This year, as in every year, I briefly thought I would watch the Tour de France casually. I would not become obsessed and thus avoid the highs and lows of cycling in July and the gutted feeling when it is over and forgo getting up at 5:30 a.m. PST.
Then I got this email.
I bought the NBC Sports Gold pass for cycling during the Tour of California in May. It did not include the Giro but it will include the Tour de France. I watch on my computer, follow VeloNews and the @letour on Twitter and watch every episode of Orica Scott Backstage Pass on YouTube.
The favorites are Chris Froome (Sky), RIchie Porte (BMC), or Nairo Quintana (Movistar) for the overall General Classification or yellow jersey. The race begins on July 1 with a time trial in Dusseldorf, Germany. Will my favorite Tony Martin win on home turf? Will Germans Marcel Kittel or Andre Greipel turn themselves out to win a stage at home? Will Mark Cavendish be healthy enough to compete? Will best rider in the world Peter Sagan win the green jersey again? We’ll know when Le Tour finishes in Paris on July 23rd.
If you like listening to podcasts. My cycling favorite is The 3 Domestiques. I listen on the Stitcher app to Matt Keenan, Sam Edmunds and Dan Jones discuss pro-cycling with great interviews.
So set your alarm and don’t miss the drama, the athleticism, and the tradition.
I have stood along the side of the racecourse on many a stage of the Tour de France. I followed the 2014 from Stage 1 to 21. I have been a spectator at the Tour of California, the Tour Down Under and the Giro d’Italia. Watching a professional bike race in person is a thrilling experience. Whether you are traveling across the globe or stepping out your front door, there are certain dos and don’ts to being a good spectator.
I have a new appreciation this year watching religiously on my NBC Sports Gold app. I set my alarm every day at 6:00 a.m. to watch the day’s Tour de France stage. This year I have spent as much time yelling at spectators to behave as I have at the cyclists to race to the finish.
The spectators need to exercise self control. Here are some suggestions. First and foremost, pay attention to your surroundings at all times. After the caravan of sponsors go by you have about an hour before the first cyclists will pass. If you pay attention and stay sober enough you will hear the helicopters, notice an increase of motorcycle police and official race cars. This will get more and more intense and then you will see either the breakaway group of 2-20 (on average riders) or the whole frickin’ peleton of 180+ riders. Then there are always a few stragglers fighting to get back with the group. Notice how fast they are going compared to you on foot? This is why it is foolhardy to try to interact with them. Besides it is not about you.
Never touch a cyclist or his/her bike. You think you are helping but you are actually more likely to throw them off balance or off their cadence. (Yes, there are more and more women’s cycling competitions. Same rules apply.)
Never throw anything at a cyclist: water, pee, chalk, smoke, fireworks. This is rude and dangerous. On RAGBRAI when amateurs are cycling across Iowa, spectators sometimes turn on their hose and offer to spray cyclists, but it is entirely voluntary, they never cover the entire road. Same with high fives, etc. And it is non-competitive. In a race the cyclists are going full gas throwing something at those speeds can hurt!
Stay off the racecourse. This means that you can not extend your arms out over the barrier to take a selfie, or lean into the road with your mongo camera lens to take a photo. It also applies to your children (don’t hold them over the barrier so they can see), and your dogs (always on a leash please!).
The race organization ASO also has much egg on its face for a series of logistical catastrophes. On Stage 7, the inflatable red 1 kilometer marker collapsed and caused an accident. When the race entered the Pyrenees it was clear that the ASO was not investing enough in safety as many spectators interfered in the race. Then on Mt. Ventoux, the ASO moved the race short of the mountaintop because of severe winds but didn’t move the fan barriers. At 1 kilometer to the new finish the crowd closed in resulting in an accident, a broken bike and Chris Froome, the race leader (yellow jersey) did a 100 yard dash up the road.
Could this have been avoided? Absolutely. The ASO decided to move the finish line the day before, so they had time to move the barriers. The ASO excuses just grated on everyone’s nerves. It might have caused more angst, but the tragedy in Nice shifted the focus.
George Bennett’s run in with a spectator was impressive on Stage 9. For some crazy reason a spectator decided to cross the road as the cyclists came roaring around the corner. Bennett put out his arm and she fell backward out of the road. Asked about it later and the New Zealander said he “Sonny Billed” her. (Sonny Bill is a fantastic rugby player for the All Blacks.) Cyclists should not need rugby experience to compete at top levels.
