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Ringside at the Bike Race

A pilgrimage to Europe puts fans in the heart--and the heat--of the world's most prestigious cycling event


STEKENE, Belgium — "I just love that Neil Armstrong."

At first it was hard to understand what the elegantly dressed woman was getting at. She had just walked out of a party across the road and sat down beside me on an old stone wall in the middle of Belgian farmland, 10 miles west of Antwerp.

Clutching a glass of red wine in one hand and an expensive-looking sweater in the other, she seemed out of place--and way overdressed--amid the hundreds of working-class people who lined the street, many of them wearing cycling gear (me included). Having abandoned work, school and other responsibilities on a Monday last July, most of us were content to sit quietly and wait. But the woman, perhaps to be polite, perhaps to pass the time, was trying to strike up a conversation. She seemed to be searching for something that a Belgian and an American might have in common.

Nice thought. Wrong guy.

Rather, it was cyclist Lance Armstrong who rocketed along that road 25 minutes later--amid the race entourage that included three low-flying helicopters; motorcycles bearing TV and still photographers; a parade of 100 or so Fiats loaded with officials, journalists, coaches and extra bicycles; and more than a few emergency vehicles.

Armstrong blurred past us in a streak of color, whipping around a C-shaped turn as he battled with the rest of the nearly 200 cyclists who made up the field at last year's Tour de France, a more-than-2,000-mile bicycle race that captivates much of the world for three weeks each summer.

For Europeans, the Tour de France is the Super Bowl, college basketball's Final Four and the Boston Marathon all wrapped into one. It is part carnival, part commercial promotion and more than a little athletic display. Cyclists from all over the world compete to wear the fabled yellow jersey by putting themselves through a series of 20 grueling stages that can stretch more than 145 miles in a single day.

For cycling fans--and my husband, Shawn, and I fall into that category--seeing the Tour de France in person is a pilgrimage. Unsatisfied with the abbreviated coverage then available on cable TV, we undertook a journey last summer to follow part of the Tour route, sometimes by car and sometimes on our bicycles. Getting a place along the route was easier than we had expected, and we were rewarded with a chance to experience firsthand the full extent of Tour mania.

That day in the Belgian farmland, Armstrong and the other cyclists rode so close to us that we could have touched them, were they not moving at breakneck pace, a half-hour from the finish line in a 135-mile stage. For these front-row seats, we paid nothing--but got a chance to see the spectacle as the locals do, in the middle of farmland, complete with cows standing watch as racers passed along country roads.

Our trip to this Tour, which Armstrong would go on to win, inspired our athletic pursuits for months to come--and gave us a better understanding of how our favorite sport is celebrated in the rest of the world.

Because of our vacation schedules, we chose to visit the Tour in its first week. After flying into Paris, we spent a few days in the French countryside near Bordeaux, where we got in a little relaxation and a good deal of bike riding before the main event.

Then, on the Tour's first official day of racing, we drove back to Paris and traveled north to catch Stages 2 and 3 of the Tour as it briefly crossed into Belgium. With travel time, we spent almost three days following the Tour before returning to Paris for some more sightseeing and the trip home.

We had decided months before to take our bicycles--a choice that required a little bit of packing know-how but for which we were rewarded. Having bicycles with us allowed us freedom of movement; along the race route, we were able to move up and down the course with relative ease.

And so we disassembled our bikes, packed them in hard cases and sent them through as checked baggage at no extra charge. (Many airlines allow travelers to check bike boxes or cases as long as they are one of only two checked bags.)

To make travel on the other end easier, we requested a station wagon from our car rental company. For a small extra fee, we received a minivan that was large enough to accommodate the bikes, their cases and the cases of wine we bought along the way.

We mapped our journey using the Tour Web site (, which provides a detailed description of the route well in advance, and its official program, which we purchased at a newsstand near Paris. We planned to stay in Antwerp, a city that hosted a stage finish one day and a departure the next, and from there, to visit towns a few kilometers from the stages' start and finish lines.

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