bettex.

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Our ride up Mt Ventoux was quite something.  At the base, it was hot and closing in on 90. at the top, it chilled down to the 40’s.  It was a very windy day with gusts clocked in at over 160 km/hr and very strong sustained winds that were punishing when confronting them head on. Luckliy, there are many switchbacks so we were not always heading into it.  At the top, riders were being blown off bikes – it was crazy.  The next day, the Tour officials canceled the top of Mt Ventoux – the last 6kms because of the winds.

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Mountain stages are great ones to watch because they usually determine the winners, but they also slow the riders down so you can get a chance to see more of them as they roll by you.  On mountain stages (especially towards the end of the week), riders  can be strung out almost an hour( but all need to be within 20% of finisher to stay in the race).

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The riders have gone before you know it, and then you are rushing to get out of the town before the chaotic traffic begins. Small towns can get absolutely crushed.

We were able to see two time trial stages which are quite the experience because there is a lot more going on through out the day.  During time trials, riders navigate the course along competing for the fastest times. They usually start 2-3 minutes after each other so with 200 riders, there is a full day of starts or finishes or riders rolling by you.

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The Tour does not stop for rain.

Also, you can wander around the start village and view riders warming up before their race, talk with team mechanics, and check out the bikes up close.

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So much potential

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One of the time trials that we watched was an uphill mountain stage- a bit unique. We got the benefits of both a mountain stage and a time trial stage and were able to ride part of the climb early in the day so it proved to be a very interesting day.

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Included in our outing with the group were two VIP experiences that allowed us to get a bit closer and view the race in relative comfort.  The first such experience was at the finish line on Stage 15 which was a mountain stage but also included a circular route so the riders came through the finish line twice.  After riding the climb in the morning, we watched the race outside on big screen TV’s until the riders came by where we watched it live.  The “free beer” and finish line setting  had the crowd excited and we met all sorts of characters. Susan ended up hanging out with the mother of the owner of Team Dimension Data (they had a great tour this year).  Team Dimension, based in South Africa, is also a rather unique team in that they are associated with the Qhubeka Foundation.  The Qhubeka Foundation is a South African based non-profit that donates bikes to underprivileged kids who have achieved certain goals.

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Our second VIP experience didn’t go quite so well. It was another spot set up next to the race course where there was fantastic food and drink and big screen TVs for viewing the race before the riders arrived in the area.  This was all great, especially after another big morning of climbing.  But heavy rains began to fall and the area was actually flooded out so they had to close the area and we all joined the racers (they don’t stop the race for rain) out on the road and got a bit wet. But we were able to see the racers charge by and the then we ran to the shelter of a local bar, with a standing-room only crowd, to watch the finish.

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As the band continues to play

Our final day was back in Paris to watch the famous end to the 3 weeks. At about 6pm, the racers arrive and cycle down the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe where they make 8 laps along the champs. It is an incredibly popular stage given its Paris setting and the 8 laps. Hundreds of thousands turned out.  Given the horrible events in Nice a week earlier, the military and police presence was both sobering and impressive. And blocks around the race were completely closed, creating quite a surreal feel. At this point in our trip, we had reached our limit with the crowds and the waiting so we strolled around the circuit, watched the women’s race (they are FAST too), and then headed to Paris bistro to watch the final.

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Much Contemplation

It was a great couple weeks of cycling and watching for us. For those interested in the sport, we would highly recommend checking out at least a few stages or days of the tour. You can get a similar experience with less crowds at one of the other European grand tours but the crowds and mayhem are what makes the Tour de France so unique.

Stay tuned for some of our thoughts and photos of cycling the villages of the tour this year.

Leaving the Loire

“The Loire Valley is grossly underestimated. The prices are fair, and the wine is real.” – the straight-talking Gary Vaynerchuk

Our final two days of cycling in the Loire took us to stays in Chinon and Saumur with stops along the way. Both are fantastic, smallish towns centered in the heart of Loire wine country. We had plenty of time for more cycling and more wine tasting.

IMG_2408.JPGAs with all our cycling in Loire, the roads and trails were quite good.

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Chinon is quite a unique region in the Loire because it mostly focused on red wine rather than whites. And the Chinon AOC allows for some blending of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape (up to 10%)  with the Loire mainstay, Cabernet Franc.  We only had one night in Chinon, but wished we had more as the village is lovely.  We stayed in a charming, family-run hotel in the village, Hotel Diderot, which seems to cater to bikers as there were quite a few other bikers staying there as well.  Thanks to Euro2016, we were able to get into a good restaurant in town with out reservations- L’Ardoise (France was playing that night so all the locals were watching not eating).   There were only a few Brits, a couple Aussies and ourselves in the restaurant that night and it unexpectedly became quite a social evening.

 

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Joan of Arc doing her thing
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Shutter stop

After Chinon, we headed to Fontevraud-L’Abbaye, a commune in the Maine-et-Loire department and apparently home to one of the oldest abbeys in Europe. The Fontevraud Abbey was founded in 1101.  The history of Europe can blow you away sometimes if you stop to think about it – especially compared to how short ours is back in The States.

