Today was a disaster but at least I have proof I can do a wheelie on a race bike.
It was day two in the Tour de France and I was screwed, standing in a parking lot in Rotterdam yelling obscenities in English and French. I’m a ticking logistical time bomb, an amateur, a clueless numbskull pretending to be a functioning adult. Merde alors.
Through a series of foreseeable events I didn’t bother to see coming, I missed my ride from Rotterdam to Brussels. Sort of like being sent to cover the Superbowl then losing your ticket and press pass minutes before kickoff. Like Andy Schleck in the prologue, I’m furious at my performance.
It’s a dream to cover the tour de France, a privilege and honor, and I’d already embarrassed myself. My kids can tell you the two times a year I swear, the date, circumstance and motivation. A good thing my kids weren’t in the Netherlands to hear daddy rant.
A cliche of the Tour de France, the biggest bike race of them all, is that the first week is always nervous, hectic and crazy. Riders amped to the max, roads that are too narrow, everyone determined to ride at the front. Most crashes happen in the first week before things settle down, exhaustion sets in and the mountains stretch things out.
That hyper craziness is just as true for the journalists — the writers and photographers covering the tour — which is a shock to the system. It takes a week to get into the rhythms of the race, the fast starts, the endless driving, the hotels searches on dark back roads, the unpredictable, stressful and chaotic events that tear your day in half.
Hopefully, I’ll find that rhythm soon or I’ll be leaving France in a body bag, a Tour de France first. I’ll settle in and stop making fundamental mistakes in logistics, planning, use of basic cognitive ability and reasoning. All the things that left me in the parking lot, dazed and confused and spewing language unsuitable for small French or American children.
The failed plan was to met another journalist at the press work room in the morning — the one I’d spend hours in the previous day for the prologue. Simple as can be. So I jumped on the brilliantly easy metro and four stops later I stepped out to a ghost town. Not a single car, not a person in sight. Boo-boo royal. The race was starting somewhere else in Rotterdam.
One of the essential training lessons I learned covering the Tour of California was not to panic. Merde happens and you just roll with it, keep your nose closed, eyes and ears open. Let me short hand this as quickly as possible — heavy day pack, very heavy suitcase with rear wheels, cobblestone sidewalks.
I dragged that combination all over Rotterdam for hours, back on the metro, across the bridge, one way, then the other, through thicker and thicker crowds. All the while knowing the clock was racing and if I didn’t find my ride out of Rotterdam, I’d mostly likely miss the show in Brussels and blow the stage — besides being forced to hustle a ride somehow, someway with somebody.
I asked security people, police, tour personal, a ten foot lady on stilts, a parking attendant, two metro passengers, a family on Dutch bikes, a welcome booth girl, a dozen people with press tags. I could not find the press work room because, surprise, there is no work room the morning of the stage.
After 2 and a half high stress hours I simply gave up and tried to make the most of the disaster. I’d missed shooting the cool, gaudy, playful tour caravan of sponsor vehicles the tour is famous for. I’d lost my ride to Brussels, I had no idea how I’d get there. I just told myself, you’re at the tour de France, enjoy the pain, it’s wet clay — make something with it.
I shot a silly little video interview with the ten foot French girl on stilts (soon to be posted). Her fractured English was sweet — I kept filling in the second half of her sentences, trying to work the humor, keep things moving.
At the “welcome village,” a circle of small sponsor cafes and tour booths, I shot photos of French riders having coffee and reading the paper like they were about to go for a casual Sunday ride instead of a hard, fast, windy ride down the Netherlands into Belgium.
I caught last years’ surprise yellow jersey wearer Rinaldo Nocentini of AG2R pedaling across the park grass to get his cappuccino. Little moments out of time that remind you that despite the ballistic roar and gigantic scale of the Tour, it’s still mostly the timeless, simple act of young men riding a bike.
Then I did what the circumstances of the day forced me to do: I hitch-hiked. Not dumping myself on an on-ramp of the auto-route with my thumb cocked — but close. I’d spent at least an hour searching one of the media parking lots for my journalist friend. Now practically all the cars — over a hundred — were gone, headed to Brussels.
The huge crowds of spectators filled the streets, a human blockade for the remaining dozen vehicles. Now or never. I wheeling my suitcase over the cobblestones, parallel to the driver windows and looked for cars with an empty back seat.
I knocked on a window, “you speak English? French?” You going to Brussels?” I begged a ride from a guy in a black Renault and jumped in. I scored a ride from Anders Jepsen of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, who has covered the tour seven times and of course knows Dane Bjarne Riis very well. I’ve never been so happy to collapse into a strangers’ car in my life.
In two and a half hours I was sitting in that large, beautiful air-conditioned salle de presse with sandwiches, beer, wifi and 10 flat-screens showing the riders ripping though Antwerp on their way to see me and the finish line.
Yes, it was a nervous, chaotic and crazy, a first week in the tour. In the final kilometers there three significant crashes and Alessandro Petacchi escaped the carnage for an easy win.
Me, I was also happy to be in Brussels more or less in one piece.