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
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
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
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
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
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.