One of the marvelous things about cycling is how accessible it is to fans. Sure you can pay for VIP access, but most fans enjoy it either on television or from the racecourse for free.
Remember after 21 days of racing the top 3 finishers are often separated by only seconds. So if you think waving a flag in front of their bike and screaming in someone’s face can’t make a difference, look at how close the finish can be:
You can still dress up like a devil, or bring your inflatable kangaroo. You can hang your team or country flags. You can play music or sing and dance. You can experience your heart leaping into your throat as the peleton takes a corner and goes by so fast your eyes water. And you can go home satisfied that the race was decided by hard work, talent, grit and luck.
This time last year I was having an absolute ball in Yorkshire with Trek Travel. This year the Tour is in Holland for the first two stages and I am watching it from California. Today in Stage 2 the wind, rain and nerves resulted in a split in the Peloton with a group of a couple dozen riders about a minute ahead of the rest of the Peloton. Crashes and pressure created a third group that fell off the back of the race for awhile. It was exciting to watch. One additional bonus was hearing Jens Voigt’s commentary scattered throughout the broadcast on NBC Sports.
When I arrived in York and met my Trek Travel tour guides I had a mental list of my cycling heroes that I definitely wanted to meet and ask to sign my California state flag. 1. Greg LeMond, 2. Jens Voigt, and 3. Fabian Cancellera. Just 24 hours later I had all three! And Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara struck me as opposite personality types. Fabian seemed almost shy whereas Jens is an extreme extrovert.
Whereas Jens retired, I am still following Fabian Cancellera’s career. He had a serious crash at the beginning of the season and it was uncertain if he would make the Tour team. He is definitely coming on form as he came in third in the Stage 1 Time Trial. As he started Stage 2 he said in an post-race interview that he had not been thinking about winning the yellow jersey for the 29th day in his career. I guess it is possible that it was not a conscious thought, but he is such a canny cyclist that I do not believe that he had not figured out the scenarios where he could win the yellow jersey (fastest time overall).
The Trek Team must have given him a free pass to do what he can as he was the only Trek team member to get into the breakaway group. The three great sprinters were also in the group: Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Andre Greipel. (Of the four favorite GC riders only two made it into the breakaway: Chris Froome and Alberto Contador.) If Cancellara placed third, the bonus time in the sprint would give him the yellow jersey. Tony Martin was in a similar situation and he also made the breakaway. However, there is a difference between theoretical opportunities and having the bike skills, experience and confidence to execute.
The sprint started at 500 m to the finish. It may have been too early for Mark Cavendish as he was out fast and first. The Peter Sagan broke wide and poured on the gas. Then Greipel’s huge engine kicked in and he surged forward. But who was the only rider with them at the finish? Fabian Cancellara. And he took advantage as Mark Cavendish faded to take third place and grab the yellow jersey.
I am delighted. This may be his last Tour and I am enjoying the new memories he is making!
I pedaled to the Avid Reader in Sacramento–the only bookstore left between Arden Fair Mall and Elk Grove where new books and magazines are sold. I was looking for a specific book and browsing for new fiction to read this summer. Much to my surprise and delight the Velo Tour de France 2015 Official Guide was on the newsstand!
I read this issue from cover to cover every year. The Velo Guide cover traditionally features the winner from the previous year. Vincenzo Nibali dominated and ultimately won the 2014 Tour de France. The reporters had an irritating habit last year of saying “Nibali retains the yellow jersey…” and then adding “after Froome and Contador crashed out.” Ignoring that Nibali wore yellow before they crashed out. And that not crashing is one of the objectives of the race, essential to winning.
This year the sportswriters are salivating because Froome, Contador, and Nibali are all starting this year. I am excited because Nairo Quintana returns after a year off. He took the 2013 Tour de France by surprise placing second overall. His team Movistar bet on Alejandro Valverde last year and sent Quintana to win the Giro and was on his way to winning the Vuelta when he crashed out. It should be an exciting battle.
The Velo editors rank their favorites for the Tour each year. The magazine is written several months ago so it does not reflect the spring season. They rank the leaders in the following order: 1. Alberto Contador, 2. Chris Froome, 3. Vincenzo Nibali, 3. Nairo Quintana, 4. Thibaut Pinot, 5. Tejay Van Garderen, 6. Andrew Talansky. Contador just won the Giro. How will that impact his performance at Le Tour?
