So You’re On A Mountain For The Tour, Then What?

Gendarmes are the French Police.  Unless you actually have to work tracking down hooligans who throw tacks down on the route of the Tour de France, this might just be the best job in the entire force.  Can you imagine getting paid to ride a motorcycle up and down empty mountain roads all over France?  Not too shabby.

After the hike up, people spray paint cyclist’s names on the pavement, picnic and hydrate (and perhaps search for a place to pee).

Then, you wait for the caravan to pass through and wait again.  Since the waiting gives you time to enjoy incredible natural beauty and talk with other cycling enthusiasts, it is actually a lot of fun.   Soon, the helicopters will stream over the horizon like in the movie “Apocalypse Now.”  We hiked up to the mountain to a beautiful spot with a great few of both the mountains and the road leading up it.  We weren’t the only ones who liked the view.

With their giant lenses, they were able to get much better shots of Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky streaming up the mountain.

Normally, the first thing you see roadside is a breakaway group of riders.  They are usually accompanied by police and cameramen (who you can see in the back).  Usually, they follow one another.  Having a rider in front of you reduces the wind resistance allows them to expend less energy.  This gives the peleton incredible power if and when they choose to exert it.

This is how they get pictures for TV.  By the way the US commentators are better than the French ones.  Understandably, French commentators are biased toward French riders.  It’s not that.  They are much less interesting and I learn a lot less from them.  They don’t seem to show much of a sense of humor either.  Thankfully, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen do the British coverage we get here in Switzerland, but I miss Bob Roll.

Eventually, the last of the team cars go by and the helicopters move on.  After than, there isn’t much left to do except descend the mountain and watch the stage you just DVR’ed.

Just in case you didn’t know, I’m famous.  It is clearly me there on TV with the Detroit Red Wings jersey.

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How To Get On A Mountain For The Tour De France

Today, the Tour de France‘s cyclists are riding the ‘Circle of Death’, a linkage of four brutal climbs.  Tomorrow’s stage finishes atop the 1,615 meter (5,300 feet) mountain, Peyraguedes.  They’re in the mountains baby!

When choosing a mountain stage, remember these golden rules:

  • The steeper the grade the slower they go (providing you with better viewing).
  • The later in the stage, the more spread out the riders.  This means that instead of seeing them in an enormous group, you will see them in smaller groups and be able to pick out specific riders.
  • A mountaintop finish is the ultimate.  Who doesn’t want to see the end of a stage?

Seeing the Tour de France from a mountain was on my bucket list.  I like logistics problems, but getting there can turn into a very advanced one pretty quickly.

The easiest way to get a front row seat at a great spot on a mountain is to do a bike tour.  Be prepared to bike up the mountain.  If you can handle that, it’s pretty darn good.  You’ll have a front row seat at a good spot with a TV (key to knowing what is happening in the tour).  Plus these guys had support an a nice spread laid out for them on the mountain.

Actually, now that I think about it, there is an easier way to get on a mountain.  The easiest way is to have a bunch of money and/or in with a sponsor.  Although you might not be able to get in one with bikes, we saw tons of VIP’s in team cars.

If you want to drive yourself up there, you might just be able to do it if you get up and on the mountains before the road closes (less possible the larger the mountain).  Getting there the night before and camping is a good option.  Loads of people follow the tour with caravans.  The larger the mountain (Col de la Madeleine, Col d’Ausbisque, Col du TourmaletAlpe d’HuezMont VentouxCol du GalibierPort de PailhèresCol de la ColombièreCol des Aravis, etc.), the earlier they arrive.  For large stages, they will arrive up to a week before hand (Europeans tend to have more vacation than Americans), and there won’t be any space left a couple of days beforehand.

Others drive up in cars or vans and pitch tents.  We met people who camped out, but I can’t imagine that sleeping in this van was very comfortable.  On the other hand, those guys were full of pep and didn’t seem worse for the wear.

Still others bike up.  These guys looked like they were having a great time.  Boris and Natasha liked this option because it allows you to see the mountaintop, get some exercise and still sleep in a hotel.

The police had already closed the roads when we arrived at Col de la Madeline. Apparently, police decide to close the road whenever they feel there are enough people up there.   Forced to leave our car at the bottom, we hiked up…9 miles.  We didn’t have much of a choice, but knew we would have to go it on foot at some point.  It’s probably just as well.  On our hike up, we didn’t see many places to park (or even stand) on the side of the road.  As you can tell from our trip though the largest town we passed, the mountain is a little steep and even the roads of this metropolis are narrow.

