The crayon-box hierarchy of Tour travel

Updated: July 15, 2006, 1:56 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

BOUZIGUES, France -- I woke up in a small Spanish village in the ski area of Val d'Aran that could have been mistaken for a Swiss valley, covered thickly with evergreens and dotted with stone chalets and waterfalls. I just ate dinner by the Bassin de Thau, a somnolent inland salt lake in southeastern France, separated from the Mediterranean Sea by a slim sandbar.

In between, I drove a mountain pass that the Tour de France peloton rode the previous day, reading the fervent messages fans had painted on the road as they scrolled upside-down beneath my tires. I buzzed through 150 miles of superhighway, waited out two major traffic jams, watched the end of the race, wrote in a drippingly steamy press center and drove another 60 miles to get to my hotel after a terrific, heat-busting thunderstorm.

It was near 10 o'clock when I arrived, but there was still plenty of light in the sky, which is what makes late-night Tour travel feasible. Total distance traveled today: 280 miles. Total psychic journey: immense.

This is the first time in seven years that I'll be driving the entire Tour de France solo. So far, I'd characterize it as the act of a madwoman, involving frequent screeching U-turns, alternating feelings of panic, self-loathing and smugness, and a fair amount of cursing mercifully unheard by any other human being.

It's all worth it for the one blissful experience that seems to coalesce every day.

When you drive the Tour, alone or not, your life narrows down to a primitive crayon-box hierarchy. Colored stickers determine your status in the media caravan. Colored directional signs slapped up along the side of the road the night before the next stage are your spiritual guides.

Chartreuse arrows mean you're on the course. Neon orange arrows keep you on the alternative route to the finish town. Like the disappearing bread crumbs scattered by Hansel and Gretel in the deep, dark forest, the orange signs tend to peter out sometimes. I'll careen along for a while through unmarked intersections, growing increasingly irritated, but all is forgiven when I spot that cheery orange rectangle in the distance.

Fans often swipe the course signs. I've seen them in bike shops and van windows all over Europe and the United States. But the course is usually unmistakable because it's lined with expectant fans.

A few years ago in the Pyrenees, the signage crew double-crossed us by posting signs for two different mountain stages on the same day. As luck would have it, the two routes crossed. I saw a green arrow, swung my car reflexively to the right and went a couple of miles before I realized -- oops, no people. I confirmed my intuition with a gendarme, turned around and headed down the correct course.

A reporter friend of mine, who I'll call John -- because that is, in fact, his name -- later arrived at the same spot but took issue with the gendarme's sage advice to disregard those particular arrows. John, a Tour rookie that year, crested the wrong mountain before he determined what he'd done. By the time he wended his way back down, the real course was blocked and he was plumb out of luck.

Such are the initiation rituals of the Tour.

July's other secret roadside society is The Order of the Colored Car Stickers. Cars with green stickers can move freely on the course and usually carry veteran cycling writers from big news organizations. Some are piloted by professional drivers, like my friend Ludovic Gravouil, who's been ferrying staffers from the French sports daily L'Equipe for 14 years. Ergo, if you're lost, or trying to pass a huge line of backed-up traffic on the shoulder, or zipping down the wrong lane of a mountain road at night, or just looking for a parking place, it's usually a good idea to follow a green-sticker car.

Ludovic is a human global positioning system. He once rescued me when I was wandering, close to heatstroke and carrying 30 pounds of computer gear and reference books, on the streets of a German border town, having stashed my car in the wrong place. Ludovic, naturally, was perched a few yards from the finish in an air-conditioned car with a large supply of mineral water, waiting for his clients. He made me sit inside until he was sure my core temperature was normal again, then pointed me in the right direction.

Most Tour driving strategy revolves around avoiding the dreaded publicity caravan, the sponsors' parade that rolls down the course at a leisurely pace a couple of hours before the race, dispensing free goodies. If you have a blue car sticker, like mine, you're allowed to drive the course ahead of the caravan, but you can't pass it if you get stuck behind.

The publicity caravan induces grownups to act like children and children to act like more manic versions of their usual selves. Before it passes, the crowds lean anxiously into the road. Afterwards, the masses are drunk on loot and reel into your path without warning.

I love driving the course and taking in the sight of the always astounding and creative crowds, even though it requires an almost inhuman amount of vigilance to avoid committing vehicular homicide. I've also made it a point over the years to drive each of the venerated Tour climbs at least once. That's generally enough.

Everyone should see the top of Mont Ventoux, the oddly bald mountain in Provence that consistently frustrated Lance Armstrong. Not everyone is cut out to drive the eight-foot-wide dirt path around the weather station at the peak with the sheer drop on the driver's side. I was alone that day, fortunately, because the sound of my pathetic whimpering would have forever tainted any colleague's image of me.

Most of the driving isn't quite that challenging, although every year, I have to rewire my brain to think differently behind the wheel.

Forget about North, South, East and West; or comforting California-style highway slang like "the 101" or "the 405." L'autoroute is simply whatever superhighway happens to be closest to where you are. If there's more than one, it's the autoroute toward Marseilles, or Nantes. It's all about the end of the road, even if you're not going all the way there.

Traffic circles, considered infernal back home, are your friends, allowing you to whirl around a few times and ponder your destination. Signs that appear to point right mean you should go straight, unless they point hard right, in which case they mean right.

I've developed a real fondness for the mystical, initially maddening Toutes Directions signs I once regarded with disdain and suspicion. Now I know that sign is the first step in getting somewhere. Follow and all directions will be revealed.

Back to Friday's blissful moment. It wasn't discovering the remote and lovely Val d'Aran, or watching the Bastille Day fireworks displays unleashed by the towns ringing the Bassin de Thau, wonderful as that was.

No, it was when I peeled off the course onto the autoroute (number irrelevant) toward Toulouse, which led to the autoroute toward Carcassonne, that day's finish. I slipped the Mavericks' Greatest Hits into the CD player and cranked the volume as I cruised along at or maybe a little above the legal limit of 80 mph.

I had a full tank of gas. I knew where I was going.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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