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Observations from a First-Timer at the Tour de France
 
By Guest Contributor
Date: 8/22/2007
Observations from a First-Timer at the Tour de France
 

Observations from a First-Timer at the Tour de France
This was when I really realized that the Tour de France is bigger than just the cycling race itself, bigger than any doping scandals can destroy, and bigger than any battles between the ASO and the UCI can compromise.

by Jennifer Walker

“The Tour” is bigger than just the race itself

Returning home from a month spent in London then France watching the Tour, my husband and I were met by numerous snide comments from friends and family who had heard only about the doping scandals - such as, “Ooh, so did you test positive too?”, or “Bet you spent a lot of time at the pharmacy there.” A number of North American media articles and editorials would give the impression to the non-cycling fan that the Tour is on its deathbed, that they should just have cancelled it, and so on. Yet, having been there myself for the first time, one thing I learned was just how well entrenched the Tour de France is into French culture. I suspect it will continue for another hundred years or more to match the time it has already been around.

Riding in France
It’s quite obvious in France that cycling in general has a different status than in North America. Simple things like road signs telling cyclists about upcoming climbs, or the signs reminding motorists to give cyclists enough room (and the fact that they generally do), suggest that cyclists are welcomed and respected rather than the “barely tolerated” attitude that seems to prevail in much of North America.

There were several times we were surprised to find a number of cars patiently following us going downhill, waiting for an appropriate time to pass, without trying to run us off the road or honking at us to move out of the way so they could get by. This was particularly the case on the Tour route after the racers went by, when vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians were trying to get down the mountain at once.


Fans line the road in a small town stage 7, Bourg en Bresse - Le Grand Bornand on the way to the finish line after the descent of Col de la Colombiere. photo c. Bitsreamphotography

I don’t think I realized previously just how many people walk or cycle up the climbs to watch the Tour (or camp out for a few days prior). I’d seen the crowds on TV but never thought about how they actually got there. It was surprising to me how much respect there was for cyclists even with such traffic. Next time, I’ll bring a whistle to emulate the pro riders who whistled loudly to clear the way as they rode down after the mountaintop finish from Plateau de Beille. Some of our group rode down behind some of the pros and were pretty stoked about the experience.

There’s also a sense of communal achievement that goes along with cycling, in contrast to typical team sports, because you can actually participate in the same challenges as the racers do. I’ll never play in a World Cup level football/soccer game or anything close, but I can ride up the same climbs they use in the Tour de France.

This leads to a lot of camaraderie and support among cyclists, and even support from non-cyclists. I’ve never seen anyone lean out of a car window and yell encouragement to the participants in a street hockey game (if anything, it would typically be cursing and “get off the road!”),,the way that kids would yell “Allez, allez” from out of a van going up Alpe d’Huez or from the side of the road in small villages we cycled through. Riding at home you generally get a wave or greeting from other roadies, but while going up a French col almost every cyclist would yell out “allez” or “courage” as they passed you.

Partly there were so many more cyclists around, but also it was a different atmosphere - a shared sense of “I did this climb, you can too” as we all struggled together. Though I was probably struggling struggled more than some, maybe that’s why so many people encouraged me! It was fantastic to meet cyclists from around the world as you stopped to take a break or a photo; and if you ran into someone you’d met before, even just briefly, it was as if you were old friends.

I ran into fellow Edmontonian Alex Stieda (first North American in the TdF yellow jersey in 1986) going up the Plateau de Beille - he stopped and chatted briefly, then thanked me for calling out to him (when I did one of his cycling camps in the spring we had discussed our itineraries but I never really expected to be able to find him in amongst so many others).

Also, riding up the Col de Soulor/Col d’Aubisque one of the New Zealanders on our trip chatted with another Kiwi, who later remembered me and gave me a push up the climb, and on the way down again he stopped to share his excitement of getting Julian Dean to sign his helmet. It was also fun to watch some stage finishes on TV in a bar (or if not in the bar, crowding at the entranceway trying to see the TV) with many other cyclists and fans from around the world. And we were happy for an Australian on our group trip who got photos with Australian cycling legend Phil Anderson after discovering that Anderson’s group was staying at the same hotel as ours.

I’ll definitely remember the wide range of cycling fans that we met along the way. For example, at the London prologue there were Belgians next to us who could instantly tell from quite a distance who the upcoming riders warming up were (particularly the Belgian riders).


