Posted by: Jennifer Sage | December 6, 2007

Tour de France 2008

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Every year towards the end of October, the Tour de France route is announced by the Tour organizers. Bicycle tour companies like mine, all over the world, who organize tours to the Tour, await impatiently for the announcement.  The moment the route is announced, we all compete for the same limited number of hotel rooms all at the same time!

Let me tell you how it’s done, and you might understand a little more the craziness behind the scenes of organizing a trip like this.

As you know, the Tour de France is a 21-day stage race, primarily through France that changes routes every single year, and alternates its direction each year.  One year the Alpes are before the Pyrenees, and the next year, the Pyrenees come before the Alpes. These two mountainous areas define the big mountain climbs of the Tour, although there can be other significant climbs in other parts of the country, such as Mont Ventoux in Provence, and Le Grand Ballon in Alsace.

From a Tour Operator’s point of view, the mountains are some of the most interesting stages to view, primarily because the peleton doesn’t go whizzing by you in 2 minutes after a 2-3 hour wait.  The riders are generally more spread out and you can experience their suffering first hand as they struggle up the monstrous cols.  Also, I’ve come to realize over the years, most cyclists coming to view the TdF want to experience suffering up these very same cols the morning before the peleton arrives. So I will happily oblige and take them there!  🙂

If there is a time trial close to the mountain stages, it’s nice to incorporate that as well, as it’s a very interesting stage to experience.  But you will see with the 2008 route, this will make it hard to keep the tour a manageable number of days with minimal shuttling. 

Most Tour Operators are trying to keep their tour down to 7-9 days, so it is more attractive to prospective customers who must take all their limited vacation time to come.  Some tours are longer, but in my opinion, you start getting bored shuttling around that much (and after viewing 3-4 stages, you want to just RIDE and then watch the Tour highlights on TV), and it’s  too expensive if you want to do it without camping or resorting to 1 or 2-star hotels.  Not me!

So back to the pre-planning.  Several weeks prior to the route announcement, I study past tour routes so I can “guess” the route.  Let me tell you, the next year’s Tour route is a tightly guarded secret!   There are a few cities that are used the most often as the starting or ending cities to stages (le départ and l’arrivée), such as Grenoble, Albertville or Le Grand Bornand in the Alpes, and Pau, Bagneres and St. Girons in the Pyrenees.  I begin calling hotels in those cities, at the dates I am guessing the tour will be going through (I am usually correct within a day or two), and ask if there is availability.  When I start hearing that they are “Complet“, I know I have hit pay-dirt!  You see, they have to plan the stages around towns/cities with enough hotel rooms to house all the cycling teams (22 teams of 9 riders plus coaches, mechanics and other support staff), plus the hundreds of operations people who travel around France with the Tour to keep it functioning like the well-oiled machine that it is.  They book their rooms obviously months prior to the official announcement.  All the other available hotel rooms must be divided amongst individuals, groups and Tour Operators from all over the world on a first come-first served basis.

Did you know that towns pay a huge sum to be the ville d’arrivée or the ville de départ? Aside from the increase in sales tax (hotels, restaurants, services, etc), look at the incredible PR they receive when the Tour TV cameras are transmitting the beautiful pictures of the town, the chateaux, the medieval or Roman ruins and other beautiful sites in these cities, to literally millions and millions of TVs all around the world!  These cities pull out all the stops to decorate it even more and make sure that it is pristine, with colorful flags or clever cycling decorations, to invite the cameras to linger just a little longer on their fair city.

La Clusaz 2004 Tour de France 

Don’t think that all hotels welcome the Tour de France!  Mon Dieu!  Some just think it’s a pain in the butt and would rather rent their rooms to longtime customers staying a week than to cycling fans just passing through for a day or two.   Some hotels either refuse to book rooms for less than 3 or 4 days, and/or they will jack up the prices considerably just for the day or two that the Tour comes through.  

Once I think I know where the teams and organizers are staying, it’s time to find the smaller charming hotels along the suspected route.  As you know, there are several famous climbs that are usually included, such as Col du Galibier or Alpe d’Huez.  I begin to make temporary reservations near these cols if possible.  Some hotels in Europe won’t make reservations for the following summer until the first of the year, so it can begin to get complicated.

Last year I was convinced that they would include Mont Ventoux in the route, since it had been about 4 years since they climbed it.  When they didn’t, I was even more convinced that they would include it this year, and the amount of hotels nearby who were complet reinforced that assumption.    

