Tour de France countdown: allez media scrum.
When I did my first Tour de France back in 2010, I got the entire show: all three weeks, press credential, media sticker on car windshield, clearance to drive the race route and incredible up-close access to the greatest endurance athletes in the world.
It was a sensory overload, mentally and physically taxing, a truly demanding three week full immersion into the Tour de France. I laughed, I cried several times, I nearly had a nervous breakdown in a media neo-pro kinda way but recovered, finished strong and made it to beautiful Paris.
I learned plenty of lessons about how to handle the tour, the logistics, planning, tricks of the trade and a large part of the experience was just knowing the next time around, Le Tour wouldn’t be near as hard. When I came back in 2011 for the second and third week, I was wiser, more organized and confident about how to deal with the monster.
I said media scrum and that’s what it is in the Tour. There are hundreds and hundred of writers and thousands of media people — still photographers, video guys, sound people and an army of tech support. If you want to play the journalist role, I found I had to throw myself in the fire.
It can be a daunting thing to play a role in that media scrum but if you want practice in sticking your neck out and proving yourself, there’s nothing like the Tour de France for a cycling journalist. It’s like a safer version of a war zone but with really good French food.
I remember the wild media scramble just past the finish line when the largely unpopular Alexandre Vinokourov won a stage. It was like being in a rugby scrum that was surging left and right with no warning. People were going nuts to be the first to shove a mic in Vino’s face and get the best shot.
The photo above is one I shot in the 2011 Tour when Voeckler was in the maillot jaune. You can see the attention he gets. Everybody wants a piece of him and you can understand why a more reserved rider like Bradley Wiggins finds it tiresome at best and offensive in general.
That said, the atmosphere is high voltage and thrilling. There are the moments when you catch a David Millar or Philippe Gilbert or Geraint Thomas and those are golden. One thing I sometimes do is write three good questions in the note pad on my iphone for certain riders. If I catch them on the fly, I’m ready for a focused and useful quick interview.
I remember catching Voeckler one morning in the parking lot of his hotel. It’s just one of those impromptu moments are happen constantly in the Tour. It’s moving so fast, it’s chaotic and unpredictable but there are often times to grab a rider for some insights. You just rarely know when, where or how.
I also recall in the 2010 Tour seeing Sky DS Sean Yates just standing off to the side all by himself. I went up and he was happy to chat — in fact, he kept talking several minutes past what I expected and I ran out of questions. This was when Wiggins was barely speaking to the press.
While I’ve written a dozen stories for Cycle Sport, I come from the blogging world and am an outsider in the traditional trained journalist sense. I’m also not a regularly paid on-staff writer like the guys from Velonews or Bicycling magazine.
So I have a certain freedom to see the race more as story and entertainment and character arc than factual race news. Most of the daily internet journalists must drive the hors course freeways and go directly to the stage finish press room where they write up the morning interviews while watching the last 2-3 hours of the race on flat screen monitors as if they were back home in their living rooms.
That always strikes me a little funny that they come all the way to France to watch the race on TV. But the nature of their job is to report as quickly as possible what happened — get quotes at start town, drive, watch race on TV, get quotes at finish, write story, repeat for 21 stages.
Honestly, if I had to do that I’m not sure I’d be that interested. Those guys are very good at what they do and I have tremendous respect for the skill it takes to knock out stories every day on tight, high stress deadlines. Most of us don’t have that talent.
The drawback to the approach is that they don’t get to see the same race as the magazine writers who don’t have the constraint of daily stories. Sad to say it seems that the internet continues to steal from magazines but my feeling is we can all watch the race of TV, what I want from a magazine is what you can’t often get from the internet: a perspective, context, analysis and mostly, some great writing.
Cyclignnews does a fabulous and amazing job of reporting the news but with their deadlines, there’s little time to really craft a story, to write it with some style, a unique perspective, to inject some insights, humor, backstory and history. But I digress …
For me, the story of the Tour de France is out on the race route. Being out front of the race, driving the entire route each day and seeing the fans and beautiful little towns and the unique roadside displays — just soaking up the atmosphere — is what the Tour is about.
On the iconic mountain stages, I find a good spot a kilometer or two down from the summit where the final attack might launch and I hang with the fans — the Basques and Germans and Danish and Norwegians and Brits and French. That’s where the passion and excitement are to be found and you get to feel the rising and delicious anticipation as the lead riders come into view far down the valley.
The crazy circus Tour caravan has already been through blasting music and throwing out cheap gimcracks, then the advance cars and motos fly past, the helicopter swoops up from the valley and hovers in a thundering roar and you hear the screaming of the fans several hairpin turns below who are already seeing the racers come through.
I started out talking about the media scrum and also those unexpected moments when you get that great interview. In 2010, I was just past the finish line at the summit of Tourmalet when Contador and Schleck rode through together. Not far behind was RadioShack’s Chris Horner, who at age 39, had ridden to a top ten on GC.
I was one of the first two writers to talk with him after that amazing performance — the other being the famous John Wilcockson of Velonews. There was no media scrum, just myself, Wilcockson and Horner, who was cold and exhausted and stripping off wet clothes and drinking hot tea his soigneur had provided. That was one of the up-close moments when you really see what these guys go through — and how fast they recover.
With the Tour less than three weeks away, we say Vive le Tour, vive le scrum de media.