Tour de France 2020: 1920 revisited

Nothing says Tour de France like the early races, beading every outer nook of the country and devouring a mind-boggling amount of miles and altimeters - so if our assignment is to compose one for MD, the Tour of ‘20 is the one we’d pick. 1920 that is, or exactly 100 years ago. Truth be told: the 1920 Tour de France was a rather boring race. The weather was up to the current Australian standards - extremely hot - and after four stages already 65 of the 113 cyclists had quit. In the end, only 22 of them would make it to the finish, having covered a stunning 5.503 kilometers, averaging 24 km/h. But that was a century ago, on bikes too - just not the kind we prefer. Bet we can do better. And faster. And our trip will make your heart race as well - out of sheer excitement, that is.

Prêts, feu, partez!


Stage 1: Paris - Le Havre

The first stage, the so-called ‘Grand Départ. Not the one that will blow your mind in terms of sheer beauty or excitement, but a nice trip nevertheless. The river Seine will lead us away from the way too crowded and busy French capital and guide us towards its muzzle into the North Sea at Le Havre.

But not before passing through the magnificent city of Rouen: with its many monuments, the tallest cathedral in France, its cultural heritage, its famous heroic maiden Joan of Arc, its events and its central location, the rightful and official capital of Normandy. Make sure to pay it a visit!

Afterward, we’ll continue heading west, over the D982 following the loops of the Seine river, while riding through the Parc Naturel Régional des Boucles de la Seine, before arriving in sea-side Le Havre.  

Stage 2: Le Havre - Cherbourg

After the first night in Normandy, another 200+ kilometer ride awaits. This one will take us through the picturesque town of Honfleur: an ideal starting point to devour the Côte Fleurie, or Flowery Coast as the English would say. It stretches for approximately 40 kilometers from Honfleur in the east to Merville-Franceville-Plage, at the mouth of the Orne river, in the west. Quite a stunning ride.

Afterward, it crinkles its way past Caen and the extremely well-preserved Bayeux - the perfect stopping point for a coffee, before chiseling through the Marais du Cotentin et du Bessin Regional Park. Quite a mouthful, but don’t forget to feast your eyes as well, as this one’s a true beauty. Just past the finish line in Cherbourgh - in the cooling-down lap - we’ve implemented another little treasure: the Herqueville Coastal Road - dazzling at sunset.

Stage 3: Cherbourg - Brest

On the third day of this ‘race’, we’re moving over to the northwestern part of France, where a stunning land of legends awaits, which combines traditions and authenticity into a magnificent blend. Wild cliffs, rocky coasts, fern-covered moors, mysterious forests - the region's natural heritage is exceptional and draws many visitors every year, not in the least motorcycle enthusiasts.

No wonder, if you take the mild, oceanic climate into account, as well as the joyful atmosphere of the place and its impressive heritage. From the majestic D275 past Mont Saint-Michel, over the D201 heading from Pointe du Grouin to St-Malo, to the D34 from Cap Fréhel to Sable d’Or Les Pins, this part of Normandy truly shows off some fine examples of its brilliant ‘départementales’. 

A bit of a detour, but don’t hesitate to go the extra mile for a stop at the lighthouse of Saint-Matthieu and Pointe de Kermorvan.


Stage 4: Brest - Les Sables d’Olonne

To head from Brest to Les Sables d’Olonne, we’ll need to ride through Parc Naturel Régional d'Armorique, which has a few aces up its sleeves: the D764 will take you to the heart of the park at Roc’h Trédudon, after which a true marvel awaits on your right-hand side. The D785 severs the greenery from north to south, while combining perfect tarmac, great vistas and some very nice curves for you to enjoy up until Pleyben.

We’ll head further south via Quimper, Concarneau, and Lorient, before the stage treats us to a little sidestep: the D186a from Keridenvel to Quiberon, by far the most exciting coastal road on the Quiberon peninsula. Can be very busy during the weekends and summer days of course but still enjoyable. Take your time for a break at Saint-Nazaire, where the garden of the Musée de la Marine de Mendin spoils you with a wonderful view on the bridge on one side and… the lifesize skeleton of a ‘real’ sea snake - Serpent d’Océan -  on the other. Search and you shall find!