The only problem with hiking 9 miles up is that what goes up, must go down.  Once the tour passes through, there is a  mass exodus.   It took us about 2 hours to get down.  One hour into it, the tour had gone over the top of the mountain and they opened the roads to vehicles.  This meant that in addition to dodging bikers racing downhill, we started dodging cars and caravans too.  At least we didn’t have to worry about avalanches at this time of the year.

We made it down in one piece and I love the Tour more now than ever before.  Epic mountain.  Epic day.

Checking One Off The Bucket List – On A Mountain At The Tour De France

I have said it before and I’ll say it again.  I love the Tour de France.  Being the dork that I am, I have watched every stage of the Tour for virtually the past decade.   How have I accomplished this feat?  I get the TV to watch the Tour in July.  The rest of the year, I give him the TV the rest of the year to watch all the football, basketball and hockey he wants.  It’s a fair trade.  Watching it on TV, I always dreamed of seeing it live.  Guess what?  It finally happened. On Wednesday and Thursday, I was on mountains in France in a Detroit Red Wings jersey, getting sunburned, and taking in the spectacle.

Watching the tour on TV, you can’t fully appreciate the beauty of the mountains the colors, the helicopters, and the excitement.  You can’t meet the other fans.  They are delightful and quite friendly.  I don’t know of many places where you can meet so many people from other countries in such a congenial environment.  The excitement was contagious and everyone made the most of it.

On the way up Col de la Madeleine, we stopped and bought this wonderful hunk of local cheese out of someone’s barn for our picnic.  Because you have to get on the mountain early before they close the roads, people picnic, eat, drink and are merry.  Everyone was having a good time.

True fans of bicycle racing appreciate seeing these guys and go to great lengths to do it.  My guests (Boris, Natasha and Mr. Peabody) hiked with me 18 miles up and down a mountain to see the stage on the Col de la Madeleine.   Others, biked up to the peak and back down.  Some people camp out on the mountain days ahead of the stage to get a good spot.  The rich and lucky get to ride in the cars (although I can’t imagine the view of the cyclists is that good) or get shuttled to a viewing area with a TV at the top.

Even the trip from one stage to another was exciting for us cycling fans.  We saw NBC Sports cars racing down the highway to Albertville.  Although we had no idea who was inside (NBC Sports probably pays their speeding tickets), since we couldn’t catch them. We’re swearing that it was Bob Roll (who doesn’t love Bobke) in one with Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett in the other.

It was just amazing to think that caravans travel from distant countries to experience the Tour.  Observers spray paint the name of a relatively unknown cyclist from their region on the pavement.  Some guy from a village in the Netherlands who drove a thousand miles and spray painted his countryman’s name on the mountain.  He’ll be lucky to finish in 45th place.

We have done the All-Start NASCAR race.  While there is huge excitement and the fans are devoted, you have a drunken, often belligerent atmosphere.  The most intoxicated people we met were some nationality censored who offered us beverages, told us some great stories and played us some great music.  Rock on.

We saw last year’s winner Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggens in the yellow jersey surrounded by team Sky.  We saw all of our favorite American riders: Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer, big George Hincapie, the hilarious Dave Zabriskie, Tyler Farrar, Christian Vande Velde, and the awesome Tejay Van Garderen (who should be BMC’s GC rider).  I even got to see some of my favorites: Frank Schleck and Fabian Cancellara.   Even going uphill, they whipped by us at amazing speeds.  I was still able to see enough to tell you ladies that Spartacus (aka Fabian Cancellara) is just as handsome in person.

Les Incompetents Vol. 11: Our First Trip To The Hospital

From Doe Cooks Stag, who undoubtedly got it from Saturday Night Live and NBC

This morning, I cut the dickens out of my finger while making breakfast.  After applying pressure I lifted the towel to see how bad it looked, blood started gushing out.   I went into the bedroom where he was still sleeping and said “you need to get up because I think I need to go get stitches.”  He jumped out of bed with a look of extreme panic and fear.  Poor guy.  If I ever doubt how much he cares for me or my importance to him, remind me of that look.

Remember the old Saturday Night Live sketch where Dan Aykroyd parodies Julia Child continuing to cook while bleeding profusely from a cut on his hand.  Picture that instead off me posting disgusting pictures of my mangled paw.  To watch the hilarious clip, click here.

I had him take a look at my finger to see if I needed to go to the hospital.  He took one look and said yes.   I snuck a quick glance and almost fainted, literally.  I don’t like blood and I immediately sat down to avoid hitting it when I passed out.

