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Tour de Doldrums

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“Alas, you know, ’tis far from hence to France…” ~William Shakespeare (Henry VI, Part III, IV, i)

I haven’t felt like writing anything lately.  Every year around this time I, along with countless others around the world, enter a real phase of melancholy brought on by le fin of the Tour de France.  For 23 days each July, cycling fans are glued to all types of media to garner every possible detail about the 22 teams racing around France.  We watch 198 professional riders roll off the start line on Day 1, perched on the edges of our seats and waiting for the inevitable stories of human drama that will unfold over the next three weeks.  We count down each kilometer as they make their way on winding French roads through unimaginable and literal mountainous obstacles. We hold our breath with every crash, suffer through unending commercials from revenue-hungry networks, and cheer on our fan favorites as they turn themselves inside out for historical glory.

And then all of a sudden we blink and we’re watching the weary and wounded roll into Paris three weeks later, on the last day of the race.  The contingent is usually around 160 riders by that time, depending on the number and severity of the crashes, the amount of sidelining sickness within the peloton, and the number of stupid mistakes yet made by some (yes there are still, incredibly, unbelievably, riders who still get thrown out for doping in this day and age [thankfully it was only one guy this year], but this year’s “DUH” award goes to the rookie rider who though it would be ok to hitch a short ride in a team car in order to get a flat tire fixed.  Jumped in the backseat right in front of the race referee…they should’ve given him a bobble head trophy which continually shakes its head in disbelief.)

map_route

For me, my typical Tour day here at home would involve getting up early to catch the live broadcast each morning (both on TV and via online links to European stations), which would begin anywhere between 5:00-7:00 AM and would usually last around 4 hours.  (I always feel bad for the Australia fans during the Tour, coverage for them is in the middle of the night, from about 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM.)  Then there was an evening recap broadcast from 7:00-10:00 each night but I would usually only watch the last hour or so of that one to catch any new interviews or analysis.  (I would walk 3.5 miles on the treadmill each day while watching the morning live race so that I wouldn’t feel quite so couch potato-ish.) 

During the in-between hours, I would catch up on Twitter for race and rider commentary, team videos, and news stories, which probably took another 2-3 hours each day.  Then there were online podcasts to listen to from journalists at the Tour, another hour or so daily.  (The Tour is the most reported-on sporting event in the world each year, so there is a copious amount of information available each day.)  I was on vacation from work this entire time, so the Tour became my stand-in occupation.  Would that I could only be paid for the vast amount of Tour de France knowledge absorbed by my brain during the month of July…I’d be a rich woman.

Signs seen in Leeds storefronts for the 2014 TdF,

Signs seen in Leeds storefronts for the 2014 TdF, “Yellow is the New Black; Proud Supporters of the World’s Greatest Cycle Race.”

A supporting storefront in Harrogate, Stage 1 of 2014 TdF.

A supporting storefront in Harrogate, Stage 1 of 2014 TdF.

I can’t really explain my obsession (although I did try in this past post).  It’s tough to be a cycling fan after the revealing history of the past several years.  Part of it comes from the two Tours I’ve had the privilege of seeing in person – in France 2010 (in the Alps) and in England in 2014 (for the Grand Depart).  Once you’ve felt the electric current of the race up close and personal, once you’ve experienced the biggest sporting event in the world in person, you watch with a certain loyalty and nostalgia of one who remembers the awe.  It does take a lot of loyal fan commitment to stick with the race through three entire weeks.  But when you really take time to learn the race and see what it takes for one man, let alone 160 of them, to finish this massive accomplishment, often limping through the final stages with broken ribs and bandaged limbs but surviving on hope of riding into Paris on that last day – well, it just kind of hooks you I guess.  

Mark Cavendish before the Grand Depart on Stage 1 in Leeds, 2014 TdF.

Mark Cavendish before the Grand Depart on Stage 1 in Leeds, 2014 TdF.

Press Commentary boxes on the finish line in Harrogate for Stage 1, 2014 TdF.

Press Commentary boxes on the finish line in Harrogate for Stage 1, 2014 TdF.

And after that last Sunday, when the final rider has rolled across the finish line on the famous Champs-Élysées and the volume of Twitter chat takes a sudden plunge a few hours later, fans are left to face the following days in an empty vacuum.  The romanticism of the race has ended for another year.  We wonder what to do with empty hours that used to be filled with fantastical images of French scenery (we miss you, polka-dot cows).  We manage a small smile in wistful remembrance when overplayed commercials we used to hate now populate other programs.  We flip the calendar to August and hobble back into work (a few pounds heavier for all the croissants we’ve consumed), wondering which races the riders will do next (and how can we secretly watch them while at the office).

But mostly, we just start counting down to next July.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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Tour de France 2015 Croissant Comparison

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“This is the excellent foppery of the world…” ~William Shakespeare (King Lear, I, ii)

The 2015 Tour de France is just over one-third of the way through its 23-day jaunt around the French countryside, having started on July 4th in the neighboring Netherlands and slated for its traditional finish in Paris on July 26th.  One cannot profess to be a serious Tour de France fan without consuming at least a few handfuls of croissants (and/or baguettes) during those three weeks, and so, as a pure service to fellow French pastry fans (of course, there was no personal gain in this for me whatsoever, ahem) I have conducted a thorough comparison of some of the rumored-best croissants in the Austin area.

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d'Huez).

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d’Huez).

I did some of my own croissant research ahead of time to find out the highest rated and most popular bakeries in the area to help me decide where to go.  I decided to compare both plain butter croissants as well as chocolate croissants from each source, because, well, they’re both very delicious options.  (In French we say “pain au chocolate” instead of chocolate croissant, and it’s important to know this doesn’t mean it’s made from chocolate dough, but rather there is supposed to be a bit of chocolate piped into the middle of regular pastry dough.)  I also did limit myself geographically to central and north Austin (to save on gas $$$), and I put an upper spending limit on what I’d buy: no more than $3 per croissant (because anything more than that is just crazy talk).

The reviews are also listed in the order in which I purchased and tried them, not necessarily in ranked order.  Croissants were sampled from:

  1. Upper Crust Bakery
  2. La Madeleine Country French Cafe
  3. San Francisco Bakery & Cafe
  4. Quack’s 43rd St Bakery
  5. Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

You now have two more weeks of the Tour to take full advantage of this very important information, so allons-y, read it and eat:

1)  Upper Crust Bakery (4508 Burnet Road, Austin 78756; cocktail/small size Plain Butter Croissant $1.45, cocktail/small size Chocolate Croissant $1.90)

Upper Crust Bakery & Cafe

Upper Crust Bakery

I’d heard about Upper Crust for quite a while now but for some reason I’d never been there since moving to Austin.  It’s both a large full bakery and a cafe with quite a bit of seating for those wishing to dine in.  When I arrived around noon, they were already sold out of their regular-size croissants so I had to settle for their “cocktail” size options instead, which was fine because they were still a decent size and less than $2.00 each.

The plain croissant had nice layers inside but no flakiness of the crust (which I consider essential to a croissant), the bottom was nicely browned but not too much, I could taste the butter (and visible yellow egg layer) inside, and it had very nice “pull-apart” action from the ends with a decent chewiness.  I thought it was good but not great.  The chocolate croissant had a cinnamon-sugar topping which I didn’t care for at all (it made it too sweet in addition to the chocolate), and a decent amount of chocolate inside that was not overly sweet (which is good).  However it had a soft donut-y cake-y type texture instead of typical croissant layers; for that reason and because of the topping, it was my least favorite of the chocolate croissants in this review.

2)  La Madeleine Country French Cafe (9828 Great Hills Tr, Austin 78759; Plain Butter Croissant $1.89, Chocolate Croissant $2.79)

La Madeleine

La Madeleine

La Madeleine is a chain-restaurant mostly in the south and southwestern US that also has within each location its own small bakery, focusing on French-themed pastries.  The butter croissant was a great size for the cost and had a very buttery taste indeed; the color on the outside was a little too brown in my opinion, but it had good pull-apart action, a very good chewiness on the inside, and its taste overall was very good.  My main issue with this croissant was that it had too much space/air inside of it and not enough substance (see picture below).

