Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Here is an essay about the Tour de France. I'm still wrestling with my feelings about the ejection of three riders from this year's race, so I thought I'd write about a rider who wasn't ejected from the race, but perhaps should have been. This is a chapter in a book I'm writing about the two months I spent in Europe in 2006. Let me know if you like it, perhaps I'll post other chapters from the book, which is about half-finished. Enjoy.
The Greatest Bike Race on Earth
Liz and I got up early the next morning and boarded a train back to Paris. Our hosts were planning on staying in Normandy for the rest of the weekend, but we had an important date back in the city. Enough emotional roller coasters while visiting fields of battle, it was time to watch the Tour de France!
Now understand, I’ve been racing bicycles in one form or another since I was about 14. I’ve been following the Tour for almost as long, and understand, I don’t follow the Tour the way your average Joe follows baseball or football. I’m a super-fan when it comes to the Tour, which is not an easy thing to be when you live across an ocean from the race. Every July for the past seven or eight years I’ve found some way to know what’s going on in the race. First I was content reading woefully inadequate updates in the New York Times, and later watching it on TV after my parents got cable. For the past few summers I’ve followed live text updates online. Don’t tell my boss, but the reason that I was never able to get any work done before noon during the summer of 2005 was that I was too busy following the Tour. Irresponsible and negligent? Perhaps, but let me ask you this: How else would I have known what happened when David Zabriskie crashed in that year’s team time trial, thus ceding the yellow jersey to Lance Armstrong and relegating team CSC to second place in the stage? How else could I have followed George Hincapie and Oscar Pereiro as they broke away on stage 15, from Lezat-sur-Leze to Pla d’Adet? And I certainly wouldn’t have seen the now-disgraced Alexandre Vinokourov sprint to a win on the Champs Elysees, cycling’s most hallowed ground, in that Tour’s finale.
Needless to say, I was pretty excited to be on the Champs to watch the end of the most important bike race in the world. A friend who’d been to see the race in previous years advised me to arrive early in order to secure a good spot, so we arrived at 11:30 a.m., about four hours before the race would roll into town (Liz was not happy about this).
It turned out to be a good thing, as France’s most beautiful avenue was already getting crowded. For any cyclist, being on the Champs Elysees at the finish of the Tour is like having seats behind home plate for game seven of the World Series, or sitting at the fifty-yard line at a Super Bowl. We happened to fall in with a group of Anglophone cycling fans from around the world – Pennsylvania and Melbourne – who had all come early to secure prized spots up against the barriers that line the road to protect the racers from us rabid fans.
Of all the English speakers around us, I spent the most time talking to an excitable man named Fred. He and his wife, Mabel, were from western Pennsylvania, the same area as Floyd Landis, the rough-and-tumble former Mennonite who would be crowned as the race winner later that afternoon. Fred was fanatical in his enthusiasm for Floyd. When a French film crew walking the street saw an American flag tied to the barriers near where Fred stood, they stopped and asked him his reactions to Floyd’s success. The vivacious little man started jumping up and down while chanting “Floyd! Floyd! Floyd!” As Fred bounced, a tan fishing vest that he was wearing, pockets stuffed with camera batteries, memory cards, pens, viewer’s guides, and all other manner of flotsam bounced up and down on his thin shoulders. It was as if his enthusiasm for the bearded champion robbed him of the ability to form coherent sentences or to express himself in an adult manner. Hoping not to be associated with Fred’s antics on French television, I shielded my face from the camera. Fred had hung the flag to give Floyd that little bit of extra support, thus leaving Liz and me no chance to pass ourselves off as Canadians, as we had been doing with some regularity. Antics like those continued for hours.
It seemed that years passed as we sat under the hot sun, jealously guarding our tiny patch of dusty sidewalk and listening to Fred tell stories about how a friend of his friend’s son had once seen Floyd on a training ride in Pennsylvania. It was fascinating, but I was too busy to appreciate his tales, as I tried to placate Liz, who grew grumpier and grumpier as the hours wore on.
Then, like the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, the tour arrived.
First came teams of French junior riders. Kids of all ages rode parade laps around the avenue’s cobblestones as we all cheered them on. An announcer explained who they were, but he only spoke French. The general gist seemed to be that we might be looking at a future Tour winner, you never know.
Then came the publicity caravan. While we Americans sometimes forget it, the Tour was originally conceived of as a way to sell newspapers. While it’s since become a sporting event in its own right, it still holds tremendous marketing power. Every day of the race’s twenty-one days, the competitors are preceded by string of vehicles designed to entertain the spectators while pushing merchandise.
