My story starts on the morning of June 21st. I was riding the New York City subway when all of a sudden, my iPhone chimed with an e-mail. It’s rare enough to get service in the subway, but even rarer that you’re notified of something important! The e-mail tells me I’ve won a trip to Le Tour from ProBikeKit.com and lays out an extravagant itinerary that includes multiple champagne toasts, meetings with team Radioshack Nissan Trek (RSNT), and 5-star accommodations in Francorchamps, Belgium. After debating the legitimacy of the e-mail with my fiancée, I replied to Andrew at ProBikeKit asking if he’s pulling my leg. His response was “you’ve definitely won, no leg pulling at all!”. And just like that, I found myself in the office searching for flights to Heathrow with a 0% chance of getting any work done that day.
Fast forward to Friday, June 29th. I’ve flown to Heathrow, transferred to my flight to Belgium, and landed in Brussels. Immediately after passing through customs, I’m met by the cheeriest bloke I’ve ever met – Dave Everett (@batboyslim on twitter) from ProBikeKit – and 3 Swedish clothing gurus from Craft – Esa, Patrick, and Daniel. After some short discussion, Dave and I hopped in his old UK model (read: wheel is on the wrong side) Citroen Station wagon called “the fun bus” and cruised through the Belgian countryside to Francorchamps to check in to Hotêl de la Source.
That drive was easily the most frightening car ride I’ve ever been on because I was on the driver’s side without a wheel or brakes to use. As we arrived at the Hotel, the RSNT mechanics and team crew were prepping cars, bikes, and busses for the following morning’s prologue.
The Bikes were really a sight to see. All of the names you know were on them – Fränk, Jens, Andreas, Fabian, etc. It was incredible to be so close to the bikes that would be competing in less than 24 hours. While we were examining the bikes, we were introduced to the new Madone and Domane from Trek. 2 entirely new models that had just been released mere days prior to our arrival. The new Madone has a rear brake system that are really something to behold. Fabian plans to ride the Domane on every road stage this year because he found it so comfortable to ride. The Speed Concepts were being prepped for the prologue.
After seeing the bikes, Dave and I went into the Hotel for drinks and some dinner. While sitting near the bar getting drinks, 2 men came over to us and said hello. In a comical german accent I hear one of them say “We were waiting for you over there, but no one was coming over to us, so we decided to come talk to you!”. I immediately recognized the voice as Jens Voigt. After my initial astonishment that my idol was standing there talking to me, I realized that the man with him was none other than Fabian Cancellara. That’s when my jaw really hit the floor. After some pictures, we got to talking. Dave did some interviews, Jens sent a video message to my friend Joe, and we talked with Fabian about how he was feeling – he said he felt better than ever by the way. Knowing how he fared the first week, I’d say he told us the absolute truth! Fränk and Johan Bruyneel talked to us as well. We sat down to dinner at our table – I don’t remember what we ate, but it was delicious – near the RSNT riders for their dinner. Their team Chef had prepared a great meal for them prior to race day.
After dinner we were given a tour of the bus. The team’s gear was all laid out meticulously by their driver. Between the Bus and the Mechanic’s vehicle, there are 2 washers and dryers, a full size refrigerator, 2 showers, a relaxation room, and much, much more. At this point, I had essentially been awake for 26 hours so I told the boys I’d see them in the morning for a run at 8:00.
Part 2: Prologue – Liege – Liege
I barely slept my first night in Liege. I had been completely wowed by everything the day before and was far too amped to fall asleep. Needless to say, after finally falling asleep at 3am, I woke up late for our 8:00 run and stumbled into the lobby at 8:15. The guys had left already (who could blame them?) so I went out on my own for a leisurely run around the Spa F1 track in Francorchamps right outside the hotel. When I got back, the boys were sitting for breakfast so I joined them and wolfed down some delicious breakfast (somehow without belgian waffles!) and we got ready to get on the bus to head out to Liege for the start of the Prologue. The bus ride was long – we got pulled over once for driving on the shoulder because of traffic – but we eventually arrived in Liege, and the fun really started.
When we walked in to the “tent” (known as Espace Maillot Jaune) we were greeted with Champagne (The real stuff! We were at the Tour de France after all…) for toasting. As a side note, I don’t think I’ve ever toasted so many times in one weekend. All the VIPs and Sponsors were there with us – Radioshack, Nissan, Trek, Nike, Craft, etc. We were given a stellar meal and open bar – my french was/is poor so I was utilizing my German to order more beers… Ein Carlsberg Bitte!
But then, the racing started. We had a TV in the tent to watch the parts we couldn’t see from there, but I really preferred being out on the street cheering for the riders as they raced by at what seemed like 40mph. The big disadvantage of this was that you miss things like Phillipe Gilbert’s bobble around the traffic circle, Tony Martin’s wreck, and any of the standings (unless you understood the french announcer broadcasting everything to the crowd). The up-side was that you were literally inches from these incredible men as they flew by. One thing that made me laugh was that a lot of the riders don’t ride with radios or have their coaches talk to them at all. Other riders have a bullhorn mounted on the car and have their coach/DS going absolutely mental over the loudspeaker. One rider even had his team car tailgate him and lay on the horn for the last 1Km.
