As impossible as it might seem, forget for a moment the astonishing spectacle of the finest endurance athletes in the world racing up the Alps and Pyrenees and across France to the Champs Elysees and a 100th birthday party fireworks gala.
No, let’s talk about dinner.
After two trips to the Tour de France, my body starts to buzz with excitment when we go into the final 30 day countdown. Part of that delicious buzz is thinking about the French food and wine I shall soon be enjoying.
Now, chasing the race across France at high speed does have a culinary downside. Sometimes you’re stuck on a mountainside in a hellacious traffic jam, then you’re forced to drive two hours late into the evening and finally reach your little hotel minutes after the restaurants have closed.
Tour vets will tell you how many bad French pizzas they have eaten at 10:30 at night. It is a gross injustice to be in France, home to one of the greatest culinary traditions, and be forced to eat a bad pizza.
There is also the difficulty of getting a truly good French lunch in a small town bistro. Again, the logistics of the Tour mean you’re driving serious mileage, trying to beat the racers to the finish. It can be harder than you think and certainly takes longer than you anticipate and time and again, you’re shocked at how fast the racers eat up the road.
I can’t tell you how many beautiful little towns I drive though on the race route without stopping because after consulting my watch and the Tour technical guide, I see the racers are just 45 minutes behind me and closing fast.
If you’re on the race route, you have to stay ahead or you’re stuck behind and miss the finish. So lunch is often an exercise in temptation and heartbreak. “Ahh, look at that wonderful bistro!” or ohh, this town is so beautiful, let’s walk around and find some amazing little lunch place.”
Sadly, as most Tour journos will tell you, lunch is often a pre-packaged sandwich grabbed from a highway convenience store while gassing up the car.
But all is not suffering.
There are those days when your logistical plans work to perfection. You blow out of the start town a touch early, you fly across the stunning French countryside passing gorgeous little town after gorgeous little town, until you find that one perfect one that demands you stop. You check the time and behold you’ve got a two hour window. It’s like you’re the solo breakaway and you’ve got major time on the peloton and they don’t feel up to the chase.
You stroll the town at your leisure like the unhurried tourist you rarely are for those three weeks in July. Into the local fromagerie for some cheese, the patisserie for a baguette, perhaps ’round to the charcuterie for rabbit pate and the wine shop for a bottle of local red. Then perhaps you find a spot to sit in the old town square and have yourself a nice little French moment.
Or you might take that time and wander into a cool and classic bistro and order up some local repast and revel in the food heavan of France. Life is tres good.
But generally, lunch at the Tour is fast and furious and often eaten in the car as you rip across the countryside. You pass those beautiful little towns and their restaurants and try to memorize the town name so that someday …. But you know you’ll most likely never be back.
But ahh, dinner.
As with lunch, sometimes it all works in your favor, planets align and France arrives at your table in all its glory. The photo above is from, I believe, the first rest day of the 2011 Tour de France.
A hour earlier I had attend my first press conference at the little hotel where the BMC squad was staying. Thirty or forty journalists crowed around Cadel Evans with the usual “can you win the Tour?” questions.
Once over, I wandered a few blocks, hoping to discover a good restaurant option. I didn’t find anything in the immediate vicinity, so I asked an older French couple on the sidewalk if they could recommend a good pace for dinner.
The gentleman looked at me closely, shot me a conspiratorial glance and gave me the address of an auberge above town. As you can see from the photo, this was truly heavan.
Vive Le Tour, Vive le repas.