The chocolate croissant had a really nice flakiness on the crust and decent layers inside, and its butter flavor was good and not too strong.  The chocolate was a nice dark-tasting chocolate but unfortunately there was just hardly any of it – as you can see from the picture below, the chocolate “tunnels” inside were near-empty; my other issue with this one is that they gave me an extremely small size croissant from the bakery rack, which was probably half the size of the ones in the display case – I had to hand it back and ask for a regular-sized one instead of a mini-one.  The baker seemed miffed at this and said “well they all proof to different sizes.”  Ok then, if you’re going to give me a mini-one, charge me for a mini-one ($.99); if you’re going to charge me nearly three times the cost of a mini-one, then give me a decent-sized croissant.  Thank you.

La Madeleine - near empty chocolate "tube"

La Madeleine – near empty chocolate “tube”


La Madeleine - big empty space inside butter croissant

La Madeleine – big empty space inside butter croissant

3)  San Francisco Bakery & Cafe (2900 W. Anderson Ln, Austin 78757; Plain Butter Croissant $2.09, Chocolate Croissant $2.39)

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

I’ve been to San Francisco before for lunch with a friend but hadn’t tried its pastries before.  They have a small bakery case up front by the register but the place is mostly a cafe.  I thought their butter croissant had a great butter taste and smell, excellent dough-y layers and chewiness, and great flakiness of crust.  It was a good size, not too large or too small, and although the bottom of it was a little too browned, in my opinion this was the best of the bunch that I reviewed.

Unfortunately the chocolate croissant was not the best of the bunch, mostly due to the overly sweet and too-rich chocolate inside – there was a decent amount of chocolate but it had way too high of a sugar content for my taste.  The crust was also too dark and the croissant part itself tasted a little bland; however there were good layers inside, good crust flakiness outside, and it wasn’t at all cake-y.  My biggest issue at San Fran was the prices – for the size of the croissants, I thought they were pretty expensive.  Many of the chocolate croissants in the display case were literally half the size as some of the others, yet they were charging the same price for all of them.  Ask for a larger-sized one and they’ll give it to you.

4) Quack’s 43rd St Bakery (411 E. 43rd St, Austin 78751; Plain Butter Croissant $2.25, Chocolate Croissant $2.99)

Quack's Bakery & Cafe's HUGE croissants

Quack’s HUGE croissants

I’d never even heard of Quack’s before I did the research for this post, but I’m glad I know about them now.  They had a LOT of fantastic-looking baked goods in their multiple display cases, and when I saw the croissants I had to ask them “are those the giant sizes, do you have any regular or mini-sized ones?”  (They don’t.)  Their croissants are HUGE, which is good because they’re also expensive, but really it’s like you’re getting two croissants in one so it’s not so bad.  Their plain butter croissant had amazing flaky crust layers outside and a good color, while the inside was very airy (almost too much so); it had a good chewiness but there was a lack of a real buttery taste inside.  It was very good but not the best I’d had.

Airy layers of Quack's butter croissant

Airy layers of Quack’s butter croissant


Impressive flaky layers of Quack's chocolate croissant

Impressive flaky crust layers

However the chocolate croissant – oh my WOW.  The best layered croissant by far that I sampled (see picture below), both outside and inside.  Excellent layers.  The croissant was a bit flat and not raised like some of the others, but I’m assuming that’s because all the butter in those layers weighed it down a bit.  This croissant was also humongous, way larger than any of the other chocolate ones I tried, but unfortunately its chocolate tunnels were tiny in proportion to its size and there was a minimal amount of chocolate inside.  The chocolate that was there though tasted high quality, dark-chocolatey and not overly sweet.  The non-chocolate part of the croissant tasted just ok, but it was really the layers that made this one shine.

The unending layers of Quack's chocolate croissant.

The unending layers of Quack’s chocolate croissant.

5) Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery (6808 N. Lamar, Austin 78752; Plain Butter Croissant $2.00, Chocolate Croissant $2.00)

I’d also never heard of Tous Les Jours before this project.  They’re a Korean bakery that also makes French and European pastries and apparently it’s a chain with 30 US locations; the atmosphere inside the Austin location is nice and they have trays and trays of breads and pastries laid out in the non-cafe area; you’re supposed to grab a tray and some tongs, pick your pastries, and then the cashier goes through this elaborate ritual of putting each pastry in its own swanky little plastic bag and sealing it with a gold twisty tie.  I’m not a fan of breads and pastries being out in the open air, where just anyone (most of the trays are right at kid eye-level) can put their germy hands and fingers on them if they want or flies with poopy feet can land on them if they make it in through a door.  I guess I like it better when they’re in pastry cases or behind the register where the baker can hand you your baguette if you will.

touslesjours1

Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

My first impression of the butter croissant selection was that most of them were pretty small for the $2.00 price.  On the other hand, I thought that the same price of $2.00 that they were charging for the pain au chocolate was reasonable.  They did also have teeny-tiny mini-versions of each of these too, literally maybe two bites max, for $1.00 each.  (They were the smallest chocolate croissants I’d ever seen, I didn’t even know you could make them that small.)  The butter croissant was probably my least favorite out of all the ones tried – it was almost completely flat, as if the doughy layers inside were just too heavy to hold themselves up.  There was a decent flakiness to the outside crust, but inside there was a yeasty rather than buttery smell and taste; in fact, I couldn’t really taste any butter in it at all, although the inside was very greasy.  Overpriced for the quality.

Unfortunately their pain au chocolate was not much better.  It had a strange shiny, sticky glaze over the outside top layer which did not smell or taste good, and glued down all the flakiness; I actually had to peel off the top layer because I found it very unappetizing.   This croissant was also very flat, the dough layers were good but too heavy, and there was a very minimal amount of chocolate inside (I had a hard time even tasting it).  I couldn’t detect any butter taste at all, and like its companion, I wished it had been more airy and less heavy.

One bakery/cafe I can highly recommend that I’ve been to before but did not include in this review is Baguette et Chocolate Authentic French Bakery (12101 Bee Cave Rd, Bee Cave TX 78738), it’s just too far for me usually.  I did go to a few other bakeries that had been recommended but didn’t get croissants for them for different reasons:

  • Texas French Bread (2900 Rio Grande, Austin 78705) wanted $3.75 PER CROISSANT (!!!)…and they were about half the size of Quack’s bigger croissants; when I asked why they were so expensive I was told “we use real butter and cream.”  And?  Are those particular cows dipped in chocolate and rolled in gold shavings?  Sorry, those prices are way too high for me (and probably for most university students in the area, but they tend to cater to Austin’s “celebrity” clientele I hear, *coughlancearmstrongcough*).
  • Phoenicia Bakery (4701 Burnet, Austin 78756) told me they only make/offer croissants three days a week, but the guy behind the counter couldn’t tell me which specific days.  There were none available when I was there.
  • Bee’s Knees Bakeshop (109 Cypress Creek Rd, Cedar Park 78613) is gluten-free only, so they don’t make bread items like croissants.

Well, my job here is done.  I do believe I’ve eaten my last croissant for the next 12 months or so, and I may have to fast now for the rest of the Tour.  Next year’s Tour de France food review, I’ve already decided, will be the Battle of the Baguettes.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Summer Staycation Movies, Review #1: Legends, Lotteries and Loopholes

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“Winning will put any man into courage.” ~William Shakespeare (Cymbeline, I, iv)

I’m off work for the next several weeks on a staycation summer break.  This time last year I was on a trip-of-a-lifetime in England on a 3-week jaunt around the country, including an amazing experience at the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in Leeds, Harrogate & York.  Since my bank account and credit cards can only handle a big trip like that every other year or so, this summer I’ll be:  watching the Tour in all its French fantasticality on TV, sampling croissants from various bakeries around town to accompany my Tour-watching, fish-mail-plant-and-baby-bird sitting for various family members who are all off on RV trips across America and Canada, and hopefully doing some freelance floral design work along with building aspects of my own business.  (For those of you wondering why I’m obsessed with the Tour de France each year, please refer back to this post from two years ago, still relevant today: Why I’m Still In Love With the Tour de France.)

