An Impromptu Bike Trip: by Doug Nester
Toward the end of a two-week family trip to Europe we met up with Marty
and his daughter for a day of fun in Barcelona. At dinner that night Marty
mentioned that he had an open spot for his upcoming TDF trip to Belgium and
that I should extend my stay and join him. So two days later instead of
flying home to the U.S. I found myself cycling in Girona getting ready for
the trip to the TDF. Using borrowed clothes, helmet and bike I got in 2
rides before we hit the road for Belgium.
I had done 3 previous trips with mjct but this one would be unique since I
was joining the trip before “the trip”. This meant that I would be housing
with the guides for a couple days before we drove up to Belgium to meet the
other guests. Seeing the inner workings of the company prior to the trip
provided some insight into the reality of what goes into making the great
customer experience that I had received on my three previous trips.
Prepping the bikes, stocking up on supplies and briefing the guides, we’re
all part of the pre-trip routine.
While in Girona, I also had the nice opportunity to attend a special
ceremony that the town was throwing for Ryder Hesjedal in recognition of his
win at the Giro d’Italia. There were about 30 people in attendance as the
mayor congratulated Ryder. A good portion of the 30 were pro riders
including Christian VDV, David Millar, Daniel Martin and Matt Wilson.
Nothing like hanging out with someone (Marty) that is connected in the
cycling-rich town of Girona.
Marty Jemison - Ryder Hesjedal - Doug Nester
After two days in Girona, we (Marty, guide JP and myself) started our
1,300km drive to Ghent. We drove 700k in the first day and spent the night
in Beaune, France – in the heart of Burgundy. That night we ate at the
central square in the heart of the walled city. The highlight of the meal
was a 1999 Pommard from Francois Gaunoux.
We kicked off day three with a morning ride through the vineyards starting
on the Route des Grands Crus – a narrow road that winds through the best
vineyards in Burgundy. At various points we diverted from the Route and
jumped onto even smaller paved paths that traversed through the vineyards.
The ride included a punchy climb that ended on a rock faced hill with an
expansive view over the vineyards. This was followed by a quick descent
back into Beaune. The scenery and historical setting of the greatest Pinot
Noir plots in the world made for a great beginning to the trip. Following
the ride we loaded the van and hit the road for Belgium.
We wake in Ghent (after a great evening out in the old town sampling
some Belgian beers and eating at an outdoor café along the river). The main
mission for the first part of the day is to drive to the Decca factory in
Zottegem to pick up this season’s Jemison Cycling Tour jerseys. Decca is a
small family run business that is committed to “making products in Belgium
by Belgians”. In this day and age of global outsourcing it was great to
meet this crew that is committed to truly supporting its local roots. We
received a great tour of the plant and were some of the first outsiders to
see Decca’s new “Pro” line of clothing. This new line is truly impressive
and if you get a chance to score some gear from this line, jump on it.
Along with the Decca visit, we also had another task to accomplish in the
first half of the day. About five years prior, I had ridden the Jemison
Spring Classics Trip in the same region. On that trip, we found a great
local beer, Adriaen Brouwer – which is only available in a small radius in
this region. So it was a must to track down a case of AB – because it could
be at least another five years before one of us was back in the area.
With both tasks accomplished we were back in the van headed toward Liege.
The other guests would be arriving in Liege the next day – so Marty wanted
to get to Liege one night before and get things ready for their arrival.
Part of “getting things ready” included doing a recon of a couple of the
planned rides. So guide JP set out and did a recon of the Liege ride, while
Marty and I went the other direction to recon a new “three country ride”.
The planned ride was 100k and would take us from Belgium to Netherlands to
Germany and back. Marty had spent hours on the computer planning the ride,
but this would be the first time for actually riding it. If you’ve ever
been on an MJCT trip, you know that Marty is the master at finding the
wonderful, off-the-beaten-track roads that are incredible to ride. And this
ride definitely was off-the-beaten-track with multiple sections of hard
packed dirt, road base gravel and some of the smoothest sections of pavement
ever (the Americans can learn something from the Dutch on this front).
This ride also provided some great insight into how hard it is to put
together a truly great course. While Google Earth and other online mapping
tools are great for finding various roads – they are not 100% perfect in
conveying actual road conditions. For this reason, we were forced to take a
couple of detours and dig into our mountain biking instincts to navigate
some off-road roads. But this is precisely why we were out on a recon ride
- because by the next time we did this ride with the rest of the guests,
Marty had filled in the gaps and created a truly great ride that took us
smoothly through three different countries. Day 4 ended with a cold Adriaen
Brouwer enjoyed in the nice Belgian evening air.