Stage 5: Les Sables d’Olonne - Bayonne

The fifth stage of the 1920 TdF is famous for being the longest stage of the Tour ever, up until now. The racers vigorously took on 482 kilometers (!) between Les Sables d’Olonne and Bayonne, which took the winner - the Belgian Firmin Lambot - a mind-blowing 19 hours to complete. Not to mention the times of the beaten ones. No need to explain why half of the platoon quit before this monster, do we?

During this part of the trip, you’ll feel a salty sea breeze blowing in your face at all times, with a bunch of D-roads barely managing to separate the French mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. This way we’ll carve through the magnificent La Rochelle, Châtelaillon-Plage and Rochefort, before arriving at a resting point for this stage. Instead of riding a detour from Royan to Bordeaux and then back towards the west, heading for Bayonne, we’ve featured a one-way ferry - lovingly nicknamed ‘Les Bacs Girondins’.

These flat-bed ferries will take you and your motorcycle over the 6 kilometers wide Gironde towards Pointe de Grave for a mere 8 euros. A well-deserved 25-minute break, ànd quite the saving on your mileage. On the other side awaits a double set of MD-Roads, sandwiched between the Biscay Gulf and the Lac d’Hourtin. Hardly known and thus you’ll have the road mainly to yourself while carving through the Forestière des Phares. Bayonne, here we come! 

Stage 6: Bayonne - Luchon

No time to rest though, because the sixth stage already awaited: another atrocity that would take the winner, Firmin Lambot, another 15 hours to complete… But you’ll understand why as we gently scoot our way over the D257 into the Pyrenees. Tickling the skyline for over 400 kilometers along the Franco-Spanish border, this snow-capped mountain range contains some of the country's most pristine landscapes and rarest wildlife. And some of the most challenging motorcycle roads over its famous ‘cols’. 

The first one on our list is the Col d’Aubisque: the one that summarizes why we sometimes prefer the Pyrenees over the Alps. Its peaks are more rugged and dramatic, ànd there is less traffic and a greater sense of isolation. Of all the climbs in the Pyrenees, the Aubisque is the most awe-inspiring: from its lush green hills to the north, the rocky mountains to the west, the picturesque valley to the east and the narrow, winding road endlessly twisting from left to right. Tip of the house: the most beautiful ascent is the one heading up over the Col du Soulor.

Next up is the Col de Peyresourde: as one of the oldest climbs in the Tour de France, first featuring in 1910, starting from Bagnères-de-Luchon the Col de Peyresourde is a deceptively steep ascent. 14,5 km in length and although only climbing at an average gradient of 6.5% up to 1.569 meters above sea level don't be fooled by the numbers. The road ramps up straight out of Luchon, tilting you back further than you would like at times and pushing you ever closer towards the outer edges of your comfort zone. Quite the challenge, even for the more experienced riders. About four kilometers from the summit, the road opens up to reveal the Midi-Pyrenees in all its glory. The climb is one thing but the descent is something else altogether. Without doubt, an absolute masterpiece of a mountain, but not for the faint of heart.

The next one isn’t a proverbial walk in the park either: the Col du Tourmalet has always been a legendary place for (motor)cycling, following the D918 to climb out of Luz Saint Sauveur and devour the next 20 kilometers at an average gradient of 7% to the pass. Whilst many mountain climbs are famous for their hairpin bends, this climb is characterized by long ramps only interrupted by a few bends along the way. The road climbs to the village of Barèges which has mutated into a ski station and after a short respite in the gradient, the road rises again all the way to the top at 2.115 m. 

Today’s finish lies at the end of the D925, in Bagnères-de-Luchon, which means you’ve got 40-something splendidly twisting kilometers to go before even thinking about sprinting for victory. Enjoy, but be careful, as this road is pretty dangerous and narrow! 

Stage 7: Luchon - Perpignan

The halfway point of this TdF is situated right in the heart of the Pyrénées Ariégeoises Regional Natural Park. So from Luchon we’ll take the seductive D618 towards Castillon-en-Couserans. To summarize this one in three words: corners, corners, and corners! What a nice road.

There’s absolutely nobody here, but they’re all wrong: this départementale never ceases to amaze with views on the Pyrenees and sheer endless tunnels through the trees. Asphalted magnificence. If you’re more into long straights or fast corners, we’ve got you covered as well: the D118, followed by the equally amazing N116 have got exactly what you crave while aiming straight - well, not exactly straight, but you get it, right? - towards the finish in Perpignan.

