In 2008, only eight years after taking up biking, Jim Long decided to do a bike trip in conjunction with the legendary Tour de France, a trip he saw as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"It was so much fun," he remembered, "we decided it was a twice-in-a-lifetime experience, so we went back in 2010. Then we decided maybe it was an every-two-year thing and went again in 2012."
Long, 70, of Highland Beach, Fla., isn't due for another Tour ride till 2014, but he, two sons, a son-in-law and a grandson couldn't resist this year's 100th edition of the Tour, with a June 29 start in Corsica and a July 21 finish in Paris.
Bike aficionados like Long don't ride the entire Tour, which covers more than 2,000 miles and climbs thousands of feet through the Alps and Pyrenees. He and his family group again will be riding with France-based Active 4 Adventures — Discover France. Their July 13-20 route will include the popular and challenging Mont Ventoux in Provence and the Alps stages.
In recent years the Tour has generated a lot of enthusiasm in the United States, drawing hundreds of thousands of people who line the route to cheer on the competitors.
But it's not just the pros who get the cheers, and that's part of the appeal for amateurs who are able to ride parts of the Tour route just hours before the pros.
"There's such a spirit," said Carolyn Vukich of Madison, Wis. "The roads are lined with tourists and supporters of the Tour, so as you ascend the mountains, you get encouraged. There are not a lot of women riders, so they were ringing the cowbells and shouting, 'Allez, allez!' (Go, go!)."
Vukich, 54, and husband John did Tour rides in 2010 and 2011 with Trek Travel, an arm of the Wisconsin-based manufacturer whose bikes Lance Armstrong rode before the doping scandal ruined his legacy and stripped him of his seven Tour titles.
Trek and Active 4 Adventures are among a handful of companies that pay a hefty fee each year to be designated a VIP Official Operator of Tour de France. While other companies run tours that may include riding some sections of the Tour route, clients of the VIP operators enjoy ready access to the pro riders and some activities not available to others.
"When you go to the start village and have that insider access, you get to go back to the team buses, talk with the riders, look at their bikes," Long said.
Tour operators and riders agree that training and planning are key to a rewarding trip. Early stages of this year's Tour, for instance, are relatively flat and thus require a different approach and fitness level than training for the mountainous areas, such as the epic Alpe d'Huez, which gains more than 3,500 feet in slightly more than 8 miles and includes 21 switchbacks.
"Decide if you want to do the mountains and what that entails," advised Tony Miller, 55, of Baltimore, who has done five tours with Trek. "They're beautiful, but they're hard. To enjoy it the most, you have to be in shape."
Allen Parsley, 67, of Berkeley, Calif., agreed that training pays off.
"I'm not one of the major maniacs on some of these tours — more a medium level," said Parsley, who will be doing his fourth tour this year with Thomson Bike Tours, another VIP operator. "I average probably 50 miles a week year round but bump that up to 150 before the trip."
Parsley also noted the advantage of traveling with an experienced company such as Thomson, started by former pro rider Peter Thomson. "You have to realize it's very difficult to see more than one day of the Tour unless you're with a guided trip."
Jim Jagoda, 51, of Western Springs, Ill., who did a piece of the Tour last year with Thomson, said it's important to decide what attracts you. "My advice on choosing a trip and company would be to determine what is more important to you: watch the Tour stages in person or ride portions of the Tour route and some of the famous climbs or a mix of both. Also, decide if you want to see the finish of the Tour, the climbs in the Alps or Pyrenees or some of the flatter stages. Be sure to choose a company that offers a trip that gives you the ability to do that."
But do these riders ever have times when they think they may have taken on a challenge too great?
"Probably right in the middle of Ventoux," Vukich said. "But when you get on the other side, you don't remember that. You just remember that wonderful view from the top of the mountain."
Planning a Tour de France trip
Trips range from spectator only to those for casual or hard-core riders.
Study the Tour route for the coming year to pick what appeals to you, but don't overestimate your abilities.
Most trips include lodging, most meals, guides, support van and services, and viewing at least some legs of the pro competition.
Pricing varies by trip length and amenities, but expect a weeklong trip typically to start at $4,000.
Start planning early as some trips sell out fast. The 2014 Tour route will be announced in October, and many companies will have their trips listed then or even in September based on rumors.
Tour companies mentioned in the story
Active 4 Adventures — Discover France, 800-929-0152, active4tourdefrance.com/en
Thomson Bike Tours, 888-446-5502, thomsonbiketours.com
Trek Travel, 866-464-8735, trektravel.com
A sampling of companies with a U.S. office that have Tour trips. Not all companies are VIP Official Operators of Tour de France, which means they may not have as much access to the Tour route or Tour participants.
Adventure Center, 800-228-8747, adventurecenter.com; Bike Tours Direct, 877-462-2423, biketoursdirect.com; Breaking Away Bicycle Tours, 310-377-9806, breakingaway.com; Custom Getaways, 863-292-2017, customgetaways.com; Gourmet Cycling Travel, 888-327-2283, gourmetcyclingtravel.com; Jemison Cycling Tours, 800-492-9159, jemisontours.com; TDF-Tours, 888-825-4720, tdf-tours.com; Velo Echappe, 402-345-7445, veloechappe.com