Tour de France. First stage: hotels.
Le Tour is still seven months away but already there’s panic. Where am I sleeping in France in July?
Covering the biggest stage race in the world means serious advance planning. Painful lesson learned during my first Tour in 2010: logistics kill.
Wait until a month or two before the Grand Depart and every hotel within 50 kilometers of the start and finish town is booked solid. You’ll need to rent a bigger car because, you’re sleeping in it.
You are chasing a race all over France and maybe into Belgium or Corsica or Italy or Switzerland. You’re going full gas all day and into the evening.
On the mountain stages you’re trapped at the summit when the race ends at say 4:30 PM, then hustling around trying to grab rider quotes for an hour, then setting up shop in the Salle de Presse for another 2 hours hammering out a story, then you’re trapped in a massive traffic jam on the one narrow road down for hours, then potentially driving another 2 or 3 hours to some little town hidden in the countryside to your crummy hotel room because mesdames and messieurs, you botched your logistics.
I can tell you from personal experience that every journalist and photographer at Le Tour plays Beat The Clock at the end of every stage in the desperate hope of getting a decent dinner before the restaurants close at 10 and then dropping into bed with a minimum of hassle and drama.
Within hours of the announcement of the Tour route, media folks are booking hotels on the web. The bigger towns are obviously easy but everything requires research. First question: sleep in finish town or try to jump ahead toward the next day’s start town. That’s a matter of personal presence, the schedule, the terrains, driving distances, dinner options and the particular demands of your assignment.
In my ideal world, I book early and get myself a nice affordable room in the finish town and always in the most historic area, the old town. Hey, it’s France, why not enjoy the ride? Dream timeline: wrap up the race work by seven. Drive short distance to hotel, walk the cool neighborhood to find the best looking restaurant, order fat glass of French red and settle in with scintillating menu. Enjoy fabulous meal and thank Cycling Gods for letting me loose in France with a press credential and credit card. Life is spectacular.
Now this is a simple task if the finish town is good-sized like Lyon or Montpellier or Nice or Chambery or Tour. You can even book the month before and find something but the affordable places are mostly gone and you’re farther from the Old City where you so want to be.
Obviously, the smaller the finish town, the earlier you have to book. Just for fun, go to Booking.com and try to find a good room in Corsica for the start or finish towns. You’re already screwed. You’re staying far away and driving a good distance. So if you wanted that stylish hotel just off the main square in that quaint, picturesque town or village, you booked that on October 25th, the day after the route announcement.
Now, say you’re clueless and last-minute like I was three years ago. You waited too long and how you’re staring at hotels 40 to 60 (or even more!) kilometers from the finish. That’s when things get mentally challenging and logistics have to be carefully worked out. Maybe that doesn’t seem like more than an hour drive but I assure you, it is going to be 2 to 3 hours with insane Tour traffic. You’ve just made your day incrementally more exhausting.
Okay, so you start looking at google maps for a closer view of where that town that’s 50K away is in relationship to the day’s finish town and the next days start town. You have to weigh the options. You always go in the direction of the next start to cut drive time and maybe you make the executive decision to blow off the finish of a particular stage in order to get ahead of the game.
But booking so late, you can’t find much in your price range and the hotels look funky and you have doubts — because maybe going an extra 10 or 20k out of your way puts you in a bigger town with more hotel and restaurant options. Or in a charming Ville de Fleurie that will make you cry with its beauty.
Remember that next day’s start is no sooner than noon, You can get up early and hit the road. So you start calculating driving distances for various point A’s to point B’s. That’s when I google images of all the towns — is this a dumpy little burg you should avoid at all costs or does it look tres cool and worth the drive because there’s going to be some killer cassoulet or local plat de la region?
I can’t overestimate that driving the Tour de France is exhausting, frustrating and at times monotonous. Sure, there are many moments when you’re rolling along half singing to French radio feeling like the luckiest guy in the world. But even the stunning landscapes and small towns of France get old when you’re racking up 7-8 hours a day. The cumulative effect kills you.
The Tour is exhilarating and brilliant and addictive but after the first week, you’re wearing down, the second you’re fried, the third you’re a zombie. If you can nail the logistics, you determine the happiness or lack thereof for a significant part of your daily experience. It’s the difference between being on top of your journalistic game and always being a few steps behind and out of sync.The same cardinal rule applies to riders and journalists: a grand tour is all about conserving energy.
You do not want some of the horrible events I have endured. Like being gridlocked for several hours on a mountain top, then having to double back over what seemed like half the Alps and crawling into Briancon near death. My GPS took me on a disastrously strange route up and down on deserted back roads and I though I would lose my mind.
Then there was the time I didn’t book a hotel until the day of the stage. Only I booked it for the wrong day and showed up after my three hour haul only to be told with classic French indifference that I had no room. I went to the depressing little crappy bar a few blocks away and begged for the crappy room they had and was grateful I didn’t have to sleep in the car — which I’ve done twice.
Now if this makes me sound a little incompetent, I will beg to differ. I have driven hours deep into the countryside to a tiny town with only one hotel and a Belgian film crew pulls in right behind me and a French media car is already in the parking lot. It’s crazy and the end of a Tour stage is like kicking a massive ant hill, the ants fleeing in every direction looking for the next place to stay.
Guys that have covered ten Tours get screwed just like the newcomers because procrastination is like diabetes — there’s really no cure once you’ve got it. Sportswriter James Raia, a Tour veteran, and I once drove for what seemed an eternity to stay at what appeared to be a failed ski area condo. The bedsheets were wrapped in plastic and it looked like we could be murdered and nobody would find our bodies for months.
I can tell you for a fact that the top writers from Cycle Sport are still sorting out hotel options. Even the pros end up driving the extra hours. That’s just part of the madness of the greatest bike race in the world. On some level, you have to almost like the pain. The top guys pride themselves on the number of horror stories they have to recount.
Right now, I’ve booked every hotel from the first rest day through to Paris except for two of the Alps stages. The planning in the mountains is always more hors category difficult. That’s when looking at the map just doesn’t show you how much driving up and down the mountains you will be doing.
What looks like a doable 30k might be a daunting late night roller coaster ride in total darkness to a small auberge or inn that’s invisible at 10pm. Food options are minimal and you better stop half way to grab a sandwich or whatever you can scrounge up. I find it hard to pull the trigger on these little ski hotels and auberges because I’m already feeling the pain of that drive. But the longer I wait, the less choices I have.
That reminds me of the stage to Mende two years ago. Summit finish at a small little airfield. Shortly after the race ended, a torrential rainstorm hits and police close the road in the direction off my hotel. (It’s always something each day at the tour and you have to hone your improvisational skills.) So with the sun going down, I begin the difficult task of coming up with a room for the night.
On the long winding descent, I would stop at whatever bar/restaurant I saw and ask them if they knew of any rooms that were available. I got very lucky. At my third stop the fairly attractive 35 year old woman behind the bar immediately called several places and found me a room in a youth hostel further down the road. I can’t say there were tears of gratitude in my eyes but I momentarily considered an offer of marriage. I sat down in their unpretentious restaurant and had a simple and fabulous dinner — and there’s nothing like near-disaster averted to make the wine taste even better.
Logistics kill or they get you a delicious dinner and a good nights sleep in La Belle France. Vive Le Tour and Book Early.