Stage 8: Perpignan - Aix-en-Provence

Squashed between Mediterranean shores and Alpine massifs, the Côte d'Azur is a place of contrasting landscapes. The beauty of its beaches and the luxury of its palaces, the influence of its festivals and the celebrity of its artists form a harmonious balance with the forests and green valleys of the highlands, and the red roofs of old hilltop villages. Great weather and not too many altimeters, or a perfect place to spend the 8th stage of our Tour de France.

Not too far north of Perpignan, the D12 to Rivesaltes is a first in a long string of ever-twisting roads to Aix-en-Provence, debouching into the 40 kilometer-long D611 towards Narbonne.

A bit further up the road, we’ve got a foursome that will have the amateurs of curves at the edges of their seat: the D4 linking in Causse de la Selle to the D122, which continues to St. Martin de Londres and meanders into the D1 to St. Mathieu de Treviers. A bit against the spirit of the Tour de France - but you might just want to have another go at this one.

Stage 9: Aix-en-Provence - Nice

Aix-en-Provence is at the heart of Provence, a region brimming with fascinating historic towns and quaint medieval villages. A slow-paced lifestyle and sultry Provençal charm make the region an appealing tourist destination. The sleepy pastoral region around the city itself will delight you with its sensational sun-drenched landscape, undiscovered rural towns, and picturesque hilltop villages.

The D45A is a perfect example of the latter: a small road a bit out of the main roads, but a very nice continuation when you’re coming down from the L'Espigoulier. Speaking of which: if you’re riding up the ‘mountain’ you might want to try out the D2 more than once. Everyone who owns a bike in the area of Marseille knows this road, especially the little 'circuit' halfway up the mountain…

Stage 10: Nice - Grenoble

As we turn back towards the north in Nice, the inevitable French Alps come into view. First up is the Col de Vars - not exactly the highest col in the area, but it's worthwhile to include it in a ride as it is in a very beautiful part of the French Alps. It is located between the departments of Hautes-Alpes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and connects the Ubaye Valley with the Queyras valley and Embrun.

With a summit that’s elevated 2.108 meters above sea level and a rather steep climb, it is a challenge - not only for the many cyclists on the slopes but also for the motorcyclist who’s got to find the appropriate gears. The pass is traversed by the scenic Route des Grandes Alpes and has - as many of its colleagues in this list - been included in the Tour de France more than once. Partly for the projected heroics, but without a doubt also because of the magnificent scenery planted on and around the col.

But it gets better, as we climb on to the Col de L'Izoard: without a single doubt one of the nicest passes in the French Alps. Lying near the entrance of the Parc Naturel régional du Queyras, the road twists and twirls endlessly while feasting your eyes on limestone and needle-like, ocher-colored rock formations. The mountain pass and its ‘stage’ have been protected ever since 1937 but had been in the hearts of cycling amateurs since 1922. If you think you fit in that last description, you might want to pay a visit to the small cycling museum at the summit or stop for a brief moment at the memorial to the legendary Fausto Coppi and Louis Bobet. En avant! 

Stage 11: Grenoble - Gex

Not a flat spot to be seen on the 11th day either, as we continue our conquest of the French Alps - starting off with a stunner: the Col du Télégraphe. A 44-kilometer long must-ride for any motorcycle enthusiast: perfect surface, high altitudes, dizzying curves, and wonderful panoramic views. This Road will take you through woods with a bunch of hairpins and a very smooth road surface, and on the summit, there’s a fantastic stopping point, which offers enough possibility to have lunch or dinner and is very photo-friendly as well.

Well rested and nourished, you’ll be ready to take on the big one - the Col de Galibier. This pass reaches way above the tree line, which gives it a lunar surface and a surreal otherworld-feel. Lots and lots of cyclists are pounding their way up the hairpins or rocketing down if they’re on their way back, but luckily the views are very open - so you should be able to dodge all of them. After that portion of human-powered cannonballs, you might want to aim your focus away from the sheer drops virtually along the entire route and into the number of hairpins that would make a well-trained astronaut dizzy.

Needless to say, the route is not recommended if you have a pillion who’s riding along for the first time - nor is it any good for the faint of heart... That said, the reward at the top is enormous, with magnificent scenery awaiting. Park your bike and walk a few minutes to a viewpoint that allows admiring the surrounding peaks Meije, Grand Galibier and Mont Blanc. An absolute must. 

