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On July 15, 2003, I hopped on an Air Canada flight, hoping to eventually see the greatest sporting event in the world- the Tour de France. The flight took me to Calgary, where I changed planes to Toronto and finally to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France. From there, I managed to figure out how to get a direct train to Toulouse, the finish of the 11th stage.
Although there were two layovers, the flights were fine. Navigating through Paris was no problem since I’d been there twice before. The Paris Metro is great.
I arrived in Toulouse on the evening of July 16 and found an inexpensive hotel and was awoken at 2 am by a friend from home who didn’t know I was in France. At least I was sleeping!
Toulouse is a beautiful city in the south of France- it is quite a large city and the headquarters of Airbus. The Garonne River runs through the city. Below is the Pont des Catalans.
Toulouse also has canals, with people living on barges. This is the Canal du Midi.
I had no idea where the race finish was going to be (I was a complete rookie) and just started walking until I started seeing signs. That took me out to the airport, which was about 6 km from my hotel. Another indicator of my inexperience was the fact that I arrived at the finish at 11:30 am. TdF races typically finish around 5 pm so everyone in France can watch the finish in prime time. So, I waited for 5 hours.
I knew nothing of the caravan, but quickly learned that it is one of the most interesting parts of the race culture.
While I was standing in the 90 degree heat, a couple from Atlanta and I started talking. Peter and Melanie Buch were extremely friendly and we ended up having dinner that night after the finish. I had escargot and it was good. Peter, Melanie and I have remained friends via Facebook, etc. Great folks and I was very happy to have met them.
Juan Antonio Flecha won the race on an attack from a breakaway. He won the stage by 4 seconds and the peloton was 1 minute behind. Jens Voigt abandoned due to sickness.
Armstrong sprinting in with the peloton to avoid time gaps.
Armstrong on the podium.
The next day I knew there was a time trial in Gaillac, but I wasn’t exactly sure when it started or how to get there. I got lucky. I slept in a little bit, got some breakfast and walked to the train station. The local train was direct to Gaillac in less than an hour- 60 km away.
The course passed very close to the train station, so I just followed where the riders were coming from and ended up at the start gate. Here’s Jan Ullrich preparing to win the event. Which he did, in 100 degree heat. This was a 50km time trial and he completed it in less than an hour.
Tyler Hamilton racing with a broken collar bone. Wow, that must have hurt on a TT bike.
Lance Armstrong, the favorite, ended up losing by over a minute and a half. He stayed in the yellow jersey, but only by 36 seconds going into the mountains.
The next day I jumped on a train to Ax Les Thermes, which happened to be the town just below the finish of the next stage at Ax 3 Thermes. On the train I met a couple from Ballard. Yep, Ballard in Seattle, Washington. Turns out they lived about 3 miles from me. Amazing. They were there on a side trip from Spain, which is just a few miles from Ax Les Thermes. Dave and Rachael are an amazing couple and we are still friends. Once we arrived in Ax Les Thermes, a nice hotelier allowed us to store our luggage behind the counter. We were expecting to walk to the finish, but a gondola was taking people to the top of the mountain. It was unbelievable.
This was the finish of the race- in the ski area village of Ax-3-Thermes.
Dave and Rachel
We walked about 2 km down the course so we could experience first-hand what it’s like to be in the insane crowd of a Tour de France mountaintop finish.
And it was crazy! Carlos Sastre won the stage.
Ullrich and Vino were ahead of Armstrong, but Lance ended up passing Vino before the finish.
Tyler Hamilton was seriously suffering with the broken collar bone. He ended up winning a stage a few days later on an impossibly HUGE breakaway.
That night I spend the night at a campground just down the highway from Ax Les Thermes. It was great. I slept like a log. Early the next morning I walked to the train station and took a 3 hour train to Bagneres de Luchon. There, I walked up the climb- which happened to be a middle of the stage climb-for about 5 km. Bagneres de Luchon was a super cute little town at the end of a valley- the road from there went up up up and over the Pyrenees. This guy basically goes to all the stage races in Europe. Now he has HUGE Elk antlers- in 2003 just wings.
The peloton was being ripped apart by the aggression of Jan Ullrich.
The digital cameras in 2003 were pretty bad- this shot was pure luck and I was actually trying to get the entire person…
That afternoon I caught a train to Lourdes-about an hour an a half- this is looking back at the Pyrenees through a train window.
Same thing here- beautiful mountains for sure.
I shared a taxi with some other people and took the crooked 30 km drive to Luz Saint Sauveur in luxury. Here’s a castle above Luz Saint Sauveur.
It’s quite a cute little town. The campground was the best yet- right in town, free showers, super nice lawns. It was super great!
The next day I did an epic 15 km walk to the race finish at the summit of Luz Ardiden. The photo below is Luz Saint Sauveur from about 3 km from the bottom. I had a long walk ahead of me.
This was in a meadow about 10 km from the bottom that gave a little relief as the road flattened out for a short time. This is where a lot of people were camping.
From that meadow, the hill became extremely steep and this is where the majority of the people were headed- and the fog was lifting just as I got there.
The Basques were out in force- with their campers, BBQs and TVs.
Here’s the me at the ski station/finish.
Looking back down at the meadow from my vantage point at about 1.5 km from the finish.
My camera crapped out. Oh well, at least I got the battery charged once I was back in Luz Saint Sauveur. What an amazing place and what a great trip. This will not be my last!
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