Image: Relax mid-tour in the Château de Mirambeau
© Château de Mirambeau
Enviably positioned between the vineyards of Cognac and Bordeaux, this chateau is the perfect, late-in-the-game hideaway. (The race takes place nearby). After logging a respectable amount of time in the on-site hammam, or Turkish steam bath, you may want to consider some of Mirambeau’s less languorous offerings: mountain biking, hiking, hot-air ballooning and jet-skiing.
updated 7/25/2007 12:03:05 PM ET 2007-07-25T16:03:05

France’s greatest sporting event is not only its most popular, but its most controversial. It seems as if every year brings a fresh spate of charges about this competitor or that team. This year it is beset by doping scandals that grab most of the headlines. Adding to the noise are increasingly boisterous crowds along the route. It will probably not greatly affect spectator attendance, any more than U.S. sports scandals cut down on ticket sales. Nevertheless, for some, it’s a good time to consider how to experience cycling’s prime event in some other way.

That desire has led to a recent spike in luxury offerings, despite the Tour’s humble beginnings. “It was very much an everyman’s event at first, which held true of the riders as well,” says Seth Whidden, Ph.D., an assistant professor of French at Villanova University, where he teaches a course on the cultural history of the Tour de France. “In the early 20th century, they would drink their way through the race, raiding cafés and bars along the route for wine and champagne.”  Innocent times, considering today’s scandals.

But now that the race has evolved from a regional curiosity to an international phenomenon—thanks, in no small part, to the Lance Effect—the gestalt is decidedly different, says Ian Walker, a business development and marketing associate at One Key. This luxury destination club offers one of the most exclusive Tour de France itineraries in existence, and caters to “the same crowd that has always done the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, and other sporting events in style—and that has recently become interested in the Tour de France,” explains Walker. One sample day places you on the course in a team car (say, Discovery’s), where you ride alongside support staff. Another seats you across the table from Greg Lemond, whose three Tour victories (and assessments of this year’s race) you can discuss over a delicious lunch. A third lands you on the sponsor party circuit in Paris with a pile of coveted invites.

And said parties are serious business. “One trend fueling corporate sponsorship of Tour de France teams is the surge in high-end recreational biking,” says journalist Bonnie De Simone, who’s covered the Tour for the Chicago Tribune,, the Boston Globe, and others. The custom uber-bike is the new midlife crisis vehicle, according to De Simone, “and deals that used to be made in cigar bars are now being made on bike trips.”

Enter Custom Getaways. The only North American velo-tourism operator to be endorsed by the Tour de France, this company runs bike trips that correspond to the race and offer unrivaled access to all things official. “One of the most popular is the Izoard,” says president Chris Tardy. “This is the mobile VIP pavilion—a two-story bus-turned-café where you can sit outside and sip champagne with Tour personalities while a big-screen TV broadcasts the day’s events.” Another favorite activity among Custom Getaways’ clients: biking an actual stage of the Tour. “Though you’re riding everyday on these trips [you can choose from a variety of distances], doing a 120-mile stage is still pretty difficult,” notes Tardy. “But the reward—which includes climbing the official podium, then sticking around to see pros climb the podium—is immeasurable.” Other hallmarks of Custom Getaways’ “VIP Premium” or tailor-made trips: accommodations in gorgeous chateaux, helicopter transfers to the race, and photo ops with the pros.

Image: Sip cognac in Cognac
© Château de Beaulon
A distinct treat during the Tour de France is a well-spent rest day (timed to the riders’ days off or your own energy levels). And since the Tour course has a Cognac to Angoulême stage, One Key proposes a tour of the area’s wineries with an esteemed local oenophile, and copious sampling of—what else?—cognac.
Not that independent travelers can’t do well for themselves: “For the person who wants to have a luxury experience and knows a bit about the event, a mountain stage is the way to go,” says De Simone. “These are not only the toughest stages, but also some of the most beautiful, often set in ski resorts.” She suggests that you check out the race’s route (it changes annually), then make a booking that includes the nights before and after the stage you want to see (you’ll find good options on “The traffic coming and going is always hideous, so go a day early, enjoy everything the town has to offer—hiking, boating, biking and open-air dining are all safe bets—and leave a day late.” Adds Whidden: “Check the local papers for the riders’ time of arrival, and be at the appointed intersections at least an hour earlier to stake out your territory.”

Whether you travel under your own auspices or someone else’s, get thee to the Hôtel de Crillon for the Tour’s grand finale. Located smack on Paris’s iconic Place de la Concorde, “this is the place to be at the end,” says Whidden. In fact, the lobby used to be the site of Lance’s victory laps (bike perched courteously on his back) and after-party. Even in the post-Lance era, the hotel’s salons and terraces—many with views of the finish line—remain prime real estate for parties. But as with every other part of the race, you’ve got to get to the end early (if you don’t happen to have a room at the Crillon). Otherwise, you’re looking at la vie en rows. And rows. And rows.


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