Travel: After Le Tour – A VIP Lunch
What’s the European bike-racing equivalent of a backstage concert pass? How about VIP credentials for an exclusive luncheon with the pros? That’s only part of the deal offered by France From Inside Tours. Since you’ll already be feeling like royalty after a week in a French chateau, rubbing elbows with current and past cycling legends – at the pre-race VIP lunch for the Pro Criterium de Castillon – will just constitute icing on the cake.
– Special Travel Feature By Allan Reeves of FranceFromInside.com –
Thomas Voeckler, Chavanel, and Alberto Contador are some of the riders who raced in the 2011 edition of the Criterium de Castillon. Voeckler would out sprint Contador for the victory. Here the riders, with Vockler up front, traverse the plateau after having crested the 1 km climb.
Here’s the background. Every year after the Tour de France, local racing resumes in France with the post-Tour criteriums, a series of races that take place throughout the country in August. Staged in a spirit of celebration, these festive events give fans an opportunity to see their heroes up close and the winners of the various Tour jerseys (yellow, green, polka-dot, white) to connect with their impassioned supporters. Even if the races are sometimes – er – fixed to favor the highest rated riders, that minor detail does nothing to diminish the spirited racing and atmosphere. If you didn’t know better, you might think you were at the Tour itself – but instead of camping out for days to watch the peloton fly by in an instant, the excitement is sustained and repeated again and again on circuit courses, enabling fans to get a thorough and intimate look at the action.
First up is the Criterium de Castillon in the Bordeaux wine country. Launched in 1959, its historical list of participants is an index of its prestige: The first edition featured Fausto Coppi, the following year Jacques Anquetil (champion of that year’s Giro d’Italia) and Gastone Nencini, winner of the TDF. Though the original course was flat and routed through the village of Castillon La Bataille, in 1982 it moved to a vine-covered mesa outside town – a 3.5 km loop including a formidable one-kilometer climb (ascended no less than 30 times). In its inaugural year, this more challenging route was consecrated by the “sheriff of the Peloton”: Bernard Hinault, five-time TDF champion and still an onstage dignitary at the Tour. Since then, the competing roster has boasted the likes of Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, Laurent Fignon, Miguel Indurain, Laurent Jalabert, Richard Virenque, and Thomas Voeckler, to name just a few.
2010: Vinokorov leads out Contador with Chavanel in his wheel for the sprint to the finish. Contador would be the first Tour de France winner to race the redesigned course of 1982, and of course take the victory.
Today the Criterium de Castillon is a major local event, attracting 15,000 spectators. On race day, booths are set up selling cycling gear and refreshments, and the course itself – its pavement painted with cycling graffiti – is adorned with decorations and lined by loudspeakers barking out commentary. The day is filled with official festivities, the most glittering of which is an exclusive pre-race cocktail reception and luncheon at Chateau Pitray: held under the canopy of 150-year-old Sequoias, it’s attended not only by a lineup of current and retired pro cyclists, but also by Miss France, Miss Aquitaine, Miss Perigord, local dignitaries, and various other lively personalities. VIP credentials are required for attendance.
Since 2006 the pre-race luncheon for the criterium has been held at Chateau Pitray.
Attending this luncheon requires a “back-stage” pass, and that is where Allan Reeves– cyclist and proprietor of France From Inside bike tours – comes in. Over the past five years, this star-studded luncheon has convened at Chateau Pitray, which has been owned by Allan’s family for 500 years. The estate is the personal domain of Allan’s aunt and uncle, enabling him to host his guests on weeklong stays. One such tour culminates with the Criterium de Castillon, making the pre-race lunch into a kind of at-home party with the cycling elite.
VIP guests enjoy cocktails and champagne beside the Chateau Pitray as they await the arrival of the honorary pro-cyclists and the catered sit down lunch.
PEZ takes a look at the Criterium de Castillon and the VIP lunch. We asked Allan to fill us in on the event and the week long bike tour he arranges to coincide with it.
What makes this VIP lunch so special?
Allan: The first time I attended this event I did not know what to expect. I had a group of riders with me for a week stay at Chateau Pitray. In the morning when we took off for a 3 hour ride the estate was quiet. When we got back there was already a 100 people gathering for the event. I think they mistook us for some of the pros. By the time we got cleaned up the crowd of VIP guest had swelled to a couple hundred, and champagne was being served out on the main terrace. We proceeded to blend in, not so hard with a glass of champagne in hand under blue skies. Next thing you know you find yourself having your picture taken standing next to Miss France, Miss Aquitaine or Miss Perigord and retired pro cyclist Raymond Poulidor. Miss France is beautiful, and Poulidor is a cycling legend so it’s quite a treat to see him in person, not to mention of course the other pro cyclists.