See how much “guessing” goes on?! 

As for hotels in the Alpes, I was perplexed!  None of the standard villes de départ or villes d’arrivée were booked.  “Hmmmm,” I thought.  “Where are they going?”

October 25th arrived, the day of the announcement by TdF officials.  I got up at 4 a.m. to check the internet and make my calls; my list of desired hotels and phone numbers next to me, and my maps and highlighters ready to be marked up.  At precisely 4:30 a.m. (12:30 p.m. in France) the Tour website blinks, and puts up next year’s tour route.

tour-de-france-map-cycling-in-france.jpg 

Ah man, I was soooooo wrong!  They really threw a wrench into this year’s route!  It’s very squiggly, traveling from Normandy directly into the center of France (which is pretty mountainous, though not the big categoried climbs).  Then after the Pyrenees it heads through Provence, avoiding Ventoux!  …again?! Sacré bleu!  We were all wrong!  The destination: the Piedmonte region of Italy.  Ah, no wonder I couldn’t figure out the primary ville de départ and d’arrivée in the Alpes.

Following Italy, the route travels back into the French Alpes  to ascend the Galibier and L’Alpe d’Huez, before directing itself back into the center of France, again avoiding many of the all-time classic climbs of the northern Alpes.  And interestingly enough, there are two  somewhat flat stages before the final time trial the day before arriving in Paris.  This actually makes it hard to plan an 8-day tour that takes in the both the big cols of the Alpes and the finish into Paris.

So what to do?  Where to plan my tour?  I started with the idea of creating a tour in the Pyrenées and found some perfect hotels in great locations.  But I did a little quick research on the Piedmonte region of Italy and was very, very impressed with what I found (remember, this is now about 5 a.m., and again, I’m competing with companies and groups from all over the world for a limited number of hotel rooms near the stages).

Luckily, I think other companies were also perplexed, and decided to avoid Italy (at least at the outset), because I did not find many hotels that were completo (we’re now speaking Italian).  Long story short, Piedmonte is a tremendous region for cycling.  For the most part it is great roads on rolling hills, much of it blanketed in vineyards (think Borello wines).  There are some amazing medieval villages and castellos, and you also have the higher mountaintop finishes such as stage 15 at the Italian ski resort of Prato Nevoso. And the food here is said to be some of the best in Italy.  I’m excited about Piedmonte; I believe this will be one of the better tours I’ve ever created, one that will appeal to a wider range of riding interests and abilities.

In addition, because of prior relationships with a hotel, I was able to reserve rooms at a fabulous hotel in Les Deux Alpes, only 15 miles from Alpe d’Huez, which is the perfect location from which to experience stages 17 and 18.  This is key, because I am sure a few minutes after the route was announced, that hotel was sold out (anything with an hour by car of Alpe d’Huez was surely sold out).  

Creating a tour with ease of access for guests, so that they don’t have to spend hours and hours on a bus to either get to the starting point or back from the finish is important to me.  I pride myself in limiting total shuttle time on our tours.  For this reason, after the tour departs the Alpes, we will ride back into Italy to the ski town of Sestriere, one of the famous arrival villages where Lance Armstrong made his mark early in his career. Therefore, this tour will start and end in Italy, with easy access into and out of the big gateway city of Torino, and very limited shuttling.

Hopefully this gives you a small idea of the advanced work that goes into creating a tour. There’s so much more that I have barely even touched upon – just know it’s a lot of time and effort, and a lot of negotiating in French.  

If you know anyone interested in experiencing the Tour de France, please forward this blog to them.  

 Cycling the Alpes

And if you have, or anyone you know has doubts about going to the Tour because of bad publicity in the past (i.e. doping), that will be the subject of an upcoming post.  In short, I still believe with all my heart that for anyone who loves the beauty and skill that is cycling, there is no greater event in the world.  The excitement is indescribable, and the challenge of riding the most beautiful mountains of France (and Italy in next year’s case) will remain with you forever. 

A bientot dans les Alpes!

 

Jennifer Sage

email me for more information! 

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Responses

  1. Interesting Google Map in terrain view with all stages of the Tour de France in 2008.

  2. […] is the week when it all happens. To read more about how tour operators put this puzzle together, read my last year’s post on the 2008 Tour de […]


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