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A look back at the ’96 Tour

By Geoffrey Albert

I’d have to say that one of the greatest luxuries of being an American living in Europe is the bike racing. During the long racing season I get to enjoy hours of daily live coverage on one of the Dutch television channels. I also watch the Belgian coverage because I think it’s better, but if I wanted to I could also watch Eurosport, French coverage, and thanks to Jan Ullrich, I could even watch the German coverage.

Sure I had to learn Dutch before I could follow a word of it, but that was worth it for the bike racing alone. Imagine my excitement when one evening while zapping around the dial looking for something interesting I came across a documentary about Eddy Merckx, and for the first time ever heard him speaking in his native Flemish, -and could actually understand every word! That’s a rather unique experience for an American.

In 1996 I had another unique experience. That was the year the Tour de France started in my city at the time, ‘s-Hertogenbosch. It was also the year that the Dane Bjarne Riis won the tour, which was special for me because I had just finished studying in Denmark the previous year. And of course it was a great year for a number of young Dutch riders, my local heroes.

It started with the start, in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Despite the horrible weather, it was so cool. It was even overwhelming. It left you so drained at the end of the day that you barely had the energy to drag yourself into bed. The tour was here for three days of racing, and quite a few days before the start. The city went crazy. You couldn't find a shop downtown that didn't have some sort of bike in their window display. Sometimes they were fancy new racing bikes, in the upscale stores anyway, but usually old beaten to crap bikes that even at their prime could only laughingly be called racing bikes. The Dutch idea of a racing bike is a 20 year old Peugeot UO-8. And on the outside of the buildings, up on the second floor where they're out of harm's way, the merchants were hanging these old Dutch bikes, often two facing each other and leaned out a bit, to accent the entrance to their shop.

The city started spiffing everything up weeks in advance, cleaning, planting colorful flower displays, removing dangerous obstacles in the roads, and even painting the traffic lights and lamp posts. They set up bleachers everywhere and a few days before the start started trucking in hundreds of Sanolets and setting up concession tents everywhere. But you didn't really get the feel for what was about to happen until the French came to town. That was exhilarating. You'd be riding down town around the train station, and you’d see these custom built, rolling concession stands with speakers mounted up top, out of which would be flowing an energetic sales pitch, entirely in French.

And the team cars- they were everywhere. All of the teams have matching Fiats, adorned with their team graphics, and these incredibly cool bike racks on the top and hanging off the trunks. There are a few other cars, like the totally cool Motorola Volvo station wagons. Even they have the same cool racks on them though. And the banners! Tour banners were everywhere. The city also hung flags up everywhere, hanging above all of the streets downtown, commemorating the tour.

With the first race day came an end to the great weather we had been enjoying. The first day was the prologue time trial, with cold, drizzling rain most of the day. Even with the rain it was amazing, absolutely Amazing. The course was a 14 km loop that circled the downtown and medieval city core, sealing it off from the rest of the city. And I mean it was sealed. The entire perimeter was lined with the crowd control fence you find only in Europe, on both sides, 28 km of fencing in total. There were only four places you could get over or under the course and into the city, either via overpasses or specially built pedestrian bridges. For us the course was especially exciting, because it passed only a few blocks from our house! Imagine that, a Coloradan who has only watched the tour in tiny sound bites in his youth, starving for footage, longing to one day be one of those crazy spectators on the side of the road, now watching the Tour, right in his own back yard!

Because of the weather only a fraction of the people showed up for the races, but the people were still three or four thick around the entire course. The start and finish was packed, but even so most of the beer and all of the ice cream went unsold, which was sort of a disappointment. Despite the weather, the air was electric with excitement. Your heart raced the entire time, your breath quick and your voice giddy. There were no fewer than fifteen airplanes in the air, pulling banners the size of billboards around, flying in these incredible formations. And helicopters, five of them, just for the prologue! It was unbelievable.

