As the first rest day of the 2019 Tour de France is now upon us, we can take a moment to sit down and reminisce on what was a very surreal week one on tour with our opening, Le Grande Depart and Tour des Vins experiences.
Teeing off from the roads of one of cycling’s post passionate nations, Belgium and in its capital of Brussels, we knew from the start we’d be in for something special. To add, it would be the 50th year since the legendary local, Eddy Merckx won his first Tour de France of many, and the 100th year since the prestigious Maillot Jaune (Yellow Jersey) was born.
The trip started on a high, as we enjoyed a warm-up ride around the outskirts of Brussels city and its parks, before joining the masses of excited fans for the official opening ceremony in the central, Grand Palace square. Said to be one of Europe’s most beautiful squares; the setting and stunning stage backdrop, certainly made for a grand opening.
From there, it was onto one of Brussel’s finest wine bars to toast to tour beginnings, over great wine, food and fantastic company, including surprise guest, Jens Voigt, courtesy of tour host Stuart O’Grady. One thing to note when joining Mummu Cycling on tour, is that Stuey knows ‘almost everyone’ at the Tour de France. Having successfully contended 17 tours throughout his lengthy professional career, he’s continually catching up with fellow former ‘legends’ of the peloton. These connections, certainly make for some special moments on tour for our guests. Earlier afternoon it was the voice of cycling, Phil Liggett who stopped in his tracks in our hotel lobby to chat with Stuey and our guests.
The day before offical kick-off, we enjoyed a morning adventure out in Huy to tackle the relentless, Mur du Huy ascent and its surrounding roads, famous to the Ardennes Classic, Fleche Wallone. A tough challenge, that left us a little weary, but exhilarated for our afternoon’s activity, meeting the UAE Team Emirates crew.
The meet and greet was led by great mate of Stuey’s, Neil Stephens – now current directeur sportif and decorated former pro rider himself. Neil shared some fantastic insight as to what goes on behind the scenes the day before the Tour de France; the countless hours and thought that goes into preparation, in addition to the team’s aspirations for the race. To add, a sneak peak at the stellar line-up of Colnago race bikes and the team’s incredibly orderly equipment storage setup. From there, it was classic ‘just follow Stuey’ time as he made his way by the Team Katusha Alpecin zone and bumped into another ‘old friend’ Eric Zabel – also a current director and former pro racer, well known for his killer turn of speed.
Concluding a jam-packed opening few days, excitement levels were high and we were well and truly ready for the show to begin! Our day three began with a ‘Ride Depart’ – an exclusive privilege that comes with being a Tour de France tour operator. To do it on Stage One, in the heart of the Belgian capital – rolling off the start line, ahead of the race on closed roads, lines of ecstatic crowds cheering us on the whole way, was truly insane and an experience that cannot be justified in words alone.
Following a 35km adventure that went from lapping up the atmosphere, to sitting on Stuey in the zone, we packed up and set off on route to the Muur van Geraardsbergen – one of Belgium’s most iconic, cobbled climbs. Let’s just say, the fans were well and truly fired up and we parked ourselves right in the thick of it! Incredible to see the pro’s blitz up there at a mind blowing pace, soon after – the first yellow jersey of 2019 now in sight.
From there, we were back on the road, Brussels bound to catch the opening Stage finish. Bonus, gaining access to jump onto the closing 4km run-in to see the final stretch to the line and anticipate what was to come for the riders. We then witnessed live, the thrilling, edge of the seat finale that saw a very impressive, Mike Teunissen take a surprising victory, narrowly edging out crowd favourite Peter Sagan.
Next up, it was TTT day. For us, a morning ride around the course on closed roads, testing out the very brisk route for ourselves and discussing predictions and thoughts on the stage to come. Following a classic Belgian lunch of mussels and frites, we were on our way to see the action at the start. Surprise bonus, Stuey managed to get us right into the ‘warm-up’ team bus area, which had us watching the best professional cyclists in the world, warm-up for the unique event within close proximity.
