On our list of all the things we love about the Tour de France (everything), let’s focus on having a ringside seat to watch rivals Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and BMC’s Cadel Evans battle it out.
The HD quality video from French Television is generally fantastic so even watching from home you get a sense of the pain and suffering on the faces of the riders. However, there’s nothing like being there in the moment on a mountainside when the big attack happens.
You can feel the violence of the acceleration, see the agony of the dropped, the torture of riders trying to respond and close the gap after 4 hours in the saddle over several brutal mountain summits. They’re already cooked and on the limit and now death is next in the progression.
We rarely get a great “race action” photo and this one — taken at the 2011 TDF — isn’t even quite in focus but you can still see the grimace on Evan’s face, the muscles in his arms and legs at full tension, straining to supply power. Just behind him, Schleck and Contador have yet to react or simply can’t in that moment.
I always have that guesswork at the summit of the climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees: how far down the mountain do I walk? What’s the magic spot where the final attack will most likely happen. What hairpin, which ramp, exactly where?
I usually pick a location between one and two kilometers down and sometimes that’s hard because you know you’ve decided to skip the finish line action. But then there’s also the barrier problem. In that final K or so, the orange metal barrier go up and that just wrecks it for me.
If I’ve come all this way from California and driven half away across France, I’m not watching the race like I’m at the zoo, me on one side of the fence, tigers on the other. The intensity is being right on the road, crowds parting, going nuts, close enough to touch their jerseys.
So down below the barriers I go and that’s where the true crazy fans are found. It’s a truer, richer experience. In the last 30 minutes before the racers arrive, I love standing in a small crowd gathered around the open side door of a minivan or camper, watching the race on a tiny TV with a bad picture. Not quite being able to see or hear only adds to the tantalizing quality, the mystery of the race situation. Is what I think is happening, really happening?
That roadside party is always a gas and there’s nothing better than to have the camera out and slowly walk down the mountain snapping pictures and watching all the festivities, the chalk show, the flags, barbecues, drinking contests, decorations, costumes, the national pride of the Basques and French and Danes and Dutch.
Sometimes you get the exact right spot. You see a champion like Evans dig deep — and nobody digs like Evans. When you see a Contador or Schleck put into difficulty, to see them struggling like mere mortals, that’s a sight you don’t forget.
Vive Le Tour, Vive old man Evans.