I was torn between watching the prologue and trying to take pictures of it. I knew they wouldn't turn out like something you’d see in the magazines, especially with the low light levels and my rather short lens, but I had to try anyway. I got a few, including a pretty good one of Lance Armstrong, and one nearly as good of Miguel Indurain. I also got some good ambiance shots looking down over the sea of umbrellas. Man it was cool. We were watching on one corner as Frankie Andreu went through, followed by his team car with Hennie Kuiper at the wheel. He's one of the coaches and comes from the Netherlands, which made the Tour seem all the more persona. One of his riders had gone down in a wet corner, so Kuiper was telling Frankie to take the corner easy, with that glorious Dutch accent of his. All of the cars have bullhorn speakers mounted on the roofs so you can hear the coaches, one of the little details that you miss if you’ve only followed the Tour on TV.

The following day was the first road race, which started and ended in Den Bosch, the short name for ‘s-Hertogenbosch. It wasn't raining, but it was a little chilly out. Half way through the race passed back through town, so we could see the racers three times. We went downtown to watch the rolling circus as it came through town on its way to the official start. We found a tiny street just off the market in the medieval city core where we could watch the procession go by, close enough that we could touch the riders if we wanted. Long before the start, a few TV motorcycles came by, filming race-eye footage of the crowd. I didn’t know it, but my face would later fill my brother’s TV screen during his Tour party in San Francisco. “Now keep a close eye out, you’ll probably see my brother, because they’re starting in his home town” he had said, and minutes later, there I was!

First we watched the procession, then wandered down to the start hall, where they had this Long Beach Bike Show style promo city set up. That was incredible. There I got to see and ride the Shimano Nexus 7 speed internal hub with internal roller brake for the first time. Good grief, that is the coolest thing to hit the bike world since Dura Ace. And of course I got to see the then-new Dura Ace 9 speed, which all of the Dutch teams were using. This was the first year of the ridiculous nose clip, which many riders were using during the time trial. When we saw the first one we thought someone was riding with a broken nose, but after seeing a number of them we figured something must be up. At the promo city everyone was wearing them, even women and children! Definitely not broken noses.

We were walking through one of the booths when this woman came up and put one of those things on my nose. It turns out that they’re just Band-Aids with a little piece of spring steel in them. You put the thing on your nose, and the spring forces your nose open further than normal. The result is that you can breathe better. And the really sad thing is that they really work. They’re made by 3M of all people. They look as ridiculous as the glasses support in the Steve Martin movie “The Jerk”. Needless to say, as soon as we got out of sight of the woman who gave me mine I pulled it off. You won’t catch me walking around with one of those things on, no sir. It shames me to see professional bike racers using them. I see them as a sort of intelligence test. As a fashion they were really big that year, and I’m glad that since then they’ve more or less disappeared from the racing scene.

After touring the promo city we went and found a nice wide corner where to the peloton would be coming through at the half way point. We were there a good 2 hours early to make sure that we had good seats, or at least a good place to stand. Being there in the middle of it all was really something. The people who live on the course set up chairs and tables so they could watch in comfort. Some people even moved their entire living rooms out in front of their houses, and sat in total comfort, joking and laughing with the passing crowd.

Eventually the barricades filled up with fans, so by the time the caravan came through the crowds were ten people thick, so by the time the first signs of the caravan started appearing, Den Bosch had done itself proud. Man, the Tour caravan! It takes around two hours for the whole thing to roll by, starting with a fleet of motorcycles, followed by tow trucks whose drivers are more than eager to pull anything off the road they can get their hands on. Then comes the advertisement caravan with all of those funky 3-D rolling billboards and goofy French models, and of course the big promo vans whose smiling occupants throw hats and bags and cans of stuff at the screaming fans. Then the VIP cars roll by, including Jean-Marie Leblanc's mobile command post, a fancy Citroen bristling with antennae. Then comes an army of street sweeper vehicles, which zig and zag all over the road in a sea of flashing lights and roaring brushes.

Then finally, after almost an hour and a half, come the police motorcycles. First one, then a few more, then some twenty in total. Your heart races because you know their arrival means the pack can’t be far. Then it finally comes, the pack! The sound of sirens and whistles is followed briefly by the whir of sew ups and well oiled drive trains -and suddenly they’re gone. Just when you start getting this gypped off feeling all those cool team cars come by. The yellow Mavic neutral technical support cars, the cool Volvo station wagons, one or two Mercedes Benz station wagons, and dozens of Fiats. Interspersed here and there is a straggler, making his way up to the pack. In total there are 22 teams, 186 riders I think, and 265 cars! There must be at least as many motorcycles as well. You've never seen anything like it. Seeing the race in real life is an amazing spectacle, but it’s no way to watch a bike race. In twenty seconds they were gone, and they went by so fast, even in the corner, that they were just a blur. After the caravan was gone we raced home to watch the mass sprint on the TV. Now that's the way to follow a race!

