Regular readers of Twisted Spoke are probably wondering what the Hell I’ve been up to after all my hoopla about going to the Tour de France for the third time. I’ve been silent for about four days and that’s a personal record, given that I’ve written almost every day for four years.
First, my excuse — I have been writing and photographing (hey, new word?) for the Clif bar people and sticking close to the team they sponsor, Garmin-Sharp. So I’ve been driving the race route almost every day and sending in pictures of the fun and kooky and celebratory things I find in Le Grand Shindig and also sticking in some Garmin intel.
In short, what you would have been reading on Twisted Spoke has temporarily migrated over to Clif and definitely check the homepage out because I’ve been taking lots of great pics and writing a few things about the tour.
My second excuse is that I’m doing two stories for Cycle Sport magazine and while those demands haven’t taken all my time (yet), the prep work is already in progress and that has stolen time and energy to jump on Twisted Spoke with whatever strikes my fancy in France.
And finally, third semi-excuse, the Tour just plain wipes you out and kicks your ass. That’s true whether you’re a cool and calm vet who’s done ten plus Tours or a newbie just showing up. That’s the nature of the beast: the Tour is so chaotic, intense and fast moving that no matter how smart and energetic you are, it will smack your face a few times.
I was just talking to photographer Casey Gibson a few days ago and he’s a true pro. He said he figures you get five good days, five bad days and the other ten or so, you’re just happy to survive. That’s why a good amount of the media do one week or ten day shifts then rotate home. The real hardcore guys who do all three weeks and post every day have my respect. I know exactly the daily stresses they deal with and solve.
So that’s the question: what’s it like chasing the Tour? It’s a giant, addictive, beautiful, astonishing pain in the ass. Half the time I’m saying to myself, what the f&#k am I doing here and the other half of me is saying please don’t ever let this end. That’s how crazy the experience becomes.
Two analogies: first, imagine that every day Las Vegas packs up every casino and hotel and show and moves all that 150 miles. That’s the Tour; the logistics blow the mind and destroy the body. Second, take the highs and lows of your entire life, compress it down to three weeks and you have a rough idea of the emotional swings you go thru in the Tour. You’re laughing and crying and raging and thanking God for the privileged of being here and stunned and inspired and horrified by the mental and physical energy required to just to avoid being crushed.
It’s that amazing.
I could give you a hundred examples of the intensity and craziness of the Tour but thankfully the protective wiring of my brain has already erased a good portion of those experiences. The fundamental truth of the Tour is that it forces you to confront the fundamental questions: why am I here, what am I doing, why did I leave my family in the middle of Summer vacation, why am I wasting so much money I don’t have?
Jesus, it’s great to be here.
I mean that — every rider and writer and photographer and mechanic and soingeur and sound guy and film editor and promotional caravan driver will tell you that. It’s an honor to be at the greatest race in the world in arguably the most beautiful country in the world (my opinion) watching the most hors categorie endurance athletes attempt the impossible.
All rules for the riders apply for the media: you’re not here to have fun, enjoy the regional cuisines of France, wax poetic about the scenery and architecture and beautiful women and the curiously bad pop music. You’re here to take care of business and you’re on the clock and the clock aways tells you the same story: you’re behind.
Let me give you one small example from a day that went well. That’s right — a GOOD day in the Tour. It was the stage into Lyon which automatically should have meant it was easy. The mountain stages are the killers, stuck on the mountain, limited access off, hours in traffic, long drive to hotel, arrive at 10, all restaurants closed, work done but bitter — nothing demoralizes Tour media more than busting ass all freakin’ day long and not at least getting a decent dinner in France and five glasses of wine.
But I digress. So I drive the race route and everything is exciting and fun and I’m snapping pics of cool things and meeting some interesting folks and just generally soaking up the whole beautiful Tour ambiance for Clif. The stage is 191 kilometers long and with just 250 meters to go the day turns to crap. I motor through beautiful Lyon on a winding and twisting course into the city on a closed course feeling like a rally car drive.
At 250 meters, like all media cars, I’m diverted off-course towards media parking. That’s the drill and I’ve done if for three Tours. You look for the helpful Tour guys in the red or green Lacoste shirts and they point you to your wonderful crowded parking spot that’s usually but not always close to the finish line.
Only trouble is, I don’t see the green or red shirts or the bright arrow signs they put up to guide you. So I figure, well, it must be a block or two down and I keep driving. In 30 seconds I see I’m about to be forced on to one of two freeways headed out of Lyon. It was an oh-shit moment and you have to remember that like most Tour stages I’ve already put in 5-6 hours in the car. I’m tired, I want to get to the press room and get my free food and a bottle of Vittel water and watch the last 60k or so of the race before I join the media frenzy just past the finish line.
And I forgot to mention the double stress. In that moment when I didn’t see the media parking sign another guy with a media credential flagged me down and asked where the press room was and wondered if he could grab a ride with me. I said sure and it turns out he was from Norway and had covered all sports and world championships and was on his last Tour de France before retiring. Bad luck he got in the car with me.
