Men and their flying machines

Allez! To fully appreciate the Tour de France you need to pedal hard and follow the leaders, writes Michael O'Reilly.

Somebody must have spiked my tea. Moments ago I was sitting on my lounge, with a hot cuppa and a biscuit, watching late-night TV coverage of the Tour de France: glorious Gallic scenery, 180 competitors on schmick bikes and Phil Liggett droning on hypnotically about riders "dancing on the pedals".

Yet seemingly, like a middle-aged, masculine Alice, I have fallen through the televisual lookingglass. The couch has morphed into my racing bike, the cup is now a water bottle, the biscuit an energy bar. I'm standing on the road near the neck of the Cormet de Roselend, one of the classic alpine passes of the Tour. The mountain slopes are impossibly green, caked with occasional snow patches, and birds are twittering in the blindingly blue sky. There is also a strange wheezing sound - my lungs working overtime at an altitude of almost 2000 metres. I stare at the road behind me, which weaves 25 kilometres down into the valley, some 1500 metres below.

"This is ... obscenely beautiful. It shouldn't be allowed!" Next to me, running out of breath and adjectives, is my old high-school mate, Andy. I'm tempted to look for a portal in the sky containing a distant view of my loungeroom. Hypoxia and plummeting blood sugar levels will do that to you.

Of course, it wasn't as easy as falling through the TV. It began with a casual conversation with Andy a year earlier, some internet research and a deposit placed on a one-week guided cycling trip. As July approaches, reality starts to bite: balance paid, plane tickets bought and vast amounts of time spent on the bike in a bid to prepare for cycling's most famous peaks.

Then, my achilles tendon decides it doesn't fancy 350-plus kilometres a week, and starts to ache agonisingly. Physiotherapy, with all that silly icing and stretching, doesn't help. It's time to go hard - ultrasound-guided cortisone shots into the inflamed tendon sheath.

"That should work," the doctor says, "but you'd better rest it until you get there."

A week later I fly into Zurich and catch a train to the French alps, dragging a backpack stuffed with Spandex, a bicycle in a box and an ankle full of performance-enhancing drugs.

Let the Tour begin.

There are 50 of us, divided into five chalets in a small resort village near the town of Bourg- Saint-Maurice.We'll spend one day acclimatising, two days cycling up classic mountain passes before the Tour hits town, two days toiling up yet more passes ahead of the real cyclists - then shouting at them as they whizz past - and a final day watching the time trial in nearby Annecy.

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All the passes rise about 1500 metres from the valley floor, with gradients of up to 10 per cent. I nervously study my fellow mountaineers.We're a blend of gender and ages, although the default setting appears to be "middle-aged bloke".

I'm sharing a large, wood-beamed room with Andy, his brother-in-law, Simon, and Simon's American friend, who goes by the decidedly non-treadly name of Carr Lane. In the other rooms are three Australian couples. After introductions over a hearty dinner rustled up by Pommie Ben the chalet cook, an evening of nerdy bicycle assembly and tweaking commences.

We awake like excited schoolkids to - rain. The alps are socked in by clouds and it's snowing on the invisible peaks. In July.

Ade and Shelley, the English couple who own the cycling company, are working hard to mollify 50 revved-up Tour wannabes. "It should clear up by later today," they say. "Definitely tomorrow."

We champ the bit until 11am and then decide the hell with it. Wearing our warmest kit, our chalet group cycles for hours up slippery roads in swirling mists until we reach the snowline. Descending increases the wind-chill factor, and we return to our village in various skin hues of blotchy purple. The best news - my "juiced" ankle hasn't twinged once. I just have to hope there's no drugs test.

Amazingly, the organisers are right. We muster the next morning under crystal skies and head for the Cormet de Roselend.

"Just get to the top in your own time and we'll meet you by the van," bellows Shelley, who is growing steadily hoarse trying to rein in the headstrong mob. It's not a race, but there again the definition of a bike race is "one cyclist who can see another".

My roommates and I set off gleefully. We've been going for all of 500 metres when Simon gets a puncture.Wewait while he repairs it, a sporting gesture eased somewhat by the already spectacular view of the valley and a ruined castle just next to the road. There are worse places to have a flat. Did I mention that these passes are at an altitude of 2000 metres? Every one a Kosciuszko! I soon find a rhythm, which involves keeping the pedals turning while not dying of cardiac arrest.

We switchback out of the verdant lower slopes and into the open alpine meadows, the ridge lines crested with stark grey cliffs.