To round-out a memorable Le Grande Depart experience, we hit the town of Binche to enjoy the Stage 5 official sign-on, some time in the buzzing start village; packed with coffee, local delicacies, treats and a few former stars of the Tour de France. To top it off, a wander through the team buses and the opportunity to meet a few of Stuey’s friends of the peloton, including Aussie favourite, Richie Porte and former team mate, Andy Schleck.
Next up, we were off to the Rhône-Alpes to begin our next, Tour des Vins. We hit the ground running and set the scene perfectly with a local wine tasting and delicious lunch, before setting out later afternoon to enjoy a leisurely warm-up ride around the scenic surrounding roads of our gorgeous mountain hotel, where we’d be conveniently based for the entirety of the trip. Concluding a relaxing day one, we sat back over a toast and a delicious degustation dinner at the hotel’s Michelin star restaurant. Not a bad start to what would be a busy four days getting amongst the Tour de France to follow!
The next morning, we set out on the bikes, led out by Stuey and in hot pursuit of the Stage four finish in Nancy. The stunning rolling ride left us smiling and so ready for some live Tour de France action. Our tour operator status, then allowed guests access into the Izoard hospitality zone, handily located right on the finish line. Following a few beverages and French canapés, we were more than set for the thrilling sprint finish to come that saw Italian speedster, Elia Viviani storm across the line to take stage honours.
Now that we’d had a taste of sprint action, guests were primed and ready to test out their climbing legs, and hit the hills of the undulous stage 5 route. The key hurdle of the day, the Cote du Haut Koenigsbourg.
Following a valiant effort up the climb and a stunning final run in along vineyard dotted rolling roads, we made it to our hospitality location for the day, the Relais Etape in Riquewihr. For us, the Relais Etape has to be one of the best days on tour for a Tour de France tour operator. Stage five’s experience proved that all too well as we were warmly welcomed with Alsace French wine and apéritifs to prepare us for the delicious three course lunch that followed, all while enjoying the Tour action from big screen TV’s and in great company! With 50km to go, the race came blitzing by, where we witnessed their sheer speed and power firsthand from the Relais Etape viewing points. From there, it was all eyes glued to the screens, anticipation in the air and the champagne bubbling, before toasting to the crowd favourite, green machine, Peter Sagan who took an outstanding sprint victory.
Next on the radar, was the gruelling La Planche des Belles Filles, that would hold the first summit finish of this year’s Tour de France. Pre-stage, our riding contingent hit the stage route nervously, the final climb the key challenge of the day, fast approaching. With the last 1km stretch up a steep ‘goat track’, there was no doubt in our minds that we’d be for a challenge! A battle for many, but motivation sky-high as the crowds roared and cheered excitedly for the Mummu crew, gearing up for the stage to follow. Our tour operator prestige, allowed us to climb right up to the official summit finish over the relentless final metres. We made it, depleted, yet incredibly elated!
From there, we enjoyed some time on the official Stage podium for a ‘winners’ snap, before hitting Izoard hospitality at the 1km to go mark. What an afternoon then spent chilling out watching the race and awaiting the tense final moments to come. Mindblowing to see live how quick the lead guys were motoring up there in hot pursuit of the finish.
To conclude another action-packed experience, we completed the trip with starry eyes, as we hit the Stage seven start village in Belfort. Following, Stuey’s lead we took to the ever busy, ‘fan-crazy’ Bora-Hansgrohe bus. As the man in green stepped out, courtesy of Stuey and his inner sanctum ‘connections’, he stopped in his tracks on route to ‘sign on’ for a quick g’day with Stu and a snap with our guests. Not a bad way to round out a fabulous five days on tour. Cheers all!
We’re now set for another week of adventure and Tour de France festivities, Pyrenees bound and primed for some mountain madness. Bring it on.
Pre-registration for 2020 is now open – join in on all the action next year, here!