This issue also features profiles of each of the teams. For the first time, there will be an international team from Africa: MTN-QHUBEKA. It is helpful to track the changes in names as familiar teams change names as sponsors change. My favorite team is much easier to call out as their name is shorter: Etixx-Quick-Step.
They spend much less time handicapping the other jerseys. I was disappointed with the feature on the green jersey. At one time the green jersey point system made it the sprinter’s jersey. Then they changed the scoring system with more emphasis on intermediate sprints that perfectly suited new rider Peter Sagan. I love watching this exciting cyclist. He has completely dominated the green jersey in the last three years. The writers did not have the advantage of seeing Sagan win the Tour of California before they wrote this article and they cast a shadow on his chances. The bigger miss though was a clear explanation of how the green jersey point system has changed to reward sprinters more.
“The changes favour stage winners and will only be in place for the nine flat stages of the race. The winner of the stage will score 50 points, 20 more than the second placed rider, who will score 30 points, boosting the stage winner’s points total and rewarding stage winners more than rider who place consistently.
The first 15 riders to cross the finish line to be rewarded with 50, 30, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 points respectively on the nine flat stages. The remaining 12 stages will continue to award points in the same distribution from 2012 to 2014 when the classification was last changed with 45, 35, 30, 26, 22, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 points to the first 15 riders across the line.”
I will be interested to watch how this changes the competition for this jersey. And I will be watching the continuing evolution of major talent Peter Sagan as a racer.
The issue also features a stage by stage description of the race. It changes ever year. This year it moves counter-clockwise around France after a time trial in Utrecht and a second stage in the Netherlands. If you look at the profiles of some of the stages you might think the Tour is not as hard as its reputation. Exhibit A. It is not the challenge of any one stage, it is the relentless pounding day after day, kilometer after kilometer. With hundreds of other nervous riders. On narrow European roads including cobblestones. Exhibit B. The mountains–Pyrenees and Alps. Just ask Secretary of State John Kerry who recently broke his leg riding one of the Tour de France routes.
It has been go, go, go or allez, allez, allez since July 1 and I was ready to mentally take my foot off the gas pedal. There were challenges with getting across to France on the Chunnel, so I did not arrive until 2 p.m. and I was worn out. I checked into the Best Western Art Deco Euralille and immediately checked the race on the telly. The riders had 135 km still to go and it was lightly raining. I did a few chores and then headed into central Lille to find a place to eat and watch the race.
The rain was getting harder so I ducked into Printemps department store to buy an umbrella. I love travel. Even a simple purchase can delight whether it is trying to communicate with the sales staff in French or watching a little girl run up the down elevator. I continued on towards Boulevard de la Liberte and found the La Table d’Eduard. They had 4 outside tables under an awning right on the street where the race would whiz past.
Ordered what I thought was a ham and cheese sandwich with ice cream for dessert. What I got was spectacularly better. It is such a simple looking place and the food was simply delicious. The “ice cream” was strawberry sorbet with real strawberries and whipped cream in a sundae glass. I enjoyed it immensely, and a delightful little boy near me enjoyed his even more. If this is the low bar in France, it is going to be awesome. I loved how entrepreneurial the proprietors were: by the time the race was ready to go by they had moved all their tables outside and were serving drinks and food for Le Tour fans.
First, though, the caravan comes through as a kind of parade of sponsors. They toss a mountain of hats, product samples and candy at the crowd. A group of younger business men were my favorite group to watch. They were so competitive about catching the swag. They all had King of the Mountain caps by the time the caravan was through.
I introduced myself to the family from London with the Jens, Shut Up Legs signs they had made themselves. Then three blokes from England and Japan who sat next to me needed someone to take their photo with their flags and this led to a delightful conversation about cycling.
The peloton flew by in less than 10 seconds, so it is not about seeing the race as much as it is about participating in an event. As soon as the riders had passed I paid my bill and went a few doors down to a bar where they were watching it on someone’s MacAir. About 10 people huddled around it and watched as Marcel Kittel won his third stage this year (7th overall). He appears unbeatable at the moment when it is a sprint finish. UK favorite General Classification contender Chris Froome crashed earlier in the day. He was safe for time and will need a new pair of bike shorts for tomorrow!