David Millar Warms Up for the London Prologue
Photo © Albert Robb

Others at the prologue came just to see what was going on and knew little of cycling other than to cheer more loudly when the British riders went by.


Bradley Wiggins finishes his prologue effort. Photo © Albert Robb

We saw casual cycling fans in London as well, such as the Lance Armstrong fan and his young son who had switched their allegiances to George Hincapie - the son said “I waited how many hours for that?” after George flashed by, but still seemed quite happy to have seen his hero even briefly. Some fans from around the world, who had thought they’d never go to France to see the Tour (for various reasons, including not speaking French), were quite happy to come to an English-speaking city instead to see it.

The first Pyrenean stage brought new types of fans - "C'est les Basques!", said the kid across the road, and when I turned to look I realized it was an entire parade of orange-clad fans chanting, beating drums, and playing accordions as they marched up the mountain.


Stage 7 Linus Gerdeman on the attack  photo c. Bitsreamphotography

My husband was amazed by the party atmosphere above the tree line – blaring music, people dancing on the road, and the free-flowing “adult beverages”. He’s convinced that some have yet to come back down. And I encountered some German fans, ecstatic that Linus Gerdemann looked over and smiled at their wild cheering, so they ran up through the trees for an opportunity to cheer him on again past the next switchback.

The mountain stages we went to had a high proportion of tourists watching. We got a different perspective at some other stages. In the town of St-Pons-de-Thomieres for Stage 12 there were mostly French onlookers including lots of families and not many cyclo-tourists at all. Excited kids bought the “official souvenir kit” from one of the vans driving the route divvying up the items amongst themselves, and many French people were happy just to get free stuff from the publicity caravan, never mind whether or not a race was going to take place afterwards.

At the Albi time-trial, an Australian from “the other bus” (same tour company) waited in the rain in full team kit by the Predictor-Lotto team bus for five hours trying to get a photo with Cadel Evans. On arriving, Evans apparently replied with “Well, I’ve got lots on my mind, but ok”, making that fan very happy. (And yes, I’m an unabashed Evans fan myself but even I wouldn’t wait that long in the rain just for a chance to meet him). And of course, crowds and more crowds on the Champs Elysées on the final day.

I was a bit surprised to find that there wasn’t as much interest in the Tour where the Tour wasn’t passing through, but then I realized it’s probably similar to hockey playoffs in Canada. Yes, some Canadians watch all the playoff games regardless of who’s playing, and there can be a lot of excitement in your city even from non-hockey fans if your team is doing well in the playoffs, but it’s not as though all of Canada drops everything for the entire duration of the hockey playoffs each year. In Alpe d’Huez, even with lots of cyclists around there was not much general interest in the Tour, so we watched the stage finish at our hotel with other tourists from our group. It was the same at the base of Mont Ventoux - lots of cyclists around, but not easy to find a place to watch the Tour on TV in the afternoon.


March of the Gendarmerie at Le Grand Bornand after the stage has passed.
 photo c. Bitsreamphotography

“The Tour” is bigger than just the race itself

But where the Tour did passed through, the French people embraced it with excitement - from decorating their towns with a cycling theme to capitalizing on money-making opportunities with outdoor food stands, souvenir and team gear stands, and stands selling team gear. There was plenty of media coverage, from L’Equipe being sold from vans ahead of the race, to live coverage on France 2 TV followed by usually an hour or more of post-race coverage.


Friends and family tour side picnic. Photo © www.benrossphotography.com

Many families used the Tour as a reason for a day outside and a picnic along the course to watch the publicity caravan and go crazy over freebies, then watch the racers go by and cheer all the racers (but, louder for the French cyclists).

This was when I really realized that the Tour de France is bigger than just the cycling race itself, bigger than any doping scandals can destroy, and bigger than any battles between the ASO and the UCI can compromise. I got the sense that the majority of those French families would have been there regardless of who exactly was racing. And in the end, while the race itself was exciting and it was spectacular to see it live, particularly in some amazingly scenic places, I think the majority of my memories are more about the atmosphere surrounding the Tour de France and the people I encountered along the way.

These are things that aren’t dependent on race details such as start lists, who won, or how many positive doping tests occurred. But still, I hope that current anti-doping efforts will help to clean up the sport and that the ASO and UCI can sort out their differences for the betterment of cycling world-wide, so that the Tour de France can remain a prominent sporting event as well as a social and cultural one.
 

 
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