I heard from people who actually laughed out loud at this, and from people who hated the writing and me. My hair grew back.

One of the things that makes cycling great, supposedly, is that unlike other sports in which, say, the average fan never gets a chance to hit one over the vines at Wrigley, all of us share the same arena — me, you, Carlos Sastre, the DUI guy with the upturned drop bar, we can all pedal the same stretch of road.

That’s crap. For one thing, cycling is hardly alone in freely opening its arena to amateurs and professionals — that happens in plenty of other sporting pursuits, such as, for instance, on the lanes of a bowling alley or, probably, on several brands of mattresses. But more important, the whole same-road thing just isn’t true: A pro’s strada is a regular rider’s rue. Jimmy Caspar, for example, got kicked out of the Tour de France the other day for exceeding the time limit after he ended the stage by riding Alpe d’Huez in one hour, eight minutes and change. When I stormed up the legendary climb earlier this month as part of the Crazy Bet, I was just a little over Caspar’s time — between each switchback — and I passed about a thousand regular people. Not one of us was experiencing the road ridden by Caspar, let alone the one under stage winner Sastre (39:24).

So when I was wandering around the Start Village of the Tour one morning and saw the big sign that said “coiffure,” I instantly understood that I had a chance to find redemption for the lie we’ve been told: I might never ride the same road as a Tour de France racer, but I could get my hair cut by the same stylist.

The Village, an exclusive area set aside for VIPs, officials, media and racers, and which moves from town to town each day, is essentially a giant freebie wrapped in chain-link panels: Free coffee, free espresso, free wine, free newspapers, free juice, free smoothies, free grilled pineapple, free peaches, free apples, free Skoda caps — and, for racers or anyone else feeling a tad uncivilized after three weeks on the Tour — free haircuts.

There were two stylists working at a temporary salon in back of the booth, both guys, and one of them was buried to the wrists in the hair of a stunning woman with almond-shaped eyes who was wearing a blouse that was translucent white except for red opaque polka dots, two of which happened to fall in the places they most needed to. She was either a podium girl or a hallucination. I believe she was real because I sat down to wait for my haircut at 10 a.m., and from then until 11:05 the man did not remove his hands from her hair for any length of time longer than thirty-eight seconds, and at one point his fingers remained hidden from sight for a period just slightly beyond ten minutes — and if she was a hallucination what he was doing with his hands would be even more incomprehensible than what he was doing with his hands.

When he finally extracted his fingers and she stood and inclined her head to allow herself the gift of gazing upon her own visage in the mirror, her hair was the exact length it had been when I showed up an hour earlier. Though I did have to admit it looked even better.

I approached the dazed man and he blinked hard two or three times, less like someone waking from a dream than one trying to find the way back into it. Because I have determined that my French language skills are most effective when I avoid pronouns and tense, I inquired, “Coiffure les cyclists?” Thanks to my vast experience covering European races at the highest level of the sport, I knew that what he heard was something along the lines of “Cough her lay seek less?” so I pointed helpfully at my head.

He said something that was definitely not yes and began attempting to fit me into the protective apron. I didn’t even know how the cape worked — unlike the American ones, which wrap around you like a poncho, to get into the French version you have to stick your arms through sleeves. As I flailed about, I could feel my dream slipping away. I cried, “Cougher velo?” and, heroically thrusting one arm through the cape, I snipped at my hair with the first two fingers of my right hand. “Tour de France,” I said. “Racer?”

Then, god help me, I made little scissor noises.

In a just world, things like that would not work. But we are damned to make scissor noises for the simple reason that with sudden and complete comprehension, the man said, “Ah. Oui. Chavenel —”

“Sylvain?” I said. The Cofidis racer is a French icon, a one-time national time-trial champion, the highest-paid cyclist in his country, a charismatic, tenacious practitioner of the art of racing who would go on to win Stage 19 in a few days — and he has a good-looking, full head of hair that is not a mullet.

“. . . et Milram,” the stylist was saying, “Rabobank, Agritubel, Ah-gee—”

“Chavanel,” I said, pointing to my head. In the mirror, I saw the stylist scrunch his face to let me know either that he had not understood me, or that he wished me to understand that I was not, indeed, the best racer of his homeland. I needed to keep things simple here. The day before, in full sentences loaded with nuance and humor and context, I’d ordered a double espresso at a patisserie and been given two draft beers — pressions.

I searched well past the far edges of my intelligence for the onomotopaiec expression of Sylvain Chavanel’s haircut and, coming up empty, instinctively grasped that my only hope lay in the final resort of the desperate: trilingual inarticulation. “Hair duh Chavanel,” I said. “Tete of mucho vitesse.”

To this day, I have no idea whether the man thought I wanted for some reason to get my hair cut quicker than Chavanel, or if he believed I desired a head that in the wind would net me a speedier aerodynamic profile, or if, once he actually set fingers to my follicles he was reminded in the most cruel way that I was not the nymph who’d been under his ministrations just moments before. All I know for sure is that he ran a buzzing razor hard against my skin all the way down the middle of my head.

“Wow,” I said a couple minutes later when he switched off the razor. “Mercy.”

So you and I don’t ride the same roads as the pros. Who says we ought to? Who says we should want to? Who says we should care all that much when we discover that we can’t? Who says that such hard-won knowledge should, like Icarus shorn of his wings for flying too close to the sun, end up making us bald? We find true happiness, we humans, when we chase the dreams of our own making, when we appreciate and honor those gifts only we uniquely possess. For instance, through arduous trial I now know that I can forever cherish this about myself: When it comes to haircuts, I am way, way, way faster than a Tour de France podium girl.


Originally published in the July 25, 2008 Sitting In