Guy, the editor of Rouleur and a great riding friend despite the fact that we’ve really only ever done two rides together, called and asked if I could give him 3,000 or so words fast. I didn’t think I could. He told me the text was to accompany photos by Taz Darling, and I told him I’d get him his words. I pulled a bunch from all over my draft of Tour de Lance, structured them into an essay, revised here and there to fit the magazine, and hoped I’d earn my spot next to Taz’s pics.
MOST CONSIDER IT CRAZY, the way I choose to watch a stage race. Of all the things, they say. Why are you here, they ask.
I HAVE RIDDEN IN TEAM CARS in the Tour and the Giro, not just some soigneur’s car speeding to the feed zone hours ahead of the race, but in Car One, the mobile command where the true opinions about each rider are by necessity spoken, and the strategies are deployed and, when the strategies are shattered by the whims and weaknesses of the racers, the split decisions are made that can win or lose the biggest prize in cycling. Hearing Johan Bruyneel scream into a radio mic inches from your ear as you screech sideways on a narrow mountain lane at 70 mph to avoid the body of Jens Voigt, who is still rolling a bit and flopping a lot after hitting the road—not many people ever have a chance to see such things.
Barriers are nothing. At any time I can flash the plasticized credential hanging around my neck—after all these years I get the highest-level pass obtainable—and I walk by the police and marshals onto the race course itself. At the start, I mingle with the waiting racers and, don’t let anyone tell you different, they are not so afraid of germs that they don’t shake hands, and they are not too keyed up intense to talk. They’re just waiting to do their jobs, and happy to fill a few otherwise empty seconds before their toil begins. I have flattened myself back against the metal riot fencing as the whole of the Tour de France brushed against me, the air swirling with sirens and snicking chains and thick liniments and chatter in nine languages and an elbow now and then poking my chest. At the finish, I walk among the racers like a human among wraiths, wondering what it means to me, for me, for all of us that they have done this to themselves once again. I don’t like to talk to them then, though some of they want to. I watch. I take notes I rarely use. There is almost no way to write it right.
I have ridden full stages on the rear of a moto, directing the driver back and forth through the peloton and asking him to throttle miles ahead of the race so we can pull to the side of the road at a grassy spot and stop and wrench the helmets of our heads and stroll over to a ditch to take a pee then come back and unpack sandwiches from the panniers and eat them and feel our bodies ache from the changes in speed, and wait for the race to come to us. When the race comes we are already astride the moto and it is coughing up its excess of power, and small stones spit out behind us as we casually rejoin the biggest bicycle race in the world. Somewhere in there I tap the driver on the shoulder and say, “I think that’s David Millar attacking up there, why don’t we join when we can?” And when there’s space between the break and the pack, we go into it, simple as that, there I am watching just a few feet away a desperate, gut-churning escape made all the more beautiful for the certainty that it is also doomed. I might be watching Matisse bring a yellow-sopped brush to a blue-soaked canvas.
The press car is no less visceral than the moto, at least the car I ride in—not the portly vans or sedate press pool cars confined to the caravan, but an inevitably hot-rod rental thrashed by the abandon and intent of James Startt, Jim, my ex-pat American friend who’s lived in Paris so long he daily wears a beret without irony and who, along the way, has covered twenty Tours. We drive on the course ahead of or behind the pack. We have honked our way through the long platoon of riders, and sped alongside them on narrow roads and followed them singly down the twisting Pyrenean and Alpine lanes and been given freedom to pass by the commissars when the team cars must hold their positions. We have screeched into the finish area minutes before the pack arrives and jumped out of the car to see the sprint as if we were the protagonists of an action-adventure movie.
Even my least-favorite way to watch the race, inside the press room, is in its way full of wonder and privilege—to sit at a long table in front of a computer you must use to explain this whole strange affair to readers back home, and as you sit there to pick up the paper dispatches that are distributed by hand, nearly minute by minute, to every seat there, and to gossip with the other journalists and watch not only the French television feed but any of the many other countries’ streaming videos via the official wifi. You can watch the whole race from this room and it is in here that you can assemble the most coherent and factually accurate narrative. Plus there is free coffee, soda, gift bags from the finishing town. Out in the sunshine, just outside the door, there is an old Italian journalist who still writes up his account on a manual typewriter then phones the copy in to his news desk. You can hear the keys clacking.