I also thought I’d get in some quality movie time and pass along my FWIW reviews of the films I watch each week during vacation.  I’ll keep the reviews short and to the point, and maybe they’ll inspire some of you to watch (or avoid) them as well.  I’d like to focus on true old-movie classics (TCM-types) but I can’t promise that an ’80’s big hair gem or a current day blockbuster won’t sneak in there as well.  So without further ado, let’s get to the reviews of the movies I’ve watched since my vacation officially started last Friday:

1) Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967; Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton)

darg.600.1I’ve been a fan of this movie for many years now, but it’s probably been 10 or more years since I last watched it.  Those of you who know me best will understand why this film really hits home for me personally, but I also think it should be a movie that everyone should watch at some point.  I wish I could go back in time to experience the visceral societal reaction that this film elicited back in 1967, as it must’ve been a powerful window with which to peer in on humanity.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s the nutshell (and by the way the movie takes place all in the span of one day): Sidney Poitier plays Dr. John Prentice, a tropical medicine doctor who meets and quickly falls in love with Joey Drayton, a woman much younger than him who also happens to be white.  Joey brings John back to her parents’ home in San Francisco not only to introduce him to her aging parents, Matt & Christina (played by movie legends Tracy & Hepburn), but also to spring upon them that they’ve gotten engaged and plan to move to Switzerland together to be married (all in the span of a week).  The rest of the movie deals with the reactions of all the parents (John’s fly up from Los Angeles to have dinner with the group too) to this bombshell news and to the fact that their children are racing into an interracial marriage.

Despite its civil rights iconic status, the movie’s not without its faults.  The soundtrack consists of only one song, “Glory of Love,” played many different ways all throughout the film, and after about the second playing, you want to strangle the sound guy or producer who made that decision.  The missing lenses in Spencer Tracy’s glasses throughout the entire movie is distracting (why did they do that?).  And why wasn’t the huge age difference (15 years) between John and Joey more of an issue to her parents, she was practically a baby (I guess that wasn’t such a big deal back then but still).  But it more than makes up for those issues with two of the all-time greatest speeches in movie history: Hepburn’s awe-inspiring shakedown of her gallery assistant, and Tracy’s famous 8-minute life-lesson monologue at the end.  There’s also a really groovy dance spot between the house and the butcher’s van, man.

I have a newly found appreciation and soft spot for this movie now, both after my own life experience and after some research I did on it; it was only as of watching it a few days ago that I found out it was Spencer Tracy’s last film (he was in extremely poor health during the movie and died just 17 days after filming the last scene), and that Katharine Hepburn’s tears during his last monologue were real, as she knew they would never act together again, and that she would probably soon lose him.  She’d been his life partner for 26 years but theirs was a behind-the-scenes relationship, literally (he was married to someone else that whole time but he lived with Hepburn); watching her watch him in that last scene, and knowing that she would never watch the film once it came out (“it was too painful,” she said), that she would be the one to be with him to the very end, and that she would not attend his funeral out of respect for his family…it’s all so tragically poetic.  The movie makes you laugh and breaks your heart all at the same time; in my book that’s a good movie.

2) Waking Ned Divine (1998; Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flannagan)

large_5rpJUAq2CTRmYUxiWRlrllBsqsxWhat a great movie!  I also had not seen this movie in probably 8 or 10 years and forgot how funny it was in parts (in that kind of quirky British humor way).  In case you haven’t seen it yet I won’t give away too much of the plot, but it revolves around a small village in Ireland (really small, only 52 people) and what happens after one of them wins the national lottery.  And while the village of Tullymore is supposed to be set in Ireland, the movie was actually filmed on the Isle of Man – and that amazing scenery is definitely one of the stars.  The music is great too and there are plenty of good small Irish pub drinking scenes (yes even in a village of 52 people there is a neighborhood pub – OF COURSE, IT’S IRELAND).  But just a heads-up, I did have to put my closed captioning text on the screen so I could understand some of the thicker accents.

The two main characters of Jackie and Michael (played by Bannen and Kelly) are endearing from the start (those motorcycle goggles!), and the storyline keeps you hanging on through to the very end.  The subplot of Finn and his pigs and will-she-won’t-she Maggie is a little annoying but be sure to pay attention to the end answer of the Maurice question should you choose to watch.  I was sad to find out that Bannen died in a car accident the year after this film came out, what a fantastic smile and laugh he had.  Seeing this film again after now having been to some very tiny towns in England over the past few years made me wonder even more what small village life in those lands must really be like.  Where literally everyone knows everyone else down to the smallest detail and what they had for dinner…how strange that must be.

If you’re looking for a good little across-the-pond movie without violence or demons or foul language, then watch ‘Waking Ned Devine.’ (By the way, the movie is called just ‘Waking Ned’ in every country other than America, they added ‘Devine’ thinking Americans would like a longer title.)

3) Skyfall (2012; Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes)

Skyfall-Daniel-Craig2Ok last one for this week.  You know that sound between a sigh and a frustrated grunt that means ‘what the what,’ how does one spell that out?  Ucchhhuuuggcchh.  That’s how I felt about ‘Skyfall.’  Yes I know I may be the last adult in America (and definitely the last Anglophile) to have seen the latest (and 50th anniversary) 007 movie that came out two and a half years ago already, but truth be told I never could get into Daniel Craig as Bond.  I know I saw ‘Casino Royale’ when it came out, just out of curiosity, and I think I saw ‘Quantum of Solace’ but honestly I can’t be sure.  But when I noticed ‘Skyfall’ was premiering on network TV I decided to give it a go.

It’s pretty bad.  Especially for a Bond film, which has such high expectations.  I’m trying to like Craig, really I am, but he’s just so…dry.  He seems to literally have the same expression on his face through the entire movie.  But he wasn’t the worst part – those were the never-ending loopholes and belief-suspending moments that meant the movie basically made no sense whatsoever.  “Shouldn’t that just be what to expect from a Bond film, and instead just be satisfied with all the explosions and helicopters and inevitable top-of-train fight scenes?” you might ask.  Nope, not even all the special effects could make up for the skipping storyline in this one.

There wasn’t even a good badguy backstory, and those are key to Bond movies working well.  Javier Bardem seems to have been given free rein to make the character of Silva as weird and messed-up-by-mommy as he wanted, but the end effect was just weird and flat.  Every few minutes I found myself having to rewind as I thought I was missing a scene or two telling me how something happened, but no, the writers and/or producers must’ve thought we would just be too idiotic to notice huge storyline gaps.  All these huge moments in the film were never explained, the lack of Bond gadgets was very disappointing, and the end sequence was just too dumb to even go into.  I read that this movie was perhaps the most expensive movie ever made (or is that the next one), and this was the best they could come up with?  They need a real-life Bond to work some MI-6 miracles for the next script please.

What did I like about the 23rd Bond film?  I thought the new younger Q was a surprising-in-a-nice-way add (the actor playing him had good range), and when they brought out the old Bond’s classic Aston Martin to “go back in time,” I admit I cheered a little.  I liked that they ended up in Scotland in what seemed like a nod to Sean Connery.  I liked all the London street and rooftop scenes.  And…that’s about it.  I hear Daniel Craig is already signed up for the next two Bond movies and that the same director is in line for the them as well…which may mean I’ll be waiting awhile before I see my next Bond flick.  I’ll survive.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Final Reflections on Tour de England 2014

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 “I must to England; you know that?” ~William Shakespeare (Hamlet, III, iv)

If you missed my last several posts, I recapped my recent summer trip to the sceptered isle in a series I called Tour de England 2014.  (You can start with the first one here if you missed them.)  I wanted to take this opportunity to offer some final reflections on my travel experiences and on England itself based on my time and two trips there over the past two years.

