A TDF reminisce: Saint Flour.
It’s the day before the start of the 2012 Tour de France and I feel a mixture of euphoria and despair. The happiness is that tomorrow the greatest, most beautiful and physically demanding bike race in the world begins. The terrible disappointment is, I won’t be there in person.
The last two years, I’ve had the great fortune to be one of the writers from Cycle Sport magazine covering the race. It’s a true honor to be a part of that group with guys like Ed Pickering and Lionel Birnie, Ellis Bacon and Andy McGrath.
Two years ago I got my first Tour press credential and did the entire three weeks. It was exhilarating and exhausting, inspiring and stressful. I simply wasn’t prepared for the scale, the speed, the driving distances, the overwhelming logistics, the constant stress of chasing a race all over France. I almost had a nervous breakdown after one week, by the third I was addicted forever. There is no place on earth I’d rather be than the Tour de France and I promised myself that I’d come back every year for the rest of my life, even if I had to do the race in a motorized wheelchair.
Covering the tour for three weeks is an expensive proposition — at least five grand if you’re not splitting costs with someone else for hotel rooms, rental car and gas. Unless you have three or four well paid writing assignments, you can’t cover half your costs. It’s an indulgent act — which my wife has reminded me many times. She doesn’t understand the addiction.
Last year, I did ten to twelve days and it was flat out fabulous and stunning and as usual exhausting and stressful. I’d pitched Cycle Sport on a long story about the passion of the Basque fans. I did my research, read books on Basque history and culture, made a few contacts at Basque sporting groups and away I went.
I arrived early in the morning in Paris, jumped in the rental car and headed south for six hours. First, there’s instant joy. I’m in FRANCE, free from work and family obligations — no wife, no two kids, I have money in my pocket, a press credential waiting and the Pyrenees, Alps and Paris ahead of me. I was singing in the car.
My destination was a town near the start of stage 10 in Aurillac. The race that day was going from Issoire to Saint Flour and I’d have the following rest day to relax and get over the jet lag and time change. A good solid plan. But I was flying down the highways and making good time so I decided to try to catch the end of the stage to Saint Flour.
The Tour does a fabulous job of showcasing the endless beauty of France and Saint Flour was a jewel. The upper part of the town, the older, more dramatic and beautiful part sits on top of a steep bluff of volcanic rock. It is stunning and when I arrived in the late afternoon there was full sun and glorious shadows spread out across the valley below. It was one of 10,000 places in France where I simply say to myself, yes, here, I could live here now, forever.
Traffic was snarled down below in the lower part of the town but I still found a parking place. My goal was to save myself the hassle of getting my press credential the next day, the rest day. I was so amped with excitement and I wanted my first taste of the race even if I had most likely missed the finish at the top of Saint Flour.
Almost immediately the road goes up, with multiple stone staircases crossing right, left and diagonal, always climbing. Quickly I was out of breath but still hoping perhaps to catch the finish. All around me, beauty, the church, high rock walls, flower boxes, the delicious patisseries, cafes, little restaurants, narrow and hidden alleyways. The atmosphere was festive — LE TOUR IS HERE TODAY! and all the bars were filled, music and bands playing in every open space.
I ran on, huffing and puffing and reached the finish far too late. They were already breaking down the race barriers and stage. It had been a magnificent day for France and Thomas Voeckler. Although he’d lost the stage win to his breakaway companion Luis Sanchez of Rabobank, he’d taken over the yellow jersey.
You never know where the Tour organizers will put the Salle De Presse — sometimes it’s close to the finish, sometimes far. I was sweating and still looking for the green Presse signs with the arrow pointing the direction. Up and up I went, passing all kinds of media and tour vehicles on the go, because the Tour never stops for one second.
The year before I’d shown up cold without a pre-press credential in Rotterdam. I had two assignment letters in hand but still, it’s Le Tour and the French and you just never know what their mood will be. I used my rusty French, showed the letters and he said okay. Probably one of the proudest moments in my life when I first slipped that press credential around my neck.
So when I finally made it into the Salle de Presse in Saint Flour I was hyped up and nervous but I was already on the approved Cycle Sport list. Still, until you have it, you don’t. A cheerful and attractive young French girl took me to get my photo then, then they handed me the precious badge. I was in again. Nothing makes you feel more like a pro cycling journalist than a Tour credential.
I immediately celebrated back in the center square with two beers. I watched the street musicians play, the stream of Tour tourists headed back home and the evening party people ramping it up. It was one of the moments when time seems to stop or slow down and you just soak it all in. France, Saint Flour, Tour, nirvana.
A combination of factors — family and financial — made a trip to the Tour impossible this year. But I’ll be back next year, I’m committed and confident about that. I’ll be watching the tour of TV and making notes for feature story ideas for the next edition.
And someday, I hope to return to Saint Flour. What makes the tour so amazing is the memories are so strong — I’m still reliving my first two.