Most any way I choose to witness the race would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the typical fan — which is why many of them find it ludicrous when I tell them my personal choice is to experience it just like them. Like a fan. Beside the road. Inside the bars. Loitering under a tree or a picnic umbrella for six hours to watch 30 seconds of racing flash past. What are you doing here, they ask me as I sit with them, scratching in my notebook.
I FOLLOWED THE GIRO IN FULL last year, and the Tour de France, and some small stage races. The Tour of California. The Tour of the Gila. The Vuelta Castilla y Leon. I tried to write as little as I could about who won. I followed the lost and the sick and the injured, and I followed as often I could the race itself, the entity of the race, the phenomenon of it, the always-changing character of the always-moving race.
The Vuelta Castilla began in late March in a little square in a little village called Parades de Nava, cold and windy but crowded with spectators and media there to see Lance Armstrong, who has competing in the race either with or against, depending on what you believed, his teammate, Alberto Contador. When Armstrong crashed later that day and broke his collarbone, the crowds vanished. The stages were from then on peopled with inhabitants of the villages or cities it passed through, but the spectatorship rarely if ever exceeded a fraction of each spot’s population. Crumbling churches overlooked the team buses. Closed markets. Shuttered homes. On rippling plains the race rolled by mountains in the distance, then into the mountains and back down. Dogs sat in the roads and scratched themselves before the race came and after it left. Statues of saints and the saviour watched the race pass from atop far hills. There were smoky cafes where children of three or four sat up on the bar while their fathers drank glasses of Mahou beer. In contrast to the spectators at American races, who are principally cyclists and dress as if they have to be ready to break into sporting mode at any moment, and to the throngs that line the roads at every Tour de France, who are essentially the European equivalent of a NASCAR crowd, and to the patriotic, wine-soaked tifosi of the Giro, many of the Spanish racing fans dressed as if they regarded the race as an occasion of much import. There was a man in a brown tweed beret and checkered black-and-blue-and-green slip-ons with gray slacks and a black dress coat. He was missing a thumb and the first two fingers of his left hand, but he carried a kerchief in his pocket. There was a man in green corduroy with a blue cardigan over a black shirt, riding a bicycle with his walking cane lashed to the tubes. There was a man with a brilliant red cashmere sweater tied around his waist, and a man in a light brown suit with a yellow button-down shirt.
Small as it was, Castilla was still a stage race, and so there was music and banners everywhere it went, and a stage and a tireless announcer narrating your enjoyment, a voice-over for your day to help you understand the history and future of the drama you found yourself a part of. Young girls leaned into one another as they walked and boys punched each other out of sheer ebullience. Even at this level, yes, I understood: A stage race coming to your town was how a birthday party must have felt when you were six years old.
The motorcycle drivers who patrolled the peloton’s borders were lean or fat, grizzled or sharply young but they all had the same bearing. They were the race’s underappreciated outlaws and off their motorcycles they carried their helmets with them not like purses or small dogs but somehow like sidearms. The race officials, the many judges and timekeepers and logisticians and bureaucrats all had a shared bearing as well, much impressed with themselves in their polos, but to their continual dismay they were received by the public with the same second-rate regard given to referees at a football game. Some of the press tried as hard as possible to project the attitude of lifers in prison, hanging out bored in cars at the finish with the doors open and their feet propped on the dash; some walked around telling more interesting stories than they would ever file, some used their press passes to strut along the barricaded stretches as if on a fashion runway, and some were truly hardworking journalists who equaled what all the other types lacked in drive and ethic but were so blindered by their sense of mission that they never would write about children sitting on bartops or dogs scratching themselves in the road. All of these citizens of the stage race were rendered invisible when even the lowliest, worst-placed rider entered town. They were not merely the stars. They were the substance of it all. Each town was a milieu constructed especially for them and it would be torn down when they left and another erected in front of them and then destroyed in their absence while the next was constructed only to be disassembled. The racers were not confined to a stadium or a field. The world of traffic and stop signs and stoplights and deliveries and business hours and school days made way for them, parting to let them play. Seeing one of them was like being in one of those drive-through zoos and spotting, amid the other tourists and the guides and the maintenance workers and the souvenir vendors, a real goddamn lion.