My time in England in both 2012 and 2014 was overwhelmingly positive.  For a self-confessed Anglophile, getting to spend over a month of cumulative time there so far has been very fulfilling.  I already have many ideas for future UK trips and now just need to figure out a way to financially afford them!  While I’m mulling that over, here are some of the other positives from my England experiences, in no particular order:

  • Tea, of course – and the scones that go with it; I’ve tried to make my own scones but can’t even come close to actual English ones (I’ll keep trying).  I guess tea time is more of what I enjoy – that the Brits still take time out in the afternoon (and mid-morning, and any other time they can find) to slow down and “take tea;” it’s a welcome break from whatever is going on in the middle of the afternoon and it just seems so…civilized I guess.  The buttery pastries with cream and jam are literally the icing on the top.
Taking tea in Bath

Taking tea in Bath

  • British B&Bs that give discounts beyond the normal advertised rates to solo women travelers – very much appreciated! 
  • I really liked the grocery stores in the towns I visited – specifically, their ready-to-eat meal options such as sandwiches, pre-packed salads, etc.  They’re affordable and a much easier option than a sit-down restaurant, especially for dinner when things get pretty pricey.  And they offer “meal deals” for those pre-packed options, so if for example you get a sandwich, side of pasta and a drink, the prices go down even more.  AND they always had vegetarian and vegan options, I became especially fond of Waitrose’s cheese & pickle relish sandwich.
  • TRAINS!  I love the fact that I can really go anywhere I want in the entire country without a car, although it does limit smaller side trips to more remote areas where the train doesn’t reach.  If you get your tickets far enough in advance you can get some good prices, and so far at least in my experience, the trains are almost always on time.  For someone obsessed with punctuality, I can really appreciate that.
  • On the not-having-a-car front, I really enjoyed the fact that once the train (or tube, in London) did drop me off somewhere, that meant I had to walk everywhere for the duration of my stay.  I guess I could’ve taken a taxi sometimes, but I didn’t mind the walking, and it was great exercise.  It was not uncommon at all for me to walk 5 miles or more in a day, just walking around town and seeing the sights.
  • This trip, I returned to both Stratford-upon-Avon and London, places I’d visited on my last trip.  Some people would spend their valuable vacation time in new and unfound places, but I actually really enjoyed the aspect of comfort that I felt when I stepped foot back onto familiar territory.  This was the reason I saved these two stops for my last week in England; after two weeks of visiting new and unfamiliar places, I needed somewhere that felt a little more like home to balance out the trip.
  • Other than London, the weather was perfect for my trip – and I loved that I sometimes needed to wear a jacket and scarf IN JULY.  (Those of you who can’t understand this, spend just one indescribably sweltering hot day in Austin in the summer and you’ll get it.)  Being able to just open a window and enjoy the cool breeze with NO BUGS (another unheard of aspect in Austin) was wonderful.
  • The no-bugs aspect was a big one for me – it meant I could spend all that time walking outside at any time of the day or night without the constant mosquitoes that plague me mercilessly in Austin.  If mosquitoes do exist in England I never saw, heard or felt them.  It was bliss.
  • The historical significance of, well, practically everything in England.  The British are so good at having the foresight to save, preserve, and protect things for generations to come.  The church in Thursley where my family ancestors are buried dates from SAXON times, and it plods on in stubborn but imposing fashion.  It’s comforting, knowing that what’s been there for hundreds of years (or longer) will still be there the next time I visit.  It’s such a stark contrast to what we have in many parts of America, and my own little strip-mall-laden suburb of Austin where I live feels depressingly and completely devoid of culture and historical reference in comparison.
  • The Shakespeare tube map – a brilliant spin-off the traditional tube map but everything is named after the Bard’s plays and characters.  I first saw this on a tea-tray at one of my B&Bs, and then read more about its invention (by the RSC) at the V&A Museum exhibit in London.  Especially loved the little fork and spoon icon for the Titus Andronicus station…(things get a bit messy in that play)…
Shakespeare Tub Map

Shakespeare Tub Map

Fork & Spoon at the Titus stop

Fork & Spoon at the Titus stop

A windsock for Prospero's station

A windsock for Prospero’s station

  • Sticky toffee pudding.  Why don’t we have this in America??  (Or if we do it’s probably better I don’t know about it.)
  • Swans.  I know they have a reputation for being mean but there’s nothing quite so serene as sitting on the river bank feeding a group of graceful swans.  Just seeing them cut through the water in their stylish fashion is a calming influence.
The world's best sticky toffee pudding.

The world’s best sticky toffee pudding.

The Swans of the Avon

The Swans of the Avon

I wrote about many other positives in the past few posts, including the surprise of sitting in Sir Patrick Stewart’s seat at the Royal Shakespeare Company, getting to explore the land of my original ancestors, and all the new places I visited such as beautiful Bath and medieval York.  And of course there was the thrill of being there for the kickoff of the Tour de France in Yorkshire, including seeing veteran cyclist Jens Voigt in his last ever Tour and being on the very front line for the Grand Départ.  And it was in Leeds that I saw a restored French Citroen HY Van being used as a food truck, which gave me an idea for my own business that I’m pursuing as we speak, so hopefully that turns into another positive development as well.

Seen in Leeds: I NEED one of these Citroen HY Vans for my flower truck! If you know where I can get one, please let me know, thanks!

Seen in Leeds: I NEED one of these Citroen HY Vans for my flower truck! If you know where I can get one, please let me know, thanks!

My England glasses aren’t completely rose-colored…while I do love the country, there were definitely some negatives that put a damper on things from time to time:

  • By far, bar none, no contest, the worst thing about my time in England was the overwhelming number of SMOKERS.  You’d think it would only be a problem in London or the bigger cities, but no, the puffers are everywhere.  You can hardly walk down a street without having to waft through a cloud of choking smoke, it’s very discouraging.  And hold your breath as you come out of the tube stations or the airport or any restaurant, it’s the worst at those places.  It’s such a shame that this beautiful country is marred by such an ugly habit on the part of so many people.
  • No air conditioning – now I realize that this is a typical American complaint and that the temperate climate means England doesn’t need A/C most of the time…but on those really hot days during the middle of the summer, it seems like it would make for even happier guests if lodging accommodations would invest in some small room A/C units.  Or at least ceiling fans.  I got by without it most of the time without too much discomfort, but I wouldn’t have said no to it either.  And there’s nowhere in the entire country that A/C is needed more than the tube/underground in London.  How in the world have they gone this long with un-air-conditioned tube cars??
  • It bugged me that there was a fee for entry into the beautiful riverside park & gardens in Bath, and that the gates closed pretty early in the evening.  Parks should have free public access in my opinion, open for the enjoyment of all, not just those few that can afford a hefty entry fee.
  • I’m seriously not sure I can ever eat goat cheese again after my horrible GI episode in York induced by a bad batch of the stuff…
  • I purposefully arrived in many of my destinations without much of a plan this time, other than where I was going to stay and for how long.  Two years ago I’d planned every detail of my trip down to the minute, but this time I wanted to be more spontaneous.  What I learned about myself is that I need a mix of those two styles to balance out my stress and comfort levels.  There were times I was just aimlessly wandering about with no early idea of what to do or where to go next, and instead of being relaxing it just frustrated me because I felt like I was wasting valuable vacation time.  I’m really good at planning and details and research, so I need to realize that this is not a bad thing and let that drive my experience next time.
  • On many occasions I was met with very positive reactions on the fact that I was a solo female traveler.  People in general were always very nice and welcoming to me wherever I went.  But there were definitely a few instances of bias or rudeness against me simply because I was by myself.  I’ve come to expect this sometimes but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.  It usually happened in restaurants, where it’s still apparently a very strange anomaly in England to see a solo diner (I rarely if ever saw anyone else seated/dining alone other than me); waiters would frequently ask me in surprise “No one else is joining you tonight, are you sure?” (as if I didn’t know my own dining plans) or they would place me at a “hidden” table in a corner or behind a pillar, I guess because they thought I wouldn’t want to be seen dining alone.  And on the crowded train into London on my birthday, a woman with a kid asked me to give up my seat (after asking “Is it just you?”) so she and the kid could sit there; I wouldn’t have been so bothered if it had been a baby or small child but the kid was about 8 years old, why couldn’t they have stood for the remaining 30 minute trip, why did I as the single traveler who had purchased a seat have to be the one to give up my place?  I did give them my seat (the kid sat on her lap) but it really bugged me that I was singled out for my solo traveler status.

