Thursday, July 23, 2009

Stage 18: Cyclists from around the world follow the Tour:

Stage 18: Cyclists from around the world follow the Tour: And they ride too!

The Tour de France is a beacon for cyclists from around the world, and many of them come to watch, either alone or in groups.

Pic: some members from Israel Cycling on their "rest day" in Annecy. Today they will watch the time trial, but already some members have done a big run in the morning. Ben Yekutiel and Inbal Moran are pictued center smiling at the camera. Dorit Levy is behind them.

And this year the number of people coming to watch has grown tremendously since the last two years, mostly because Lance Armstrong is back in the race, said almost every person BBB spoke to. The difference has been estimated at about 20 percent more than in the prior 3 years, according to ASO officials.

Some fans rent massive traveling wagons that contain everything, from kitchens to toilets, to beds, and of course, with the bike rack on the back.

Others drive the route of the Tour and book hotels along the way. And then there are those that prefer to come with a special touring company that will take care of everything, including in some cases the cost of the airline.

In many cases, taking a tour makes more sense then going alone. The cost of following the Tour de France is about $200 a day on a budget, and much more if you plan on eating or resting in top hotels. The number does not include airfare or car rental, which with the specialists that you can book from the U.S. include AutoEurope (an outfit recommended by friends who live in France for over 10 years.) They will average including insurance and tax about $700 for 14 days, an incredible price.

But if you only want to take in portions of the Tour and love the idea of being able to ride to certain stages, a tour is the best way to go. It takes all the responsibility off your shoulders of planning hotels, finding your way around a strange country where perhaps you do not speak French, and being able to take the time to ride your bike in between stages.

Pic: Gonan Harpez one of two partners who run

Gonan Harpez, an Israeli triathlete and his partner Ori Livne have been bringing Israelis to the Tour for six years. On this year’s visit, they will spend all their time in Annecy using it as a base for their rides, which are usually trips to one section of the Tour, and costs about 1800 Euros, or about $2500, and includes airfare from Israel.

It’s a bargain compared to other tours which range from $3,000 for Roman Pensac, a French touring company, or Trek Travels, which range from about $6,000 to almost $8,000 but which often include a private, back scene look at the Astana team and a meeting with Lance Armstrong. Those two tours also include food and first class lodging in a handful of locations, including Paris.

In all the Israeli group called Israel Cycling, has 35 riders this year, many of them tough as nut Israeli triathletes from the ages of 23 to 70, their muscles bulging from behind spandex of all kinds. This group not only rides the 80 to 150 km each day (about 50 to 110 miles) but they also come back, go running and then go for a swim, and they love it.

Pic: Harpaz gives the riders instructions for the day. Two days from now they will leave at 2:30 am to arrive in Carpentras at 4 am, to ride up Mont Ventoux, the second to last stage, and perhaps the most decisive of the Tour.

One rider based in New Jersey, Ben Yekutiel, flew to Israel for his usual yearly vacation, then joined the group called to come to France for the final last mountain stages of the Tour. Almost everyday has an element of climbing in it, and two days ago the group rode 150 km, including the ascent to Col de Roseland—a portion of Stage 16 that Contador was quoted saying was one of the cols he feared most.

Most of the riders rode almost to the top, and the more experienced riders, including Inbal Moran, an Israeli documentary filmmaker during her off bike hours, took the final 8 km to the top. Did she make it? “Of course, that’s what I came here for,” she said with a huge smile on her face.

“She did it even though she is riding a Pinarello from 8 years ago, it must weigh 14 kilos,” joked Yekutiel who didn’t ride the last 8 km to the summit. “No it is not 14 kilos,” piped in Harpaz. “Did you lift it?” shot back Yekutiel? “It’s heavy I’ll tell you.” Looking at the tall and wiry Moran one could never imagine her climbing up the Roseland, but she seems to eat it up. “It’s a joke, I am riding with these people, can you believe it?” said Yekutiel gamely.

Like yesterday’s ride to the finish at le Grand Bornand. They even rode in the pouring rain: “I was freezing,” said Moran, smiling broadly.

The riders think that French drivers are “more respectful” than those in Israel, which they said by comparison, is abysmal for cycling. Here when there is a straight dividing line, and a cyclist in the road, cars actually stop and wait to pass rather than pushing cyclists to the edge, an important difference for cyclists who often fear most being run off the road by drivers impatient to get to their ultimate destination.

Dorit Levy who describes her age as “over 50” but doesn’t look it, has been able to keep up. An Israeli prosecutor, like Moran and Yuketiel, she came without her husband, as most of the participants. One couple that came are riding together and two men came with their wives who travel with the sag wagon. But Levy who is not a triathlete does not do this to relax from her stressful job as prosecutor for the Israeli government: “It makes me feel better that I am riding with people much younger than me by a couple of good years.”

In le Grand Bornand yesterday, husband and wife Christian and Karen Hoffman who hail from Atlanta, Georgia paid $3,000 to Roman Pensac tours to climb 40 to 60 miles a day. They are staying in a small village and their breakfast and dinner is included in the fee. Among the 47 riders in this group, they said they do more riding than watch the tour, but they don’t seem to mind. Mostly they enjoy back roads where car drivers are not going as quickly as on the bigger roads.

With them is another couple Linda and Robert Young from Pennsylvania whom they did not know before this trip, but now they are friends. They are the only Americans in the group, which consists largely of South Americans from Argentina and Uraguay and Australians.

Both couples ranked the tour package very highly even though they are not used to climbing in the Alps, and the food they said was excellent, with lots of French wine consumption along the way. Have they lost any weight with all this climbing? “We exercise so we can eat,” said Robert Young. In effect, it all balances out.

And who do they want to win the Tour? “Armstrong” they say almost in unison. But Contador is more realistic: ‘He will probably be one of the best riders of all time,” said Karen Hoffman.

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