Play like Pros; Always Dreamed of Riding the Tour De France or Driving a Formula One Race Car? Now You Can. Amateur Athletes Step Up to the Plate

Newsweek International, April 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

Play like Pros; Always Dreamed of Riding the Tour De France or Driving a Formula One Race Car? Now You Can. Amateur Athletes Step Up to the Plate


Byline: Adam Piore, With Alison Brooks in Paris, Emily Flynn in London and John David Sparks in New York

Rene le Cam's patients know him as their friendly family dentist. But every July, the diminutive 51-year-old from Provence, France, puts down his dental tools, tosses aside his lab coat and shaves his legs. Then he puts on blue-and-white spandex biking pants, a tight matching jersey and heads for the hills of rural France and the world-renowned race routes of the Tour de France. Le Cam is not likely to see five-time winner Lance Armstrong. But he might pass retired racer Greg LeMond--the only other American to beat the French. Instead of the actual Tour de France, Le Cam hits the route a week early for a fantasy racing experience staged for wanna-be competitors. Decked out in the best gear, surrounded by celebrity guests like LeMond and hundreds of other spandex-clad bikers, Le Cam considers the experience the highlight of his year. "My best memory was when I won the Mont Ventoux stage in my age category," the wiry dentist recalls. "Armstrong had a hard time with that one." He adds, "[We] have the same style of pedaling--very flexible."

Who says you have to be in your 20s to make it to the pros? Holidaymakers--even the overweight, middle-aged kind--are discovering that fantasy sporting vacations offer experiences once thought unattainable. Already a thriving $1 billion industry in the United States, the field is spreading to embrace the dreams of aspiring professional athletes around the world. In France, would-be contenders like Le Cam have been flocking to the countryside to ride the Tour de France in growing numbers since the early 1990s. In southern Spain, a Dutch oil tycoon and racing driver is constructing a race-car resort that will offer packages retailing for as much as $25,000 a day. The owners of an American baseball fantasy retreat, meanwhile, are considering opening up shop in Japan. And British entrepreneur Leo Pearlman expects to launch Europe's first-ever fantasy sports "camp" in October. "The cult of the sporting celeb has never been greater," says Pearlman, who plans to offer weekend rugby, football, cricket and boxing adventures for a modest 2,995 pounds a person.

The model for the sports fantasy vacation can be found in the United States, where baby boomers began signing up to schmooze with their favorite retired athletes in the early 1980s. The idea has always been to offer amateurs a taste of the professional sports world. Among participants at the Randy Hundley Fantasy Baseball Camp, one of America's first, the average age is 50, says director Lori Sochi. Forty percent are "veterans," meaning they come back every winter. For the $3,495 fee, they get to work out in the Chicago Cubs' spring-training facility in Mesa, Arizona. Each receives his own Cubs uniform, which is placed in a locker in the very same clubhouse the actual Cubs use.

The most exciting part of the experience for many is the chance to schmooze with--and get tips from--some of their favorite legends. "To play their favorite sports with the people they grew up watching--it's a childhood dream for a lot of these guys," says Sochi. Larry Marino, president of Sports Adventures, which offers both a Wayne Gretzky hockey camp and a Boston Red Sox baseball camp, notes that for the amateur athlete, it's a thrill just to be in the pros' locker room. "They've never had the opportunity to walk up and shake hands with a sports legend," he says. "All of a sudden they're not only meeting them--they get to spend a week almost in their shoes."

The experience can be powerful and inspiring, regardless of the sport. Le Cam is a survivor of prostate cancer, just like Lance Armstrong. After being diagnosed in the early 1990s, Le Cam turned to biking for solace. "It was a way to escape, to confront physical suffering," he recalls. Now he tries to raise cancer awareness by biking in a jersey emblazoned with the words let's ride together against cancer. …

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