None of these negatives are enough to deter me from future England explorations, and in a way I actually enjoy getting to know the reality of it all, not just the for-show spins put on for the tourists.  Two years ago during my 2012 trip to Stratford, I met an American woman on the city walking tour that told me she spends a month every summer in England, usually in the same place, but rents a car to go on different explorations each time for day and weekend trips; she too really enjoyed the familiarity and comfort of staying in the same place each year.  The way she described it sounded like a really enticing idea to me, although I feel there are many other regions of the UK I’d still also like to explore that I haven’t seen yet:  Cornwall, Devon, Oxford, the Lake District, the castles of Wales, even Scotland one day (although we’ll find out next week if they’ll even remain a part of the UK). 

It may surprise you to hear that the best part of my Tour de England 2014 trip actually happened about a week after I got back to the States.  I came down with a cold the day after I returned, so it was a few more days before I could see my family & nephews, which meant it had been about a month since I’d seen them.  I walked into my 3-year old nephew Wyatt’s daycare classroom to pick him up at the end of the day but he didn’t know I was going to be there – when he turned around and saw I was there, the surprise registered on his little face and he smiled and shouted “Ant Kristi!!!” and ran to wrap his little arms around my neck.  A few minutes later we picked up my other two nephews from YMCA camp, also surprising them with my return.  I waved through the window at 8-year old Truman as he stood waiting by the side of the road and his face lit up – he ran around the car to get into the backseat, threw his backpack on the floor, and then floored me with my own surprise as he reached up into the front seat to give me the biggest, tightest, longest hug he’s ever given me.  My heart and my eyes were flooded that day as I realized I was loved and missed – pretty much the best thing in the world…even trumping tea and scones.

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Thanks for reading all about my England adventures and humoring me in my Anglophile ramblings.  On to new topics again soon!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 2: Yorkshire and Le Tour de France

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“I pray you, do not push me…”  ~William Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, III, ii)

Welcome to Part 2 of my Tour de England series, accounting my recent three-week trip to the sceptered isle.  This week’s post is a sporting one, describing my time in the Yorkshire region of England to see and be part of the world’s biggest and most beautiful bike race, Le Tour de France.  If you missed Part 1 of the series last week (recounting my time in Windsor, Surrey & Bath), you can read it here.

On my 7th day in England, I boarded a train in Bath and settled in for the 3.5 hour journey north, to Yorkshire county and its biggest city of Leeds.  Home to famous windswept moors and dales, the largest county in England was a magnificent choice to host the first two days – the Grand Départ – of the 2014 Tour de France.  From there the race moved south, starting in Cambridge and finishing in London, before the teams then flew back to mainland France for the duration of the Tour.

Yorkshire county, England

Yorkshire county, England

Many people are surprised to find out that the Tour forays quite frequently into other countries, having started outside the French borders on at least 20 occasions now.  It’s a great opportunity for cycling fans of other lands to participate in the spectacle that is the Tour, and Yorkshire did not disappoint.  I’d seen the Tour in France in 2010, during a fantastic turn around the Alps region, but when I heard the announcement that the 2014 version was starting in England – well, let’s just say I started planning this vacation a long time ago, over a year in advance.  For an admitted Anglophile and a longtime fan of the Tour, this was a kickoff not to be missed.

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I arrived in Leeds on a Wednesday afternoon, with the Tour slated to start on  Saturday morning.  I wanted to give myself plenty of time to become familiar with the area and also have time to explore before the big day.  Yorkshire had been planning for this for over a year, and the Tour spirit was in overload from the moment I stepped off the train:  huge banners in the train station welcoming the Tour crowds, visitor centres overrun with Tour merchandise, and the color yellow everywhere you looked.  (For my non-cycling fan readers, yellow is the color of the jersey that the leader wears during the race and is the coveted final prize at the end for the overall winner.)

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Even King Richard got a yellow jersey.

The Tour itself is a virtual traveling city, with 2,500 people moving each day from stage to stage in different cities, including not just the teams and their management (and huge team buses) but all of the hundreds of journalists & media personnel, the staff who set up and take down all of the start and finish sets, course marshals, security & police personnel…it’s really quite amazing to see it all up close.  I’d seen it before in 2010 and I was in awe again this time to see the magnitude of this daily transient grand operation.  But the other thing this means is that any hotel room within several miles of the start/finish points is reserved well over a year in advance, and any that aren’t are accompanied by shockingly high nightly rates.

So I considered myself lucky to find a fairly nice secluded hotel 2.5 miles away from the city centre for not much more than my allotted nightly budget.  This meant however, negotiating the bus system from the train station to the nearest drop-off point and then walking almost another mile (uphill) to get to the hotel.  The outside of the hotel was beautiful, with lovely gardens, but unfortunately came with a bed that was a spring-laden miniature torture chamber (so no they did not get a great TripAdvisor review).  That night I ventured back down the hill for some adventurous Algerian food for dinner, and tried to get some sleep (but without much success).

The next morning I took the bus back into the city centre and examined the square where the race would kickoff on Saturday.  The Town Hall and Library were rolling out the yellow carpet, literally, for that evening’s team parade prior to the opening ceremonies.   I stood on the starting line where the cyclists would roll out on Saturday, and walked the length of the street where they would ride on their way out of town.  Leeds is apparently known for its elaborate shopping “arcades” or covered-lane mall-type areas, so I walked up and down all the pedestrian-only streets, not so much to shop but just to absorb the atmosphere.  Leeds is a big city anyway, but hosting the Tour meant extreme crowds everywhere you turned, so I felt I had to be extra-vigilant at all times.

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I headed back to the city centre to wander through some special cycling exhibits at the Leeds Public Library and then the Leeds Museum before grabbing an afternoon tea.  By this time I’d scoped out a good spot to watch the team parade on a grass planter and went to stake my spot around 4:00.  The parade wasn’t due to start until 6:00 but already a huge crowd was massing.  The English woman sitting next to me was a Tour Maker, one of the tens of thousands of Tour volunteers for the Grand Départ and very visible in her bright blue official shirt, and for the next several hours we formed an impromptu friendship (as one must do, especially for spot-saving when one has to run to the loo).

The team parade was great!  All of the 198 cyclists from all 22 teams rode past us at a relaxed, leisurely pace, followed by their team cars, before continuing onto the coliseum up the hill for the evening ceremony events.  I had contemplated going to the opening ceremony but tickets were about $85 for just the cheap seats, and I figured I could see all of them anyway during the two-hour parade.  Some of the cyclists were taking pictures of their teammates with their phones while they rode, others were waving to the fans, and of course the crowd favorites were treated to huge unending cheers all along the parade route.  Marcel Kittel’s hair was in perfect form of course and got its own cheers.

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One of my favorite teams, Orica Greenedge from Australia.

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The crowd favorite Team Sky & defending Tour champion Chris Froome.

