A Day With Le Tour De France

As a Canadian from Ottawa and an IBMer living in Paris, France, I sometimes get these rare moments to participate in phenomenal events due to IBM's global partnerships and relationships. Earlier this year I had the privilege to follow the Paris Marathon in a VIP car and watch the elite runners finish the race in the VIP section. It was a real privilege. All this thanks to Schneider Electric who is the primary sponsor of the Paris Marathon and a huge IBM partner. Through this event I forged a strong relationship with the overall IBM partner managing director, Tony Despirito. To my surprise a few weeks after the Paris marathon I got an email from Tony inviting me to ride a stage of the Tour and watch the stage sprint in the VIP finish line area. Of course, I had to say yes and I responded within minutes.

As Schneider is the main sponsor of the Paris Marathon, an event owned by ASO, the company that puts on Le Tour, Schneider Electric gets the ability to invite a few key partners to a VIP weekend at Le Tour.

Having not cycled in almost two years I got a little nervous as the details were still fuzzy and I didn't know if we would do the full stage or just part of the stage… Having focused solely on running the past two years I still felt fit but knew I had to find my riding legs again. Having ridden so much in my life I really wasn't worried. But with my job and family commitments I only managed to ride a few times prior to the event, about 350km.

Tony flew in the from USA and we met at the Gare de Lyon where we took the TGV to Valence, the finishing village for the Stage 15 finish. We arrived Saturday, July 18 to a very quiet village... there were hardly any signs of Le Tour. A few villagers were setting up for the party that was to happen on Sunday but there was hardly a hint of any event at the finish line. 

Later that evening the rest of the group arrived at the hotel as did the ASO event hosts where they handed out and adjusted bikes (nice Trek Madone 5.2 with Ultegra), helmets, jerseys. They wanted us all in yellow for the ride. All we had to do was provide our pedals, shoes and the rest of our cycling gear.

We were officially welcomed later that evening by the ASO hosts and by former pro rider Jimmy Casper, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Casper I introduced myself to Jimmy and told him a short story of how ten years ago my wife and I had been sitting in a cafe in Limoges, France and saw Jimmy and two other pros arrive and sit at the table next to us to have coffees. I didn't say anything to him back then as I didn't want to bother him. But now I had my chance to speak with him. He was blown away that a Canadian recognized him and that anyone outside of France knew him. I told him I distinctly remembered his three days riding the Tour with a neck brace. He told the story of how he had to quit after those three days as he was so fatigued and in still in a lot of pain. It was great to meet him. And he ended up being the special host for the weekend as well.

Here is a photo of Jimmy and me.

After the reception and the presentation of the stage and itinerary we sat down to a gourmet French meal that ensured everyone was well fed for the stage on Sunday.

On Sunday morning they packed us into a bus and drove us to the start of our half stage ride. We were to start in Chauliac, about 66KM from the Stage 15 finish line. The ride started with a 12 km climb of the Col de L'Escrinet, a 2nd category climb with an average grade of 5.8% and an altitude of 787M. From the top of the climb it would be downhill until the Rhone River and then relatively flat until the finish.

The ride up the col was unlike any climb I've done before. There were fans, campers, tenters, kids, grandparents, rowdy and drunk partiers lining the roads. With every pedal stroke I got cheers of support, air horns, clapping, offers of beer and many jokes about being in yellow! With my 6ft frame and 147lbs I am pretty lean. People called me Froome…. "Allez Froome, Allez!"

We had a lead car with full ASO/Le Tour official status and stickers drive in front of us and a sag wagon with extra bikes, wheels, tools etc. Jimmy Casper drove one of the lead cars. At one point he asked me to slow down on the climb and wait for the group. A few minutes later Tony caught up and we had  wonderful ride together to the top. Once at the top, we waited for everyone to regroup but mostly enjoyed the party atmosphere. Here is a photo of a huge climbing points fan with Tony.

So much fun to see the buzz!

Here is a photo from the top of the climb… France has so many beautiful landscapes.

Once we regrouped we descended for about 30km through villages all decked out for the Tour. Every village erupts into a festival when Le Tour comes through.

I found the descent hard as most of the guys descended much faster than me. I had to work hard just to stay on their wheels.

By the time we made it to the Rhone for the final 20-25km into Valence we were all suffering a bit from the heat. It was around 35C by then. But riding felt better than standing around. With a little tail wind we managed to ride the final section at a respectable 35km/hr pace. Once we arrived at Valence we were asked to wait a while for everyone to regroup. We found what little shade we could, drank more water and finally regrouped to ride to the finish line. We all rode to the Flamme Rouge, ensured we were together and then rode the final kilometre to the finish.

What had been an empty parking lot the day before had transformed itself into a finish line city overnight. There were hundreds of structures, kilometres of barriers, signs, huge TVs mounted showing live coverage of the stage, TV studios and thousands of fans. A very special moment!

Once over the finish line we got photos of the whole group up on the podium. We then rode 10km back to our hotels, showered, ate and rushed back to the finish line VIP section to watch the final sprint.

The finish line area was a who's who of cycling. I saw Greg Lemond, Laurent Jalabert, Jens Voigt, Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwin, Raymond Poulidor, and other familiar looking faces. Here is a photo of Jens and me.

Jens was so charming and so funny. Tony convinced Jens to say "hey ladies do you want to ride or do you just want to chat?" on video. Jens is so funny and a fantastic ambassador for the sport.

After the race we couldn't stay at our hotel as Tinkoff-Saxo had taking over the entire hotel so we ended up at the Mercure on the north side of the city where Team Europcar and Lotto were staying. Much to our luck Andrei Greipel won the stage that day and the hotel lobby was buzzing with media. We walked into our hotel to check in just as Andrei walked in to cheers from the team staff and the media.

Here is a view from my hotel room.

Sunday evening we were all pretty exhausted and hungry so we ate at the hotel and enjoyed a good dinner. Monday morning we woke up early and made our way to the TGV. By 10am I was back in Paris and at work running sales reviews.

Thanks Schneider Electric and Tony for this great weekend. I felt like a kid the whole weekend.

Here is a link to the "66.6 kilometres" ride on Strava.


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