Once I put Henley on our travel calendar, I looked at this year’s course for another of my favorite sporting events: the Tour de France. To my amazement, I saw that a few days later the third stage would finish in Boulogne-sur-mer, just a short distance across the English channel from Dover. Jenny quickly got on board with this stage of the trip, if for no other reason than that she’s long wanted to take the ferry between Dover and Calais, a route that is significant in The Scarlet Pimpernel, a favorite book of hers. I suppose I’ve spent enough time over the years talking about the Tour that she’s a cycling fan now too, and we’re no strangers to standing around in crowds for hours, waiting for a few moments of excitement when some kind of race comes by.
On our way we had time for some sightseeing in the English countryside, and decided to fulfill our long-standing promise to show Elena a real castle: the famous Leeds castle. We just wanted to walk around the grounds, and didn’t have the time or desire to take the full tour of the castle interior, aviary, maze, and everything else, so it didn’t make sense to spend more than fifty pounds for admission. Instead, I looked around on the internet and found that there’s a public footpath through the property, and as long as we didn’t stray from it we would be protected by the legally protected right to walk on public paths. It was perfect–just what we were after and, despite a brief storm, it was a great way to see a lovely castle, meet one of the castle’s resident peacocks, and walk by a cricket match and a flock of sheep.
Riding the ferry was the highlight of the next morning, as we watched the impressive white cliffs of Dover recede in the distance while we motored towards France. There was even a children’s play room aboard the ship where we could let Elena and Roman loose and not worry about them knocking things over or falling overboard–Elena has read Curious George enough that there’s no telling whether she would try to copy George’s curiosity. After the ferry it was time to drive our right-hand drive car on the right side of the road, but that wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared. The difficulties we had finding our way in town had very little to do with the driver-side mismatch.
Once we muddled through checking in at the hotel, it was time to find some food. I’m pretty sure that the worst cafe in France serves better food than almost anywhere in England, and even Roman liked the pastries. Maybe he’s not picky, he’s just a gourmet with a refined palate. Elena saw a merry-go-round next to where we were eating, and we let her go on it. It was only fitting, because we had neglected her requests to do several other similar fun activities over the past few weeks. She grabbed the brass ring–in this case, it was a big green tassel–and earned a free ride which we didn’t get to redeem before we left. We might never go back there, but at least she has the ticket as a souvenir.
We spent the rest of the afternoon like real tourists, window-shopping in the town center, taking a rest and watching that day’s Tour stage on the television, then exploring the old fortress city (including a traveling exhibition of kid-friendly art) and scoping out a place to watch the race the next day. By the time we were done with all that, it was time for a late (for us) dinner, but the first restaurant we tried wasn’t even open yet. The second restaurant was, and served the most delicious food. We convinced Elena to get a burger instead of her normal order of chicken nuggets, and she ate it all up.
The next morning I ran for the first time in a long time, purposefully choosing a course that would take me up the final section of the day’s cycling route–it was amazing to see how much they had to do to set everything up. After checking out of the hotel we visited the beach in the cloudy, chilly weather, which must be what Elena expects now. While Jenny and Roman napped in the car, Elena and I built sand castles, looked for shells and rocks, and watched the tide come in. Then it was off to what turned into a very long lunch with a bistro proprietor who was very friendly, and more than happy to practice his English with us, and then finally on to the main event: the final turn of the stage, about 200 meters from the finish line.
We arrived at our spot when the riders still had about 80 kilometers left to cover, which would take two hours. We explored the surroundings for a little while, but the crowds were already building and we knew we had to get into position early. I was happy to watch the jumbo-tron from a clearing set back from and a little bit above the barrier fences, where there was a little room for Roman. I thought that with good luck I would be able to take some photos of the riders coming around the turn. Jenny felt adventurous and took Elena to try to squeeze into a spot right along the fence. Just like that they were gone, without jackets, snacks, or anything, and I didn’t see them again until the race was over.
Roman and I watched the race on the big screen, along with thousands of other spectators. When the crowd became too dense for him to crawl around without being trod upon, I loaded him into the Baby Bjorn and plied him with snacks to keep him from crying. He liked the racing, applauding the attacks and responses along with the rest of the crowd, which later earned him the designation of “very cute” from a nearby German grandma. There was plenty to watch aside from the crowd and the race, as a parade of hundreds of vehicles preceded the racers along the course. There were team cars and race officials, but most of all were the float-like sponsor trucks, from which were thrown into the first rows of the crowd cascades of candy, souvenirs, and trinkets, some of which made its way into Elena’s hands courtesy of the group that had allowed her and Jenny to squeeze in front of them at the barrier.
Playing out on the big screen we watched the catch of the escape group, some nasty crashes, and the ever-downward tick of the remaining kilometers gauge. When they rode into town a French rider attacked, eliciting an eruption of cheers from the crowd. Then the leaders swung around the final turn, digging in for the last stretch to the line. The emerging star Peter Sagan separated himself from the pack enough that he could celebrate as he crossed the line with the ‘running man’ dance move. I didn’t get any photos of the leaders–everyone in front of me held their cameras up high at the same moment that I did, of course. Jenny took advantage of her great location and got some great video, which will forever bear witness to the fact that we were there, and we saw this with our own eyes. It was incredible.