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British sprinter & crowd favorite Mark Cavendish

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Team selfies & Marcel Kittel’s perfect hair

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Shut Up Legs

The next morning I decided to take the train for a day trip to Harrogate, the finishing town for the first day of racing the following day.  Even though I would be going back to Harrogate on Saturday to see the finish, I knew it would be extremely crowded and impossible to really move around or see the town like it would be if I went a day ahead.  And I’d heard Harrogate was really lovely so I wanted to take that time to see it.  I’m glad I did!  (If I haven’t mentioned yet how much I love England’s train system, let me do so now – it’s really a marvel and so easy to get around…except when it’s not, which I’ll cover a little later.)

Some of the green Yorkshire hills between Leeds & Harrogate

Some of the green Yorkshire hills between Leeds & Harrogate, as seen from my train window.

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It was a 1.5 mile walk from my hotel to the Burley Park station north of Leeds, but a short 30 minute train ride to Harrogate, (for what would take the cyclists 5 hours the next day to get there on a long roundabout loop) and when I arrived I was even more impressed with the Tour spirit that I saw in this much smaller quaint town (72,000 people compared to Leeds’ 750,000).  There were yellow bikes displayed EVERYWHERE!  Restaurants, hotels, offices, pubs – every single house and place of business had a sign or a bike or something displayed related to the Tour.  And thousands of feet of bunting strung up everywhere, made up of little baby knitted cycling jerseys.  And a huge Fan Park with big screen TVs and cycling history exhibits.  And trees carved into Tour de France works of art.  Fantastic effort by Yorkshire, chapeau!

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Sir Bradley Wiggins, 2012 Tour winner & Olympic champion but not chosen by his team for this year’s race, was missed by his British fans.

After I got a pretty good drenching from a brief British bout of rain (of course this happened right after I lost my umbrella but before I could dart to buy a new one), I met up briefly with a contact who works for French TV and the Tour.  He’s a retired French pro cyclist but now is the one who calls all the TV shots for what is broadcast to the rest of the world covering the Tour.  He also owns the travel company with which I traveled in 2010 to see the Tour then, so I’d met him before and had stayed in touch a little over the past few years.

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FranceTVsport truck with it’s huge telescoping TV screen

He agreed to meet up in Harrogate to say hi and was nice enough to take me behind the crowd barriers to give me a brief tour of the inside of the FranceTV media truck where he works, as well as the other broadcast stations where sports commentators from around the world sit and call the shots for their home telecasts.  He also walked me over to the NBC American broadcast truck; he knows Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll so he introduced me as they walked out and we chatted for a few minutes, which was great!  I was super surprised to see recently-retired American Christian VandeVelde also walk out a minute later (I didn’t know then he’d been hired for the commentating team!) so I met him too.  Actually I’d met Bob Roll once before in 2010 when he was broadcasting then and he signed my Texas flag, which I reminded him of, but it was great to meet and talk with him again.

NBC Sports Network broadcast truck

NBC Sports Network broadcast truck

After another afternoon tea on the sidewalk of a Harrogate cafe and a stroll around the shop-lined streets to scope out where I thought I could watch the finish the next day, I boarded the train back to Leeds.  That evening I ate in a little cafe run by a Romanian couple and had a nice time chatting with the wife about how they found themselves in Leeds, England of all places.  I was continually struck during my entire time in England about the diversity of peoples you find nearly everywhere in the country, from all over the world.

I knew the next morning would be an early one.  Foregoing a free breakfast at the hotel, I was standing outside waiting for a taxi at 6:45 AM to take me to the train station, where I dropped off my luggage at a holding area and then walked the few blocks back up to the city centre where the Tour would start.  By 7:15 AM I had found a spot right against the barrier on the sidewalk of the main street, right at the corner where the riders would turn in to go sign in on the race podium before heading back out to line up for the start, which was about 50 yards up the street.  It was a primo location…but also a receptacle of back-aching pain.  The race wouldn’t start until 11:00 AM, which meant 4 hours of standing in one very crowded, very small spot of concrete.  Many people around me had been there since 6:00 AM or earlier to get a good spot.  It takes a serious fan to queue for a Tour de France viewing location!

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My vantage point of the sign-in podium on a rainy morning.

Standing right next to me were a father-son pair from Lincolnshire who’d made the trip to Leeds and who were among the many Team Sky superfans there to support their team.  They were very nice and agreed to save my spot when, around 9:30, I decided I should try to find a bathroom.  A much-scaled-down version of the publicity caravan had already passed by on the route, but the riders weren’t due to show up until 10:00.  Leeds did a great job of organizing the Grand Départ with one notable exception:  NO PUBLIC TOILETS.  Anywhere.  What the heck Leeds???  I was forced to run several blocks over to a mall, then up 4 escalator flights to a pay-toilet, and by the time I sprinted back, it had been about 25 minutes.  By this time the start-line crowds were 10-deep or more on both sides and crammed in like sardines.  I squeezed and pushed my way back through to my spot, which now was half the tiny patch of concrete it was before, and was actually boo’d by those I bypassed…the father-son companions had genuinely-scared looks on their faces as I professed many thank you’s to them, telling me “You almost caused a riot, everyone was yelling at us for not moving your backpack and letting someone else in your spot!”  There was a particularly mean-spirited very short grandmotherly woman standing right behind me who shot dagger looks at me the rest of the morning and kept shoving me into the barrier (which I thought was very un-English of her).  So this begs the question:  how does everyone else do it, how do they stand there for hours upon hours without bathroom breaks, and especially after drinking all that TEA?  Adult diapers?  Severe self-dehydration starting the day before?  I still don’t get it.

My favorite souvenir from the Publicity Caravan's prize buckets.

My favorite souvenir from the Publicity Caravan’s prize buckets.

Well anyway, at 10:00 all the riders started rolling up to sign in and do interviews on the grandstand, still in relaxed and festive moods.  And then they started lining up right in front of me in the Neutral Zone area, awaiting the 11:00 rollout.  The father-son duo went gaga when Team Sky & British defending Tour champion Chris Froome stopped right in front of us to make some bike adjustments, and it was fun to see their pure joy reaction at getting a little smile from him when they shouted “Good luck out there Chris!”  I watched British sprinter-star & stage-winner favorite for that day Mark Cavendish give an interview about two feet in front of me, multiple microphones thrust in his face, none of us knowing that it would be his first and, sadly, last day of this year’s Tour (more on that later).  I could’ve reached out and touched controversial Alberto Contador as he cleaned and twisted his bright yellow sunglasses.  I could hear Fabian Cancellara laughing as he joked (in Fabianese) with the riders sitting next to him. 

The riders start to appear for the sign-in.

The riders start to appear for the sign-in.

Canadian champion Svein Tuft

Canadian champion Svein Tuft

One of my favorite riders, Welshman Geraint Thomas (on R in white sunglasses)

One of my favorite riders, Welshman Geraint Thomas (on R in white sunglasses)

Cavendish rolls up to sign in and talk with fans

Cavendish rolls up to sign in and talk with fans

Chris Froome tweaks his bike computer

Chris Froome tweaks his bike computer

Cavendish conducting some last minute interviews

Cavendish conducting some last minute interviews

Cancellara shoots the breeze with Frank Schleck

Cancellara shoots the breeze with Frank Schleck

The rider on the right just wants to get going already...

The rider on the right just wants to get going already…

Alberto Contador in his unmissable neon yellow-green kit.

Alberto Contador in his unmissable neon yellow-green kit.

Cycling fans love cycling because you can get that close to your favorite riders – at the start, the finish, on the rest days, and on all the roads in-between.  It’s a true fan’s sport, cycling, with so many nations represented and so many different dramas going on within the race.  Yes it’s had its obvious struggles and challenges and it’s been tough to not get disheartened over the years, but cycling is changing, and the fans know this, so they stick with it, even if that means standing in one spot for hours until you can no longer feel your feet or lower spine.

