As with most sporting events, the Tour de France is best seen on television. To experience the Tour, though, one has to come to France and stand on the side of the roads to cheer the riders on.
I finally attended a TDF finish on the Champs Elysees yesterday. We watched from the friends of Jean-Marie Leblanc section. Apparently Jean-Marie has a lot of friends, many of them tall. Saddled with a cough and sore throat, I felt light-headed most of the day and couldn't find the strength to fight my way to the race barrier.
Most stores and restaurants near the Champs Elysees are closed Sunday, especially on race finish day, so food was difficult to find. I ended up having to settle for a bare hot dog (the bun would have cost 3 euros) and some bland frites (french fries).
I've been riding 50 to 60 miles a day, much of it up massive cols, yet standing all afternoon was almost more draining. By the end of the day my feet and back ached. Fortunately, the weather was near perfect. Sunny, on the cool side.
We observed most of the race on a giant screen. As usual, the riders soft-pedaled most of the stage, allowing Lance and his team to form the ceremonial line across the road for a stretch. Only Simeoni attempted to ruin the festivities by breaking away to try and reach Paris first. Tradition is to allow the team of the race leader to enter Paris first. US Postal shut that down quickly, and indeed, they led the first lap around the Champs Elysees, wearing ceremonial blue jerseys with yellow stripes.
When Lance ascended the podium and held the yellow cap to his heart as they played the Stars and Stripes, I thought back on his six consecutive victories and how they overlapped almost perfectly with my near seven years in Seattle. I started cycling and following cycling intently almost immediately after he won his first Tour, though it was because of a need to rehabilitate my knee after ACL reconstruction. Lance's story, his comeback from cancer to capture his first Tour in 1999, riveted me because I had just lost my mother to cancer in 1998.
So I wanted and needed to be here this year for this, his sixth.
The evening was not over. Our Breaking Away group went for an evening boat ride down the Seine. Then I grabbed dinner with Guillaume, Richard, Jim, Angela, Kathy, and Oleg. Guillaume was one of our tour guides, the quintessential Frog, as he calls himself in jest. Everytime I hear a male French voice, I think it's Guillaume, so archetypal is his French accent. Richard and Jim are two Kiwis, traveling through France. Angela is Richard's partner and Kathy is Jim's wife, and I met them for the first time that evening.
Oleg has been my riding partner for most of the trip, though he usually drops me about halfway through each ride. He and I share similar vices: fine dining, high end home theater equipment, and of course all things cycling. He lives on the coast of San Diego, and I expect I'll see him again once my parents move out there. Oleg is a caterer/chef, and his description of the kitchen he has at home is so over the top that I absolutely have to visit him once, just to see it for myself.
After a Middle Eastern dinner, we cruised over to Barfly after midnight to celebrate Richard's birthday with a bottle of champagne. Barfly is chic, one of those places beautiful people go to be seen by less beautiful people like myself.
Then it was on to the OLN party at the top of an office complex on the Champs Elysees. Guillaume's brother Tibo (or Thibeault, I suspect) works for OLN and just seems like one of those genial socialites about town. The balcony had a gorgeous view of the Eiffel Tower, lit up in a fiery hue until a concluding ten minute shimmering light display at 2:00am. Oleg and I got the greatest kick out of meeting Frankie Andreu, Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen, and Kristen Gum.
Speaking of OLN, I missed a lot of their coverage since I was over here, but the EuroSport coverage is excellent. They show entire stages here in Europe, from start to finish, and each evening at 10pm they broadcast an hour recap on two channels, one in French, one in English. The English commentary is provided by David Duffield, Sean Kelly, and Christi Valentine-Anderson (wife of former pro Phil Anderson). Christi in particular is excellent; she's like a Mary Carillo for cycling, extremely knowledgeable and astute. Good on her for carving out space in a predominantly male field.
I'm still staggering a bit this morning, champagne on the breath, some virus still beating up my already sore and weary body. But the overcast streets of Paris call me out today, as everyday.
I adore Paris. Someday I'd like to live here for a year or so. Last night I tried to think of another city that exceeds the Paris for sheer beauty, and I could not.