Scoring the Tour de France press credential. Miracles happen.
How do you say “bouncing off the walls with joy” in French?
I am sitting in the official press room of the tour de France in Rotterdam with an Accreditation de Presse around my neck. I am officially jubilant.
It ain’t easy to score a press cred for the biggest bike race in the world. Somebody knowledgeable told me there are roughly 3000 requests for 1500 places. Most professionals already have their badges cleared before they buy a plane ticket. It’s an expensive leap of faith to dump $1600 on airfare on the dice roll — with funny French dice — that you might get one.
The main requirement is that you ahve an assignment letter or two and the bigger the media company, the better. Versus, Velonews, New York Times, those are golden. My first hurdle was that coming off the Tour of California, with the Tour only a month away, all writing assignments were booked. I’m new, an outsider, a cycling blogger who’d just covered his first race for Cyclesport and Pezcycling news (that issue comes out soon and I’ll be posting an excerpt, which is super cool.)
Point is, the teams covering the Tour were already selected and their credentials applied for at least a month ago. Without an assignment letter, your chances are zero. You apply on the tour website — it’s the very last thing at the bottom– “accreditation” and you can actually apply as a Freelancer but it’s as hopeless as a rider from Futon-Servetto winning the tour. They won’t even bother to e-mail you back with your failure.
I’d been in talks with Pez and Cyclesport and as much as they’d liked what I’d written in California, the chairs were taken. Literally two days before I left, I worked out an assignment with Joe Parkin, editor of Bike magazine and author of the newly published Come And Gone. He e-mailed me an assignment letter. Then Edward Pickering at Cyclesport came through one hour before I left for the airport. I was pacing the bedroom waiting for it.
My other attempt, suggested by veteran (12 tours) James Raia, co-author of the Tour de France for Dummies, was to scour the roster list of the American teams, locate the guy who’s not the big star, find out where he’s from, then call that city’s newspaper and see if they wanted 400 glowing words on him from France.
I picked Brent Bookwalter, riding his first tour for BMC. He lives in Athens, so I e-mailed the sports editor for the Athens Banner Herald with a query. Never heard back from him so that’s the last time you’ll see me write Bookwalter’s name. He gets nada coverage from Twisted Spoke. Nothing personal but his is the name we dare not speak. However I’m too ecstatic to ruin the luscious karma I am swimming in right now.
Anyway, my line of thinking, my fantasy, my petrified hope was that with two assignment letters, I could walk in to the ASO credentials room hours before the tour and secure a badge. Now I should backtrack and say you don’t need a press cred to cover the tour. If you’ve got a car, three weeks and about $5000 you can follow the tour across the Netherlands, Belgian and around France no problem. See it, taste it, sniff it, revel in its majesty and torture and courage without the stinkin’ badge.
But who doesn’t want the full experience? This was a pricey dream with plenty of sacrifices — 4 weeks in total away from my wife and two kids and a deep dig into the savings account. It was egotistical, unrealistic, a bit crazy. So if I wanted that damn credential, I wanted to be legit and if I wasn’t making a bundle writing on my first tour, I sure as hell wanted this to be a writing showcase for next year.
The credential gives you access to the riders at sign in and plenty of other places lowly spectators can’t get into. Plus access to the inner sanctum where I’m sitting right now — the press room — which four hours before the first rider rolls out, is filled with at ;east 200 journalists and photographers. Let’s not forget the free food and drink either — a budget saver on this euro-sucking tour.
Let me just detail the fear, trepidation and stress as I got ready to make my pitch to the Accreditation Gods in my serviceable but tres rusty French. First think this morning I actually tried to guess the best wardrobe. It was humid, I was gonna sweat; shorts and a t-shirt and running shoes were the obvious choice for based on comfort and weather. I put on a buttoned dress shirt and new blue jeans, my only pair of long pants.
Why, you ask? Because I know the French tend to be more formal than laid back, under-dressed Californians and I wanted to make the best possible impression. Professional, serious, un vrai homme, the real deal pro from the states they just didn’t happen to know yet. Not a good idea to make your desperate, one-shot-only pitch looking like you just rolled off the beach, looking like some blogger surfer bum. Un Disastre, quel horreur.
I was basically freaking, trying to calm myself with a borrowed buddhist attitude of being grateful and joyous in the moment and not fixating on a particular outcome. I was doing the whole tour, badge or no badge, didn’t matter. Life was guaranteed glorious. Just be humble, tell your story in French, show the letters, breathe and let the chips fall.
I reached the giant press area and walked inside the large conference space. After a 30 minute walk (I’d jumped off the metro a stop too early) my face was wet with sweat. Do Not Beg while covered in sweat is, I think, a good general rule for success. In the Toilette I composed myself, dried up, ran fingers thru hair, positioned my two assignment letters for quick retrieval and ran thru my pitch in French with the phrases I’d been practicing since the train ride from Paris to Rotterdam.
The pitch by the way, was a three tiered approach, starting with strict professionalism and ending in outright, fall-on-knees, hands in prayer begging. I’d start with the letters, then if that was failing, move to the “I love France so much I have a college degree in French Language and Literature” then finally to “please, monsieur, I spent thousands to get here, left the wife and kids for a month, I’ll lick your shoes, buy you cheese for life, for Godsakes, can’t you see I’m weeping?” That part was gonna be pure ad-lib based on immediate circumstances.
Inside the big press room, I looked for my friend James Raia, assuming he’d know the best ASO official to approach and make the introductions. My best hope, I figured. No James. Mild panic but I did spot a photographer I recognized from the Tour of California. I asked him who Christophe Marchadier was since Raia had told me that was the head guy and generally friendly. The photographer said you have to talk to Mathieu Desplaits, over there, dark, blue sweater. Well, okay, here goes.
It’s a short, funny walk across the gray carpet knowing I’d have an answer to my Life’s Burning Question in moments. A yes or no that would profoundly effect the entire three weeks of my tour experience and perhaps also the trajectory of my short but so far promising side career as a cycling writer.
My heart was racing as I said “Mathieu.” He turned, I introduced my myself, Matt Walsh, from the United States. Je voudrais savoir si il est possible d’obtenir an acceditation de presse. Je said que je suis un peu en retard. J’ai deux lettres de travail.” My voice tone was even, I didn’t rush, accent bon. He took the two letters, read them, my heart still racing, the live or die moment. He looked up, nodded and simply said “okay.”
I’ll finish up the rest of that story but Le Tour calls. Time to walk the prologue course a bit and take in the local color and feel the bounce in my step. I am truly thrilled and damn lucky.