Posted by: Jennifer Sage | November 4, 2008

Designing a Tour to the 2009 Tour de France

By now, if you follow anything about the Tour de Fance, you know that next year’s Tour is rather convoluted as it snakes across the southwest, into Spain and Andorra, skirting the Pyrénées, flying up to middle France and into Alsace, zipping into Switzerland and briefly through Italy back to the French Alpes, completely ignoring many of the big cols around Alpe d’Huez, but then hightailing back down to the south of France to ascend The Giant of Provence, Le Mont Ventoux, on the penultimate day before TGV-ing it up to Paris for the finale. Phew! If you’re planning on following it, get ready for a little chaos!

From a Tour Operators perspective, it’s a potential nightmare! As I explained in my post a few weeks ago, I was up at 2 am for the TDF route announcement, poised to call hotels near the routes. I had a good idea of the route, thanks to a website which had posted a pretty accurate expected route based on his “spies” in Europe. And he was very close! But I am quite happy with what is shaping up to be two exciting tours, with as minimal shuttling as possible, while still experiencing what I think are some of the most exciting stages of the 2009 Tour. But fitting the pieces of this puzzle together didn’t come without some challenges…

I described what a Tour Operator goes through when planning out a tour to the Tour de France in this post last year. This year it was similar, but I’ve noticed a curious difference; I think hotels are becoming more and more greedy, and less and less willing to take your group if you plan on staying less than 3 nights, or unless you pay your deposits immediately. It used to be they’d take deposits of 30% sometime in January or February, now many seem to want 50% NOW, or else you don’t get the rooms, and sometimes it’s not even returnable. 

The type of tours I like to run are the ones I’d like to take; where you aren’t jumping into a bus everyday or two with long shuttles to the next hotel, often without a chance to shower before boarding the bus. You may even have to leave the stage early to make it to the designated bus departure point (and miss out on the excitement). Exhausting. Not to mention the fact that these large buses daily are expensive, so to finance them, and to keep the costs down, you’ll be on this tour with 40-50 other people, sometimes more. Many of the “Official Tour de France” Tour Operators operate their tours like this (because it costs so much to be an “official” tour operator that they have to go for high volume), with so many people on each tour that they have no choice but to stay in chain hotels on the outskirts of towns. 

Stay tuned and I’ll be posting here what I think are some very exciting tours to the Tour! On one tour we’ll see two stages in the Pyrénées, and on the other, we’ll see two in the Alpes plus experience the ascent up Mont Ventoux. And we’ll provide opportunities to climb Alpe d’Huez for those who want to come a few days early to experience this right of passage for cyclists.

We’re still waiting for a few final confirmations, and once we do, the goods will be exposed right here and to everyone on our mailing list. Email me at if you want to find out as soon as it’s released, or sign up for the Viva Travels mailing list by clicking on the link to the right. This will not be a Tour de France you’ll want to miss!


  1. We watched the tour de France last year close to Narbonne and we were amazed by how many sponsors and support personnel were involved. I would guess any organization of people and facilities to follow the tour would present significant challenges.

  2. Hi Jennifer,
    I receive Google News Alerts and found your article in my inbox.
    I’d like to take the opportunity to respond to some misconseptions that were in your article.

    We are one of only 3 Official Tour Operators to the Tour de France. There aren’t “many”.

    The cost of being Official is not “so much” and there are benefits to clients and the comfort that they are travelling with an approved tour operator.

    Yes we do take groups of up to 40 people as well as smaller groups of 15 to 20 and also self guided trips.

    Yes travelling in a coach is as economical way to do it but we don’t skimp in any way. We have 5 staff per coach, specially built bike trailers and one support vehicle per tour. As well as a fleet of around 80 rental bikes.

    We don’t stay in Chain hotels on the edge of towns. Generally we stay quite close to the centre of towns, within walking distance of restaurants.

    We stay 2 to 3 nights for 90% of the time and I can’t remember ever leaving a stage early to make it to the hotel on time. You see it’s all in the planning.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to respond.

  3. Hi Lawrie,

    I appreciate your response and welcome the discussion! It’s good to meet you, and I am willing to be corrected on my misinformation. Maybe if we have the good fortune of being at the same town in France some day, we can meet and discuss this over a glass of Cote du Rhone. I love meeting people in my business. Our markets are very different, so I don’t feel we are “competitors”, and even if we were, it’s a great big abundant world with lots of people to go around for all of us!

    First it’s important to know where I’m coming from: one of the things a small custom company like mine specializes in is differentiating ourselves. Using only boutique hotels, small group sizes, customizing the experience, getting the client as close as possible to the experience (although I do not think the extra price of being in a VIP area on the final day is worth it, but that’s my own personal opinion), balancing stage viewing with riding away from the madness of the Tour (I prefer 3 stages maximum – it’s overkill after that), and perhaps meeting a rider or coach who talks to the group, etc.

    I want to say that your price point is excellent. It’s a tough market these days with the economy (and for us Americans, the elevated euro of late) and I know that many companies have to make certain cuts in order to keep the price point about the same as, or only marginally more than, last year. Being the one managing the excel spreadsheets to determine our final price, when I look at another company’s price, I can pretty well figure what goes into their pricing, what they’re paying for the most part for rooms, meals, vans, busses, guides, supplies, etc, and what one must do to bring down the price. Group size is one of the ways, and economy of scale certainly works in your favor as well; by virtue of volume you can get some things cheaper than we can.

