Second rest day, Montpellier, 2011 Tour de France.
Two things: I love the Tour de France and I love France. Instant ergo, I am in Heavan. In my first two Tour de Frances, I have written about the negatives, the stress, exhaustion, long hours driving, crap meals and endless, unpredictable disasters.
It’s the biggest race in the world and moves with a speed and intensity that everyone — riders, mechanics, photographers, writers, sponsors, yours truly — feel every second. You forget to breathe.
In that mad race, this insanity circus, the blur of sound and fury speeding around beautiful France, I sometimes lose perspective and forget to smile.
I’m in freakin’ France with a credit card, rental car, and press credential. That’s rockstar good times. I have the tremendous luxury of two weeks free from work and obligations and family to chase the greatest bike race, bar none. There is no better seat than a mountainside in the Pyrenees or Alps or the buzz of the entire city of Paris as the riders tear down the Champs Elysees.
It’s one big contact high and the rest day is a good time to stop and give thanks and say wow! There are already so many indelible moments and high and lows that I won’t ever forget. Here are a few that stick:
Feeling a little star-ish.
A French kid no more than ten years who saw the Tour credential dangling from my neck asked me what team I was with. Big letdown for him when I said “journalist.”
Interviewing Johan Bruyneel.
Say what you want about the Radio Shack boss but in my book the guy is a master, Lance Armstrong and doping aside. He’s a great tactician, a savvy team manager and he speaks at least 5 languages. I caught him by the team bus doing nothing and starting firing questions. He was thoughtful and in no hurry to cut thing short.
Watching Franck Schleck try to get a measure of privacy from the media to change into some dry, warm clothes. A reminder that even superstars work outside in public with minimal privacy.
Attending a BMC press conference.
The highlight here was seeing the size of Cadel Evans’ chin cleft. It’s impressive. Also, he comes off better up close, live and in person. Less whiney and cautious, more thoughtful and engaged.
Running up a hill-top village for my press credential.
This year, the kind editors of Cyclesport got me a credential. I arrived the day before the first jour de repos and barreled down the freeway from Paris. As it turned out my hotel was not that far from the finish town of Saint Flour and the road was blocked for the event.
So I pulled over and decided, why wait, get the thing now. Only Saint Flour is a hill top town and I ran up the entire way, following signs that kept saying salle de press for about 40 minutes. Once again, I worked for my credential but the view was astonishing. What a beautiful little corner of France.
Dinner with the media pros.
Dinner in Montpellier with the writers and photographers of Cyclesport magazine. Ed Pickering gave me my first paid assignment in this terrific magazine and promised me what the Brits call a “chinwag” last year at the tour. Never happened. But this year I had a great dinner outdoors in the historic section of Montpellier with Pickering, Lionel Birnie and the boys and it was a hoot. Three bottles of wine into the evening I was wishing I had my iphone recorder running. The things I learned about pro cycling and journalism ….
Drinking Kalimotxo on Luz Ardiden
Kalimotxo is a homemade Basque version of Red Bull. I tasted this strange concoction near the summit of Luz Ardiden with the fans of Euskatel Euskadi. It’s wine and coke and that sounds very odd but beggars can’t be chosers when you need a drink in the Pyrenees. A wonderful moment and Samuel Sanchez delivered for the Basque people with a huge win. Go Orange!
Calling a hotel manager in Quillan, France an asshole.
I’d just driven three hours, I was beat and hungry and desperate for a bed but when I arrived at my hotel, the manager said I had no room. Nothing I could say changed his mind and his attitude was basically, too bad, get lost. I called him a trou de cul, asshole. Just another wild day in the tour.
Walking the town at 11pm, checking three hotels, praying for a room. Get the last room in a dump down the street and was thrilled because it was far better that sleeping in the back seat of the Renault. Then, same routine with restaurants. Two pizza restaurants done serving then walked into the nice restaurant with the killer terrace and the attractive blond waitress. She said we’re closed but let me ask in the kitchen. Minutes pass, hunger grows and then she returns — they’ll make you one thing — cut of beef and pasta. Magnifique.
Proceeded to have great dinner with wonderful half bottle of wine with a view off the terrance and as an deluxe bonus, a view of famous French doper Richard Virenque and his beautiful bored girlfriend dinning two tables away. The tour encapsulated — ups and downs and you just never know.
Oscar at the gas station.
Standing behind Floyd Landis’ Tour de France runner-up Oscar Periero at a freeway gas station while he argued with the man about this or that. He looked fit, like the soccer player he is.
Watching Thor & Phil joke around.
I was standing right next to Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert as they shared a few jokes together moments before roll out. Total fly on the wall, a few feet away, taking pictures. The access at the Tour is amazing and it’s cool to see the friendships between guys who are big rivals on the road.
The burning wallet man!
Seeing the burning wallet guy at the Village du Depart again this year. I met this guy in Rotterdam at the start of the 2010 Tour, one of the entertainers the Tour hires to amuse the VIPS. Very funny guy. He remembered me from a year ago and when I asked where his burning wallet was, he promptly pulled the flaming portfeuille out. A special moment.
Beating the caravan to the Col d’Aubisque.
The publicity caravan is one long crazy parade of promotional vehicles. Fun for the kids and amusing the first tour but now I recognize the caravan for what it is: the evil enemy.
If you want to drive the race course with an orange press sticker on your car — like moi — you have to get out of Dodge BEFORE the caravan leaves. Miss that window and you’re forced onto the Hors Course that doesn’t include any of the race route. If you want the experience of driving through the sea of fans on those famous Tour summits, you have to beat them out of town. The trick of course is to blast out of the start town and enter the race course further down.
