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Watch the Tour de France aon Your Bike

Lance Armstrong, the four-time winner of the Tour de France, is one of the greatest cyclists in history. But the day he took the coveted yellow jersey of the Tour's overall leader last July, following a brutal stage of climbing in the Pyrenees, I crossed the finish line on my bike hours before he did.

Of course I started a lot earlier and didn't ride nearly as far as Lance and the 180 other Tour racers did that day. I also stopped often to take snapshots, rest my weary legs and savor the beauty of the spectacular French countryside along with the thousands of rambunctious spectators who lined the road to catch a glimpse of the world's most demanding bicycle race.

Dreamed up as a circulation promotion by a French sports newspaper in 1903, the Tour de France, which starts on July 5 this year, is now one of the most-watched athletic events in the world. Each year the three-week race winds its way 3,500 kilometers or so through France and adjacent European countries in 20 daily stages, always passing through the Pyrenees and the Alps for the famously grueling mountain climbs and ending with 10 laps up and down the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

I had followed the Tour in the newspaper since the 1980s, long before I became an avid cyclist about five years ago. But it never occurred to me to pedal along until last year, when an old friend told me he had signed up for a guided trip. Then it clicked.

The Tour really is a tour. It passes through the most scenic and historic areas of Europe. Towns bid for the privilege of being on the course and turn the event into a local celebration. Riding along means you can share the views, test your mettle on the famous mountain roads, see the riders up close and after a long day in the saddle partake of French fare without guilt.

Despite the race's popularity in Europe, Americans in large numbers had mostly ignored this greatest of endurance events until 1999, when Lance -- he no longer needs a surname -- overcame cancer to become only the second American to win the Tour, after Greg LeMond, in 1986, 1989 and 1990. This year's race is expected to attract even more interest. It is the race's 100th anniversary and Lance will try for his fifth victory, a feat accomplished by only four others.

Guided trips by professional tour companies that follow a portion of the race are now extremely popular and fill up fast. After convincing my brother-in-law Jeffrey Schwartz in November 2001 to accompany me the next summer, we found we were already shut out of the tour my friend had recommended, which shadowed the last week of the 2002 race from the Alps to Paris. But there was still space available on an earlier trip that followed the race for 10 days through the Pyrenees, ending with the famously difficult climb up Mont Ventoux in Provence.

It is possible to pack up your bike, rent a car and follow the Tour on your own. But hotels fill up quickly after the race route is announced in October, and the headaches involved in doing it yourself can be enormous. Indeed, the logistics of simply getting to ride along part of the route the day of the race, watch the finish and return to a hotel are the most challenging. This is where the tour company we chose, VeloSport Vacations, based in Bloomington, Indiana, excelled. VeloSport Vacations is one of the most experienced operators of Tour trips.

Conditions vary from stage to stage, but in general the Tour route is closed to cars on the day of the race. But cyclists and hikers are allowed on the road until the racers get close, which usually means several hours away. On the three occasions we rode part of the tour route the day of the race, we arrived at least five hours before the professional riders, and we were often stopped near the finish.

Our daily rides, usually about 80 kilometers, were fully supported in the manner of many bike tours. A car met us at regular intervals to offer water, bananas, granola bars and other snacks. And we had the luxury of our own bike mechanic who fixed flats, trued wheels and attended to a variety of other technical problems.

There were 25 of us plus two tour managers, two guides who were accomplished racers and our mechanic. The group ranged in age from early 30s to late 60s. There were several couples, a few singles and a group of seven boisterous former rowers 20 years out of the University of Pennsylvania. All but a few spouses were serious cyclists. Most of us took our own bikes, though rentals were available.

VeloSport does not exclude nonriders, and it did a good job of accommodating the less gung-ho in our group. Shorter alternative routes were offered for most rides, and some people were even driven to the finish, or as close to it as was allowed. Jeff and I rode about 560 kilometers in nine days. Others in our group rode less. But the company states accurately in its brochure that the focus of the trip is on cycling and the Tour.

That became clear the first day when we tackled the Hautacam, a famous climb that has been featured on several previous Tours but was not included in last year's race. It was cold and drizzling when we started out from our hotel, and even colder at the top of the climb and on the descent. But there was no talk of canceling the ride, which ended up covering nearly 80 kilometers.

The next day, the sun came out and we connected with the race itself for the first time, riding 88 kilometers over a portion of the next day's course from our hotel in Lourdes to Pau, where we watched the finish of that day's stage.

Our fourth day, we tackled the famed Col du Tourmalet, the first major climb of the race and the stage where it was predicted that Lance would take the lead. After our bus dropped us 48 kilometers from the finish of the stage, we pedaled along beautiful country roads dotted with stone farmhouses. Though it was several hours before the racers would pass, families were already setting up picnics. Children shouted "Allez!" as we rode by.