All of this, I saw, because I did not have to write about the fight for first.
TO BE A FAN ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, I sacrifice my effectiveness, and perhaps my reputation, as a straightforward journalist. I cannot help myself: When the great stage races reach the mountains, I abandon to the farthest extent I can manage my duties as a reporter of the news and go and simply stand on the side of an upwardly tilting road as the race passes. I stand, and I look into the eyes of the racers as they fly past, as they labor past, as they empty themselves out climbing beyond what most humans would consider the limits of athletic performance or mortal sensibility.
From the Dolomites to the Alps to the Pyrenees, I have ridden many of the mountains myself so I know something of what the riders feel — the ordinary human’s approximation, to be sure, but enough to imagine the sensations and emotions coursing through the champions. I have pedaled in a blinding fog and in a down-flowing river of liquefied sheep shit on the Tourmalet. I’ve descended on roads so hot the melting tar shifted beneath the wheels in turns, and on roads so cold my steering settled back to a safe level only after my gloved hands on the bar stopped shivering and froze motionless. I have had my little triumphs: I’ve twice gotten those cheesy but secretly treasured finisher’s medals from the Etape du Tour, the event that gives amateurs a chance to race a real stage of the Tour de France a few days before or after the pros; and on the famed climb of Hautacam, where in 2000 Lance Armstrong, in one of the all-time great messes of a ride of the great mess that is the Tour de France, took the yellow jersey by flying away from Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani, I once beat an Olympic athlete (a figure skater, but still). And I have had my failures: In 2002, fat, out of shape and in a job I hated, I was the last by 20 minutes in my group of friends to the top of Ventoux.
I stand on the mountain roads, and I know nothing of who is winning or what the strategies are or what facts I will later have to track down and assemble into a news account and dispatch later that day, and as the racers pass I look into their eyes. I am looking for something of myself.
On Stage 17 of the 2009 Tour, I chose to stand a little less than two kilometers from the top of the final climb, the Col de la Colombiere. It was separated from the penultimate mountain, the Col de Romme, by only a 5-kilometer descent, so the pair effectively formed one monster slog. Madness was upon this mountain: The helicopters that had first came into view far below as hornets swarming the skinny roads had now risen to eye level like special effects in a war movie as the race had continued ascending beneath them. Now they hovered directly overhead, roaring and swatting air down upon us. Far down the mountain, I could see the crowd clotting the road until forced to scatter by an assault of sirens, lights and horns. But even then, the fans stood thick and close, leaning into the path wedged open by the vehicles. A great bawl traveled up through the crowd as if we were nothing but a telephone line laid there to communicate the race’s excitement. We began shouting in our turn as the racers came.
Contador was leading, with the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, on his wheel and bare road behind them. I was at the apex of a right turn and they passed literal inches from me — so close that afterward I looked down and saw that some rider’s sweat had dripped onto my shoe. Contador’s eyes were without bottom, and he was looking back into them instead of out at the world. Andy Schleck’s eyes looked as if he had just hit a classmate with a spitball while the teacher was writing on the blackboard. Then they were past, up the hill.