Arrival day for the remainder of the guests. After a mid-day
arrival, bikes are quickly built and we saddle up for a ride into Liege and
a pre-ride of the next days Prologue Course – including a sprint across the
finish line and the obligatory photos of all of us on the podium (apparently
the security folks were off for the day). We finish off the ride by heading
back to the hotel – which was about 20k outside of town. The evening was
capped off by getting to know the other guests over dinner and wine at the
This is going to be a busy day – including the newly refined “three
country ride” and then followed by a viewing of the Prologue. The original
portion of the three country ride consisted of about 10K of rail trail
(primarily packed clay and dirt), however due to overnight rain, Marty
needed to alter the beginning. None-the-less, the new alteration was just
as scenic and all of the guests enjoyed the route and the memorable notion
of riding in three countries. After a quick shower we are into the van for
a quick drive into Liege.
It’s great to be around the TDF – incredible energy and excitement are in
the air. The entire Prologue course is lined 3-deep with spectators. We
find a decent spot to watch near the start of the course. We are still
early in the day and the favorites are about 60-90 minutes from starting.
At this point, Marty gets a text from an old team connection saying that he
has one pass (wrist band) for access into the team areas. Using a little
American ingenuity we parlay the one pass into access for 6! Now we are all
on the inside. My cycling sensors are on overload – first stop is the BMC
camp – Tejay and Big George are on warm-up bikes. Ultra focused, wearing
ice vests, yet still dripping in sweat…here comes Gilbert rolling in after
just finishing up his race, the Belgian press quickly swarm him. Next stop
is Team Sky – Wiggins is on the warm up bike looking very confident – he has
a significant herd of reporters nearby – then Cavendish comes out of the
bus, already showered and changed – his presence siphons off some of
Wiggins’ press. Over to Omega Pharma – Tony Martin and one of the Velits
are warming up. At Astana now, Vinokourov struts through, saddles up and
rolls out toward the start line. We continue to hit some of the other team
camps, many of the big names are warming up – Van den Broek, Vanendert,
Scarponi, Sanchez, Nibali… We then decide that it’s time to get back to
the live action so we wander over to the finish line. Marty spots Frankie
Andreu and he comes over for a photo opp with our group. The finish area is
exclusively off limits, but we sneak through the barriers and get down to
street level – we are standing about 100 meters past the finish line – we
see the last three riders come through – Voekler, Cancellara and Evans. We
sense the press corps getting antsy in anticipation of the podium ceremony.
A couple of us try to get within the herd of photographers – suddenly they
all make a break for the podium stage. Myself and a couple other guests
move with them – security guys are pulling people aside and preventing them
from getting up to the stage. I’m able to camouflage myself as a photog and
get within 3 people of the front of the stage – as far as I can tell it’s me
and 75 photographers. I’m within 10 feet of the stage as Cancellara is
awarded the yellow jersey and Tejay VG gets the white. Wow – what a thrill.
2nd Stage of TDF – Liege to Seraing. Today we ride the last portion
of the course and end at the finishing town of Seraing. The course is
“lumpy” with no real hills, outside of the final 2.5km which has a steep
gradient with a mix of cobbles and pavement. At about 5km out, Marty
accelerates and the group gets spread out – three of us regroup at the
bottom of the final climb – the barriers are up and there are a number of
people already lining the course. We all do our best as we get a bit of
applause and encouragement – we are able to make it clean to the 1k banner
before we are pulled off the course by the Federale. We U-turn and roll
back down the hill. We find a great little bar that is perfectly situated
at the base of the final climb. Guide JP does an excellent job of parking
right next to the bar – so that we can do a quick change before we grab some
primo seats outside of the bar. We enjoy a couple Belgium beers and some
lunch as we wait for the riders to arrive. Today is also our first exposure
to the TDF Caravan and the competition within our group for who can collect
the best TDF swag is underway.
Following the Caravan we decide to walk about halfway up the hill to a point
where the climb is steepest and takes a 90 degree turn. The crowds are
heaviest here and it takes us a bit to find a good spot. We get nicely
situated and have a great view as the leaders make the ascent. Cancellara,
Peter Sagan, Van den Broek, Chavenel, Albasini and Tony Martin make the turn
together. With just over 1km to go, Sagan takes the win and formally
announces his arrival to the TDF. Another great day at the Tour!
3rd Stage of TDF – Vise to Tournai. Today we ride the first part of
the course – starting just outside of Liege. The terrain is mostly flat
through the farmlands of this region. It makes for enjoyable, low stress
riding. The highlight of the stage comes as the course hits the town of
Namur – at the center of the town is the Citadel – a fortress that was
originally built during the Roman era. The fortress is set on a hill at the
confluence of two rivers. There are cobbled roads that climb the hill and
enter the gates of the Citadel. The plan is to climb to the Citadel and
then find a good stopping point to watch the pros come through. The climb
into the Citadel is very memorable – how often can you climb a cobbled road
into a Roman era fortress while people line the sides and cheer you on?
