A Guest Article by Joni Sutton
It began as an excuse to view the beautiful countryside of France, coffee cup in hand, from the comfort of my own home. For twenty-one days each July, my husband and I would spend our mornings trying to understand the strategies and rules of the world’s most celebrated professional cycling race: Le Tour de France.
Before long, we were creating our own fantasy teams and developing attachments to our favorite riders. When we happened upon a website for a chambre d’hôte near Carcassonne that was offering a Tour de France package, we bit the bullet and checked something off our bucket list: we went to France to see une étape (a stage) of the Tour de France!
Our hosts at the O’Vineyards Bed and Breakfast offered a Tour de France package. It included a two night stay in a lovely room, all meals, a tour of their winery, lots of wine, and of course transportation to watch the cyclists ride by. Our room was spacious and lovely, with a large bathroom and a private balcony overlooking the vine-covered hillsides near Carcassonne. We took our meals in a large room a few steps from our room, where all guests (there are four guest rooms) dined together at a long table. On our first evening we enjoyed a four-course meal with wines from the vineyard paired for each course.
The next morning was the big day! Gilbert, the son of our hosts, had driven with his partner, Darren, to our viewing spot at 3:00 a.m. After setting up a picnic table, Gilbert left Darren at the roadside while he came back to the vineyard. My husband and I were the only B&B guests taking part in this adventure, so Gilbert picked us up at 8:00 a.m., fresh croissants and pains au chocolat provided as we drove to Limoux, where that day’s stage was beginning.
We opted to be dropped off at the edge of Limoux so that we could see the festivities within this lovely little town. It was a Sunday morning, and except for a couple of bars, all establishments were closed. Most roads were, as well. The community was consumed by this event! The local bureau de tourism, however, was open and was hopping. We were given a map of the town with the départ (start of the race) and the route out of town highlighted by hand.
When we arrived at the départ, there was a large stage set up with an emcee getting the crowd warmed up. There were activities for the children. There were representatives from various race sponsors throwing candy, key chains, and coupons to the crowds. I was no match for the children who raced to retrieve these treasures from the ground!
We walked out of town on a silent, tree-lined road. We appreciated the shade on this warm morning, and with the road closed to car traffic we had the walk to ourselves. The spot Gilbert had chosen for us was three kilometers out of town, and while walking, the famous Caravane du Tour began driving by. This caravan is much like a parade, featuring floats from the many tour sponsors. As they drove past us, we were showered with more swag, similar to what was being offered at the départ: candy, laundry soap, a deck of cards, hats, magnets, sausages. Free souvenirs!
When we reached our spot on the route, Gilbert and Darren were waiting for us with beer and wine….at 10:00 a.m. We turned down these libations, but gratefully accepted water and fruit. As we waited for the Tour to begin at 12:05, we munched on melon, potato salad and chips. The plan had been to have some barbecued ribs and chicken. However, when Gilbert removed his grill from the van, the nearby gendarme gave him a very clear “non!” Other years, Gilbert had fed the police and officials in his area with his food. This time, it was not meant to be. We enjoyed our meatless lunch nonetheless.
Near noon the excitement began. Motorcycles came by, followed by more than one hundred cars. Some were carrying Tour officials; most seemed to belong to the eight cycling teams, with bikes being carried on their roofs. Finally, here they came, around the bend: the peloton of the Tour de France was approaching! Because we were near the start of the race, no one had left the pack yet. Although I’ve seen this race on television many, many times, it was a breathtaking work of art seeing this group of approximately 160 riders in close formation. There was an eerie whirr of their collective wheels as they moved as one around the bend.
And then it was over. The riders flew by, and I was left wanting more as they zipped past us. We sat down at our picnic table and enjoyed more snacks, visited in French with the folks at the neighboring table (whose local patois made conversation difficult), and waited until our not-so-friendly gendarme told us we could leave, about an hour later. Perhaps another year we’ll enjoy this experience again, and if we’re lucky we’ll be in the area of a gendarme who enjoys a good barbecue!
Merci beaucoup, Joni Sutton, for sharing your bucket-list adventure with us!