After lying down on the floor for a bit, we walked to the tram with a towel tourniquet and my hand over my head.  We went to a nearby hospital.  They were great and couldn’t have been nicer.  They had me in and out (and in possession of all 10 digits) quickly.  The Swiss healthcare system is fantastic (our friend wrote about having surgery here if you’re curious).

Just like George Costanza in Seinfeld, my career as a hand model is over (check out a clip here).   I should walk around with oven mitts.

  • The E.T. point from E.T. The Extraterrestrial
  • You can pick your friends an you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.  Well, it least you can’t with such a large bandage.
  • “It’s just a flesh wound” à la Monty Python
  • “Nobody makes me bleed my own blood” from Dodgeball
  • He’s now calling me Captain Hook.

Sad, I know, but I took a painkiller so I’m giggling.

Captain Hook

Captain Hook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How To Explain March Madness To A Foreigner

U.S. President Barack Obama picks his winners ...

U.S. President Barack Obama picks his winners for the 2009 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We moved from North Carolina, where the start of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is practically a public holiday, to Geneva, which doesn’t even have a European league (or any other quasi-professional team).  While some of our friends are American, most are not.  Some friends may know that something called the “Super Bowl” exists.  Heck, they may even know a bit about it.  However, even basketball fans over here don’t know about March Madness.  We have found it is surprisingly difficult to explain to a foreigner the frenzy that overtakes America, why it’s such a big deal and how the NCAA Tournament works.
Basketball

Basketball (Photo credit: mvongrue)

 

March Madness is a basketball tournament for college teams put on by the National College Athletic Association (NCAA).  If you try to read up on it, know that it is also called “The Tournament,” “The Big Dance,” “The Road to the Final Four,” and even “The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.”  While it seems basic, trust me when I say that using such lingo will trip up a non-native English speaker who hasn’t lived in the US.

 

The fun starts the week before the tournament when college basketball conferences play their tournaments to determine a champion.  The winner of each conference championship tournament automatically gains entry to the NCAA tournament (“get their ticket/invitation to the dance” is slang used to describe this).  This means that a team with a poor record who wouldn’t normally “get an invitation to the dance” can make it into the tournament by winning their league’s tournament.  This is a huge opportunity for some teams.  Almost every year, you see a team break down crying after winning their league’s tournament because that win just earned them a chance to compete in March Madness.

 

The “Madness” starts after the last league championship game when the teams that will compete in the tournament are announced.  This always occurs on a Sunday evening in early March.  This day is known as “Selection Sunday”.   American TV will show teams huddled together in front of a TV waiting to hear their name announced as an entrant.  The TV cameras show the teams cheering, hugging each other, dancing, or even breaking into song.

 

The winners of their respective conferences automatically make it into the tournament.   A selection committee composed of select university athletic directors and conference commissioners choses the other entrants.  They use criteria like the team’s record, the number of wins against ranked opponents, the number of wins on the road and the team’s ranking in determining which teams to invite.  There is always controversy over teams people believe should have been invited or left out.  Regardless, once they announce the Tournament entrants, things really get crazy.

 

 

To understand this madness, you need to understand how the tournament works.  Originally, 64 teams received invitations to the tournament.  4 seeded regions are divided into groups of 16 teams each.  In each region, teams are assigned a “seed” number 1 through 16 based on their perceived skills.  The best team in each region is awarded the 1 seed and the weakest, the number 16.  In each bracket, the number 1 team plays the number 16 team, the number 2 team plays the number 15 team, and so on.  It is a single elimination tournament, so a single loss means you are out (unlike the World Cup).  Each round cuts the number of teams in half (64 to 32 to 16 to 8 to 4 to 2).  A win means advancing to the next round, a loss means crying and a trip home.

 

Each of the more advanced stages of the tournament has its own nickname.  The second round of the tournament is known as the Sweet Sixteen.  The next stage, with 8 remaining teams, is known as the Elite Eight.  The following games, where only 4 teams remain, is known as the Final Four.   The Tournament’s last game is known as “the final” or “the finals”.

 

Immediately flowing Selection Sunday’s announcement of the Tournament’s teams, papers and the internet publish the brackets.   Almost as instantaneously, the gambling begins.  The NCAA is proud that their athletes are “ametuers” and likes to tout it, but they (and the universities involved) make a lot of money off the tournament’s popularity.  As a result, they do little to discourage it.   Just about every office has a pool (or several).  Families have pools.  Friends have pools.  It’s not unusual for people to enter multiple pools.  Although there is a large about of informal gambling among friends, Vegas and professional gamblers really go nuts.  There, you can bet on almost any aspect of the tournament.   People pack Vegas’s sports betting parlors of Vegas casinos to watch the games on giant screens (and gamble).