    Last year and the year before I had several discussions with other bicycle tour operators about the “Official Tour Operator” status. One of them had looked into it and said it was very cost prohibitive, unless you ran a great number of tours with a lot of people per tour. It does offer some great benefits that your tours can provide to clients that others can’t, like your Live the Dream option.

    I’ve been going to the TDF for a long time, often with luxury groups, most often 3-star groups. Over the years, I’ve spoken with many participants of many different tour companies and asked them point blank about their experiences. This way I could analyze what was out there in order to offer what I feel is a very unique experience.

    So, my comments on my blog come out of these “interviews” or discussions (and are only directed at specialty tours to the Tour de France). I was referring to tour companies that on the exterior may look like yours, but please forgive me if I made an incorrect assumption. These companies had very large groups (40+), moved almost every day by bus, or stayed in one place necessitating almost daily bus transfers to the stages, often had to eat quickly because they had to catch the bus (with no possibility to shower), or because they got to the new hotel late and only had a short amount of time before going to bed (to get up early and do it again), and compared the sterile hotels to Holiday Inn Express in the US (like an Ibis or Campanile). They were always on a strict schedule, and most of the people I spoke with found it very fatiguing. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about – and if that’s not your company, I’m glad to hear that. But of course, even those types of tours meet a certain need and are targeted to a different market.

    Your website mentions hotels like Novotel and Mercure for 3*, and Ibis, Campanile and Kyriad for standard hotels. Those “chain hotels” are often (but not always) on the outside of the periphery roads of many of the towns or popular villages. I used to live in Beaune and Nice, and spent a lot of time in Provence, Loire and Dordogne, and this was the case in those towns and regions. When on a budget while pre-tripping (I’ve been leading tours since 1989), I have stayed in many of these over the past 20 years, and found that to be the case in many instances. I would have my guides stay there before or after a tour, but would personally never put clients in them on tour. But, I guess if one has 30-40 (or more) guests, sometimes that’s the only option, whereas many of the boutique hotels only have 10-15 rooms; obviously a limiter to group size.

    Regarding my comment about leaving a stage early, that came from comments from some of the people I’ve spoken to who have been on these “cattle” type of tours (as they referred to them).

    On that subject though, for next year’s Tour de France, as I look at the logistics of riding the Mont Ventoux stage on the final day of the Tour, I have to ask you the question: how on earth are you going to get a large group of cyclists of varying abilities (moving cyclists around can be like herding cats, as I’m sure you’ve found), off the top of the mountain (or close to the top) with a stage arrival of around 5 pm, back down through the chaos of descending vehicles, pedestrians and bikes to an awaiting bus, load the bikes, drive through the Tour traffic to the train station in Avignon, on a train (what if you miss it??) and to Paris (not to mention eating dinner), by a reasonable time? Congratulations if you can! In order to accomplish this, it would seem almost necessary to leave the top before the finish, or, not go to the top to view the stage.

    Personally, I’d rather not put my clients through that kind of stress. To me, the Ventoux stage is far more important than the finish in Paris. But then again, it’s simply a different style of tour.

    I hope that clarifies my comments, and again, I apologize if your company is not a reflection of those kind of tours. Je vous souhaite bonne chance!

    Best regards,

    Jennifer Sage
    Custom guided and self-guided bicycle tours
    office: 970-926-8986
    toll-free: 866-804-VELO (8356)

  4. And Brian, you’re right, the logistics is quite astounding and planning around it is challenging, as can be evidenced by the discussion in the previous two comments. All Tour Operators ponder long and hard about their tours and try to make it seamless as possible for the client.

  5. Hi Jennifer,
    Thanks for your response and I accept your apology. I think you are putting Tour Operators who use buses to transport client in the one big basket.
    I also like to meet my fellow “competitors”. It’s always good to discuss the business we work in.

    I must admit to finding some of your comments quite misleading and that is why I felt the need to respond.

    I won’t get into a lengthy email discussion but I will respond in general.

    Sure there are some who do as you say but I don’t believe that is us.

    Sure we take a lot of people to the Tour de France but that doesn’t mean we offer a bad service or a service any less than anyone else. I think you imply that we care less about our clients which is not true.

    In this day and age we need to think of the environment also. Travelling by coach is environmentally friendly compared to travelling in smaller groups – per person they use less fuel / less emissions than if you have say 5 or 6 minivans – so they aren’t actually that bad. One of our staff in conjunction with the bus company worked out that we used about 1 litre per 100km per passenger when cruising along.

    I don’t think you will see Ibis, Campanile and Kyriad mentioned on our website. We have used them for Etape du Tour to get our clients closer to the race start but not on our Tour de France trips.
    We certainly do use Mercure and Novotel when in good locations like town centres.
    We find our clients appreciate the larger rooms, air conditioning and English TV.

    To answer your final question about Mont Ventoux.

    We will absolutely allow our clients to see the stage finish. In the evening after Mont Ventoux we will return to our hotel in the centre of town for dinner, the buses will be packed and ready to go in the morning. Our clients will walk 500 yards to the Train Station and take the TGV to Paris arriving late morning where they will be collected by a private bus for transfer to the finish on the Champs Elysees where we have special parking access.
    They can then choose to take a reasonably prices allocated seating package or wander the Champs Elysees to view the race with the public. In the afternoon when they return from the race by private transfer, their bicycles and luggage will be at the hotel. As I said it’s all in the planning!

    Thanks again and good luck for 2009 also.

    Lawrie Cranley

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