Vive le tour!

9 07 2013

The Tour de France is such a great sporting spectacle, it gets to celebrate its 100th anniversary twice.

Ten years ago the Tour marked its centenary, 100 years since the first race in 1903.

This year the Tour celebrates its centenary again, 100 Tours; 10 of the events were lost to World Wars. It’s kind of tough to ride bikes amidst trenches and tanks.

I was lucky enough to be at the centenary Tour. It was one of those “bucket list” trips that first implanted itself in my brain after Lance’s famous “look back” at his rival Jan Ullrich on the slopes of Alp d’Huez in 2001. It was an enthralling, audacious thing to do, especially as Lance had seemed on the ropes prior to that. I vowed that someday I wanted to witness some of that drama first hand.

A ride out to the airport awakens desires to get on a plane for France.

A ride out to the airport awakens desires to get on a plane for France.

The next summer, as I watched the Tour on TV early in the morning, I searched for tours to the Tour on my computer. I set my sights on an Australian company that offered opportunities to ride parts of stages as well as a multitude of roadside viewing opportunities.

Going to the Tour in its centenary year was a bonus. The organizers heaped on all sorts of special features, including a route that would visit the five French cities that were the main waypoints of the first Tour. There was also a special citizens’ ride through the streets of Paris just hours before the Tour’s final stage. And after the race was done, the trophies and jerseys presented, there was a gala parade up and down the Champs Elysée.

Of course 2003 was the height of the Lance era. He was going for his fifth straight Tour victory, placing him among cycling’s greats, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

Being at the Tour is much different that watching it unfold on TV.

Bird-dogging it for days on end is a completely immersive experience, with its own unique rhythm. We talked about the Tour at breakfast, we fuelled up to be able to ride to the Tour, we spent hours along the roadside awaiting its passage, clueless as to what was transpiring on the road before the first sounds of helicopters in the air indicated its imminent arrival. We dashed into the grass for trinkets and treats tossed by the promotional caravan. And in a heartbeat the officials’ vehicles, the peloton and the broom wagon were passed. At dinner and on into the evening, we dissected the days events, speculated on what would happen the next stage.

Riding ahead of the race, we were able to feel the pain of the steep pitches up mountain climbs, hear the clamour of roadside fans excited for any sort of distraction, experience the thrill of a finish line sprint after dodging the gendarmes at St. Maxient d’Ecole, marvel at the view up the long road of cobbles to the Arc de Triomphe.

There was no shortage of drama at the ’03 Tour, from the crazy pileups of the opening stages, to Joceba Beloki’s dramatic crash on the melting decent to Gap that smashed his femur and sent Lance on a cross-country excursion to avoid a similar fate, to Lance’s own tumble on the way up Luz Ardiden and then his inspired ascent to victory, to Tyler Hamilton’s heroic stage victory despite a separated shoulder, to the final time trial into Nantes in a driving rainstorm that sent Ullrich to the tarmac as he went around a slippery roundabout.

It’s a shame subsequent events have tarnished the integrity of much of that drama.

Passing on the love for cycling and le Tour to the next generation of Ring.

Passing on the love for cycling and le Tour to the next generation of Ring.

Ten years later, the memories of the sights, sounds and thrills of that trip still wash over me as I watch this centenary Tour play out on TV. Especially as the race courses along familiar roads, as it did on Saturday on the climb to Ax-3-Domaines, where 10 years ago I hunted for shade in a hairpin turn, my water bottle empty after the ride from Lourdes on a stifling hot day. As it was on Tuesday, when the day’s stage started on the outskirts of Nantes where I got soaked on the finish line, squeezed between broadcast trailers to be able to see on their monitors what was happening out on the course and then Lance cross in front of us his fist cocked in triumph.

Vive le tour!