The Tour de France starts Saturday and this time every July, just out of habit, I start asking complete strangers directions in French.
My Time on the Tour de France
As a sportswriter for The Denver Post, I covered the Tour seven times, two from start to finish, one after the first week and parts of four others. In a sportswriting career that spanned nearly 40 years and 18 countries, the Tour de France was by far the hardest event I’ve ever done. I got lost more than a rat in a maze of mirrors. My only cheese at the end of the day was a bed in a French town I couldn’t pronounce.
Covering the Tour de France is like covering a Super Bowl every day in a different town where you fight fans for access to the cyclists, no one speaks your language and no one cares if you cover it or not. Consequently, it is one of the best events for any sports fan. No event in the world brings you closer to the athletes than cycling, and no cycling race is bigger than the Tour de France. Imagine shaking hands or getting an autograph from your favourite football, basketball or baseball player right before he starts performing. You can do that at the Tour de France.
You can also combine your sports viewing with picnicking in some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. In another blog, I’ll write about the best ways to watch the Tour de France. First, I must tell you about my experiences: the good, the bad and the oh, so very ugly.
The star of the Tour de France was never Lance Armstrong, even before his star fell like a satellite nuked out of the sky. It was always France. Few countries in the world are more beautiful and I saw every corner, from the French Riviera to Brittany, from Basque country to the German border. Sunflower fields, snowcapped mountains, 1,000-year-old villages with flower boxes in the windows, the Eiffel Tower at sunset. Every day a new panorama opened up through my windshield.
I had two strategies when I covered the Tour de France. I’d either ride the course the cyclists would take that day. It gave me an idea of the gruelling test ahead of them. Or I’d drive different small roads to the finish. I’d avoid the crowds and find a little village where I could enjoy a leisurely lunch and not worry about getting stuck behind the peloton, the term for the main pack of cyclists.
Food was a close second behind the scenery and well ahead of anything the cyclists could provide me. French cuisine earns its reputation every day with a variety and quality that may be unmatched anywhere in the world. I live in Rome, and I’ll take French cuisine over Italian cuisine for any three-week period of the year.
I once ate chateaubriand in Chateaubriand. I ate a bucket of mussels big enough to feed the village where I ate them in Brittany. I had a sauerkraut dish in Strasbourg called choucroute that put any I’ve had in Germany to shame. I had a massive stew called cassoulet in Castelnaudary, near the Pyrenees, where I learned this village fed it to its soldiers before fighting the British during the 100 Years War.
The cycling itself is more impressive up close and personal. From the scenery to the cyclists’ efforts, television can’t do it justice. Near the finish line of flat stages, you see a pack of cyclists flying by at 80 kilometres per hour, their wheels spinning inches away from each other. On mountain stages in the Pyrenees and Alps, you see them climb five mountains over five hours.
You see them fly down the other sides of those mountains and you think: These guys don’t need drug testing. They need drug counselling.
Doping makes you look at cycling with a very wary eye. Half the contenders in the peloton could be there one week and gone the next. In 2006, the day before the start, 58 cyclists were linked to a Spanish doping scandal. Of the six years I covered it, five winners were eventually shamed as dopers. That includes the last three of Armstrong’s seven victories. I knew Armstrong had doped. I had a good source who told me he saw him. Unfortunately, he told me off the record and I never could use it.
The source also told me he saw him do it in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. When I started covering him in 2003, I thought he was clean. I thought he was that much better than everyone else. I thought I was smart.
I was wrong. It appears there’s less doping on the Tour de France today than 10 years ago. The biological passport, started in 2008 as an electronic record combining all doping tests, has helped weed out some cheaters. So have teams requiring all riders to do weekly drug testing. Times up mountains have dropped significantly and so have the number of high-profile dope busts. But they still occur. There were four positive drug tests in 2013.
In Europe, riding a bike is part of the culture. A boy with strong legs and a cheap bike can ride his way off a farm to a six-figure contract if he shows results at an early age.
What would you do?
The eastern suburbs of Paris are highly industrialized and poor. It’s the one area of Paris that resembles American urban blight. I also had a Paris cop pull me over for speeding and shook me down for the equivalent of a $50 bribe. I said, “What? Why? Where am I? Rural Colombia?”
Other than that, and overweight cycling fans squeezed into Lycra, there isn’t a whole lot ugly in the Tour de France.