Pavé

La Chaussee-sur-Marne, France

Today we did something we’ve never done before and we may never do again: pavé. Well, Steve might do it again, but then he’s the athlete in the family. Pavé are the old cobblestone roads that you find in the north of France and the south of Belgium. They are a legendary part of cycling’s Spring Classic races and they are very difficult to ride.

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Steve on the Arenberg pave

We started the day on a ride that followed the actual Tour de France route about four hours before the peloton passed. Today’s stage had seven pavé sectors and we had the “opportunity” to ride three of them. I made it through about the first 20 yards on my bike and walked the rest of the way. Steve powered through all of them, along with the full 40 mile ride.

Riding pavé is like holding on to a jackhammer while you are trying to stay upright on a bike, while your teeth are rattling out of your mouth and your eyeballs are shaking out of their sockets. The roads are not level and it is hard to find a good path that allows you to move forward. For the Tour riders, they do this at speeds of about 25 miles per hour, in a group as large as 190 riders, while crowds of spectators are screaming at them from both sides. There’s nothing else like it in the world. The Tour de France does not always have pavé sections but this year it is a highlight of the route. It broke the peloton apart, riders went down, lost tires, and came out of it very dirty.

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Arenburg pave

The finish line was located right next to the entrance to the Arenberg forest, which begins with one of the most legendary sections of pave. You can see how excited Steve was to actually see this section of “road” even though we weren’t able to ride on it. Maybe next time?

After our ride we drove through the finish line, parked, and were escorted into the Izoard, or VIP area, where we were offered drinks, snacks, and then champagne once the race was over. This exclusive area is less than 100 meters from the finish line and was located right next to a large jumbotron-type television, which allowed us to watch the race progress.

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Craziness at the finish (from the bus)

It was quite a day. The photos might give you some idea of how close we were to the action.

We are now traveling by bus into France to our next hotel and the next stage of the Tour, which is through the champagne region. We have just two days left of our adventure and it’s going so fast!

Six of our group left us this afternoon and six more will join us this evening for the next phase of the trip. It’s been a great group with very supportive people, even though our riding abilities vary greatly. We have a professional bike racer from Greece, a triathlon coach from Australia, and an exercise physiologist from the USA among our “Team Custom Getaways.” That’s what we love most about these kinds of trips: the diverse group of people you get to know.

The Netherlands are in the World Cup finals. Steve gets to wear his orange jersey again on Sunday!

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Village Depart

Gembloux, Belgium

Today’s highlight was VIP access to the start village of the Tour de France. We traveled back to Brussels, received our special wrist bands and were escorted into the controlled area where the riders and teams warm up and sign in. Of course we focused on the Radioshack team, hoping to score an autograph or at least a glimpse of Lance Armstrong. We did even better than that! Lance signed my Livestrong hat, and Steve patted him on the back as he was heading for the start line.

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Lance and the media before the day’s race

It’s hard to describe what it is like at the start–chaos is probably the most accurate term. We were fighting with hordes of press to get close to the riders for a photo. Dignitaries from all walks of life are wandering around, some with body guards, all making contact with their favorites. Today we saw the US Ambassador to Belgium. Eddy Mercxx, the legendary cyclist, also greeted Lance and we got their picture together. Others in our group saw Ben Stiller, the actor, and got the autograph of a few other famous cyclists including Bernard Hinault.

The start was staged in front of the Grand Palais, which is where the King of Belgium lives. I guess it’s the equivalent to the White House in the US. It’s a massive old building, which you can see in the photos.

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Steve at the Belgian palace

Brussels is also filled with other historic buildings and monuments. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to see much. Today was all about the race and that was fine with us!

This afternoon most of the group did a 55km ride but I decided to take the day off and watch the end of the race on TV. It’s been raining off and on since noon, and the ride today is going over pave, which is old cobblestones. When those suckers get wet, it’s even harder to ride. Steve is all over it!!

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Steve getting ready to ride

Tomorrow’s ride will also has pave and it’s expected to be a REALLY challenging day for both our group and the Tour de France peloton.

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Crossing the Finish Line

Gembloux, Belgium

Well, we had another awesome day on the Tour de France. The actual race got underway for real today with stage one: Rotterdam to Brussels. We left Antwerp on bike, wearing our Custom Getaways “kits.” For you non-cyclists, a kit is the outfit bikers wear. We have jerseys and shorts that show our group name, as well as other sponsors. You’ll see the outfits in the pictures below.

Our group of twelve riders wove through the streets of Antwerp until we eventually arrived on the actual closed part of the course. The actual Tour peloton was behind us by about two hours but the tailgate-like parties were well underway all along the course. It was an amazing feeling to ride along cobbled roads, through cities like Mechelen and Edegem, with the old churches and landmarks all around us.

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The bikers

We were scheduled to cross the actual finish line in Brussels at 2:30, and because we had some detours in Antwerp, we were running behind schedule. Those of us who are slower riders were going to have a hard time making it on time, so three of us jumped into our van and were shuttled along the closed course via car while following the fastest riders. With 1km to go, we all joined together again on bike and crossed the finish line with crowds cheering all along the way. After podium photos we changed out of our cycling garb and into street clothes.

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On the podium

Today we had access and a tour of the “technical” area of the Tour de France. This means that we went behind the scenes and saw where the crews who produce the event work and live during the three week race. We also got up close and personal with the media area and we were able to walk right up to the sets and equipment that bring the Tour to over 100 countries across the globe. Broadcasters from China to Columbia and from the USA to Serbia were set up in this area.

From there we were escorted to the rail of the course, right at the finish line. Today’s race was a sprint finish because it was flat and straight for the last kilometer.

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Final sprint

After 223.5km the race came down to a sprint. And, because the final approach had some tricky turns coming into the final stretch, there were several crashes that took some riders down. Because of that, the entire peloton received the same time, which means the overall results (called the General Classification or GC) remained the same. Fabian Cancellara, my favorite, is still in yellow and Lance Armstrong is still in 4th place.

Because we had such special access we were able to take some very close up photos of the winners while they were giving press interviews following the race. See just how close in the photos of the yellow jersey, Fabian Cancellara, below.

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Fabian in yellow!

From there we had just a short walk to our bus and a 45 minute drive to our new hotel in Gembloux, which is just south of Brussels. Tomorrow should be another fun day, with access to the Start Village and another ride. Today Steve rode about 38 miles, while I did about 28 before jumping in the van. We’ll see what tomorrow brings!

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