Several hours later, after a few stops for photos and Alice-in-Wonderland hallucinations, we reach the top of the pass. Shelley is there with liquids and madeleine cakes and I scoff about 10 of them in a decidedly un-Proustian fashion.

What goes up, must plummet down. With occasional regard for safety, we swoop down the far side of the mountain at speeds in excess of 80km/h, making cheery use of both sides of the road through the 180-degree switchbacks. Andy momentarily forgets to ride on the "wrong" side of the road and nearly becomes a hood ornament on an ascending Peugeot. "Don't tell my wife, she'll never let me out the house again!" the father of two begs us later.

Lunch is beer and baguettes at a pub in the valley and we return to our chalets in the late afternoon, fatigued and delighted. The next day we do it all again on the even more fabled Col de Madeleine.

Day three: Stage day!

After a decade of watching the peloton on television, today it's going to cut right in front of my toes. We crawl up yet another stonking pass, the Col du Petit St-Bernard. It takes us all morning but it's just one of two such mountains the real cyclists are tackling today.

The summit is swarming with fans of all shapes and nationalities who have arrived by bike, car and camper van and are making exceedingly merry. Slogans are being daubed on the road in white paint as we stake out a spot on a steep section and wait for Lance Armstrong and his buddies to turn up.

And wait and wait. Apart from a brief procession of promotional vehicles throwing freebies at us, there's not much entertainment. Clouds block the sun and we shiver in our thin tops.

And then, like a scene from Apocalypse Now, six helicopters circle the valley below us. The trickle of official vehicles turns into a stream, then it's a string of police motorbikes with sirens shrieking and blue lights flashing. The crowd is screaming, the helicopters overhead are deafening and in the midst of this maelstrom is a knot of gaudy cyclists approaching at an impossible speed.

"Allez, allez, allez!" the crowd roars.

The leading contenders flash by in a few minutes but each second is a frozen, golden moment. Cadel Evans's face, etched grimly with fatigue and suffering. The wide, staring eyes of the surprisingly boyish Schleck brothers. And the imperious, robotic Armstrong - with his young pretender, Alberto Contador, sitting on his shoulder and marking his every move.

The peloton and its cavalcade of team support vehicles passes and everyone tears down the valley in their wake. The gendarmes, bless them, hold up the cars but let the bikes run free.

We roll into Bourg-Saint-Maurice. The competitors are gone and the crowds have thinned but the barricades and signage are still there and we cruise under the "flamme rouge", the red pennant suspended over the road that signals one kilometre to the finish. It's impossible to describe just what a buzz this gives me.

The next day we do it all again, up the not quite as fabled Col de Saisies.

Last day - already?

The tour bus drops us 20 kilometres from the town of Annecy.We follow a converted rail track into the town centre, where the warring teams have set up. There's much rubbernecking and picture-taking as the competitors warm up on stationary bikes in full view of the public. Some come over to chat and sign autographs, although this courtesy is more likely if you're a pretty girl.

The time-trial course is a 40.5-kilometre lap of the lake the town sits beside. We sneak through side streets to find a spot near the top of the biggest hill. By sitting on the side of the road in the apex of a corner, I can take photos of the cyclists as they flash past less than a metre from my shoulder on carbon wheels that emit a sharp crackling noise.

The excitement reaches fever pitch as the last competitor streaks past - Contador, decked in the yellow jersey he will wear all the way to Paris.

He still has to survive two more days in the saddle but for us the Tour is over.

My roommates and I trundle back to the coach with leaden legs, discussing forward travel plans, the absolute necessity of finding some beers before we get on the bus and the possibilities of regrouping in the Pyrenees for the next Tour.

FAST FACTS
Getting there Geneva and Zurich are the two nearest international airports. Singapore Airlines flies to Zurich via Singapore (8hr and 13hr) for about $1900. Swiss Airlines flies to Zurich and Geneva for about $1980, on a partner airline to Hong Kong (9hr) and then Swiss to Zurich (13hr) and Geneva (1hr). Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. The train from Zurich to Bourg-Saint-Maurice in France (7hr) has two changes; from Geneva (3hr 30min) with one change. This year's tour is on July 3-25.

Cycling there British-run Alpcycles has a seven-night trip that intersects with three stages of the Tour de France, from £1400 ($2480) a person, twin share, including accommodation, transport, transfers, breakfasts and dinners. All levels of fitness catered for; separate activities for non-cyclists. Next Alpcycles trip starts on July 10. See alpcycles.com.

This story was originally published in the Traveller section.