The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tour de France

On the face of it, going to see the Tour de France seems like the worst possible way to experience a sporting event: You wait, outside in the elements, for several hours, at which point the action comes rushing by you and is over in a matter of a minute or two. On that level, it's the equivalent of going to the Super Bowl and only seeing one play (which may be a run up the middle for no gain).
But that's not really the point of watching the Tour in person. The arrival of the peloton is merely the climax after a great deal of foreplay (just a metaphor, kids; I did not just claim that watching the Tour is better than sex).

Since the Tour is bypassing Lyon again this year--it hasn't passed through here since 2002, as the city feels it doesn't need the tourism boost and doesn't try very hard to lobby for a stage--we picked the stage passing closest to us, which coincidentally fell on a Saturday, and Bastille Day, no less. I was pretty concerned about finding a good spot; everything I read stressed the importance of scouting out a spot ahead of time, and I just wasn't going to be able to do that. I was also concerned about huge Bastille Day crowds.

Ideally, one watches at the very end of a stage that finishes in the mountains: the riders are more spread out and are moving much slower as they climb, and the most action happens there. Knowing that the finish of this stage was going to be impossibly crowded, I aimed for an earlier climb, one I hoped would be enough to give us something to watch but still easy to get to and ideally situated in the middle of nowhere. The Cote de Corlier climb seemed to fit the bill [see map; it's the red number 3. That means a category-3 climb, i.e. not too bad].

We got up ridiculously early and hit the road--I knew the course would be closed to traffic several hours before the scheduled passage of the riders, and I didn't want to get shut out. As it happened, things worked perfectly: we found a shaded pull-off just above La Courbattiere, right on the side of the road. Looking around, it was a very pleasant spot, with a mountain stream cascading through the trees [pic] and several hiking trails leading off into the woods (hence the pull-off parking spot on a road mostly lined with guardrails).

After setting up our chairs and unpacking the grill, we still had time to kill before things started happening, so Boog and I explored the hiking trails while V and Tater dozed in the car. There were a number of Alpine (well, sub-Alpine) meadows filled with wildflowers [pic], though one was also filled with briars that slashed my calves to hamburger as I carried Boog across.

Back down at the car, I busied myself with prepping the grill--we had scored some actual Johnsonville bratwursts at Auchan the night before--and chatting with our neighbors. They were local folks, not huge cycling or even sports fans necessarily, but just enjoying a good day out [pic: waiting for the caravan].

Eventually the traffic on the road stopped, except for official vehicles zooming ahead of the race: race officials checking the course, press cars rushing toward the summit, official sponsor cars doing whatever official sponsors do. With no traffic, these cars were absolutely roaring up the road, and the slipstream was playing havoc with my attempts to get the grill going. (In my early-morning fog I had neglected to bring my trusty BBQ chimney, so I was sacrificing page after page of a souvenir edition of Le Progres.) The cars were interspersed with bike riders following the course of the day's stage, some in small groups, some solo, some obviously touring with full paniers and rain gear. A cycling team from the local high school rolled by en train, making good time up the hill and drawing cheers from the spectators.

One of the more singular aspects of the Tour experience is the sponsor caravan. The Tour's sponsors take advantage of a captive audience to parade a bewildering array of motorized advertising, ranging from simple (an array of loudly be-logoed cars) to elaborate (flatbeds mounted with fiberglas structures accompanied by booth babes tossing giveaways and pumping Eurotechno) to just plain bizarre (giant rolling coffee pots! autonomous saucissons! Wienermobile beware!). [pic: sponsor vehicle from PMU, the off-track betting people; note horses and riders in truck bed] The common thread is that all of these sponsors are throwing out free schwag to the spectators. Multiply the mass of a piece of airborne schwag--say, a promo deck of cards--by a forward velocity of about 40mph and it's a wonder more people aren't injured. I suppose the caravan slows down where the crowds are more dense. Anyway, I was tending my grill as the caravan roared past, pelting me with promotional giveaways; some sort of neck lanyard thunked directly into the grill and started melting, and a folding fan whacked into the rear glass of our rented Peugeot with enough velocity for me to fear a very difficult explanation to the rental agency. Boog, meanwhile, ran down every promo piece launched his way, plucking cardboard Homer Simpson masks from the roadside weeds and shrugging off a direct hit from a miniature Kronenbourg-bottle keychain [pic: Boog's schwag haul for the day].

The goofy energy of the sponsor caravan having set the proper tone for the arrival of the race itself, we settled in with our bratwursts and cold beer. The sound of the TV helicopters grew louder, and motorcyle cops cruised by, eyeing the crowd for any signs of trouble. A press photographer on a motorcycle rode by, then parked and walked back to us, having found Boog irresistably photogenic with his bratwurst and Harris Teeter sun umbrella [pic].

A sunburned old weirdbeard, who I would have mistaken for a homeless guy had he not been riding about 1500 euros worth of bike, eased up the road. "Alvarez is off the front!" he shouted, relaying the news coming through his radio earpiece. A ragged cheer went up. Then everyone looked at each other and asked Who the heck is Alvarez? Tour programs were quickly consulted. Did he mean Martinez? Maybe Gutierrez?

Cops and camera cars were coming fast and furious now. I settled into my chair with Boog on my lap and the camcorder in one hand. You have to decide beforehand if you're going to try to document the event or if you're going to let yourself get swept up in it, to hoot and holler and run along beside your favorite rider like a nut. I opted for the first, figuring my adopted favorite rider (Big George Hincapie, 'cause he's from South Carolina) would do just fine without me. V would take pictures with the still camera.

"Ils viennent!" and suddenly there they are, no breakaway, just the peloton all together, and man are they absolutely flying up the hill [pic]. The peloton sweeps past in an absolute blur of color and motion, very difficult to pick out faces, some open-mouthed with effort, jerseys undone. I think I pick out Discovery's colors, and shout Allez, allez, allez! like an idiot. And as soon as that, the peloton is gone.

Everything passed by so fast that I had to go back and look at the tape and the pictures to clearly see what was happening.

I believe that's Gerdemann, who would go on to win the day's stage, in the pink T-Mobile jersey leading the peloton. Also Boog and myself, plus our aforementioned Harris Teeter umbrella, poking into the frame.

That's Cancellara in the yellow jersey of the current leader [pic]; on the last climb of the day he would get dropped like a bad habit and finish 22 minutes down.

[Third pic of racers] The partially-obscured dude in the light blue jersey 3rd from right is Vinokourov, the pre-race favorite who... uh-oh.

And then there are the team cars, each carrying spare bikes for their riders as well as the team's technical directors (coaches), water bottles, tons of communications gear [pic] ...

And then there is the sweeper car marking the end of the racers; no one has been dropped at this early stage in the race. And that's it.

We gradually pack up our gear into the car and join the single lane of traffic snaking back down the hill. It's about 1:30PM, and we've spent half a day to see maybe a minute of racing action. I don't feel shortchanged at all.


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