Man there were so many crashes in the first few days of the Tour. The Dutch use a lot of dividers in the middle of the road to mark the intersections, and riders kept nailing them. There must have been six incredible crashes. Guys and bikes flying everywhere. There were no crashes in the finish though, which was simply incredible. As expected the race ended in a mass sprint, which was won by Fredric Moncassin won. The coolest part for us though was Jaroen Blijlevens, the young Dutch sprinter from our province. He almost won it. Moncassin just nipped him at the line. He was really bummed, as he was eager to win in front of the home crowd. After his surprise win the year before, he was back this year looking for more.

The third day was a road race that started in Wasquehal and went to Noget sur Oise. Again Jaroen was second, this time passed at the line by Erik Zabel. The fourth day he flatted, and the fifth he won! It was glorious. I don't remember who he shut down at the line, but it was very convincing. Just shut the guy down. So much of one of those sprints seems to be luck, knowing which wheel to choose, and knowing exactly when to go. For Jaroen everything clicked, and he put a good bike length on the next guy. Absolutely Glorious. We were estatic.

Then, in stage six, came a total Cinderella story. Oh man it was so great. It was one of the most intense sporting events I’ve ever experienced, as an athlete or a spectator. It had me out of my chair, screaming and yelling and leaping around, so enthusiastic that it almost scared my kids. They figured out that this was a joyous occasion quickly enough though, and whole heartedly shared in my enthusiasm and celebration. Absolutely crazy. Oh it was so glorious.

The Dutch Rabobank team, which just happens to be sponsored by our bank, had been really trying to put something together. They finally got the top team ranking, but had yet to make one of their thousands of attacks stick. They were constantly sending their riders off the front, only to see them get reeled back in. It was extremely frustrating for the Dutch racing fans. With the intense headwinds every finish was coming down to a field sprint, so the only chance for a team not built around a sprinter was to get someone off the front. At the end of every day you could count on seeing Ekimov going for it with two or so km to go, trying to pull one off like he always used to do. This day’s attempt also failed, thanks mostly to Zulle's Once team, which was dragging everyone who made an attempt back in.

So Rabobank sent this young, no-name rider Michael Boogerd off. He's all of 23, and has never won anything. It was pouring rain, and he attacked with two km to go. Of course your heart leaps in your throat when something like this happens, even though you know it’s most likely a doomed attempt. One of the Once riders got on his wheel, so Once let a gap form. Oh man it was so exciting, you had to remember to breathe. They were twisting their way through the corners at insane break-neck speeds, with the pack angrily churning 30 seconds behind them, the front a sea of pink Once riders. You're watching breathlessly, knowing that if Ekimov can't do it, there's no way this Michael Boogerd kid is going to pull it off, but then something amazing happened.

The Once rider missed the corner. In the driving rain he slipped, and had to upright the bike and hammer the brakes, which left Boogerd alone off the front. Oh man it was so incredible. He of course saw it, and absolutely went for all he was worth, face twisted in determinination and pain. We were ecstatic. The announcers were ecstatic. He was ecstatic. Man you've never seen a guy go so hard. He was hammering those corners like a madman, and it was a miracle that he didn't go down. The entire time the pack was charging at him like this furious beast, enraged that this nobody had gotten the best of it, had tricked it, and was now alone off the front. It was like when Alexi Grewal won the Olympics. I was leaping up and down and pounding the air and cheering and good grief, he held them off and he won! Oh man oh man it was incredible. And man, you have never seen a guy so happy. He’s got this huge mouth which he had open in such a huge grin that you could have stuffed a whole orange in it. He crossed the line and was inconsolable. He kept screaming to his team captain and teammates that he couldn't believe it- he couldn’t believe what had just happened. Just couldn't believe it. And what a shot in the arm for Rabobank. In the interviews later he still couldn't believe it. Said he had never won anything before in his life. This 23 year old kid. Good grief it was beautiful.