Most of the vehicles were advertising products that I’d never heard of, and in any case, I wasn’t able to read the French labels (how inconsiderate). Too bad, too, I’d be much more likely to buy a product, if I knew it had been advertised at the tour. All of the vehicles were blowing their horns, blaring music, and driving frantic zig-ziags down the road. This care-free driving, which blatantly ignored painted lane lines, was fine for the smaller cars but the bigger busses and trucks keeled over as they drove, first wallowing in one direction, and then the other, looking as if the driver was in the midst of a protracted grand mal seizure, rather than engaged in profitable salesmanship.
There were attractive men and woman hanging out of some of the open vehicles, waving and trying to smile. These hapless souls were my favorite part of the advertising caravan. Try though they might, it was pretty clear that twenty-one days and 2272 miles had taken a toll; the smiles were forced. They all looked rather carsick and thoroughly disgusted with their jobs. I’ll bet the annual return rate of Tour-caravan drivers and riders is fairly low.
Once the caravan left we waited around a bit more. The announcer was calling out things in French, and even though I had no idea what he was saying, the anticipation was so palpable I thought I might pee my pants. The crowd had been growing steadily as we’d been waiting, and was now ten-deep where we stood. I was glad we’d arrived hours early. Finally, there was a commotion at the far end of the Champs, down by the Arc de Triumph. A line of Gendarmerie on motorcycles driving in tight formation came onto the course, lights blinking and winking, sirens blaring full blast. Next came a red Skoda, bearing the race commissar, the chief referee. His driver leaned on the car’s horn, letting us know that the race was about to arrive. There was a furor as the crowd roared with excitement. Fred’s smile was about three miles wide and his hands flew into spastic motion as he tried to get his heavy camera into the ready position, adjust his sunglasses, cup his mouth to amplify his cheers, and wave his flag all at once. He didn’t wind up accomplishing anything.
Seconds later the racers arrived, accompanied by a fleet of motorcycles bearing more officials, TV cameras, and spare wheels. The noise was deafening. Fred steadied his hands by hanging onto the metal barrier. Floyd Landis’s Team Phonak was at the front of the peloton, an honorary position for the team of the Maillot Jaune, the race leader’s yellow jersey. Floyd’s team led the race around the course for the first few laps. From our spot we could see and feel the whoosh as about 150 of the world’s best cyclists raced by us, followed by dozens of team cars, more camera motorcycles and officials. They kept heading down the Champs toward the Tuilleries, before wheeling around and heading up in the opposite direction, turning again in front of the Arc de Triumph and coming back our way. I won’t bore you with the play-by-play; just know that I had the opportunity to see some of my biggest heroes competing on the sport’s biggest stage. At the end of race, Norwegian Thor Hushovd took the stage win over Aussie Robbie McEwen. Floyd finished safely in the peloton, and was named the winner of the race’s general classification, having accrued the lowest time over the twenty-one daily stages.
Of course, to say that Floyd’s win is now tainted is an understatement. Days after we stood on the Champs, listening to our national anthem and watching Floyd cover his heart on the top step of the podium, it would come out that he had produced a drug test result showing an abnormal testosterone ratio, likely meaning that he’d used banned substances to achieve his win. He now stands accused of cheating, and has been stripped of his Tour crown. Even two years later, he still says he didn’t do it.
I’m not sure of what to think about Floyd, but I do know that watching the world’s biggest bike race with thousands of other fans would become my best memory from all of my time in Europe. No amount of bad sportsmanship can take those moments away from me. The race felt like it should have been the culmination of our trip. Unfortunately, we still had five days in Paris, and then another month of baseless backpacking after that.
In Paris we visited the predictable sights, which I will list here to prove to you that I did everything I was supposed to do in Paris: The Louvre Museum; the Muse d’Orse; the Tuilleries; the Jardin du Luxembourg; the Eifel Tower; Notre Dam; Shakespeare & Company; and a one-time royal prison known as the Consiergerie, which had been the last home of Marie Antoinette. Of course, we also spent many hours wandering the streets, and even stumbled across some kind of an international beach volleyball tournament, at which I got to spend a couple wonderful hours ogling the pretty women in bikinis.
Some of it was interesting, but mostly it was just hot, and I longed for a change of climate. In fact, my most pleasant memories from my time in Paris, aside from the Tour, was sticking my feet in the green waters of a fountain outside the Louvre, and then listening to the satisfying squelching noises my sandals made as I walked across the marble floor in the museum’s lobby – that, and a particularly luscious gelato that I got near Notre Dam. Normandy’s cool temperatures had been a tease, so when our hosts took off for their summer vacation at the end of the week, we headed to the Loire Valley to continue ours. Much to my relief, it was cooler in the countryside.
Posted by Andrew J. Bernstein at 8:11 PM