Finding 'somewhere else' in Luxembourg
A confession: I covered six Tours without getting on a bike.
I'm just not one of those writers who needs to climb Alpe d'Huez to write about it. You suffer enough in the car anyway. Like most Tour writers, I associate the famous mountain with the smell of burned-out clutches and smoking brake pads.
But the streak is over. I took a spin up the Moselle River on Tuesday on a sturdy 5-speed, a Clydesdale compared to the finicky Thoroughbreds used by the pros.
I needed the wheels to explore Luxembourg wine country.
Oxymoron, you say? I didn't think it made sense either, but it turns out there's a pocket of vineyards across the river from the more famous white wine producers on the German side.
After the Tour finished up in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, I drove to the village of Remich, one of a string of sleepy little towns on the "Waistrooss," or wine route.
To my left was the beautiful geometry of grapes planted in military ranks on the hills. To my right, the river flowed so placidly the current was barely perceptible. Enormous swans escorted a coal barge. A wide, smooth, seemingly endless path perfect for bikes and in-line skates made me long for my 'blades.
I stayed at the Hotel St. Nicolas in the center of Remich. Proprietor Lucien Houdremont, who took over the hotel in 1974, showed me a photograph of Gen. George Patton on the main street of Remich, which was heavily damaged during World War II. He gets a lot of spillover business from Luxembourg's capital city, a financial and diplomatic center, but as he said, "Luxembourg is a place people pass through on their way somewhere else."
My room had a Jacuzzi and free wireless, the itinerant writer's best friend. I ate dinner in a tranquil back garden at dusk with les chauves-souris -- bald mice, otherwise known as bats -- flitting overhead. I did my best to pretend they were swallows.
Houdremont opened his basement bike room for me the next morning and because I was pressed for time, pointed me to the nearby Caves St. Martin.
I started at the bottom of the food chain with Rivaner, a tart, lemony table wine best served icy cold -- not a bad idea in the sweltering heat that day. Auxerrois is finer and fruitier. Finally, I took a few sips of the Cremant, a very dry sparkling wine.
No complaint about prices. A bottle of Auxerrois was $7 and a half-bottle of the Brut Cremant $4. I had a great chat with Charles Barten, who was manning the tasting counter. I'm a cheap-wine snob who thinks price often has nothing to do with actual enjoyment, and got a big endorsement from him on that point.
My morning on the Waistrooss was the high point of the day. The drive to the Stage 3 finish in Valkenburg, the Netherlands, was infernal in more ways than one.
I'll never understand why race organizers send thousands of official cars up roads that are under construction. I stewed (literally) in heat and construction delays for three hours and arrived in Valkenburg just in time to witness some of the day's crash carnage.
Tour medical reports are frequently inaccurate, so I took another two-hour round trip to Davitamon-Lotto's team hotel -- the lovely Chateau de Limont, miles from anywhere in the Belgian countryside -- to check up on the two American riders who got hurt, Freddy Rodriguez and Chris Horner.
By the time I got to my hotel in Maastricht, back in Holland, the Germany-Italy World Cup semifinal was winding down. I gobbled dinner in the hotel bar, my trusty Tour route book at my side so I could study the next day's agenda.
Germany lost, and I lost the book. Just forgot it. By the time I realized the goof, it was long gone, triggering a full-fledged Tour anxiety attack.
The livre de route is called the race bible for good reason. It contains timetables and very detailed maps of starts, finishes, parking lots and team bus locations, and spends the race propped against the steering wheel in my lap. Traveling without it would be like descending into a mineshaft without a helmet or a lamp.
The bartender said she thought she remembered a family that had eaten at my table after I left. I wrote a long, pleading note that the staff slipped under their door, but I had absolutely no hope.
My phone rang at 8:30 a.m. In what I'll always think of as The Miracle of Maastricht, I was summoned to the lobby to meet an adorable blond boy of about 8, Koen Verhees, who handed me the book. I made a pretty big fuss over him and told his parents he'd be getting something from me in the mail later on.
Stage 4 started in Huy, Belgium, Wednesday morning. I must have criss-crossed national borders a dozen times in my own personal Tour of Benelux. It's not nearly the pain in the butt it used to be at the Tour now that there's a universal currency and practically no customs presence. The real border crossing for me is when my French cell phone clicks back into non-roaming (and therefore affordable) mode.
If I ever have occasion to pass through Luxembourg again, I'll revisit that side of the Moselle. It's worth a taste.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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