One of the best parts of the Tour coverage for me was the post-race interviews with the Dutch riders. They’re just glorious. What a wacky bunch of guys. They're a young bunch this year, but extremely gutsy. Most of them are still in the race. After his surprise win the highest placed was Michael Boogerd. The guy is so fun, so young and full of innocence, that you just can't keep this grin from spreading across your face when he's talking. He’s always grinning, even when he’s in considerable pain, and coughing like he’s going to hack up a lung. That grin of his is infectious. The Dutch interviewer asked him rhetorically if he thought it was very good for your body to be doing this to it, the question posed today as it was the longest stage yet. Without stopping to ponder the question and come up with a professional sounding answer as most seasoned riders would do, he just blurted out with a laugh that he had no idea. He just sort of blurted it out. It was glorious. I just had to laugh. They then interviewed Erik Breukink, already a seasoned veteran, who gave much more the sort of answers to questions that you would expect.

One of the best interviews though was of Jaroen Blijlevens after his big win, and he was just hilarious. He's a sprinter through and through, and is currently placed second to last in this his second tour. Nobody expected him to last this long, and he's really surprised some critics. They asked him if he's won any bets yet, and he said yeah at least one, and started looking around for someone as if to confirm it, perhaps a teammate or coach, not the sort of distraction you’re expecting during a nationally televised interview. Then they asked him how he's doing and he said not so well. He explained that this morning he threw up everything he ate, and he's got this huge zit on his butt. He explained this so  matter-of-factly that you just had to laugh. These guys are heroes back home but they’re still so completely normal, so unspoiled by it all. It was so funny to listen to these goofballs, this new up-and-coming generation of Dutch riders. These guys are supposed to carry the Netherlands back to fortune and fame, and they’re just a bunch of crackups. Actually though there’s no other group I’d rather have riding for the Dutch. When the interviewer mentioned to Blijlevens that he silenced a lot of critics today, he just grinned, and said that that made it all the sweeter. They may be a fun bunch, but they’ve also got what it takes.

In the following stages they hit the first mountains, and Rabobank's days in the sun were over, although Danny Nelissen, another Dutch rider, did win another stage. It had already turned into a fantastic year for the Dutch. Then, on the hardest day of climbing, Riis made it off the front with seven other guys, including one of his knechten and Richard Virenque in the polka-dot jersey, who has been something of a force to recon with in this tour. This was the day that Indurain really had to make it happen, but alas, it was not his day. He was in the follow group of about ten, and he took a beating. Riis and his cohorts took over seven minutes out of him. Poor guy, and this was even the day that the Tour entered Spain. You just had to feel for him, off the back and frying under the camera's eye. The fans were really yelling at him too, and it was not happy expressions they had on their faces. It must have been terrible.

So with two km to go, Riis attacked, taking a Swiss rider with him. In that last two km they worked really well together, putting fifty seconds on the remaining five. They were talking the whole time, but it was impossible to hear what they were saying. At the end the Swiss took Riis in the sprint, but I don’t think he minded much; he was more interested in putting time on the others and securing his lead than he was in a stage victory. It was a great day for Riis, and a painful day for the reigning champion Indurain.

On the stage to Lourdes Hautacam, it all happened in the last fifteen km. There were sixteen riders in the lead back, forcing their way up this climb. It was intensely exciting as all of the GC riders were there. This was the day, on his birthday, that Indurain had to make it or break it. So far it had been a grueling tour, with the greatest rate of attrition in history, with a record number of riders dropping out due to the snow and ice and driving winds in the first mountains. And now they were all here, this year’s contenders, on this climb. And you could just taste the pain. They were going for all they were worth, really hurting each other, and it was unbelievable to watch. Indurain was right up there, setting the tempo from time to time. Going into the mountains a Frenchman, riding for the Dutch TVM team, had a five minute lead, but in three km that lead dissolved into nothing, and the poor guy was sucked in, chewed up, and spat out the back. There were numerous attacks, but onthing that could last. Alex Zulle, an early favorite from Switzerland, attacked and put on fifty seconds, which really got me excited. His mother is from the Netherlands making him half Dutch, and he’s fluent in the language, with a glorious Swiss accent. He too got sucked in, chewed up, and spat out the back.

