Margaret and Dick   


July 2011: Le Tour in Limoux

Ah, July! the Tour de France! countless beautiful afternoons wasted sitting in front of the television!  For most races since 1999, we had Lance Armstrong to cheer as the US hero of cycling and cancer survivorship.  Now that Lance is retired, we still cheer the cyclists who race over 100 miles each day – at an average speed that is faster than my maximum speed.  The riders burn over 5,000 calories per day just getting from point A to point B.  Beginning with 198 riders, the count is now 168 and dropping.  Two more brutal stages in the Alps and one largely ceremonial stage to the Champs Elysées in Paris will determine the winner.  Unlike the years of Armstrong’s reign, this Tour is a cliff-hanger.

Each year as le Tour goes through the Pyrenees, we select one day to turn off our TV and travel to see the stage at some god-awful steep climb where the riders are spread out and move slowly enough to be more than just a blur.  It’s a full day’s adventure that begins with an early-morning drive, typically two hours, to reach a parking spot before the police close the roads.  We walk/bike up the mountain, typically another two hours. 

We stake out our territory, ideally

(1) in the shade,

(2) providing a good photo op,

(3) away from fans in RVs who have been drinking since last night or last week, and

(4) with a convenient bush behind which one can take a nature break. 

Like your average Tour spectator, we then wait about six hours to see the riders fly past.  The French have mastered the art of Tour watching, as illustrated in this photo.  The logistics of getting off the mountain and back home are even more challenging, as everybody leaves at once. 

Ah, but you don’t go to le Tour to see the race – you go for the scene.  Spectators of all nationalities.  The publicity caravan.  Mounting excitement as the riders approach, with press helicopters coming into view from below your vantage point.  The hopeful or desperate faces of the leading riders, the despair of the stragglers.  It’s a day like no other. 

Margaret took her visiting cousins out to see the riders struggle up to mountain-top finish on the Plateau de Beille, a ten-mile unrelenting climb at a slope of 8-10%.  In Margaret the cousins had an expert teacher for collecting swag (publicity souvenirs thrown from the cars of le caravane).  Pity any kid who’s competing with Margaret for Cochonou sausage thrown from the red-and-white plaid deux chevaux classic car.

This year for the very first time, Limoux was selected to host the start of a Tour de France stage.  This is huge!  We get fame, glory, and lots of tourists.  The honor does not come free:  host cities pay the Tour de France at least €50,000 for the privilege, depending on city size and importance of the stage.  At a conservative average of €20 spending per visitor, the break-even point might be around 2,500 tourists.  Official estimates for Tour visitors to Limoux this year were about 40,000.  Ka-ching.  Let’s pop a blanquette cork for that!

The Tour de France is the world’s second largest sporting event, with about 15 million live spectators and 7 million more watching on TV, and it’s free.  Well, not exactly.  Le Tour is big business.  Major Tour sponsors pay up to €4M each for the privilege of zooming along the route before the race in le caravane and running TV ads.   

In our region where tourism is the #1 industry, a Tour stage generates income for lots of people.  Representatives from some 75 TV and radio stations, 450 photo agencies, and 340 journalists from two dozen countries arrive in town for the event.  Several thousand Tour employees transport, feed, and lodge the 180 riders.  Some 1,200 official vehicles are carefully parked and choreographed for timely departure.  Over 360 regional police monitor the Tour route each day.  And in the wee hours, a dozen boulangers bake 1,200 baguettes for riders and staff (using Banette flour, of course).  Add 40,000 tourists and voila!  You’ve you’ve got a marketing tour de force, a logistical marvel, and traffic backed up in all directions.

It took 12 years of gentle pushing, said an assistant to the mayor, with incessant pressure during the last four to close the deal.
“Each year, 250 cities want to host one of 20 Tour stages.  Some wait eight or ten years.  On Tour day, people all over the world will hear the name Limoux.  On that day, the image of the city will change.  The Tour belongs to the French patrimoine (heritage).  On that day Limoux enters into history.” 
His language is colorful and hopeful; the city was ready to put out the welcome mat.  And our big winemakers (the #2 industry in Limoux) leap at the opportunity to enhance Limoux’s image as a wine town.   

For days before the Limoux-Montpellier stage, a Tour "village" was set up at the edge of downtown to welcome visitors.  Booths served blanquette, mussels, snails, foie gras, and other specialties of the region, and live bands entertained throughout the celebration.  On the day before the stage, I was thrilled to ride some of the Tour route, those very familiar roads now decorated with Tour directional signs.  These roads have never been so clean!

Finally July 17 arrived.  We insisted that the cousins get out to wait (again) for le caravane to pass.  The sponsors got their moment, I got some photos, the cousins got some do-rags, and Margaret got some Haribo gummy bears.

After two hours of fans milling around the team buses and trying to spot celebrity riders (Tyler Farrar at right), it was time for the race start. 

The crowd scene was magnificent.  Mayor Dupré gave the signal at the starting line, and off they rode.  A ceremonial start of several kilometers provides viewing pleasure for the spectators and safety for the cyclists who ride slowly behind the official’s car until safely out of town to begin the race in earnest.  We were so close to the peloton that I would have gotten my toes squashed if I had taken one step further.

After its day of fame, Limoux reverted to its quiet normal state.  The hundreds of Limouxins who worked to make this day happen are probably still recovering.  Henri del Valle, president of the Limoux cycling club, had been invited to ride in the Tour helicopter for the start and then ride in the official car that accompanied the leading riders.  “Henri still hasn’t come back to earth,” reported the paper the next day.

As of this writing, Thomas Voeckler is still wearing the yellow jersey – ten days running!  In a charming interview in this morning’s paper q, he describes his talents as modest and predicts yielding the jersey to a stronger rider.  The French will love him no less, because for now, he’s doing them proud.  And if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to turn on the TV.

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