So I would be shouting obscenities at the top of my lungs but I’ve got this well-mannered and presumably cultured Norwegian gentleman in the car so I try to stay calm, pull over before I’m thrown on a freeway out of Lyon and work the GPS for a route back.
Now as most people know, GPS doesn’t mean infallible and if you haven’t updated your maps, they’re even less so. In no time at all, the two of us are driving down a dead-end street with crumbled industrial warehouses. I’m screwed.
We pass what looks like two teen boys and two two younger kids without shirts playing in the rubble, doing God knows what. What’s the word I need — delinquents. I back out of the dead end and as I pass them for the second time, I hear the sudden shocking noise of a good sized rock hitting my car door. Dent for sure and paint gone. I utter the F word in front of the nice Norwegian gentleman who is wishing he’s just walked instead of jumping in the car with this American fool.
Anyway, yeah, I finally get back to where I came off the course and yeah, there it is, the sign and the guy in the green shirt waving me into the parking. Where they were 15 minutes before, I have no idea.
Now right here you’re thinking, maybe that’s a hiccup, some hitch in the day and that’s to be expected in a foreign country and it’s the crazy Tour de France and you just roll with it. All true. But stuff like this happens every single day and it’s just a case of how often and how bad the consequences and it’s the cumulative effect that kills.
On to the second debacle. I go into the big city of Lyon and that raises another issue of Tour logistics and planning. The question is always: should I stay at some smaller town with few good restaurants close to the finish with less driving or go bigger and more complicated and potentially more time-consuming?
It’s always a call you have to make — potentially nicer hotel, more food options, places that stay open later in the night (a Tour mandatory), maybe some beautiful architecture, a chance to see something special versus always keeping things as easy as possible. You know you can find your hotel and parking in less time in a smaller town than trying to navigate a bigger city with underground parking lots you sometimes can’t find and major construction projects that the GPS doesn’t know about.
In any case, I get into Lyon and to my surprise I had booked a room in a bigger and more modern hotel than usual. The upside, I told myself, is that the wifi situation would be totally dialed with a strong signal. As a writer and also needing to send at least a dozen photos a day to Clif, I can’t function (or get paid) without good wifi and you never know what you’ll get in smaller hotels in more rural towns.
The irony was that this trip I’ve had very good luck with the wifi so I figured I was in good shape. I’d busted out of the finish area without too much trouble and that’s a big accomplishment. So I check in, go up to the room and immediately go online. Only it’s not working, not on my Mac, iPad or iphone. Je suis screwed.
Again, you have to understand the cumulative stress and fatigue of chasing the most logistically challenging bike race in the world for three weeks. I’m already short on sleep, patience and understanding. I tell the tall, young and attractive French woman at the desk that it’s not working. She nods, and in that nod is complete disinterest in my problem. She says well, the walls are very thick so the reception is probably better here in the lobby area.
Okay, we’re talking an hour and a half of work to post the photos, write the short descriptions and compose a blog of the day. I’m exhausted, it’s now 8:30PM and I haven’t eaten and I’ve been driving all day. I don’t want to work in the lobby and guess what, the wifi doesn’t work there, either.
So now, I’m fuming and I explain to the tall, less beautiful by the moment, French woman that as a journalist at the Tour de France, I absolutely have to have a functioning wifi to work. She nods again, bustles about, leaves, returns and tells me that other people aren’t having any problem getting on-line.
Here I remind folks that I love France and I was once upon a long time ago a French major. I’m pre-deposed to liking everything in France but I do not like this woman, who exhibits all the cliche traits of the unhelpful bored French functionary. I hate her.
I’m actually starting to panic because I have to get this work done before the night is over. I consider checking out of the hotel, I start thinking about finding the nearest McDonalds because they have free wifi. I’m already so tired I have little energy for solving this one. On top of that, I’d hoped to have a dinner with the Cycle Sport writers in Lyon in an hours’ time.
My hotel was right next door to another large hotel and I could see their wifi network on my computer. I went in to their front desk and asked a less attractive but far more helpful young French woman if I could check in or pay them for some wifi time. She said no problem, and set me up in the lounge area and they even had an outlet because I was low on power. I could have kissed her.
So that’s just a little taste of the day-today of chasing the Tour. Now, I’m leaving out that I’m at the most fabulous bike race in the world with a press credential and access to guys I consider to be amazing athletes. To be in France, at Le Tour, on the 100th birthday — I don’t care how challenging it is, I want to be there.
You just have to understand the wear and tear. It’s like riding the tour — you get more and more tired and only the true champions deal with all the ups and downs and come out on top. I salute them.
So I’ll try to keep writing some of the experiences of my Tour but for the day to day, it’s best to check my Clif blog. What I’ll try to do at Twisted Spoke is give you my own personal insights on what it’s like being here.