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The official start line for the Grand Départ

I’d never been right on the start line of any Tour stage before, much less the Grand Départ, and the atmosphere was absolutely buzzing.  I’ve heard that there were 280,000 people crammed into that start area with me that morning in Leeds – it seemed like more.  With the last rider signed in, the final countdown started and with a cacophony of pedal clips they were off, slowly making their way through the massive crowds and into the distance to begin their 3-week adventure/sufferfest.  We cheered them off and then cheered some more as each multimillion dollar team bus rolled through the start line after them, those impeccable imposing team refuges that harbor the riders before and after each stage and transport them around the Tour.  The bus that got the biggest cheer though wasn’t Team Sky’s shiny black “Death Star” – nope, it was the tiny little cartoonish camper van bus at the back of the pack, belonging to the wildcard team NetApp-Endura, who had never been to the Tour before and whose entire team budget is a meager one-eighth that of the juggernaut Team Sky.  With barely any windows and no chance of getting stuck under a finish line gantry, they became immediate crowd favorites for their underdog status.

The riders were on their way to Harrogate that day for the finish, and so was I.  But this blog post is already crazy long so I’ll continue the tale in the next entry.  Stay tuned to hear about the world’s longest train lines and glimpses of royalty (specifically, their feet).  More Tour de France up-close-and-personal next time!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

“Alone or Not, You Gotta Walk Ahead”

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 “…the time of life is short…” ~William Shakespeare (I Henry IV, V, ii)

“The thing to remember is, if we’re all alone, then we’re all together in that too.”  Any fellow romantic comedy fans out there recognize this (and the title phrase) from one of the classics?  Yes, it’s from 2007’s “P.S. I Love You,” which I just finished watching for about the twelfth time.  I don’t even like Hilary Swank all that much but I do like this film, mostly because of all the Ireland scenes; Kathy Bates was great in it too.  (And of course Jeffrey Dean Morgan, holy hotcakes.)

I’m headed back to Ireland’s neighbor next week for another solo UK trip.  For my trip in 2012 just prior to the London Olympics, I had basically decided on a whim to go when I found a really good airfare deal about six weeks prior (yes that’s a whim amount of time for me).  And then I quickly planned every detail literally down to the minute for the 9 days I was there.  It was a great vacation but exhausting, as I tried to pack in every single sightseeing occasion as if I’d never return.

But I am returning, and for this trip, I decided about a year ago that I would head back with the impetus of wanting to see the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in England’s Yorkshire region.  The kickoff will take place over the first three days of the Tour before the teams head back across the Channel to mainland France to continue the race.  I was also lucky enough to be able to use my frequent flier miles to get a “free” airline ticket this time (not really free because I still had to spend lots of money to get all those credit card miles and still had to pay the hefty taxes & fees for the ticket, but it still feels almost free).

I had hoped to be a Tour volunteer as part of the organization in charge of the kickoff, and was actually accepted through the application process, but had to drop out due to not being able to be there in time for the required in-person training sessions.  I’ll still be in Leeds and York to cheer the riders on as each of those first two stages set out, and might be able to also get to Harrogate to see the finish of Stage 1 on the first day.

In addition to the Tour in Yorkshire, I’ll be making a tour of my own to several other parts of the sceptered isle.  I’ll start off in Windsor to walk off my jet lag by visiting the Queen’s weekend home at the castle for a day, and then head to Surrey county south of London to meet up with a distant family relation and explore the area from where my ancestors hail (near Godalming).  Then I’m off to Bath for a few days in Jane Austen country before heading up north to see the Tour.

After Yorkshire, I’ll head back south, stopping over in Nottingham for a day before continuing back to the boats (see blog header picture above) and onto familiar territory in Stratford-upon-Avon to get my fill of all things Shakespeare again.  I hope to explore the Cotswalds a bit and do some real relaxing before heading into London for the final few days of the trip.  I’m really looking forward to visiting the famous New Covent Garden flower market in London this time, as well as a day of catching up with an old college friend who lives just outside the city.

It may sound all planned out, but really it’s just the itinerary of where and when, and I do of course have my accommodations all reserved.  But beyond that, I’m leaving things a little more up in the air this time in terms of how I’ll spend my time in each place.  If I’m being honest, I’m also a little more apprehensive this trip about traveling solo, and I’m not entirely sure why.

I’ve been trying to figure it out, and it just seems that as I get older, there are more things to worry about in terms of health and safety and the unknown.  Issues which appear magnified when I travel alone.  I know I’m strong and independent and resourceful, and capable of handling problems if they do come up, but I guess it’s just the worrier in me that’s got me feeling a little anxious.  I should be used to being alone and walking ahead on my own by now, but sometimes it’s just a little disconcerting and leaves me feeling vulnerable.

On the other hand, I know I should feel lucky and grateful to be taking such a trip, and I do.  A family member of mine lost a close friend this past week at a very young age and to tragic circumstances; it was a heart-wrenching loss for those left behind who cared about him.  It’s got all of us thinking about the fragility of life and how none of it makes sense sometimes.

At the end of “P.S. I Love You,” the main character Holly says “This is my one and only life, and it’s a great and terrible and short and endless thing, and none of us come out of it alive.”  Great and terrible, short and endless.  I guess that’s why I continue to go on these big solo trips, as I have now every two years since 2010.  As daunting as it can be to spend a lot of money and go out there in the world to explore unfamiliar places on your own, it’s empowering at the same time.  It’s a reminder that I’m alive and able to experience new things during this short and endless thing we call life.  I’m not sure how long I can continue this tradition I’ve started, but will at least give it one more whirl this time around.

©operationUNunhappy

©operationUNunhappy

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Why I’m Still In Love With The Tour de France

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“Now for our mountain sport: up to yond hill; Your legs are young; I’ll tread these flats.” ~ William Shakespeare (Cymbeline III, 3)

One of the things that makes me the most UNunhappiest in the world is the Tour de France. Yes, the sport and race that is now most famous for cheating and doping and controversy is (still) my most favorite sport.  Over the past few years, the revelations, accusations and conflagrations within the cycling world have certainly been depressing and disappointing, but I can’t help it – I’m still in love with the Tour de France.

This Saturday June 29th, the 100th edition of the Tour kicks off on the island of Corsica before heading to mainland France.  Cycling fans around the world are converging on the roads of France, in front of their televisions and computers, and on social media sites like Twitter to bond over their common love and obsession for “la grande boucle” (“the big loop).  The world’s best riders from 22 teams will battle each other and an extremely unforgiving course of over 2,100 miles for three weeks during the world’s most difficult race, all in pursuit of a yellow piece of lycra (and legend).  It’s dangerous and incredible and dramatic and unbelievable and electric and beautiful.  There’s nothing else quite like it.  Count me among the obsessed.

2013 Tour De France route map

2013 Tour De France route map

For many years now, I’ve saved up all my vacation hours each year to take three weeks off in July to watch the Tour.  In 2010, after a year of organizing and saving and planning, I lived a dream and went to France to follow the race around the French Alps for 10 days and to celebrate my 40th birthday.  It was one of the most amazing and incredible experiences of my life!  I will never forget standing on top of the world, the famous Col de la Madeleine in the French Alps, on my birthday, watching the riders snake up the mountain road below our vantage point and then watching them labor by us towards the summit, threading the needle of the massive crowds.  There were thousands of people on that mountain, fans from all over the world, all out in the middle of nowhere screaming at the top of their lungs and having the times of their lives.  I still get emotional when I think about it.  It was pure joy for me.

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

I went with a French-organized official tour group and it was great;  we lodged near each day’s stage in beautiful areas, and transportation was provided from one day’s route to the next.  (The only downside was the lack of hotel air conditioning during one of France’s worst heat waves in history.)  I was the only non-native person in the tour group who was fluent in French, and most of the French guys running our tour didn’t speak English, so I ended up being an unofficial group translator between some of the clients and the French-speaking staff.  Sometimes they put me in one of the support cars instead of the bus and I was able to help the French staff provide assistance to those in our group who were cycling the routes ahead of the pro riders each day.  I loved it!  I felt at home and useful and just so happy to be in one of the most pristine, beautiful corners of the world I’d ever seen. 

