Welcome to the first article in The Places You’ll Go series. Before we begin, we thought we would explain the reasoning behind the series name. Inspired by the famous Dr Seuss books, we wanted to encourage you to dream, provide a message (get on your bicycle!) and most importantly - inspire you to take the leap and visit a new place. It may be a place very close to your home or on the other side of the world. Life is too short not to embrace new adventures.
We hope you enjoy reading the series. After all, ‘The more you read, the more things you will know. The more things you learn, the more places you’ll go.’
This particular trip to France was nine years in the making. My Nephew, Nick had taken a keen interest in cycling. He was like many Australians who were inspired by Cadel Evans as footage was beamed onto televisions during his 2005 Tour De France ride with Davitamon-Lotto.
As we sat watching highlights one particular evening, I made a passing comment that we should visit France to watch the Le Tour after he finished school. I threw it out there to see the reaction. Nick jumped at the idea and was in.
From 2005 we both became more and more involved in different forms of cycling. I’d also been fortunate enough to visit Morzine, a beautiful area of France that is best known for downhill mountain biking. That visit only strengthened my desire to visit France with Nick, so he could experience the majestic mountains.
Fast forward to December 2013 and Nick had completed school and was bound for University. The number of attendees on the trip had grown to include my brother Greg (Nick's dad) and close mates Damien, Josh and Chris.
Nick and Greg were leaving in June 2014 to take on Italy. And I was off with Damien, Josh and Chris to visit the Netherlands (Amsterdam will feature as part of The Places You'll Go series) and Damien’s girlfriend Simone. We would also see stage five of Le Tour, which was a cobbles stage around Belgium and Northern France.
Northern France holds a special place for many Australians given the years Australian forces spent fighting during World War One. In preparing for this trip it also became special for me after my Mother informed me that my Great Uncle was buried in Ypres, Belgium - an area close to the France border and where the 2014 edition of Le Tour was headed.
The morning of stage five of the 2014 Le Tour was fairly dreary, weather wise. We were staying at Simone’s parents and her father Jos (pronounced Yoss) happened to be a keen cyclist and also took an interest in history. The fact that Australia had fought so close to his home during the Great War was news to Jos. Months earlier, he took to researching the stage and burial site of my uncle with gusto. Everything was mapped out, hence Jos became 'Jos the Boss' due to his organisation skills.
The drive to the stage was almost two hours from Jos' home. It rained all morning. We arrived at Ypres when the crowds were starting to gather and roads were being closed. It was everything you see on television and more. As we walked down the main street, bars and restaurants were heaving with all kinds of fans. The Belgium people take cycling very seriously.
Street art adorned the roads, huge tents had been erected specifically for the day and every household appeared to be hosting a party. Up to this point, Jos had been as cool as a cucumber. But with the clock ticking, we were running out of time to visit my Great Uncles headstone and then get to our viewing site, which was still an hour away.
Jos decided to approach a policeman for directions, who informed us there were hundreds of sites. The window of opportunity to visit my Great Uncle was closing quickly. We narrowed it down to one chance and took the gamble that he was located at a site several kilometres away.
The race was still about three hours from venturing to these parts. Yet in sections of the street the crowd was already two to three people deep. The rain didn’t affect our spirits as we closed in on the burial site, and eventually came to my Great Uncles resting place.
Suddenly, there was a sombre feeling amongst us. Personally, it was a chance to thank him and reflect on the lives that were lost in the effort to create a world that enables we lucky ones, to travel and experience this now peaceful place. That the lush green fields surrounding us were once muddied battlefields was hard to comprehend.
The day turned out to be a nasty one for the likes of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, but it was nothing compared to the sacrifices many had made in years past.
After sometime at the memorial, we headed back to the action just as the Le Tour Caravan was passing. This was the first real taste of the spectacle. Sponsor vehicles passed through with music blaring throwing merchandise to young and big kids alike.
One mad fan within our group got so excited about the prospect of Le Tour merchandise that he was going to let no one get in his way. Instead of acting graciously and allowing the local children to collect a souvenir key ring, he took the opportunity instead, to use the child as a step ladder and launch himself at the keyring.
With the Caravan coming to an end, it was our signal to get back in the car and race along narrow country roads to our viewing area for the rest of the day, and after another hour in the car, we had arrived.
As a young child, I remember marching with purpose from Richmond train station to the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the atmosphere was tremendous. I was reminded of that moment in this day in France when we marched down the road amidst crowds of people, heading for the start of a sector of cobbles.
If we thought we had seen some serious cycling fans in Ypres, this mob at the sector took things to a new level. The local cycling club built a small village of tents and vans that supplied the essentials for the day; coffee, beer and fritters.
The rain hadn’t stopped and it felt more like winter than the middle of summer, but the local crowd knew no different. Jos came to the rescue for us, ill-prepared travelers as we were, with some pretty pink ponchos. Metal drums were pumping out warmth and a large van with a flat screen T.V was showing footage of the race - still about 40km away.
Looking up to the grey skies, the moment could not have been any more perfect. The cold had seeped through to the bone, but I felt alive. In the distance we could hear the music from the Caravan as it past our sector of cobbles.
Soon after that, it was the media and television helicopters circling some kilometres away. People started to shift away from the van to find a vantage point. We followed along the cobbles that look partially ride-able on T.V, but are scarily jagged and like ice in the wet. Walking on them was hard enough, let alone riding on them with skinny tyres.
The helicopters were right overhead now. Police escort vehicles came flying along to clear the path of excited fans. As the riders approached, we weren’t surprised to see the Belgium and Dutch riders leading the way - those of whom grew up racing in these conditions.
For the foreign riders not accustomed, there was fear in the eyes. They had already passed numerous cobbled sections by this point. The riders at the front were amped for the closing stages and concentrating intensively, whilst the riders behind appeared to be praying not to fall off.
The race went by as quickly as it came, so we then had to find a place to watch the remaining kilometres. Our man in the van had packed up, so we were left with a crowd of about 50 others to stand around a camper van with a 30cm T.V.
Lars Boom won that day and Vicenzo Nibali set-up his overall victory after crashes by Froome and Contador. Joss was chuffed that his Dutchman got-up. We were chuffed that our trip was exceeding our lofty expectations.
Jos drove another three hours in the rain to get us back to the Netherlands. The next day we were on the train to Brussels before making our way to Lyon, France. We had packed an enormous amount into the trip already. The group was abuzz with what lay ahead.