A pair of friends went on a trip of a lifetime last month, a two week adventure that continues to have them smiling as memories of the Tour de France, and private champagne tastings, are shared.
Their friendship began in 1990 after Salli Kirkland hired Beth Traucht to be a florist for the University Club. The bond grew as Traucht helped Kirkland plan her wedding, as well as her daughter, Vanessa’s wedding.
Kirkland said last October the route for Tour de France was announced, followed by the tour operators announcing their packages. When deciding which tour to take, Traucht said they began leaning towards Trek because they heard it was the best one available.
“They make bicycles, they must know how to get you up on a mountain on one,” Kirkland said laughing.
The friends began watching Tour de France eight years ago every July and have been riding together for the past six years, every Sunday. She said they kept on saying they need to be there and experience some of the 21 days of bike racing.
Kirkland and Traucht finally decided this would be the year to make their wish a reality, due to both of them celebrating their 60th birthdays.
“It was birthday presents to ourselves,” Traucht said.
Kirkland said it was the best birthday present she ever bought.
The two week trip included watching the final six stages of the Tour de France and the second week was spent in the champagne district outside of Pais for private tastings arranged by Fat Cork Champagne.
“We love champagne and we both cycle together. What better combination could there be,” Kirkland said smiling.
They booked the VIP tour, which is the third week of Tour de France, which ended in Paris. They went on four rides during their six day stay. Trek provided the bikes, which were waiting for the friends every morning. The bike tires were full, as well as the water bottle, and the GPS had the ride mapped out.
There were four guides and 29 people signed up for the package deal. Two of the guides drove the vans, and two cycled with the group.
Kirkland said the guides that cycled with them took pictures and gave a pat on the back when encouragement was needed to keep going. The two guides in the van checked on the cyclists every 30 minutes, or so, to see if they had enough, or needed a break.
“They stop and throw your bike up top and there is food in the van,” Kirkland said. “You never felt like you were ruining anyone’s day. You could start out every morning saying I’m not sure how many mountains I can climb today, but that’s okay if I can’t make it. I’ll ride around and watch everyone else.'”
One of the rides included Alpe d’ Huez, 34 miles with 5,200 feet of climbing and 21 switchbacks. Izoard was 85 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing, which the friends did a portion of the ride, 40 to 50 miles.
They experienced very narrow roads and tunnels while biking.
With being on the VIP tour, they were able to experience quite a few stages of Tour de France, one of which was 19, which Traucht said people could not access.
“One of the times we were behind the scenes. We ended up where all the press was standing and no one kicked us out,” Traucht said. “We are right there photo bombing pictures.”
She said what they ask these riders to do is just amazing.
“They are in a race of a lifetime and they have to go to all of these meet and greets before and after and go up on stage and sign their name. We were catching them before they would ride up. They would go up on stage and sign their name and ride back down. Almost everyone in the race went by us,” Traucht said.
Kirkland said it was pretty amazing to see all the riders together at the start line, which was about 160 cyclists at that point of the race.
“They do a slow ride for a few miles, or however long it takes them to get out of town. They have an official start right outside of town,” she said.
A moment that sticks out for Kirkland was the mountain top finish at Izoard.
“When we were cycling up the hills, we were cycling up before the Tour de France was coming through, all of the spectators were already in place. What they have to do to view the ride . . . if it’s on a mountain they drive their car as far as they can and they might have to park, walk, some people cycle halfway up the mountain to watch these guys and cheer them on,” Kirkland said. “We are coming through a couple hours probably before the actual Tour de France is coming through. All of these people are already there and you can tell they make it their vacation. They have this brunch laid out on this table and the whole family is there and they have the wine flowing. The kids are there. The chairs are out. You are cycling by and you almost feel like you are on the Tour de France.”
On the mountains, she said the audience has to part to let the cyclist through, giving the spectators an opportunity to touch the cyclists.
“These guys are at the end of their ride, they are sweating, and here are all of these people touching them,” Kirkland said. “It’s amazing that can happen and you understand why in that sport.”
The two had the opportunity to witness the finish of Tour de France at the Automobile Club at the end of the circle. Traucht said they had access to balconies and the road.
“It was five hours of flowing champagne and food waiting for them to get to Paris. It was quite the opportunity,” Kirkland said. “We could go down on the street level to watch the riders. They had TV screens all over, so we could watch it on TV. We could be out on the balcony watching it.”
About 30 minutes after the race concluded, many of the Trek team sat down for a question and answer.
“You are sitting there looking at them saying ‘really these guys just rode 21 days, 2,600 miles and they are sitting there looking normal,'” Kirkland said laughing.
She said if the cyclists get injured during the Tour de France they keep going, so they are not disqualified.
“They have medic cars, so they don’t even have to stop peddling. They are just putting their arm out and they are bandaging it and doing whatever and they are still peddling and going,” Traucht said.
As the Tour comes through the towns, Kirkland said they set up parades. She said about 15 minutes before the first rider comes through, a parade is held with people throwing out such items as sausage, T-shirts and hats.
“If it comes through your town that’s a big event,” Kirkland said. “I always knew that was one of the reasons I wanted to go. I always knew (there was) all of this excitement and buildup that you don’t get to see on TV. I just wanted to experience that. Sure enough we got to see it. It was cool.”
Traucht said there was not one day that was not incredible from the views to what they were experiencing.
The second leg of their tour gave them an up-close-and-personal view of how champagne is made. They visited with families who are growing the grapes and producing their own product on their property.
“These are small operations,” Kirkland said. “Traditionally it is a lot of family owned and operated handed down through the centuries. We really wanted to go there and see the operation.”
One of the stops was one of their favorites, which was run by a young couple. They were taken out to the fields to see the champagne grapes growing, to where they were bottled.
“We went right into the parlor of one of the houses and tasted it,” Kirkland said of the champagne.
From their trip, Kirkland came back to Sanibel excited about Electric Bikes. She ordered about a half a dozen of the bikes, which are now available at Billy’s Bike Shop.
Kirkland thought it would be a great addition, especially for the kids who really want to ride, but the mom and dad may not be in the best of health. She said an e-bike gives them the opportunity to go along.
“Pedal assist is what we will do. You have to pedal the bike to engage the motor, so it’s considered a bicycle,” Kirkland said, adding that pedaling builds up the energy of the bike. “I really think having a few in the rental program will really give people the opportunity to say let’s try this.”
Thanks to Meghan McCoy and our friends at the Islander for a great recap of Salli’s trip!