There are those merchandized book series: everything I learned about life from my toddler or my dog or my dying father or my sex therapist. Clever ways to encapsulate the wisdom of life into one tidy and easy to sell package.
Mine is the Tour de France.
My thesis, my point of view, is that everything meaningful and illuminating and wise about life can be learned by chasing the Tour de France in person across something like 3500 kilometers.
Shit happens, le merde occurs, bolts of vision are pounded into your skull.
Like the famous scene in the famous movie Blade Runner where suddenly poetic bad-guy Rutger Hauer waxes philosophical about his imminent death and his failed attempt to kill hero Harrison Ford, I feel I can say with an accented French, “I have seen things you humans will never see.”
The Tour is intense and beautiful and mind-boggling and humbling and logistically horrible and soul crushing and stupid and wearisome and magical but you come out of that tunnel into beautiful again and again. The Tour is your flickering life force.
The Tour is your life, the highs and lows, the sublime and the horrible, compressed into three weeks time. It’s a helluva ride.
I am addicted to the Tour de France. I hate it, it’s too expensive, it’s insane, it’s a logistic nightmare, I love it, I love it, I love it. Jesus, my mind has already gone into Tour 2014 mode.
My wife has asked me on several occasions why I love the Tour de France so much when all I seem to do is complain about the sleep deprivation, the traffic, the landscape-blurring, spirit sapping slave-driving, the hours of work to arrive at a mountain top summit to witness 90 seconds of a race.
My wife likes zumba and aerobics and cooking. What can she possibly understand about the Tour de France?
Here is the analogy I use with her when I return from the Tour a time-zone zombie, deep in credit card debt and desperate for high paying freelance advertising jobs to fill the hole I just punched in my Visa.
I say let’s imagine the greatest twelve chefs in the world are gathered in beautiful and breathtaking France and that they will each prepare an astonishing breakfast, lunch and dinner and all that’s required of you is a few pictures, a thoughtful 1000 word blog post a day and driving a minimum of six hours a day for the three week extravaganza.
In addition, each day you will never be certain if the hotel wifi will work, if your computer will crack under the stress or whether your camera will survive the relentless abuse. Keep in mind one of the top media companies sent a journalist to the Tour whose last assignment was a war zone in the middle east. It’s madness.
So, would you do it?
Hell yes, a thousand times over because as hard as the journey is, driving up to seven hours a day, over countless mountain summits and dealing with endless, incessant and unpredictable chaos, you are in a sports Nirvana that is kind and malicious enough to show you all of life’s important lessons.
If I detailed the mind-bending set of challenges in covering the Tour de France, you’d be fascinated for a minute then quickly bored by the logistical minutia and bullshit that characterize each day. So I will give just chronicle one example of the chaos.
Third week, home stretch, day before Paris, the Annecy stage. And again, don’t think I’m just some lame and clueless guy that can’t handle the high pressure game. This is my third Tour; I know the parameters, the schedule, I have a GPS, I’m a born masochist, I was a French major in college. I’m almost a vet.
In fact, let’s sidetrack just for a moment because in the third week of the Tour everybody — no matter how skilled or organized or dishonest — is running on empty and ready to go home. I don’t need to call out names but I tell you the top guys from Bicycling magazine, Velonews and Cycle Sport are fried and dying to escape. Ask them now and they’d lie because they’re true professionals, but in the third week, they’re running on fumes. That’s just indisputable fact.
So I arrive in my rental car at the start of stage 20 in Annecy feeling pretty good. No catastrophes, no sleeping in the car, no missing trains, no computer destruction, no near mental breakdown. Remember, I’m freelance, no team spirit, no partner to share driving and help with planning.
I get to the start late but everything is grand until I race to the car as the riders take off for the summit of Annecy-Semnoz. My car won’t start.
Another of a hundred things you don’t know. Things happen at hyper speed in the Tour. Riders gone in an instant, team buses roaring out, media cars already half disappeared and headed to the hors course summit.
To put in gently, je suis fucked. Loud stream of obscenities.
This being my third tour, I’m too experienced to panic. I know immediately what I have to do and fast. The rental car is Europcar’s problem; I need a ride to the mountaintop. I run to the last line of media cars in a traffic holding pattern until they can bolt out of Annecy and I start pounding on driver side windows. In French, “You going to the finish?”
