By Brian Canty
The Tour de France is like no other event in the world of professional sport and it´s a race I hold very, very dear.
My first experience of it was on a balmy July evening in 2009, a couple of months after I´d finished college in Galway.
Without much money or cycling experience I planned a trip to France with a good friend which involved the cheapest flight possible from Shannon to Paris-Beauvais, a bus into the city centre, the TGV down to Avignon, a hitch-hike to Orange where we rented bikes and the last 30 kilometres chasing the sunset to Bedoin.
I´ve cycled many kilometres in my life but few as blissful as that 20-mile team time-trial to the base town of Mont Ventoux.
I recall the majesty of the little French villages we rode through, my belly crying for food and my tongue desperate for water. I remember having no lights on the bikes and us pedalling for our lives to get to Bedoin.
There were all manner and make of vehicle on the same road, all making the same pilgrimage to the bike race. Buggies and bikes were strapped to cars while those with a little more had wide-berth campers with barbecues.
Richie and I had maybe a set of kit each, a sleeping bag (each!) and not a whole lot else. In fact, my sleeping arrangement that night was an empty wine bottle wrapped in a jumper and the roof over my head was the underside of a camper which a Norwegian family kindly allowed me seek refuge under.
The journey there was just magic, jumping in behind campers to take advantage of the slightest draft they´d provide. The brief moment where we were sucked along was perfect but all too short.
We made Bedoin before dark and because we were two young guys eager for adventure we decided to actually ride up to the top of Ventoux for the hell of it.
Ditching our limited belongings and grabbing a quick beer and sandwich, we set off up the murderous ascent, one of us (ah em) reaching it around an hour later as the other (ah em) had enough by Chalet Raynard.
Cresting the summit and scanning the endless lavender fields of Provence is an image still firmly etched in my brain and to quote the late Michele Scarponi “when I ride my bike, life seems light”.
It was one of those evenings you wish would never end.
I hadn´t much to my name that year after finishing college and less of a clue of where I´d go in life, but there was something sublime about where I was at that moment and I made a pact that I´d return to the Tour every year to get that feeling again.
Eight years on and I´ve stayed true to it – with the latest installment of my Tour career just over two weeks away.
People say, ´don´t you just see the riders for like 10 seconds and that´s it?
In some cases, that is what happens but there is so much more to seeing the Tour than that. There´s the fanfare that fills the morning long before the riders arrive, the banter with fans from all over the world, the atmosphere along the route, the delicious baguettes that only the French can do, the long lazy evenings spent chatting in cafes in the most obscure places, the lounging around in cycling kit after conquering one too many climbs.
I´ve been at the race as a fan and a journalist, so I´ve seen the race through different lenses.
And this year, for the first time, I will take a group as part of a Tour de France package we are organising – and there is no other thing in the world I would rather be doing than cycling in the Pyrenees or the Alps in mid-July.
Warning, you may fall in love too.