Miss Perigord of France sips champagne and socializes with the guests – 2011.
Raymond Poulidor, the “eternal second” who finished second 3 times in the Tour de France, and 3rd place 5 times. He won 7 stages in his TDF career through the 1960s and 1970s.
Who are some of the other pros?
Allan: Last year there was Thomas Voekler and Contador. Voekler stole the show obviously, considering that he’s French and carried the Yellow Jersey for 10 days. Contador also came the year before as the Tour de France winner, along with Vinokorouv, and in 2009 Vinokorouv returned to racing at the Criterium. There is a ceremony during the cocktail where the riders are given an honorary title of knight-ship associated with the Castillon wine appellation. Then there are also quite a few retired pros, but most you won’t recognize unless you are a serious cycling historian. For instance Marcel Queheille, a pro Basque rider who raced in the 50s and early 60s, rode in the Tour de France 4 times, and won a stage in 1959. So there is a mixture of the old and the new, and it is an opportunity to take a walk back in time with French cycling history.
On a hot sunny day the cold champagne is quite satisfying. By the end of lunch, with all the champagne, wine and food in your belly, you will be primed for the crtierium race scheduled to begin at 5 pm. The race course is located about 2 miles from the chateau.
Marcel Queheille, a retired professional French Basque racer in the 1950s and early 1960s, who raced in the Tour de France from 1958 to 1962, and won Stage 9 of the 1959 TDF, is one of the many honorary attendees at the Criterium luncheon and race.
Has the luncheon always been at Chateau Pitray?
Allan: It has been at Pitray since 2006. I believe the race organizers are hoping to keep the event at Pitray as it is the most spectacular local, and it is close to the race course, only a few miles away. Prior to Pitray it was at another estate, called Chateau Castegens, but the context was not as dramatic or regal.
Thomas Voeckler with his son at Chateau Pitray receiving the honorary knight ship membership for the Cote de Castillon wine appellation – 2011.
Contador would win the criterium in 2010 and take second 2011, losing to Voeckler. Alberto Contador attended the 2010 Criterium de Castillon pre-race luncheon at Chateau Pitray and is the first TDF winner to race at the Criterium since the course was changed in 1982. Here he is Knighted and poses for the media along with Miss Pays de Loire.
What happens after the cocktail hour and formalities?
Allan: Everyone sits down to a wonderful catered 4 course meal, with a fancy dessert and coffee. At the table are 6 or 7 different wines from the Cotes de Castillon appellation. The trick is not to drink too much because you still have the race to attend at 5 pm. It’s a big party. I suppose the riders who have to race are the only ones not partaking in too much wine.
Lunch is catered, and the tables are placed under the 150 year old 50 foot plane trees.
No one quite makes desert like the French. I have to say that even though the crowd for lunch numbered about 250 people, the food was excellent. Bravo to the catering company. Served at lunch are wines from some of the vineyards that make up the Cote de Castillon appellation. Chateau de Pitray is one of the wines.
Why did you arrange a bike tour around the Criterium de Castillon?
Allan: I like to offer my clients a crowning moment with their stay at Chateau Pitray, and the Criterium fits the bill perfectly. The region around the chateau is an absolute gem for cyclists, and combining that with a professional cycling event is frosting on the cake. It gives everyone something extra to look forward to because it is unique and entertaining. However, I have to emphasize that there is a lot more fun to be had in addition to the Criterium. If you like to bike, and like French cuisine, and love Bordeaux wines, well then this is paradise.
Alexander Vinokourov in 2009 returned to racing from his doping ban at the Criterium de Castillon, a race he is familiar with in that he had won it in 2003 and 2005. Here he makes the rounds amongst the guests at the Criterium luncheon.
Miss France of 2005 also receives the honorary knight-ship in 2006.
Local owner of winery from the Cotes de Castillon appellation. She’s holding a precious bottle of Chateau Pitray wine, did you notice?
Daniel Mangeas – the famous Tour de France finish line commentator – introduces Christophe Moreau, along with retired pro cyclists Raymond Poulidor, and other current pros, to the luncheon crowd.
Laurent Jalabert, winner of the Climbers Jersey in the 2001 TDF, begins the 1 km ascent of Belves. He would go on to win the criterium.