I walked leisurely to my hotel and took a hot bath. I have been enjoying a relaxing evening catching up with my children and friends and writing this blog. Stage 5 I will intentionally watch on television because the weather is supposed to be ugly and it is a challenging course to reach without a car. Plus I need to do a few more chores.
It was great to participate in the Trek Tour and it is just as sweet to travel alone and to chill a little. I made a new list of goals: 1) get the playlist for the music played by the various caravan sponsors (the music at le Tour is terrific) 2) interview the sponsor liaisons (the women who pass out the bouquet and kiss the winner on both cheeks); 3) Sleep through the night.
As the Grand Depart draws closer (Saturday July 5) and my own departure is next Tuesday (July 1). While most people are caught up in FIFA World Cup drama, I have been reading memoirs by George Hincapie and Mark Cavendish, histories of Tour de France, and predictions of this year’s race.
Bicycling Magazine recently tweeted their 10 contenders to watch, including:
1 Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo Bank)
2. Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida)
3. Chris Froome (Team Sky) Defending Champion
4. Michal Kwiatkpwski (Omega Pharma Quick Step)
5. Bauke Mollena (Belkin)
6. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
7. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ)
8. Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharpe) USA
9. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Beisal)
10. Tejay van Garderen (BMC) USA
Velo News has a more complicated rating system in their Tour de France 2014 Official Guide. To summarize:
PTS RIDER (TEAM)
39/40 Chris Froome (Team Sky)
38/40 Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo Bank)
37/40 Vincenzo Nibali
33/40 Tejay van Garderen (BMC)
33/40 Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
32/40 Bauke Mollema (Belkin)
31/40 Jurgen Van der Broeck (Lotto-Belisol)
31/40 Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp)
Reading through the route highlights, there are unique challenges to almost every one of the 21 stages. Yorkshire is hilly though the finish at Harrogate will give Mark Cavendish an opportunity to win Stage 1 and the yellow jersey in his home country. Stage 3 will be an exciting finish in London. Stage 5 has cobbles. There are two uphill finishes, and 2 Alpine mountaintop finishes. This is a tour for climbers and only one time trial. I feel bad that Movistar sent Nairo Quintana to Giro D’Italia instead of giving him a chance to move up the podium from second to first. Other fans are disappointed that Froome was chosen over Bradley Wiggins on Team Sky.
This week the Trek Racing Team announced their team for the 2014 Tour de France. It includes my favorite rider Jens Voigt starting his 17th tour (tying George Hincapie’s record). I hope I get to meet him and the other team members (Fabian Cancellara!) in Yorkshire.
July 14 is Bastille Day and I am in Lyon looking for signs of the holiday: flags, bunting, fireworks for sale. It is also Sunday and most shops are closed and celebrations appear to be confined to a community fireworks show after dark. Fortunately the trains are running on time and I was able to get up early and catch the 7:30 a.m. train to Givors to watch the start of Stage 15.
This is going to be a brutal day of cycling. At 7:30 I did not need any kind of jacket and it is likely to be 39 degrees (C) in 242.5 kilometers on the top of Mont Vonteux. When my blistered feet bark at me I tell them they could be pedalling up Mont Vonteux and they are silenced.
I arrived at Givors Ville (zhee-vor vee) at 8:00 a.m. and went straight into the heart of the village for a chocolate croissant and coffee. I appreciated that every shop specializes and that they prize quality over convenience as I buy the croissant at the La Patisserie and then schlep across to the coffee bar. At 8:20 I felt braced for the long wait to 10:45 start. I scouted possible viewing sites and the crowd was still light but the railings were already full.
I climbed a low wall and decided my view was just right. The parade started and I did not want to miss any of the fun while looking for a better spot. Everyone around me spoke very little (no) English and my 3 French vocabulary words may have doubled in the last 24 hours but could not support conversation.
The sponsors entertain the waiting spectators with floats and decorated cars and by throwing free hats, energy bars, water, and other sponsor stuff at the crowd. Everyone was enjoying the morning. Thankfully the spot I choose stayed in the shade most of the morning. Personal space means something different in France and my first squeeze in was a from an older man with a cane who sat on the wall (and on my foot). He was so cheerfully trying to talk to me in French even after I said, with a very bad accent “No parlez vous France.” He said “No parlez vous Englais” and happily continued to speak to me in French. The young woman on the other side of me did her best to translate but her English was very limited. No matter. Trying to catch prizes and hooting and hollering for favorite cycling stars is a universal language.