As you’re around now anyway, why not make a small detour: the D76 trough Combe Laval is hands down the most amazing road in the Vercors. The road surface might not be the best you’ve ever witnessed, but the view makes up for it. Riding on it, it’s not hard to see why the Vercors region is often compared to a fortress: separated from its peripheral regions by the steepest of cliffs, the massif’s only connection to the outside world is through a few indentations in the mountainside.

This one might just be the most spectacular of its kind: a magistral aureole excavating more than four kilometers into the Vercors mountains. The road rotates around the mountain, going through tunnels and metallic roadways. Talking about awe-inspiring asphalt. Just don’t be baffled too much though, as you wouldn’t want to miss a corner and drop about 300 meters into the abyss... 

The last real mountain during this Tour is not to be underestimated: the Col de l'Iséran might just be the holy grail for many motorcyclists: it’s the highest paved mountain pass in the Alps, tilted exactly 2.764 meters above the sea level. The D902 road curls up and around the Col, which makes it one of the highest mountain roads of Europe - but sadly, also one of the worst maintained ones.

The surface isn’t very smooth and has some gaping holes and tears in it - exactly what you don’t want when you crack the throttle for some speedy cornering. But it’s enjoyable nevertheless: just cut back on the gas a bit, enjoy the views, and you’ll be more than fine. A tip of the house: the north side of the pass road will spoil you with multiple galleries and tunnels, with a steep ascent/descent topping at 12 percent. If ever we’ve seen a heroic finish…  

Stage 12: Gex - Strassbourg

Out with the ‘alpimeters’, in with two lush natural parks: kicking off with the Parc Naturel Haut-Jura, and ending a few kilometers north of the Parc Naturel des Ballons des Vosges. The latter being our preference by excellence. The D430 for instance, leading you up the ‘Col de la Schlucht’  you’ll need to conquer a mere 1.500 altimeters before being treated you to panoramic views over the Valley of Münster and the slopes of Hohneck.

A tour around the glacier-carved valley will have you riding through a land of pine forest and an endless chain of differently sized lakes. Although our projected road, the Route des Crêtes, follows the main road, you might want to try some side roads to explore the region in any possible direction - it won’t disappoint you in any way. The D61 for instance, leading you towards the summit of the Col du Louschbach, or a bit further, the D114 towards Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines - the unofficial starting point to discover the famous ‘Ballons des Vosges’. Go!

Stage 13: Strassbourg - Metz

Time to make a sharp left during the 13th stage, as we slowly but steadily head for the Champagne-region. But not before we've spoiled you with a passage through the Vosges du Nord Regional Natural Park. This prolific part of France is located in a triangle from Wissembourg to Sarreguemines and plunging onto Saverne, where the forest is king. 

Endless strands of beeches, oaks, and pines cover two-thirds of the territory, while an abundance of meadows and orchards along small roads and shaded paths, nestled in the hollow of the valleys, turn this place into a paradise for motorcyclists.

We've selected the D36 for you - a nice, windy road along the water, that dissects the Vosges du Nord into two,while leading you from Philippsbourg towards Enchenberg. During the weekend there are plenty of fishermen trying to get the catch of the month on the side of the Moderbach river.

Stage 14: Metz - Dunkerque

As we can almost smell the finish now, it might be the right time to go look for a little something-something to celebrate our arrival. What better place to go and find a bottle of bubbly than the official Champagne region in northern France? The region is made up essentially of areas of relatively flat agricultural land and areas of gently undulating hills, filled with lush green vineyards.

The hills are higher and more pronounced in the north of the region, making it an idyllic place to wander around on your bike. In for a tour through the vineyards? In that case, don't hesitate to take the 21-kilometer long MD-road from Versenay (make sure to pay a visit to the Phare de Versenay) to Ville-Dommage, to be followed by the equally stunning D386 while you proceed further to the west. 

Stage 15: Dunkerque - Paris

It's the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the final stage of the Tour de France, and the finishing line on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. But - as it is the case with the cycling original - it’s the stage which is a little down on its uppers. Not the most exciting one, to say the least.

Nevertheless, we’ve managed to mine a little gem on the way to Paris: the Route des deux caps, also known as the most splendid way to discover the Opal Coast. A 31-kilometer long stretch of asphalt connecting Cap Blanc-Nez and Cap Gris-Nez, rising high above the North Sea while making its way from Calais to Boulogne-sur-Mer. 

A short sprint and... congratulations on completing the trip! Vive la France, vive la Moto!

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