Tour de France road story. This road, not that road.

Teenage theater group, roadside in Le Beage.

I rode the entire race route today from Bourg de Peage to Mende before the riders came through. The Tour officials prefer I go first so nobody gets hurt.

The media has two choices when covering the Tour de France. Leave hours early before the long and crazy promotional caravan or take the “hors course” route that generally uses the big freeways and never connects with the race course except occasionally for the last ten to twenty kilometers.

Hors Course is basically hors everything. You don’t see too much except big trucks and highway rest stops. The race course, on the other hand, ¬†gives you the wonderful experience of being the advance guard in the tour. You become part of the race — for the fans and even better, for yourself.

Tour organizers work extremely hard to design a challenging test for the riders but also with the self-interested goal of showcasing the most beautiful places in France. Those HD shots of charmante villages are worth a fortune in tourism. Same goes for those helicopter shots of chateauxs. That’s the road trip you want.

There are so many enjoyable parts to the route. You’re on a closed course, no traffic, both lanes open, all entrances blocked by French gendarmes stationed every few hundred meters. They’re working for you, baby. Side benefit: you can’t possibly get lost, unlike the free-for-all on the major highways. For a guy without a GPS, that is sweet.

That’s attraction number one, with a press credential and a colored press banner on your windshield, you’ve got your own private scenic route through one of the most beautiful countries in the world — no stop signs, no lights, carte blanche to play rally car driver.

The second joy is that you just drove onto the stage, not the race stage, the theater stage of the biggest bike race. For 180 kilometers fans cheer and wave at you. You’re an instant superstar, some big shot media guy, one of the first actors in the action thriller headed their way.

I’ve never waved back at so many kids in my life. You take your role in the Tour de France. How cool is that? You’re waving out the window, honking the horn, reveling in the roadside love. On the big climbs like the Madeleine, the cheers turn to roars, fans salute you, dance for you, wave flags and drop their shorts. Me, I felt like a VIP at the most important party this year.

It’s perhaps the best way to truly feel how much the race means to people. You pass every single tour fan, tens of thousands, having their family picnic, barbecues, the sidewalk cafes packed, entire small towns out to watch, the campers lining the road, everyone with a bike headed to a great viewing point.

You drive under the 5 and 10k banners and you get a winners buzz, you’re in the Tour de France, you beat Contador and Schleck and Armstrong to the finish and got a decent hand. Not the thunderous cheers, but you played your part.

Then again, the hors course route gets you to the finish town quicker.

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