The L'Alpe d'Huez stage of the Tour de France was on the television -- 13.8 kilometers, 21 switchbacks, 7.9 percent grade. Three Steamboat Springs men -- Ian Prichard, Barkley Robinson and Joe Sternberg -- walked into a French cafe to watch the epic climb. They were traveling with Prichard's cousin, Parisian Philippe Crist. He led them through the crowd and into a smoky back room.
"The room was full of fat guys, smoking and drinking and watching cycling," Prichard said. "It was like they were watching football."
They sat down to watch that day's stage of the Tour and looked around in awe at the stark contrast between American and European cycling fans.
"Here, the only cycling fans are people who are really into cycling," Sternberg said. "But in France, these riders are complete rock stars. Kids know every rider. It was pretty neat to see.
"They really have a great respect for cycling in France. Here (in the states) you're just lucky if you don't get hit by a car."
Prichard's cousin and the group's tour guide is an amateur cyclist in France, enjoying the same passion as the Steamboat trio.
Prichard had never met his cousin before last year. His mother met Crist at a wedding about a year and a half ago. When conversation wandered toward her cyclist son, Crist's eyes lit up.
Crist demanded that his American cousin join him for the Tour that summer.
When Prichard returned to Steamboat after a whirlwind cycling tour of the Alps and after feeling the excitement as a spectator at the Tour, he was ready to go back, this time with friends.
He invited Sternberg, his business partner in Black Tie Ski Rentals, and longtime cycling buddy, Robinson. In the end, they were five, including Prichard's cousin and his Irish friend.
As soon as the route of the Tour was announced in October, Crist made reservations at rural bed and breakfasts along the way and e-mailed the men a two-week itinerary of riding and watching.
"You would usually pay thousands of dollars for a trip like this," Prichard said.
This year's Tour route focused on the Pyrenees mountains in the south of France.
"You are in the mountains, but it is green and lush from the humidity," Sternberg said. "And it was a lower elevation than Steamboat. It was a whole different riding experience."
They rented a van for five guys and five bikes and Robinson had to prove himself behind the wheel, steering the giant van through the fast, narrow streets of Paris.
They headed out of the city and into the teeming French countryside. Even a week before racers would arrive, French families had staked their spots at each stage.
"In some spots it looked like a dealership, there were so many RVs," Robinson said.
The highlight of the trip took place July 16 when the five men joined a pack of 7,500 cyclists from all over the world for a citizen's race called L'Etape du Tour.
The race goes through the mountain stage of the Tour from Pau to Bayonne, a week before the real tour arrives.
"It's a real celebration of the Tour," Sternberg said. About 7,500 people show up to ride the stage and about 1,500 of those race.
As the five men watched Tyler Hamilton, the racer who broke his collarbone one day into the race, win the 16th stage a week later, "we knew every corner of that stage," Sternberg said.
The men spent the rest of their time in France riding stages of the race -- linking legendary climbs from this year's Tour and climbs from 2002.
"Where we build hiking trails, they build roads," Prichard said.
Prichard's cousin rides for his local team, and he likes to ride fast. "He enjoyed having the three of us there to ride with him."
It was an exhausting endeavor to follow the tour. They were traveling 200 kilometers to get to each start, battling thousands of people to get there.
"We just had to become French for that time. We assimilated," Sternberg said.
If people think they can just go to France, Prichard said, they are mistaken. "We watched three stages in five days and we were exhausted."
Wannabe Tour spectators are better off picking a couple of stages that they really want to see, Robinson said. "And bring a bike. If you have a bike you can just ride up the course two or three hours ahead of the racers."
Which they did.
"People were cheering us along as we passed," Sternberg said. "They just applaud effort.
"It was so cool to be there with people from Germany, Denmark, France and Spain. Overall they were so positive."
"Sure, Lance Armstrong got his share of boos," Prichard said. "But that was another cool thing, they just cheer for everybody."
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