A young Dutch guy who writes for the equivalent of Sports Illustrated is happy to give me a ride. He’s a great guy and we shoot the shit on the ride up to Annecy-Semnoz. He tells he’s still a little gun-shy from hitting a fan on a bike on one of those insane drives up through the crowds on Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux. He gives me some fantastic insights into Dutch Corner that only a Dutch writer would know and I later drop those nuggets into my Cycle Sport magazine story on my boozy day at the infamous corner.
We pause again because it proves my thesis.
The Tour de France, like the grander life itself, will give you back double what you put into it. Give up and the Tour crushes you. It shows little pity — it’s too grand and too fast and has its own terminal velocity. You’re just a bit player in its rich history and you’re thanking your lucky stars that you managed to score an invite. You have to prove you belong.
I was fucked but I improvised and dealt with chaos and unpredictable mayhem. Dead rental car in Annecy — who cares? I’m agile, mobile and hostile as the line used to go about pro football linebackers.
So bang, problem solved and we’re cruising up the closed road to Semnoz, Alberto Contador’s last shot at somehow killing Chris Froome. I’m feeling a little proud of my quick trouble-shooting but know the day is young. You can never get overconfident at the Tour because that’s the instant it hammers you.
Do you understand how hard the Tour is? This is one stage, I’m 1140 words in and you’re only beginning to get the picture for one crazy day.
I get to the summit but no it’s not the summit. In the Tour, there’s no such thing as easy. You want easy you get a press pass for tennis or pro skiing or shuffle board. You cover a nice high school basketball game.
No, you park and take a chairlift up for the last two kilometers. Which again, is super cool and let’s not complain and for the thousandth time over, this proves the rule. The Tour is misery and joy at every moment. It’s a constant Zen parable you’re trying to decode while also formulating your story angle on Sky or Garmin or BMC or who the fuck Nairo Quintana is.
I never use foul language except in rare circumstance and never in front of children. I use fuck a hundred times a day in Le Tour. It feels good, it blows off steam, I give it a heavy French accent and then I don’t feel so bad about the lack of manners.
God, I love the Tour de France. It’s fucking awesome.
We all know the hardest things are the most sublime and revealing and what make us most proud about ourselves. I can honestly say the Tour is my ultimate test, the mirror that shows me exactly who I am and the boundaries of my talents. And anyway, dinner is great so even if I don’t measure up I can still order a terrific meal and a killer bottle of wine.
So chairlift, up we go and I get a great conversation with a French cameraman from Paris. Another of those completely impromptu moments when my French is fluid and I feel connected to this astonishing place and the people who live here. He tells me if I need a ride back, to stop by their car.
You want to go pro journo? You want an interview with Garmin-Sharps Andrew Talansky on what looks like his top ten finish in his first Tour de France? Start walking and don’t bother with seeing the finish. You’re already screwed on that one.
The little reserved space they give the press is about 100 meters past the finish line. It’s already so sardine that media folks are pushed out into the road. This breach of conduct has the Tour crowd control people going nuts. Our particular guy has a French Foreign Legion tattoo and he doesn’t care how Japanese subway car things have gotten. He’s insisting that we vacate the area or slam dance our way into the mass of bodies. Which you will not be able to extract yourself from when the riders come through. It’s just garden variety Tour insanity.
I give up on that score so I can’t see the video screen inside that gives those oh-so-valuable media people a look at the action. Instead I watch the photographers massing just past the finish, ready for action.
In that dramatic interlude I’m also pondering the second half of my morning disaster: I’ve hitch-hiked my way up the mountain but how will I get back down? That’s also a constant Tour rhythm: It’s either intense drama or mindless lull and nothing in between.
I’m also dealing with plenty of conflicting emotional forces. One stage to go and despite the exhaustion and stress and homesickness, I’m fighting a desire to stay, to somehow prolong this madness. Does it really have to end tomorrow in Paris — can we keep going, do another half circle around France?
I think of all those beautiful French countryside towns I’ve had to drive through a little too fast, the surprise friendships I’ve made, the mountainside sporting theater I’ve witnessed on Ax 3 Domaines, Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez, the fabulous dinners I’ve had in Nice and Montpellier and Marseille and Saint Malo and La Gallicy and Lyon and Montlucon and Apt and other places I can’t recall. Chris Froome has wrapped up Le Tour and half of me is begging to stay and half is running screaming for the plane to San Francisco.
That is another life lesson from the Tour. Knowing where you belong at any moment, knowing your place and your role. I need to be home and yet I feel the adolescent pull of the adventure even though I am dead tired and out of money.
