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French revolutions: A Tour de France bike trip

Trek Travel took over castle-like Chateau PichPauillac which made an ideal vantage point watch Tour riders race around Individual Time

Trek Travel took over the castle-like Chateau Pichon in Pauillac, which made an ideal vantage point to watch Tour riders race around the Individual Time Trial course.

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PYRENEES MOUNTAINS, France - I'm standing on the side of the road at the Tour de France, and Lance Armstrong is pedaling straight at me.

My excitement shifts to panic as the seven-time champion gets so close, I have to step back to avoid being the Schmuck Who Steve Bartman-ed Lance's Last Tour.

It's chilly up here near the summit of the Col du Tourmalet, the highest peak in this year's 23-day race. It doesn't help that my bike shorts are still wet from the morning's downpour. But I forget all that as I watch the world's best cyclists emerge from thick-as-smoke fog, passing me by on their final push to the day's mountaintop finish line.

Their tan, shaved, piston-like legs already have logged more than 100 miles today, and these last few clicks to the 6,939-foot summit are cruelly steep. I could see the pain on some of their faces. And in a small way, I could relate.

I'd pedaled up this beast of a mountain the day before on a Trek Travel biking vacation. Our group of 14 cycling enthusiasts was on the ultimate fan trip, following the Tour as it swung through the slopes of the Pyrenees all the way to the cobblestones of Paris.

We weren't just spectators in the prettiest sports stadium ever; we were pseudo-participants. On our Trek Madone road bikes - lower-rent versions of the ones Lance and his RadioShack teammates were riding - we got to tackle some of the race's toughest climbs before watching the pros do the same.

Over the course of a week in late July, we climbed about 21,000 feet - higher than Mt. McKinley. We also burned an obscene amount of calories, which meant I didn't have to feel guilty about eating my weight in foie gras and duck confit.

Talk about being in the middle of the action: Our bike tires picked up the still-fresh paint of riders' names sprayed on the roads. The same campers full of families and fans waiting to cheer on the likes of Lance, the lanky Luxembourger Andy Schleck and Spaniard Alberto Contador applauded and shouted "Allez! Allez!" as we granny-geared up sections of the grueling course.

Our weeklong trip got rolling in Lourdes, a kind of Catholic Las Vegas full of neon lights, tacky souvenir shops and a massive sanctuary that attracts 5 million pilgrims and tourists each year.

It seemed like everyone in Lourdes was on two wheels - attached to either bikes or chairs. The latter were hoping for a miracle cure courtesy of the waters that spring from the town's grotto, where a teenager named Bernadette claimed multiple sightings of the Virgin Mary in the 1800s.

I wished I'd topped off my water bottle with this powerful liquid as my quads screamed for mercy during a turtle-slow ascent of Tourmalet.

Miles of pavement - sometimes at an incline of 10 percent - snake up Tourmalet's grassy pastures peppered with cows, sheep, pigs, even llamas. Certain Tour de France climbs are assigned ratings, and Tourmalet gets the harshest of them all: HC, which stands for hors categorie. Or holy crap.

"I'm used to flat cornfields, not the road going up this much," said Paul Sommer from Valparaiso, Ind. The 48-year-old podiatrist was part of another Trek Travel group doing a trip similar to ours. After Sommer reached the top of Tourmalet, he took a photo at the summit and e-mailed it home to his two kids.

"This is a bucket-list trip for me," Sommer said. "I've been watching the Tour for 10 years. To actually be here now ... it's incredible. I was fighting back tears at the top of Tourmalet."

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the Tour going through the Pyrenees, the rugged mountain chain separating France and Spain.

It also marked the end of an era for Lance Armstrong, 38, who announced he's hanging up his bike helmet after this year's Tour.

This "last chance to see Lance" fueled a spike in 2010 Tour de France bike vacations. Madison, Wis.-based Trek Travel ran 10 cycling trips - each averaging about 23 guests - during the final week of the race. Demand hadn't been this high since 2005, when Lance announced his first retirement.

Not surprisingly, these trips tend to attract avid cyclists, especially during the mountainous stages in the Pyrenees and Alps. This isn't your Sunday afternoon spin on the Prairie Path. You should be comfortable spending at least four hours in the saddle and be able to do it again the next day. And the day after that. We rode between 32 and 66 miles a day - a lot of it going straight up.

My group was a pretty eclectic lot, from a 28-year-old Venezuelan man to a spunky 67-year-old woman from Hawaii who had an uncanny ability to identify just about every one of the nearly 200 riders in the Tour. A few folks in the group had done Ironman triathlons. A couple were doctors, which I thought would come in handy if I were to Superman off a wayward sheep during one of the roller coaster descents.

People generally rode at their own pace, but everyone came together when it was time to watch the pros. On the Tour's penultimate day in Bordeaux, Trek rented an entire chateau abutting the Individual Time Trial course. It was the cycling equivalent of a United Center luxury suite during the Stanley Cup finals. With a glass of white wine in one hand and a cowbell in the other, dozens of us spread out on the low wall lining the chateau's vineyard and rooted on the riders.

The next day, the pros traveled by high-speed rail to Paris for the finish. So did we. Trek hired its own TGV train to whisk us from Bordeaux to the City of Light. Once again, we had a sweet perch to watch the action. As the riders did their series of eight laps around the Champs-Elysees, we sipped Pommery Champagne, ate canapes served by tuxedoed waiters and peered down on the race from the balconies of the tony Automobile Club of France. Lance's mom, kids and very pregnant girlfriend were right alongside us.

When the race ended and Alberto Contador was crowned the winner by a 39-second margin, everyone filed downstairs to a restricted-access area where the team buses were parked. Most of the riders we'd spent the last week cheering for were milling around, posing for photos, signing autographs and celebrating the fact that they'd just cycled 2,263 miles and didn't have to get on their bikes tomorrow.

A big crowd gathered around the RadioShack bus waiting for the legendary Texan to surface. So I moseyed over to Contador's Astana bus, where groupies were popping open champagne bottles and biding time until their Spanish champion made an appearance.

As I poked my head around the back of the bus, I felt that same rush of excitement that had gripped me on Tourmalet. But this time it was Alberto Contador, in the yellow jersey, pedaling straight at me.

I could see the smile on his face. And in a small way, I could relate.

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored in part by the France Tourism Development Agency and Trek Travel.

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