RCUKTravel: watching the biggest races

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RCUKTravel: watching the biggest races

A cycling holiday is typically one that involves riding, but this is not always the case.  

For fans of bike racing, specialist tours to watch the biggest events on the professional calendar offer a different thrill.

Cycling photographer, Roz Jones, and former professional, Marcelino Garcia, winner of the 1997 Criterium International and rider for the ONCE and CSC teams, offer trips where riding is an option, but not compulsory.

Cycling tours do not necessarily involve riding – for the guests, at least. Many specialist tours exist for fans wishing to watch the sport’s biggest races. Pic: Roz Jones

In the fourth installment of our travel series, we caught up with Jones, to learn about the logistics of the cycle racing holiday, and how working with an experienced and respected former member of the ProTour presents opportunities of its own.

Jones and Marcelino started On the Road Cycling Tours in 2010 after Marce, as Jones refers to him throughout our conversation, had guided her and her partner Paul on their early trips to the Tour.

The couple had made their first pilgrimage to cycling’s most hallowed race alone in 2005; cycling fanatics whose experience of watching professional cycling as far as television broadcasts. “We were two people, absolute novices, without a clue about how to watch bike racing,” Jones laughs. A map of the following day’s stage to Pau, hastily purchased from a newsagent close to their hotel in Lourdes, gave them a start, but having recced the stage, they found themselves thwarted when they tried to reach their chosen spot the following day. “We discovered road closures, and the difficulties of doing it yourself if you know absolutely nothing.”

Trips in subsequent years were booked with other specialist tour operators, giving Jones, a talented photographer with ambitions to join the select group of lensmen and women granted access all areas passes to cycling’s biggest races, the idea for her business. “I quite like planning things in stupid detail!” she jokes. “The idea of planning cycling trips appealed. I like planning. I like cycling. I like holidays.

“With my photography, I was thinking, the more races I go to, the more pictures I’ll take, the more I’ll improve and then have a chance of becoming a professional photographer with a place on the finish line.” Easy.

The On The Road Cycling Tours van is a frequent sight at the biggest continental races

Easier, of course, with a man on the inside. Step forward ‘Marce’, the man on the bike with On The Road’s riding guests, while Roz takes care of the non-cyclists. Garcia’s friendships in the peloton, his familiarity with its routines and rhythms, affords opportunities to get close to the riders.

A trip to this year’s Vuelta a Espana, for example, involved an impromptu meeting with the most famous of the home riders not taking part. 2008 Olympic road race champion, Samuel Sanchez, might have thought he had the brutal Alto de L’Angliru, a notable absentee from this year’s Vuelta, to himself in early September.

“We’d driven past him, noticed this guy in Euskaltel kit, and thought, ‘He looks quite pro,’” Jones recalls. “Then we noticed all the gold and everybody said: ‘It’s Samu!’” The recollection is briefly halted as Jones laughs at the memory of her star-struck party, and of her business partner’s subsequent nonchalance. “Further on, when we met up with the cyclists, and Marce said, ‘Oh yes, we’ve just been talking to him. He’ll be back down in a minute.”

The Eusklatel team leader, overall winner in April of the Tour of the Basque Country, had been performing hill reps on the most feared climb in Spanish cycling to prepare for the Tour of Britain after crashing out of the Tour de France on stage eight and injuring a shoulder. He can’t have been expecting an interruption, but was charm personified, says Jones, answering questions, posing for photographs, but politely declining the offer of biltong.

Euskaltel-Euskadi team leader, Samuel Sanchez, the 2008 Olympic road race champion, was happy to pose for photos with On The Road’s guests after a chance encounter on the Alto de L’Angliru

Planning and logistics can seem far removed from the colour and excitement of cycle racing, but the two go hand in hand, Jones says. She points out the drawbacks of securing a spot on a Tour climb that requires an eight hour journey from the mountain at the end of the stage. For a hungry group at the end of a long day, particularly its cycling element, such foresight is precious.

Jones is first and foremost a cycling fan. On The Road Cycling Tours has grown from her love of the sport, not from her passion for planning. She recalls her first Tour in 2005, and being amazed by the scale of the event, and the number of people involved. “Crazy, but fantastic!” is how she describes the experience.

Typically, her guests travel from outside of Europe, often from Australian, South Africa, and the USA. The greater the distance travelled to reach the race, the greater the need for reassurance, she reasons. English guests, though, are not uncommon, and often form a part of the small groups (with a maxmimum of 14 guests) that make up the trip. They are men and women, cyclists and non-cycling fans, single and married, couples, and male riders enjoying a few days in the saddle before being joined by girlfriends later in the week.

The split between non-cyclists and cyclists is typically weighted in the non-cyclists favour, she says, and those not riding enjoy a longer breakfast, time to explore the town and meet its people, and to get to know the other guests better. They’ll often meet up with the cyclists on the drive to the race, typically at a coffee stop, but their day is not structured around the cyclists. “We don’t just follow the cyclists around in a van,” Jones explains, “although I’ve heard of some that do.” Her guests are likely to arrive early at the chosen spot from which to view the race, in time to choose a restaurant for lunch, or to find a bar screening the race and enjoy some banter with the locals before the event rolls into town.

Some of On The Road’s guests take in cycling, but many travel simply to experience the races

Classics offer a different logistical challenge to Grand Tours, says Jones. On The Road ran a 10-night Classics trip this year, taking in the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, as well as Scheldeprijs, the GP Pino Cerami, visits to the Tour of Flanders Museum, and the Eddy Merckx factory. While the Classics courses are often designed to allow spectators to see the riders pass two or three times, she says, the group’s schedule is more important than on stage races where the start and finish impose an itinerary.

It’s obvious that turning her hobby into a job hasn’t dimmed Jones’ passion for cycling. She describes watching races on the television and “itching to get out there.” For the guests who accompany her, and the well-connected Garcia, the opportunity for a memorable cycling experience is available, whether or not they are riding.

At the races: three more spectating options

Active 4 Adventures offer a host of spectating trips, including a series of packages for next year’s hundredth edition of the Tour de France. The Alps and Paris seven-night, VIP tour takes in Oisans, l’Alpe d’Huez, Le Grand Bornand, and the Champs Elysees.

La Fuga offer a range of different breaks, from training camps to dual riding-spectating tours, such as the Cobbled Classics week, in which guests can ride both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix sportives before watching the professional races.

Sports Tours International offer trips to the legendary Ghent Six track races, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the Tour de France among others. Additionally, they are staging a trip to the final weekend of the 2013 Giro d’Italia, taking in the climbs of the Gavia and Stelvio, the Queen stage from Silandro and Tre Cime Lavaredo and the final stage in Brescia.

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