The complication is, as always in the tour, the time factor. Get a late start, GPS messed you up and now you’re lost, too hung over from the night before, caught in a good interview, all you know is, clock ticking. On the final Pyrenean stage I was whipped out after a late night and just couldn’t get going until almost 10:30.
I played beat the clock across France, always checking the race book to see what time the caravan would be in what town along the race route. It was touch and go and at one point in the rush to the Col Ausbisque, I had to talk a shaky alternative route. But I beat the caravan and still had enough time for a cafe au lait and croissant once on the course. That’s a tour triumph.
Blue seeded sausage in Lourdes
I was walking around the strange miracle capital of France shopping for my mountain stage essentials: bottle of decent wine, hunk of cheese, sandwich. While a woman made my serrano ham and butter sandwich, I nosed around looking at all the kinds of sausages. There was one that caught my eye because it was crusted with blueish seeds. I asked what it was and learned that it was poppy-seeds — a bagel favorite of mine. Seeing my enthusiasm, she cut me four pieces and wrapped them in foil. “A cadeau” she said, a gift.
Lost in Montellier Madness
Last year one of the many hard, painful lessons I learned was that a GPS is mandatory. This Tour, it’s been a lifesaver every single day. Cannot survive the Tour without my Garmin. But even that is no match for the hellish labyrinth of road construction, closed avenues, re-routed one ways that dead end and an endless repetition of “recalculating” from the GPS.
As per usual, the Tour always hits you when you’re not looking. The race had finished and my hotel, according to the GPS was just five minutes away and the rest day coming. Should have been a breeze and a relaxing, early evening. Over an hour later, I finally fought my way through to the beautiful hotel hidden in the historic section. Once I was in, things were spectacular but getting there was another Tour trauma.
Meeting Mr. Sirotti
Anyone who goes to cyclingnews.com has seen Sirotti’s great race photos. Set yourself up about 2-3k down from any major climb in the Pyrenees or Alps and you’re bound to meet the best cycling photographers in the world.
We started talking and even though his English isn’t great, we had a nice moment as we waited for the race to appear on the road below. Turns out his father was a cycling photographer and he basically learned the business from him. Kinda cool.
Midnight run through forest
Speaking of the GPS, I was coming down the long, long mountain in one of these massive traffic jams when my GPS appeared to go haywire. (The descent off Luz Ardiden the evening before had been a three hour nightmare.) All of a sudden, the GPS tells me to exit the only mountain road down and cut hard left into this tiny town.
In seconds I’m creeping down a convoluted set of narrow streets with no sense of direction or hope. Then I’m blocked ahead and the guy behind me jumps out of his car and starts spewing at me to go down this incredibly narrow street. A woman standing nearby says no, don’t do that. Another French guy arrives and the argument continues. I pull in both side view mirrors and descend, six inches to the wall on both sides.
Minutes later I’m lost again and ask a women for directions. Oh, yes, she says, you just go down this winding dirt road thru the forest, but don’t worry, it comes out on the highway. By this time a half dozen other media cars and their GPS’s have also decided this is the only way out and we’re barreling over rutted forest roads with high beams on. Insanity. But it works and the stress was not without some payback. Still got to the hotel too late to eat anything but pizza — in France. Just wrong.
Driving to the summit of the great TDF climbs.
Maybe on of my favorite things in the whole Tour is driving the race route ahead of the caravan. First, closed route, all traffic going one way, to the finish. Only vehicles allowed on have some kind of credential or pass. How sweet is that? Everywhere you drive French gendarmes are waving you through and you have the thrilling experience of driving up through the sea of people on the final K’s to the summit. You see all the crazies and everyone waves. The best, mes amis.
The Garmin bus gambit
All decisions at the Tour are made at high speed. You have no time to waste or the luxury of hesitation or second guessing. I was headed to the Col Ausbisque, almost on the race route when the freeway in front of me was suddenly closed.
Traffic backed up and I could feel the clock ticking against me. Long lines of cars were going right including a few team buses but then I see the Garmin bus go left, swing round and jump back on the empty freeway. Go or stay, break law or potentially miss stage, be a good citizen or risk arrest?
I followed the Garmin bus and in 7K, I was on the race route, buying myself a nice fat sandwich and congratulating myself on my boldness.
A 30 minute interview in French
First, I was a French major in college — that’s good, second, it was almost 30 years ago and that’s a huge amount of rust. I really wanted to write a story about the passion of the Basque fans for bike racing. The fundamental drawback and serious flaw is that Basque people generally don’t speak english, I don’t don’t obviously speak Basque, or the backup, Spanish. So I interviewed a representative of a Basque sporting federation entirely in the only language we could both communicate with: broken French. It actually worked petty well.
A detour day.
On one of the transitions stages between the Pyrenees and the Alps — the one Thor Hushovd would win — I looked at the hors course driving itinerary for the media and saw it was 280 kilometers.
You drive so much in the tour every day and so I looked at the map and said, no, I’m not going north, I’m gonna find a shorter route going south and over. On the map, this looked like a wise idea.
In reality it turned into a disaster with slow, traffic-clogged country roads. Two hours in, I knew I’d never make the finish in time so I started looking for a cool town to visit, maybe walk around, takes some photos, start writing the Basque story and sit outside with a tall beer or class of red.
I’ll plug in the town name tomorrow but it’s the one you see in the top photo. The views were stunning and while the town itself didn’t live up to my perfect fantasy, I did have a nice lunch and hike around the ramparts and ruins. Every day on the driving routes of the Tour, you pass at least a dozen towns so beautiful that it physically hurts not to stop. So that day I stopped and I’m glad I did.
That’s all for now, midnight in Italy, outside the start town of Pinerolo, with the Galibier on tap. Gotta be rested and ready.