This article first appeared in the Europe’s Best Rides special of issue 350, published on 24 January 2019. To get the issue and subscribe to Cycling Plus, head here. This month every new subscriber receives a sample pack of Veloforte bars worth £13.99.
Nobody emerges from the Tour de France unscathed. The riders’ suffering, of course, is well documented. Grand Tour cycling – 21 days with over 80-plus hours in the saddle during the hottest month of the French year – is nothing short of barbarism. Even the lucky ones who avoid crashes and getting ill pay a hefty physical and emotional toll for making it to the finish in Paris. Spare a thought, too, for the race’s staff, whose job it is to keep the whole thing afloat – a high-wire act if ever there was one. And shed a tear, if you can find it in you, for the poor journalists, who follow the riders around France and spend so long driving, finding hotels and generally languishing in logistic hell that the time left for actual journalism is in short supply.
That said, few toil like the tour operators, who ferry holidaymakers around the race for three long weeks and have to be on hand to deal with their every whim and demand, and make sure everyone’s expectations are met. In a race as complex as the Tour de France, that’s no mean feat. For guests of Mummu Cycling, however, they’re fortunate they’ve got someone as indefatigable as Marcel Berger leading them. It’s a job that demands nuclear fusion like energy levels; one in which you solve one problem, only to be confronted by another.
Marcel’s based in Melbourne but is on the road in Europe for much of the northern hemisphere’s summer. He founded Mummu Cycling in 2009 around the time of the Geelong Road World Championships and is now involved, behind the scenes, at many races, particularly the World Championships, where they look after logistics for national federations, but the focus of their work is on private trips for holidaymakers at races like the Tour. Mummu is one of six official operators at the race whose job is to give fans the full race experience, whether that’s getting close to the team buses with VIP passes, meeting riders, seeing the race up close in the hospitality zone or riding parts of the route each day.
Every Tour operator has their own way of covering the race: some concentrate more on riding, with longer rides planned each day, while others are more focused on seeing the race. Mummu is more in the latter camp. That doesn’t mean they skimp on the riding, however; 40-60km rides are on the itinerary daily.
Helping Marcel at the 2018 edition of the race was Australian legend Stuart O’Grady, winner of two stages during his career. Marcel met Stuart, a fellow Aussie, at an industry event several years ago and invited him on board for the Spring Classics tours they operate (O’Grady’s also a former Paris-Roubaix winner). Since then he’s become a partner at Mummu and started lending a hand at the Tour.
He provides guests with something priceless: access into the race’s inner sanctum. If there’s a rider you want to meet, or a selfie you want to take, Stuart’s friendships within the sport will help grease the wheels.
Our three days with Mummu coincided with the start of the final week of the 2018 Tour. Flying into Toulouse, we were taken straight to Carcassonne, the fortified city an hour’s drive south east, for a rendezvous with Astana DS Lars Michaelsen, O’Grady’s former teammate and manager at CSC – who was high from the team’s back-to-back stage wins on the two preceding days.
From there we went directly for a slap-up meal at À 4 Temps, a brasserie from Michelin-starred chef Franck Putelat. We were back in the centre of Carcassonne the following morning for the start of stage 16, where we saw Colombian fans go crazy for a man in blue (Nairo Quintana) and Welsh fans follow suit for a man in yellow (Geraint Thomas).
Once the race was well out of town – which, with the farmer protests and pepper spray fiasco, took a while – we got on the bikes and traced the route that finished stage 15. It headed up the magnificent Pic de Nore climb (1205m), known locally as the Mont Ventoux of the west for the way it rises up out of the flatlands and the transmission tower at the summit. It’s the highest peak of the Montagne Noire range, on the western edge of the larger Massif Central. The original plan was to jump in the vans at the summit and make it back to the hotel in Toulouse for the stage finish. But by the time we’d conquered the Pic de Nore, the stage was nearing its climax, so we improvised and watched the action on our phones.
Heat of the moment
Early the next morning and we were back in the vans to get to the finish of stage 17, the brief 65km-blast intended up to be one of the highlights of the race. While it was the shortest (road) stage of the race, this would be one of the longest of the race for Marcel; a logistical fever dream that involved getting everybody in the vans at the crack of dawn, sending our luggage to our hotel in Lourdes, and taking us to the foot of the Col d’Azet to ride the final two climbs of the stage before the race caught up and swallowed us whole – no mean feat, considering it had already gone 11am by the time we arrived, the heat was infernal and the climbs had a combined length of 16km at close to nine per cent gradient. Not that you’d realise the complexities of Mummu’s task by chatting with Marcel, a man with an infectious, bellowing laugh that’s he’s never far from unleashing.
And with some of the shenanigans going on among the crowd on the Azet, there was plenty to laugh at. Grinding up the sun-baked Pla d’Adet was tough, but with the light at the end of the tunnel being VIP entry to the Col d’Izoard hospitality zone, there was more than enough incentive to keep ploughing on. When the peloton arrived some three hours later, the overblown hype of the shortest stage in decades proved impossible to live up to. Yet while the day’s action played out to the typical mountain-stage formula, it was impossible not to be swept up by the Tour de France hurricane, with the skill and patience of those at Mummu Cycling keeping you in the eye of it.
I RODE IT! MARIO SANCHEZ, PERTH, AUSTRALIA
“Mummu Cycling delivered a total-access Tour de France experience – up close to the team buses, riding a chunk of stage 17 and having fans applaud your efforts, watching the race from hospitality zones, departing from Lourdes before the peloton. But the highlights were the intangible experiences: the silence that comes before you hear the helicopters overhead as the peloton flies by and the camaraderie shared between the tour group on finishing a day’s ride. The access provided by Mummu is where value for money is delivered. I am sure entry to the departure village or finish line are available for purchase to the general public but being led through the circus by Stuart O’Grady, who could provide insight to how the riders are feeling and how the teams’ strategy is likely to play out, is truly where you get something extraordinary. It was great sitting up at the front with him and chatting while leading the Mummu peloton. The whole support crew was great, making all efforts to ensure riders were well taken care of on and off the bike. On the flipside, the ride part of the tour could have been better – separating riders into groups according to capability would have made it better for everyone. We unfortunately had to cut a couple of rides short, but on the whole, I would recommend Mummu if you want to get backstage access to the race with some riding sprinkled in between.”
Head to www.mummucycling.com to check out their Tour de France 2019 packages. The ‘Pinnacle of the Pyrénées’ package that we sampled in 2018 was six days and five nights in the Pyrenees, priced at £3,145.
A copy of stage 17 from Bagneres-de-Luchon to the Col du Portet, this is the sort of ride that should be measured in altitude gain rather than distance.