 

It is extremely difficult to predict each game’s winners in such a large, single elimination tournament.  Usually the winner of a pool correctly picks the final four teams.  It helps to correctly pick most of the winners at the Sweet Sixteen level as well.  Here’s another vocabulary term for you non-American English speakers, the science or art of picking the winning teams (in a bracket) is known as Bracketology.

 

 

In theory, a number 16 seed can win the tournament.  In reality, it has never happened.  While the 1 and 2 seeds typically survive into to least the third round, half of the number 3 seeds are typically eliminated in the second round.  Inevitably a low seeded team (or two) will, unexpectedly, advance a few rounds.  When this happens, they are known as Cinderella’s (like the fairy tale).  Cinderella’s rarely make it to the final games, but they garner tons of attention and support as Americans love to root for an underdog. 

 

The Tournament begins in earnest on Thursday.  In recent years, to include more teams, the NCAA introduced play-in games.  In these games, two teams play for to be a 16 seed.  These games take place on Tuesday and Wednesday before the regular tournament.

 

 

Starting at 12:00 on Thursday, everyone is glued to the nearest television.  On Thursday and Friday,  teams play all the first round games.  This means that there are 32 (mostly) outstanding basketball games in 36 hours.  People gather to watch them and coverages switches from game to game televising the most exciting games.

 

Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

 

On Saturday and Sunday, there are another 16 games (the second round).  People gather to watch the games together.  One year we watched our low-ranked Michigan State Spartans battle it out to beat (upset) a more highly ranked opponent.  We watched it in a room with over a hundred other fans and two projection TV’s.  Each time our team scored, there were screams, high fives, and even hugging.  This energy and comradery is one of the reasons we love the Tournament.

 

We hope to stay on speaking terms with our friends in Geneva (who are from Kentucky) after March.  If not, it was nice knowing you.*

 

Kentucky is a big-time basketball school and they are big-time fans.  We are Michigan State fans.  If these two teams play each other in the tournament, it could be the end of our friendship. 🙂

 

 

 

Our Wider World Of Sports

All Blacks Haka Richie McCaw 2011 - Getty Images
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
In the US, we are pretty narrow in terms of the sports that are “mainstream”.  ESPN only covers football (American Football), baseball and basketball in any real depth on a regular basis.  Okay, I guess you can add hockey, golf, maybe tennis and soccer too.  If you are older and remember life pre-cable, you may remember ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the one with the ski-jumper who crashed in the opening credits.  They went around the world, found interesting sporting events and made fantastic programs about them.  
 
Vinko_bogataj_medium
Image courtesy of ABC
In the US, I complain about the narrow range of sports covered by ESPN.*  He always reminds me “supply and demand”.  It has been a pleasant surprise here to see the large variety of sports covered well on TV.  This, ironically, does not include TV France’s coverage of cycling.  It’s horrible, very disappointing and perplexing.  How can the French be such fans of cycling when they have the worst announcers known to mankind.  Okay, maybe that was a bit extreme.  How can the French be such fans of cycling when they hear someone announce it in monotone, in the decibel level of a golf announcer at the green with NO interesting anecdotes?
 
The awesome Versus cycling announcers…worth emulating.
We’ve been watching a the Rugby World Cup.  The both the games and the coverage have been outstanding.  New Zealand’s All Blacks got past Australia in a fast and spirited game yesterday.  Next weekend, they will face France in the final.  

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Scrolling through our TV, here are some of the sporting events we will be able to see in the next week (coverage is somewhat limited this week due to the large coverage of the Rugby World Cup):

  • Pro surfing from Portugal
  • Ten million different soccer leagues and games, seriously, there are too many to list
  • Boxing (not pay per view)
  • ATP tennis from Russia (played indoors)
  • Vintage WWE?!?
  • Pro wrestling (hilarious when dubbed in French)
  • A marathon from Poland (Poznan Marathon?)
  • Motorcycle racing
  • Formula One
  • Polo from Spain
  • Equestrian competition from Norway
  • Several different golf events
  • A martial arts competition from Romania
  • Horse racing
  • Ski competition from Austria
  • Figure skating from the US
  • British Touring Car Championships
  • One football game (the American kind)
Even with all this, American football is still his favorite.
*Other family members complain about ESPN’s apparent pro-U of M bias.