After a few hours of watching riders rip through, it was finally time for the big names. Wiggins, Sanchez, Voeckler, Cancellara, and Evans were all towards the end. The crowds at the boards grew and grew, and with each rider (especially the belgians) the crowds got louder and louder. Since the course was only 6k, you could hear if a popular rider was out on course almost the whole way around. When Fabian went off, the place was electric. When he came through, you could just tell, he was the fastest and he knew it.
It was time to celebrate. Fabian would be in yellow for the foreseeable future. We headed over to the team bus to toast again and meet up with the team and see Fabian in his new golden fleece. We waited amongst the huge crowds who were all there to see the man in Yellow. After what seemed like almost an hour, although I’m sure it was less than that, Fabian arrived, shook up a bottle of Champagne, and sprayed it over his team and the crowd. Then, he did some interviews. We got to hang out with Joe V. from Trek and talk to him about the new bikes some more. Dave posted a video of it on his youtube channel that’s worth checking out. Once all of the press was done, everyone returned to their busses and we drove back to the hotel for dinner and rest.
At dinner, the riders treated themselves to a glass of wine for a job well done on the stage. As we ate another 5-star meal everyone was wondering “so do they paint one of the bikes yellow for Fabian for tomorrow?” or maybe “do they put a yellow sticker on Fabian’s Bike?”. It turns out we were all wrong. To quote Joe V from Trek – “there are airplanes that fly all over the world for a price”. After we ate, we saw what he meant, outside in the parking lot. The team mechanic was unboxing and assembling Cancellara’s brand new Yellow Domane for the next day’s race. Tomorrow’s Jersey, bike, helmet, pedal cleats, and SRM computer would be “jaune”.
Part 3: Stage 1 – Liege – Seraing
The 2nd day started out much like the first; I woke up too late to go for a run, although this time I didn’t go ahead and run on my own. We ate breakfast next to the team in the hotel restaurant. One really cool thing about being so close to the athletes was that they were really genuinely nice people. They weren’t obligated to say hi to us in the mornings, but as they passed our table, most of them did. It’s not often that you can say Jens Voigt said good morning to you before he left for his race. After breakfast we went out to see the crew working on the finishing touches on all of the bikes. Fabian’s was now fully assembled.
We hopped in our cars and headed back to Liege. This time, we had tickets to the VIP village. Free food, cycling celebrities, and people in ridiculous costumes were there in abundance. Dave and I mingled with 2 Tour winners named Bernard (Thévenet and Hinault) as well as numerous other greats while we munched on delicious belgian waffles and fruit and sandwiches. We got a bunch of little freebies from LCL, Carrefour, and PMR (the sponsors of the colored jerseys).
After thoroughly exploring the VIP area, we took off for the Team bus where we were going to see the riders head off to the starting line. All of the busses park near each other, so we were granted unprecedented access to all of the teams before their start for the day. It was particularly cool to meet Erik Zabel who was hanging out outside of the Katusha bus. Along with getting to see all of the riders and their bikes, we got to see all of the team cars, of which, SKY’s are the coolest (sorry RSNT! I’m a sucker for a nice Jaguar!)
The most surprising part of the whole trip was probably that the start of these races is really kind of boring. I expected there to be more fanfare, and perhaps even some racing off the line. Apparently they don’t actually start racing for a few minutes, and the start is really just some cars driving past the start line followed by the riders at a very slow pace. Still, it was really cool to see it. After we watched the last riders go by, we hopped back in our cars to head off to Seraing to watch the race and see the finish in person.Eventually we arrived at the RSNT bus and watched the riders get their bikes ready for the stage. The crowd around the RSNT bus was by far the largest as everyone waited to see Fabian get on his new yellow bike and ride off to the start. They were the last team to get off the bus and get ready. Maxime Monfort, a belgian, was extremely popular with the crowd, but when Cancellara came out, everyone went nuts. And then, as quickly as they all appeared from the bus, they rode off to the start without saying much!
In Seraing, we had tickets to a VIP section about 50m from the finish line – perfect seats for an uphill sprint finish like we had. We hunkered down and grabbed a few beers to watch the stage on TV until the Publicity Caravan came through. For those that don’t know, about an hour ahead of the riders, a parade of advertisements goes through the race course with people waving and throwing out candy and freebies to the crowd. It’s really quite the spectacle.
After the parade though, everyone was intently watching the race on the screens. There was a bad crash in the peloton, but eventually they pulled back the breakaway. At the bottom of the climb to the finish, Fabian attacked. Since we were there with all of the RSNT people, our group was going absolutely mental. Fabian was trying to shake a group of 2 riders (Sagan was one of them) but neither would fall of his wheel. We had a great view of the finish, but I didn’t get any pictures of the racers going through – I was too excited. Eventually, Sagan attacked Cancellara and was too strong. Cancellara couldn’t hold him off and took 2nd and Boasson Hagen took third. It was a really exciting finish to see.
This ended up being truly the greatest trip of my life. I owe a HUGE thanks to ProBikeKit.com and Dave Everett for hosting the contest and the trip. It is a dream fulfilled, and now something I plan on doing again. Thanks also to Craft.se and team Radioshack Nissan Trek for putting everything together! You can view ALL of my pictures here.
Original text by Carlos Perea.