Seeing one of your heroes so soundly defeated feels so personal, it’s almost like a personal tragedy. The peloton is merciless. You see it coming up the road behind, from wall to wall, bikes swinging; it's like this big angry animal. The pain. Oh the pain on that guy's face as they rode by him. It was like being there, on your bike, feeling it all. Unbelievable.

The French were doing, as they always do, an exceptional job with the cameras, really putting you right there in the action. There were shots from the motorcycles, from the helicopters and from fixed cameras, all seamlessly woven together, creating a sensation of total omniscience. And you have the expert commentary from either Dutch or Belgian reporters depending on which channel you’re watching. They’re sitting in a trailer somewhere watching the same live feed you’re watching, and the funny thing is you can almost place yourself right there in the trailer next to them. A few times a minute you hear the unmistakable sound of a screen door swinging shut as someone enters or leaves the trailer. In the background you can also hear the sound of other reporters in other languages, providing their spectators back home with the play by play action. Hearing all of these sounds and seeing all this coverage is exhilarating; you really feel just how important the Tour is, that this is truly a global spectacle, and you’re in on it. You’re privileged, and you’re right there.

So when it started to look like Riis, in his yellow jersey, was faltering, you were right there. It looked like he couldn't hold the tempo, and like he was going to fall off the back like so many others. Indurain was at the front setting the tempo, and from above you saw Riis drifting clear to the back of what was now a group of ten. The announcers were going wild. But then he attacked, riding off the front and throwing everyone into panic. Guys were blowing up left and right, flying off the back. Indurain clinged to Riis’s wheel for dear life. Then he let up, and let the others set the tempo. Again he drifted to the back, and again he attacked. It was wild.

They showed lots of slow motion coverage of him, his whole face filling the screen. Man the fire in that guy’s eyes! And such incredible determination on his face. It’s heroic efforts like his that make the sport so great. Like all of my favorite’s of all time, he wasn’t wearing sun glasses, so you could really see him, almost feeling what he was feeling and it made your heart race. He’s a huge, lanky guy, with broad shoulders and these really scrawny legs. He’s what the Dutch call a machtman, or power man. He pushes huge gears and powers himself up the mountains, very unlike the classical tiny skinny climber type. He’s more like Indurain. Total power.

On the climbs riders depend on finding a good tempo and keeping it going. They put their workhorses on the front to set a blistering, but steady pace. So for them what Riis was doing was devastating. He toyed with them like this three times, and on the third time he just went mad. You saw his hand clicking up a few gears, and he just hammered. The others were dropping like flies. Indurain couldn't take it. He fell off the back and with him went his hopes of making his birthday a decisive day, the day his luck would swing, and he would write history as the only rider to ever win six Tours.

Three guys managed to stay with the huge Dane, including Virenque in the polka-dot jersey and one of his henchmen, but he just rode them off his wheel. Having studied in Denmark for a year before coming to the Netherlands I had a special affinity for Riis, so his efforts really touched me, like this was yet another personal battle, again I was living in the event. I was out of my seat and screaming for him, my kids by my side faithfully doing the same. He was unbelievable. The whole thing was unbelievable. This machtman, sheer power and grit, this big guy, riding these mousey climbers off his wheel.  Big guys live for moments like this. Oh it was incredible. By the 1 km banner he had fifty seconds on the three, and almost three minutes on Indurain. Like me, the press was going wild. The fans were going wild. It was like on the Alpe d’Huez, where the riders part the sea of fans, with all those flags waving everywhere, all those Danish flags. When Riis came through the finish he had managed to put almost a minute on his rivals.

What a Tour. For me it was one of the most exciting ever. Not because it was any better than any other Tour, but because of my unique chance to experience it first hand. Unfortunately Bjarne Riis only won one Tour, but that certainly didn’t detract from his hero status in my mind. Now I get to see him with Tyler Hamilton. The young Dutch riders all matured with varying degrees of success, and one long-time hero, Lance Armstrong truly rose to the highest ranks. The great thing about the Tour is that it’s built on a long history of super-human efforts and heroic victories, which makes it impossible to come away from a Tour without a new list of heroes.


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