I know what it was like to peer into Contador and Schleck at that moment, and the moment will last as one of my great memories of any Tour de France. But to gain that, to stand on that Alpine road isolated from the reportage that floods those watching the race on television or following it as news, there were many things I gave up. I didn’t know that Schleck had initiated this break by attacking five kilometers from the top of the Romme. And I didn’t know that only his brother Frank, and Contador and Andreas Kloden had been able to catch his wheel. I didn’t know that in the team car Bruyneel and Alain Gallopin had figured out that the attack and the makeup of the groups actually improved the chance of Astana’s podium sweep. I didn’t know that on the Colombiere, Contador had peeled off Schleck’s wheel and temporarily faded back to Kloden, who was visibly struggling and shook his head to say no to whatever Contador had asked. I didn’t know that Bruyneel figured out that Contador wanted to attack the Schlecks and, sensing that Kloden would be dropped if that happened, said three times into the radio, “Alberto, don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.” I didn’t know that just before I saw him, Contador attacked anyway. I didn’t know that Kloden was dropped, that he was watching his chance for a podium disappear up the narrow road of the Colombiere, and that in the Astana car Bruyneel was screaming, cursing, beating the steering wheel so hard with his fist that he broke it.
Out there on the road that day, Kloden rode by me in a palsy, and because I thought he’d jumped out of a group below and was chasing instead of having just been dropped, I yelled, “Good job, Klodie!” He heard nothing. His eyes were a void. He was losing his podium spot. He was gone.
So much important news and so many facts not available to me, so much I didn’t know. So much more I did: Those eyes.
ON VENTOUX, WE DROVE HONKING through a bacchanalia. The car was assaulted, doused with beer, blocked by what appeared to be a rave. Sometimes when we were forced to a stop, we got pushed in rocking motions from the back, as if friendly samaritans were trying to help us gun out of a snowbank. Among the creatures we passed were two Elvises, a herd of Smurfs, the Pope, a boatful of Vikings, two chickens, a kangaroo riding a man, Barney Rubble, several Sumo, two prisoners (chained together at the legs), two spacemen (tethered), and four crossdressed cave women who are, sadly, separated from Barney by a few cruel kilometers of 7-percent slope.
There were cycling fans, too, holding signs that beseeched various racers for miracles, or even now still covering the pavement with painted tributes and pictographs. And some people up here were simply devotees of the Tour de France, fans of the race no matter who was in it. But most of Ventoux’s temporary residents appeared to be fans neither of cycling nor of the Tour, but of excess. They were here because there was a celebration here. For them, this could have been Mardi Gras. Or a Dionysian Mystery rite 3,000 years ago. There was no madder scene in sports anywhere in the world at anytime, not a World Cup soccer final, not the Super Bowl, not the Olympics. It seemed the mountain might collapse under the weight of its party.
The treeline ended with about 7 kilometers to go. The road wafted through a nightmarish and disorienting, wind-wracked lunarscape. This part of the mountain is often closed to traffic not only for snow, like any high-altitude peak, but also, because of its bare exposure and Ventoux’s solitary position on the landscape, for winds. Weather gauges at the top record ongoing gusts of 50 mph about 240 days out of the year, and have measured extended bursts up to 200 mph. Gusts up to 65 mph had been reported today. Jim nosed the car into the crowd, aiming for a service road about five kilometers from the top. The race was still more than 20 kilometers from the base, and Jim knew some people who had organized a party in a big tent here.
When we got out of the car, the wind slapped us, howled, threw dust in our eyes. Sunlight richocheted off the white of the rocks around us. We leaned into the wind and made our way to the party tent.
By the car, there were two men with rainbow hair, and a hairy and swarthy man in a pink bikini and a platinum Marilyn Monroe wig, and a middle-aged man who was bent over, hands on thighs, making heaving noises while an elderly woman holding a bottle of wine patted his back. We also passed a resting pack of young amateur cyclists in matching red uniforms and as thin as pros, sitting casually on the top tubes of their bicycles with a general air about them that communicated, desperately, that they were not fatigued but no longer deigned to ride a road so crowded with jokesters, mythic peak just five kilometers away or not.
They were there to lose themselves. All of them. They got lost in drink, or inside costumes, or through the pure blanking power of the effort it takes to ascend such a mountain. In losing themselves, they became a part of the race, and I suppose that’s all I’ve ever wanted, too. It seems the only thing worth writing about, the only thing we can do, most of us, to achieve the dream all cyclists share.
Originally published in Rouleur, issue 18