Morzine, site of Stage 8 finish, 2010 Tour de France

Avoriaz, site of Stage 8 finish
2010 Tour de France

Morzine, site of Stage 9 depart, 2010 Tour de France

Morzine, site of Stage 9 depart
2010 Tour de France

Postcard-perfect town of Morzine, 2010 Tour de France

Postcard-perfect town of Morzine
2010 Tour de France

We had unrestricted access to behind-the-scenes start and finish areas, and it was amazing to see the massive sets, broadcast trucks and media areas up close.  It’s a traveling logistics miracle which boggles the mind.  An entire mini-city is set up and dismantled every single day of the race.  I’d love to actually work for the Tour one day, what a dream job that would be!

At the finish line of Stage 8 in Station des Rousses, 2010 Tour de France

At the finish line of Stage 7 in Station des Rousses, 2010 Tour de France

Waiting for the winners at the award podium at finish of Stage 8 in Avoriaz, 2010 Tour de France.

Waiting for the winners at the award podium at finish of Stage 8 in Avoriaz, 2010 Tour de France.

We got to see lots of crazy sights and even crazier people (the Dutch fans are literally insane).  People line the roads of each stage’s route hours (or sometimes even days) ahead of time to stake out the best spots.  A nice little old German lady cooking a pot of potatoes even let me use her RV bathroom in an intestinal emergency.  The Tour’s publicity caravan passes through on the road an hour or two ahead of the riders and hurls out free swag to the waiting throngs.  Blaring music, girls on roller blades who throw candy at you, and huge dancing yeti monsters all add to the carnival atmosphere.

The Pink Wig Guys - we saw them everywhere we went.  2010 Tour de France

The Pink Wig Guys – we saw them everywhere we went. 2010 Tour de France

Friendly families in their camper vans are on the side of every road. 2010 Tour de France

Friendly families in their camper vans are on the side of every road. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan - here, the yellow jersey sponsor. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan – here, the yellow jersey sponsor. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan - still not sure what this product is. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan – still not sure what this product is. 2010 Tour de France

I guiltily confess to being somewhat of a stalker during the 2010 Tour de France.  I was on a mission to get up close and personal with one of the most impressive specimens of athletic prowess (and just plain hotness) in all of sport:  the one, the only –  Spartacus.  For you non-cycling readers, that’s World Champion Fabian Cancellara, a Swiss rider of awe-inspiring talent with a jaw of steel and ham hocks for thighs (and pretty nice hair too).  On the rest day in Morzine, I found him (ok, tracked him down) at his team hotel just as he returned from a training ride:

Fabian Cancellara on Rest Day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France.

Fabian Cancellara on Rest Day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France.

I was just a few feet away from cycling brilliance, and as he walked inside the hotel, I summoned the courage to follow him and ask him to sign the Texas flag I’d brought with me.  He did and I fainted Just kidding, but my heart was pounding pretty hard. He was all sweaty and when I asked him if he’d take a picture with me, he leaned in and I swear I could smell just a whiff of Swiss chocolate.  🙂

As if that weren’t enough, when I went back outside to the hotel patio, Jens Voigt and Andy Schleck had also just returned from their rides, and they also talked to me and signed my flag!  Tour-tough-man Jens is also one of my all-time favorite riders (as he is for most cycling fans), such a funny and all-around nice guy, and Andy Schleck from Luxembourg – well, if you don’t know who he is, he only ended up winning the Tour that year.  Yup, I hung out with the champion for a while.  No big deal.

When I approached Jens, he jokingly asked “Is it even legal to sign a flag?  And before I do, do you even know who I am?”  I was so flustered the only thing I could think to say in response was “Of course, you almost died last year in that horrible crash!”  Oof.  He laughed and said, “Well, next to my signature I’m going to print my name so you can tell which one it is later.”  Which he did. 

Jens Voigt signs my flag. 2010 Tour de France

Jens Voigt signs my flag.
2010 Tour de France

Andy Schleck took a picture with me and asked me a few questions, then signed the flag as well. He was a very nice guy.  I wanted to feed him a double grilled cheese sandwich.

Andy Schleck on rest day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France Winner

Andy Schleck on rest day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France Winner

I also was able to talk to and get signatures from Sylvain Chavanel (France), also one of my favorites, as well as American sprinter Tyler Farrar, Kiwi lead-out man Julian Dean, and up-and-coming USA hopeful Taylor Phinney.  I didn’t set out to be an autograph hound, honest; but it ended up being a convenient vehicle to use to start talking to them.  That’s one of the great things about cycling events – they’re FREE (as long as you can get yourself there), and you can walk right up to your biggest crushes idols and just have a conversation with them!  It’s amazing and I hope it stays that way forever. 

I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the helmeted gorilla in the room: the 2010 Tour was Lance Armstrong‘s last.  He’d made his much-touted comeback the year before, and the rumor was this would be his final attempt.  Sharing a hometown with the guy, and listening to many wax nostalgic about this being his last hurrah, I did feel a strange pull toward him at this Tour; heck, he was kind of the reason I’d even become a cycling fan in the first place.

Lance during the 2010 Tour de France. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images Europe

Lance during the 2010 Tour de France.
Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images Europe

When I returned from the Peace Corps in 2001 and stopped in Austin on my way home to Albuquerque, I went to the huge outdoor celebration that the city threw for him on the lakeshores of downtown.  He’d just won his third Tour, and I attended more out of curiosity than true fandom.  I’d been in Africa for his first two victories; what I knew of him so far was just what I’d read in our agency-provided Newsweek magazines.  But, like so many others, I got caught up in the story, and from that point on I started following cycling much more closely. When I moved to Austin in 2009, the frenzy over his professional comeback ushered me into this city.

Everyone has their own opinion on Lance.  This story isn’t about him, although he is part of my memories of my trip to the Tour…

While we toured the area around the team buses prior to the stage start in Chambéry, one of the publicity guys from the RadioShack team noticed my Texas flag.  He interviewed me for a team video that they watched at the end of each day, just a few seconds of who I was, where I was from and why had I come to the Tour.  He then told me that if I stuck around, he’d talk to Lance about signing my flag.  A few minutes later, Lance descended the bus stairs, talked to the media for a few minutes (actually he got into a heated argument with a woman reporter who questioned him about doping), and then proceeded down a line of fans.  When he got to the end where I was, we talked for a minute about Austin, he thanked me for traveling all that way, and then he signed my Texas flag in the middle of the white star.

Lance signs my Texas flag. 2010 Tour de France

Lance signs my Texas flag.
2010 Tour de France

My 2010 Tour de France Texas flag.

My 2010 Tour de France Texas flag.

Stars burn out, as we’ve seen.  But memories last forever (hopefully).  Despite all the disappointments of recent past, I still love the Tour for the memories I have of it, and for the dogged determination of the human spirit that personifies the competition within the race.  I believe cycling is reinventing itself for the better, one pedal-stroke at a time.  If you are a fan of cycling and especially the Tour, you MUST get yourself to France one day to be a part of it.  It’s really impossible to accurately describe the atmosphere and the dedication that goes into every part of the Tour; you must see and experience it for yourself.  France is a spectacularly beautiful country, and I can see why they are so proud of their Tour; it shows off the best of what they have to offer.  

Back Camera

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I plan to go back – next year, in fact.  The 2014 Tour de France’s “Grand Depart” is going to be in England, the other place of my dreams and UNunhappiness – there’s no way I can pass up that opportunity.  I hope to see you there!

For now, I’m off to stock up on croissants and Camembert.  Vive le Tour!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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