By the time we arrived at the base of the Tourmalet, which is also a ski area, the roadside was packed with spectators. Colorful dummies dressed up to look like spectators, which is a local custom, were placed in chairs and on roofs. Ascending ever higher on a series of switchbacks, we stopped to admire the views -- and catch our breath. Finally, nearly four hours after we started that morning, we passed under the arch of balloons marking one kilometer to the finish.

We got to see the racers up close again a few days later as they ascended Mont Ventoux. We had pedaled up earlier in the day, along with hundreds of other bikers and hikers. Recreational vehicles lined the 21-kilometer route. One group of Dutch fans wearing orange wigs and T-shirts, the color of Dutch team Rabobank, danced as Tina Turner's rendition of "Proud Mary" blared from their camper's stereo.

When the first racers finally came by five hours later, the crowd surged into the road from both sides, creating a narrow funnel of humanity. Mountain stages make the best viewing because the riders are moving relatively slowly and are spread apart rather than in a tight group. We watched Lance, who finished second that day, speed by wearing an expression of grim determination. Then we stood for another 30 minutes or longer cheering as the other racers passed, ending with the final stragglers just hoping to finish in time to avoid disqualification.

But the best opportunity to mingle with the riders, it turned out, was just before the start of a day's stage. On the last day of our tour, we watched the start in Vaison-la-Romaine, a town in Provence where the arrival of the Tour happened to coincide with its well-known market day. Stalls selling food, crafts and clothing filled the narrow streets of the ancient village, which also has a well-preserved Roman amphitheater and other ruins.

Before long, the buses of the various cycling teams filled a parking lot, and the riders began to get out. As they rode around the lot, testing their equipment and their legs, they stopped to pose for photographs and talk with fans.

Soon the racers were lined up for the ceremonial start. As they headed off for their day's ride, I wandered back into the market, wondering if I ever would follow the Tour again. Some members of our group were already talking about returning this year. As tempting as it sounded, I doubted the experience could get any better.

travelers' tips

The easiest way to follow the Tour de France by bike is on a guided trip. Several companies offer tours that take care of all the details involved in shadowing the race for even part of its 3,500-kilometer circuit. They cater to varying skills, though most are designed for serious cyclists. Participants may ship their own bikes or, in most cases, rent from the organizers.

Some of these companies have nearly sold out their tours, but all will put interested participants on a waiting list.

Some new tour companies have arrived on the scene this year. One, Trek Travel, +1 (866) 464-8735, www.trektravel.com, is owned by Trek, the company that makes the bikes ridden by Lance Armstrong and his United States Postal Service team. It has weeklong trips for $3,575 per person (all prices are for two people sharing a room and do not include airfare), and may add one for about $8,500 that will take participants behind the scenes with Postal.

Most of the premium tour companies, including VeloSport Vacations, +1 (800) 988-9833, www.velovacations.com; Velo Echappe, +1 (303) 804-5652, www.veloechappe.com; and Steve Bauer Bike Tours, +1 (905) 563-8687, www.stevebauer.com, offer two trips over the course of the three-week Tour, one when the race passes through the Alps and another when it is in the Pyrenees and on to Paris. Prices are $2,975 to $4,600 per person, not including airfare, for a seven- to 10-day trip. Group sizes are 20 to 25. Discover France, +1 (800) 960-2221, www.discoverfrance.com, and Breaking Away Bicycle Tours, +1 (310) 545-5118, www.breakingaway.com, offer slightly less expensive tours.

Some bicycle shops conduct their own tours. Cyclesport in Park Ridge, New Jersey, +1 (201) 391-5269, www.cyclesportonline.com, for instance, plans a weeklong trip. For details contact Mik Grotz, the shop's owner. The Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos, California, +1 (650) 948-6841, www.bicycleoutfitter.com, has offered tours for the last three years. Dick Powell, the shop's owner, said his trips in 2003 would focus on riding the major climbs and hook up with the Tour for two or three stages. Prices from $1,820 for eight days to $2,600 for 11 days, excluding airfare.

It is also possible to organize your own trip around the Tour. Details of the route can be found at www.letour.fr, the official Tour site. Hotels near the start and finish towns, which can be limited in number in rural areas, are often reserved by the teams, officials and journalists.

VeloSport Vacations is selling an On Your Own package from July 20-24 for $795 that includes four nights with breakfast in a hotel near the race. The company promises easy access to several Tour stages on good cycling roads but no guide services.

Camping is also an option. Camping France,

www.campingfrance.com, lists 11,000 sites.

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