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We made sure to save time to duck into a winery or two to sample the local magic and check out some of the shops and galleries utilizing the ancient caves to sell their wares. The wine at Château de Targé was mostly unremarkable and they were pushing “shipments back to the States” a bit more than we have experienced but their chateau perched up above the river provided a beautiful setting for a break (and a little bit of climbing to get there)

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Our final destination was Samur where we ended cycling and spent a few extra days. Samur is another great Loire city with a beautiful old town, chateau and a fantastic setting along the river. We found a new hotel/ apart-hotel in old town Saumur which worked great for us, Les Londres.  It is centrally located in the old town and offers hotel rooms as well a couple full-service apartments.

Saumur was the site of a WWII battle so it also has some interesting history. The town was jammed with tourists, but we found some quiet spots as well as a few tasty boulangeries.  L’Escargot and Le Pot de Lapin are two great restaurants, but be sure to make reservations (and sit outside or wear mosquito repellent inside at Le Pot de Lapin).  Food was great at Le Pot de Lapin.  We just missed the Tour de France by a few days as they started a stage here this year (but we caught up with the Tour and more on that later).

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Biking in the Loire has been great.  It is a beautiful spot ( with one charming village after another as well as great wine and food) and really designed well for cyclists with all its bike paths and trails. And within an hour’s train ride from Paris, it is super accessible.  I am sure we’ll be back in the future – there are so many wines still to sample out there!

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Jardins Spectaculaires de la Loire

From Tours, our cycling took us to Azay-le-Rideau, yet another charming French village, with a stop to check out the Villandry Chateau Jardins.

Starting in such a large city as Tours, we were both surprised how quickly we escaped the city and got into the countryside and its small villages – it could not have taken more than 15 minutes on our cycles (Side note:  France has done a great job with zoning.  Villages have maintained their charming character, and you do not typically see any commercialization seeping in.  Outside of the villages, there may be a zone commerciale or industrielle but again not in the village itself.)

Tours is clearly a bike friendly city with bike lanes and bike paths throughout and around the city.  (Loire Valley, in general, is so bike friendly with a plethora of bike paths and lanes and relatively flat that it is a great place for a family to cycle.)

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The weather improved quite a bit since our first couple days. The sun was out, and it was a perfect 75 degrees. There were some rolling hills, but for the most part, the riding was flat, and the tarmac was in perfect condition.  It was the kind of conditions that just put a smile on your face and made you feel like a kid again. We were cycling 3-5 hours per day usually with a couple hours of breaks and touring around.  And today, we took a break today to check out the Villandry Chateau and its gardens. We were starting to fill up our chateau quota for the month, but the gardens here were strongly recommended so we took a small detour to check them out and we were not disappointed.

The chateau was first constructed during Medieval times, and then updated during the 18th century by some well off folks who no doubt enjoyed years of good living and debauchery there.

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The gardens are enormous with mazes, water elements, sculptures, organic and vegetable plantings and multi-tiers.

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Back on the road, it was more kilometers winding around farmlands and small villages. Passing through Crissay, we noticed a very unique take on street art. Crissay is one of many villages with the French designation of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. This designation is given to exceptional villages with interesting heritage and is one of the means that France protects its historical villages.

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And a few klicks from our destination, we made a small stop in Sache, the home of the famous French writer, Honore de Balzac.  We have not read any of his books yet (La Comédie Humaine is his magnum opus), but he is said to have had a big influence on Dickens and Kerouac so we stopped by the Musee  Balzacc (which was closed, of course, because it was a Tuesday).

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In Azay-le-Rideau, we stayed at the charming Le Grand Monarque which has a great, centrally-located spot in the town.  We typically do not eat at the hotels where we stay, but we did during our stay in Azay-le- Rideau, and the dinner was excellent (which is often the case at small hotels in France).

It was another great day and ride in the Loire. From here, we were off to Chinon and further west along the Loire Valley.

Book Review: Two Good Reads on France and WWII

I just finished two great reads, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, which were set in France during World War II (WWII) . All the light we cannot seeAll the Light We Cannot See, is about two children’s lives during World War II- one growing up in France and the other in Germany. The narrative moves back and forth between the two main characters- Werner and Marie-Laure and parallels their coming of age. Werner, a young orphan boy in Nazi Germany, lives in a children’s home . He is exceptionally bright and curious with a knack for fixing radios. His talents in math and science win him a spot in a nightmarish Hitler Youth Academy. This is his only chance of escape from a grim life working in the same deadly coal mines.  Marie-Laure lives with her locksmith father who works at a museum, and she is blind. When the Germans attack Paris, she and her father flee to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to live with a great-uncle who lives in a tall, storied house next to a sea wall.  Eventually, these parallel stories intersect briefly.  While the story is beautiful and heartbreaking, I was looking for something more when these two young lives cross, but nonetheless, an engaging, well-written book with many thought provoking lines. Here are a few of my personal favorites from All the Light We Cannot See:

“Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.”

“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”

“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”

The Nightingale, is another great read about WWII (and a personal The Nightingalefavorite).  The narrative is about two sisters- Viann and Isabelle- who could not be more different from one another.  During WWII, both found themselves in unthinkable circumstances and did heroic things to survive the horrors of war as well as to help many others survive.  This is a heartbreaking book (suggest reading this in the privacy of your own home or hotel room because there will likely be tears) but provides a small glimpse into what courageous women did while France was occupied by Germany during the WWII. I highly recommend it.