There were several French “artistes” that my next French interloper, who leaped on the wall where I swore there was no space, cheerfully pointed out to me (easy since he was right next to my right ear). I was thrilled to see the great Eddy Merckx, 5 time winner of the TdeF and holder of record for most stage wins. Also saw Bernard Hinault up close. You may have seen him on television. As the director of external affairs he is always managing the podium awards ceremony at the end of every stage. His nickname is “The Badger” and he is the author of our word of the trip: poleaxe. My son Tevis and I watched the Tour in Norway and we saw a brief bio of Bernard Hinault. He is one tough cookie: he rode through a line of striking miners who attempted to block the Tour and leapt off his bike and started swinging. Then a few years ago some protestor thought he would make a statement by interrupting the presentation of the yellow jersey. Hinault did not hesitate and “poleaxed” the protestor (knocked him right off the stage). Tevis liked the word so much that he has managed to use the word everyday so far.
At about 10:10 the bicyclists began lining up and signing in. Then they moved to the starting line. Earlier than expected, at our 10:30 the red light started flashing on the Program Director’s car and whoof! They began the controlled start and were away. Just like that the air was out of the balloon and everyone started packing up, including the pros who are in charge of all of the logistics for this mega event.
With a glow of satisfaction I headed to the train station. When I got there I noticed a group of 3 Canadians looking at signatures on a Canadian flag. Hoping they spoke English I went over and introduced myself and asked them how they got the signatures. One of the them, the young woman in the group, was following the tour for several weeks. She had the most success getting signatures by standing by the area where the riders sign in (and it helps to be a woman as there are few female fans). The guys where were from Manitoba and Ottawa said they had to wear team jerseys and hats to get riders attention. Today they got Dan Martin’s signature, the Irish rider who won an earlier stage. They were so enthusiastic and were having such a good time without paying a bunch of money for special credentials. Made me start thinking about future years…
Back in Lyon I wanted to find a place to watch the rest of the Tour with English commentary. So I asked the desk clerk if she could recommend an Irish Pub. She wanted to argue and say they would not be showing the Tour in English. I just asked her to mark the map and I would take my chances. Here I am at Johnny’s Kitchen (Irish pub restaurant) watching the Tour on BBC EuroSport sans air conditioning.
It is hot here so I cannot imagine what it is like on Mont Vonteux that looks like a moonscape and is known for its wind. Add a million CRAZY fans and Bastille Day. I pity the riders. The nasty part of the climb is the last 20 kilometers and the BBC announcers expect Chris Froome (UK, Team Sky) to kick butt. I hope he does. I like his quiet modesty. There are not as many American fans here and fewer American riders. The drug scandal that rocked Lance Armstrong’s world took out most of the experienced American riders as well. They are out for the season or retired.
In preparation for the trip I started reading Tyler Hamilton’s autobiography. It is a demoralizing read and scary to see what people will do to their bodies (or ask their athletes to do) in pursuit of competitive victory and cash. Mt Ventoux has been mixed up with drugs historically. A Frenchman, Jean Mallejac, collapsed and later recovered in 1955 due to amphetamines. And this is the mountain where Tom Simpson died due to drug use in 1967; the determined cause amphetamines and alcohol. In 2000, Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani raced to the top fueled by doped blood.
I suspect that this haunted finish did not dampen my enthusiasm because even with drugs this race is a brutal test of human endurance. For example, today’s climb is 1512 meters over about 20 km. At 20 km marker, Sylvain Chavanel is the first of the breakaway to cross. No one expects him to beat Froome, Quintana, Contador and Valverde. The gap is already closing.
Oh my gosh, Chris Froome has thrown down the gauntlet at 7 km and pedaled away like he was on the flat. He is superhuman. Only Quintana is with him at 3 km. Contador has battled back to just 30 seconds behind but the rest of the GC rider are more than a minute back. The BBC announcers are over the moon. They say the toughest part is yet to come. What? Stairs?
Contador has fallen back to 51″ at 1.6 km. Who will win the stage? Will Quintana and Froome battle for the finish? No gifts today, Froome just took off at 1.3 km. Froome did it! He beat Quintara by 31″ and Contador by 1’40”. It will take a lot longer for everyone to finish. EPIC day.
Post Script: The next day was a rest day and Chris Froome was buffeted by questions at the morning press conference about possible drug use. It seems a bit unfair to be accused without any evidence, such is the legacy of the cheaters.