Are you beginning to feel this? It’s just a day in the Tour and every stage is a different version of life’s larger queries and demands and philosophical quandaries.
By the way, you wanted that interview with Andrew Talansky, right? Stand 150 meters past the finish line because that’s the best X Marks Spot given the size of the media riot about to engulf the riders. You can’t imagine the chaos. You’re basically gauging the distance a rider can get past the finish before he rides into a wall of jabbering media people with mics and cameras demanding an insight before he keels over from exhaustion.
Yeah, I guessed about 150 meters and I was dead on. So I get to be one of say 30 media people shoving mics and cameras in his face. That’s nothing — there are 70 swarmed around Chris Froome. I can’t even get a decent shot through the mayhem but being tall, I do manage a mediocre head shot and my long arms give me an advantage as far as stretching out the mic toward his head. It doesn’t pay to be short in this business.
Normally and ordinarily, you’d catch Mr Talansky and suck up his “top ten in Tour” quotes as he cooled down on his trainer beside the Garmin bus. But that changes everyday. Today the team buses are nowhere to be seen, so far down the winding backside mountain descent that nobody will reach them but the riders.
Nope, your shot is a team car maybe a kilometer past the finish — they’re all parked parallel on what little shoulder the mountain road provides. I have the luxury of being one of the lucky few to record Talansky’s immediate thoughts along with the guys from Bicycling magazine and a few other pubs.
The it’s back to the chairlift for the ride down the mountain.
Ahh, but you see, this is the Tour de France and your expectation and planning are once again worthless and laughable. No, the Tour guy says to the long line of media folks, the chairlift is really only made for bring people up and for whatever reason he tells everyone that it will be at least 30 minutes before they can take people down.
Understand the media imperatives of the Tour. The press room is at the base of that chairlift and the insatiable media machine is waiting for those photos and video clips and interviews and stories. Time is of the fucking essence.
A few guys jump on the chairs despite the angry shouts of the official guy. While he reads aloud the riot act to the remaining angry media folks, another three guys slip the line and jump on the chair to the jeers of those of us left behind. It’s nearly Lord of the Flies.
Are you getting even a small taste of the insanity?
So yeah, I’ve got yet another problem besides the non-descending chairlift, and no car ride back down into Annecy and my hotel: I have to hike down the 2k in cheap beach sandals.
Every single day at the Tour I wear running shoes because you’re always walking and fast. Only I made the additional mistake of assuming this would be an easy day and against my better judgement, went with the sandals.
So now I’m walking down the grassy mountainside with a bunch of other media types in these slippery sandals. It’s a bitch and I have to go at a slower pace so I don’t slip and twist my ankle.
I make it down, sweating, a bit frazzled and walk into the big media tent. I upload some photos for Clif Bar and start my daily blog post for them but I know that priority one is securing a ride down the mountain. There’s the added complication that a good portion of the media is going down but then veering off in the direction of Paris. There’s no reason for them to stay in Annecy that night unless they were planning like me on taking the train to Paris in the early morning.
So out I go into the large media parking lot and start the knock on car window routine again. I do this for at least an hour and get turned down by at over 30 different drivers. There’s either no room or they’re not headed into Annecy or they think I look like an ax murderer.
But this is the Tour and this is your day. You just have to solve it or you’re done. The Tour de France is improv problem solving from morning to night for three weeks. Can’t do it, don’t bother showing up.
There is still a good number of people in the press room but the parking lot is over 2/3rd’s empty and the clock is ticking. Finally I score a ride from a middle aged woman and her teen daughter. They live in Annecy and are happy to take me right to my hotel. How fantastic and generous is that?
I slump in the backseat of their car, repeating “merci infiniment” several times. I am getting off this mountain after all. Again, the Tour taketh away and the Tour giveth back as long as you don’t prove yourself unworthy of the challenges.
We have a nice conversation in French about Annecy and the Tour and they give me an insiders recommendation for a restaurant along one of the canals of this beautiful city by the lake.
By 9:30 I’m sitting outside at a wonderful outdoor restaurant in a stunning older section of town dining on a local speciality with a half carafe of good red wine. At 11pm I finish the photo uploads, the captions and the blog post and hit the hay at midnight.
I go to bed feeling exactly like the riders do: exhausted after three weeks but knowing with 100% certainty that I will make Paris the next day.
I did make Paris but not without a few final unforeseen events. If it had been a normal day, it wouldn’t be the Tour de France. The Buddha said life is suffering and so did Tour boss Christian Prudhomme and they were both right.