(Originally posted July 22, 2012)
In honor of the last day of this year’s Tour de France, I’m reaching back into my writing archives to unearth my 2009 piece about being a Tour junkie. Many of the main actors in the world of bicycling have left the sport, are suspended and/or are being investigated for doping, conspiracy and more but the excitement of the Tour has not diminished for me. New stars like Bradley Wiggins (the first Briton to be crowned the Tour de France champion) and Tejay van Garderen have burst onto the world stage while beloved old-timers like Chris Horner, George Hincapie and Jens Voigt continue to impress.
Please sit back and enjoy the ride.
Confessions of a Tour de France Junkie
by Jacqueline Yau
My heart is pounding. I grip the handlebars of my ten-thousand dollar bike firmly but lightly as I navigate the narrow roads of southern France, chasing the front of the pack of almost 200 bike racers in sun-baked, 90 degree-plus heat.
Sweat dripping off my brow, dry wind whistling through my helmet, legs screaming from lactic acid buildup, I try to stay focused. As I see the three km marker overhead, two cyclists bump into me so I head-butt them to maintain my position. My lead-out team, the workhorses who are launching me off to the finish line, picks up speed.
I concentrate on staying on the wheel of my lead-out man, the third mate down in our team train, pedaling 45 to 50 miles per hour. One-by-one, my men peel off the front of our train when they can no longer maintain the high speed. One km to go. I’ve saved 30% of my energy by drafting off my men and now it’s my turn to work. A blur of an orange jersey on my right and flash of a white jersey on my left tickles my peripheral vision as my competitors try to sprint past me. I stomp down on my pedals and charge forward looking for the perfect opening to charge through. My mouth hangs open; I’m sucking in oxygen. I accelerate past my rivals. My legs are burning but I cross the finish line first at the end of this 116-mile journey and raise my arms in sweet victory. It’s a glorious stage win for me, for my team and for my country.
All right, that isn’t me. That’s moi on my couch, watching the 2009 Tour de France, channeling Mark Cavendish, the fastest sprint cyclist in the world during the second stage of the 21-stage grand tour. Nothing spikes my pulse faster or creates a bigger adrenaline rush than watching the Tour de France. Others might prefer the baseball world series, the NBA finals or epic Wimbledon matches, but for me it’s all about the legendary grand dame of bicycle racing.
For those of you not yet in the know, here’s the skinny on the race. Each team has nine riders. Some are sprint specialists, mountain climbing experts, time trial kings or overall strong men. They are made up of veterans in their thirties and up’n comers in their twenties. The goal is to help one’s team leader, the strongest man on the squad, survive the three weeks of biking over 2000 miles around France and into border countries and finish with the overall fastest time. The helpers are called domestiques. They aren’t in the race to win. Their job is to shield their leader(s) from the wind, pace them up the mountain and through the flats, protect them from accidents, ferry water and food from the team car, and sacrifice their bike or tire if the leader has a technical problem. In front and behind the main and largest pack of cyclists, called the peloton, are cameramen on motorcycles, a roving band of time keepers, Tour officials, doctors, ambulances and team cars stocked overhead with racks of bicycles and tires.
Each team car identifiable by its team colors is a mobile strategic and tactical unit and pit car. It’s stocked with a seemingly endless supply of energy bars, drinks, jackets, tires and provides up-to-the-minute information on road conditions and reconnaissance information on other riders. The team director typically drives the car while operating a hand held radio, watching a broadcast of the race on a TV mounted on the dashboard, reading the race map, passing out water bottles out the window, listening to French radio and doling out information and strategy simultaneously. The mechanic sits in the back seat ready to make any on-the-move adjustments if any of the team’s riders experiences mechanical problems such as a flat tire, crooked seat, thrashed bike from a crash or loose screw. Oftentimes, riders are seen hanging onto their team car while the mechanic hangs out of the moving car like an acrobat, bent over the free-spinning bike, adjusting something here and there. Organized chaos reigns as the Tour entourage passes by each picturesque town, lined with enthusiastic fans such as El Diablo (the devil), a constant on the tour since 1993. He’s hard to miss with his salt and pepper hair and beard, red tights and black and red tunic while he runs along-side the cyclists with a trifork.