Incredible! After we get to the top we U-turn and roll back down the hill
in search of the primo viewing spot. JP once again comes through with the
parking karma as he finds a great spot for the van inside the fortress. We
change and enjoy a quality meal from the cooler. Adriean Brouwer also makes
a timely appearance.
This is also Day 2 of the TDF swag comp and the competitive energy is rising
a bit. Once the caravan is gone, we find a good spot on a stone wall that
provides a great view down toward the switchbacks that climb up to the
Citadel and will also provide a good view as they enter the top of the
climb. I experience the rush again as the 198 super humans blow over the
climb and through the Citadel. Tonight is a hotel change, so we jump in the
van and head toward Ghent. About an hour before Ghent, we pull into a small
town with the goal of finding a TV to watch the end of the stage. We are
successful – we pile into a small bar and the owner sets us up in our own
viewing area. We catch the end of the race as Cavendish takes the win. I
remember that the beer was quite cold.
TDF Stage 3 – Orchies to Boulogne-sur-mer. Today the Tour de France
leaves Belgium and continues the race into France. The schedule for the day
is to ride the last 100km of the course and get into Boulogne-sur-mer in
time to catch the finish. Marty is also taking a day off from riding, so it
will be the four guests and JP trying to navigate our way in. We start the
day by driving a couple hours from Ghent to our designated starting point
about 100k from BSM. We find a nice little town and park in the lot of the
Garage Café. We stop in for a final Grande Caffe, mingle with the locals
and then hit the road. The majority of the ride is through country,
farmland and small towns. The group breaks into two – and three of us find
ourselves ahead of the other two and become excited about the challenge of
dealing with the local Police and course officials (after watching Marty
handle this task for the first three days, we now take it on ourselves).
We are riding on the course and are probably about 90 minutes ahead of the
Caravan. Although it is early in the day, the crowds are starting to
congregate – especially within the towns and at the top of the climbs. As
we enter each successive town, we must deal with the local Police Municipale
who do not want us to ride on the roads within their town. So when we come
to a new town, we typically dismount, walk half a block and then get back
on. Each time, we laugh about the silliness of this.
Today is also our biggest climbing day, within the last 35k there are 5
short, steep, categorized climbs. Each of these climbs is already habited
by good sized crowds. We get a great reception from the spectators as we
ascend. Some competitiveness exists within our group as we climb each
successive hill. As we get closer to the finish, we start to sense an
oddity about our situation – it has been a long time since we have seen any
other bikers and we have a completely clean course to ourselves. When we
get to about 10k out, we start to see more Police and course officials. We
then get passed by a rider in a Green Edge kit followed by a team car – we
think that he might be scouting the course. We accelerate and get to about
60′ behind the rider and then maintain that gap. As the rider and the team
car enter small towns and roundabouts the Police wave them through, we are
close enough to them to be able to get through as well. At some point they
pull off the course and it is back to just the three of us. We hit a fast
descent that takes us toward the center of Boulogne-sur-mer, we pass the 3k
banner and all is still good; we pass the 2k banner and we sense that this
is going to be special. We pass the 1k banner and we are now within the
barriers – the road turns sharply up for a steep finish. The sides are
packed and spectators begin cheering us on like we are in the peloton.
People are leaning over the barriers, pounding on the wood placards lining
the barriers – it is one of the most surreal moments ever. I try to go hard
while at the same time laughing to myself about how incredible this is. I
pass the 700m sign; then 500m, all is still good. People cheering loudly.
I can’t believe this is real. At 250m the road turns sharply right, just at
that point the road is lined with Police and I am directed off the course.
I get just off the course and wait a couple seconds for Kevin and Frank.
Once they arrive we just look at each other and start laughing about how
ridiculously cool that experience was.
We roll away from the course and track down Marty. We find a great outdoor
café that has a large flat screen – pull up a table and enjoy a great lunch
and a couple Belgian beers. The initial plan was to eat lunch and then head
over to see the finish. However, after the incredible experience of riding
the course followed by a solid lunch and the cold beverages, it is a
unanimous vote to stay put and watch the finish on the TV. Once the town
clears, we drive back into Ghent and have a great final dinner in the old
Today is departure day and I am leaving with incredible memories, a
rush from riding 9 days and the satisfaction of meeting 3 other quality guys
and cyclists. This is my fourth trip with Marty and Jill and each of them
has delivered a fantastic cycling experience that I could not have created
on my own. I look forward to the next opportunity.
Photos from our trip can be found here: http://www.martyjemison.com/album/tour_de_france_liege/index.html