There are other ways to win in the Tour. Besides securing the lauded yellow jersey (the maillot jaune) for the overall fastest time (general classifications leader), there are points contests to win the green jersey (fastest sprinter), the polka dot jersey (best mountain climber AKA “king of the mountain”) and the white jersey (best young rider – riders 25 and under). Then there are contests for best team, most aggressive rider and the winner of each stage. There’s something for everyone. It keeps the race exciting.
I received my new TiVo HD DVR (digital video recorder) and installed my new (but hand-me-down) HDTV just in time for the July 4th kick-off of the 96th Tour de France. Through the miracle of technology, I have programmed the device to record the first run of every broadcast daily at 5:30 am. By the time I wake up, I’m ready for my first daily dose at breakfast. It is important to get started early and settle into the first viewing as a real Tour junkie will need to pace him or herself to pack in as many hours of offline or online media Tour coverage as possible around the other obligations of the day and night. Besides the obligatory viewing of the TV Tour broadcasts, there are also updates to follow on Versus and the Tour de France official sites and blog updates and other communications from expert commentators, former Tour riders or from Tour team websites.
It’s tricky trying to fit in sleep. I can gorge on the Tour de France 24 hours a day, for the entire three weeks and not get bored. I get caught up in the inter-team rivalries (this year it’s mainly between Teams Astana, Columbia-High Road and Garmin-Slipstream) and intra-squad competitions to be named team leader. Team Astana this year has four possible leaders! What to do?
And Lance Armstrong is back. Need I say more? After winning an unprecedented seven Tours and retiring for four years, Armstrong decided to make a comeback and disturb the hierarchy of the team that his former team director manages. Johan Bruyneel’s newest protégé, Spaniard Alberto Cantador, isn’t happy with this possible snag in his ascension to the yellow jersey throne. But can Armstrong really perform at the same level? His 37-year-old fast-twitch muscles are fading fast. This is better than any reality show, Law and Order or CSI spin-off.
I love the drama and history of the race, the required teamwork, the strategy, the tactics, the crazy fans, the absolute guts and courage and relentless training it takes to compete in the race. It’s about tradition; it’s about sacrifice.
Nothing demonstrates the greatness of the sport more than the team time trial. Taken out of the Tour after 2005, it has made a return appearance. The teams wear aerodynamic skin-tight body suits and alien-looking, streamlined helmets. They pedal special bikes that ride fast but are difficult to maneuver. The slightest touch of wheels can cause a crash that will take minutes off a team’s time. All members of the team must work together, communicate constantly and watch out for each other to make sure that they ride consistently fast and in sync. The faster men can’t necessarily bike all out at 100%. Their success hinges on getting the slowest or weakest member of the team to ride as fast as he can as long as he can. The stronger men need to take longer turns at the front of the nine-man train to allow the rest of their weaker teammates time to recover and draft off of them.
I remember watching the blue-clad 2004 Discovery team streak past fields of sunflowers against a blue sky. The cyclists’ legs looked like the gears and valves on the wheels of a steam locomotive, driving the train forward. The cyclists rode in an echelon formation and appeared like a moving work of art as they charged across the flats against the mistral winds.
July wasn’t always devoted to the Tour de France. I first heard about this race in 1985 when my dad began following professional cycling. Greg Lemond came in second place that year and then first the next. He was the first American to win the yellow jersey. To my teenage ears, the race sounded way too complicated and was full of Europeans. Besides Greg, where were the Americans? But when Lance sought to win his fifth Tour de France in 2003, I was hooked. Since then, I’ve been a TV junkie every July.
I’m now on a first name basis with the cycling commentators (at least when talking about the Tour to other fans). There’s wise Phil “the voice of cycling” Liggitt, his fellow Brit Paul Sherwen and Americans Bob Roll (Lance’s biking bud) with his “Bobke-isms,” Craig Hummer the MC, Robbie Ventura (the former personal coach of disgraced Floyd Landis – an American and the first person ever to be stripped of the Tour de France title due to a positive doping test) and man-on-the-ground Frankie Andreu (Lance’s former U.S. Postal teammate).
The Tour de France ends July 26 but if I’m lucky, I can still get a flight to Paris to watch the champion crowned on the Champs Elysees or join the millions of spectators on the road. Perhaps I’ll send a text message of hope, inspiration and encouragement to the Nike Livestrong chalk bot that continues chalking up fan messages along the route of the Tour de France. But first, where are my bike shorts and jersey top? Time for a bike ride.