Tour de France '08: "Le Tour Toujours!"

Trip Start Jul 25, 2008
Trip End Jul 29, 2008

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Monday, July 28, 2008

I'm writing now sitting outside on the sidewalk - again, but this time on Rue de Rivoli, at a Brasserie, having a late lunch of Croque-Madame and an Edelweiss beer, desperate to get out of the very hot sun. It's busy, with lots of noisy traffic on Rue de Rivoli at the statue of Ste-Jeanne-d'Arc, just next to the Louvre. Noisy, bustling, slightly unnerved energy, as locals and tourists crowd the sidewalk as the busy waiter attempts to deliver drinks and food to all of us sitting outside, on that same sidewalk.

It's now Monday afternoon, and the Tour de France 2008 came to an end yesterday evening after an incredibly intense finish, and an equally incredible - the most exciting in years - race over the last three weeks. During the Lance Armstrong years, the conclusion wasn't quite foregone, but it was clear going in, who the absolute favourite was. After Armstrong, the Landis doping scandal on '06 meant that Oscar Pereiro was eventually crowned champion, almost two years after the fact, and far from the glamour and adoration of the fans on the final day of the Tour on les Champs Elysées.

Well - this year, there was no foregone conclusion at all. The Tour's victor was not decided until a mere three days before the final stage, when Carlos Sastre, of Spain, claimed his superiority on the famous mountain stage of the Alp d'Huez, and claimed the yellow jersey with only a few seconds advance over the top contenders. Talk about suspense!
OK - so I've turned into a cycling geek over the last few summers... If you're wondering why I'm explaining all this, it's to set the stage for what transpired yesterday. While all of us were already lined up early on the Champs Elysées, the cyclists didn't leave for the last stage until 1:45PM, from the town of Etampes, about 100km away from Paris. The actual stage was 143km long, with approximately the last 50km being run within Paris.

At around twelve noon, various pre-tour activities took place. Just before, I had spotted Phil Liggett, legendary British journalist who covers cycling and the TDF for the US station Versus (shown in Canada on OLN). It was still pretty quiet around me, so I was able to yell, "Hi Phil, nice work, great coverage!" as he walked past us, about 20 feet away. He turned, gave me a wave and smiled. Phil doesn't realize how happy I am to see him every year, at the beginning of July - his mere presence on the OLN airways means the Tour is starting.

The first major entertainment for the waiting crowd was the one-year anniversary celebration for Paris' Velib program. Velib is a great initiative that the current mayor of Paris put in place in 2007, whereby over 16,000 bicycles are available at several hundreds of spots around the city, for Velib members to borrow/rent at will, for a very low cost (the first half hour is free). Velib has been a huge success in Paris, and in fact, since I got here Friday, I've seen tons of people pedaling away on the streets of Paris on the beige utilitarian bikes, with the basket in front. It accomplished its goals: make cycling accessible as a means of transportation, cut down on motorized traffic, provide easy exercise to Parisians, and make it easy and cheap to use a bike and drop it off without having to worry about storing a bike in one's home.

To celebrate the anniversary, one thousand Parisians biked up and down the Champs Elysées in front of all of us, at a leisurely pace, while the announcer was telling us all about Velib. Funnily enough, when watching Radio-Canada news on TV5 last night, I saw that one of the Montreal-based reporters had done a whole report on Velib and had shown this parade down the Champs yesterday afternoon.

The announcer then told us that the parade of sponsors was on its way. On TV, they only ever show minor glimpses of that parade, which takes place at every stage in the arrival city or town. The TDF is ALL about sponsorship - it is a masterfully-crafted event and is obviously hugely expensive to put together, for a whole three weeks, all over France and at least one other country (Italy, this year). So needless to say, sponsors are key. I was amazed at the number of large and small sponsors who paraded on the Champs, in VERY elaborate caravans with many vehicles (over 200 in total), for a solid hour. And it was fun! I don't even like parades - the ones with slow moving floats and people just waving at the crowd. This was a series of colourful cars and trucks and buses (and a few "floats" and bikes) just having fun on the street - I know, sounds kind of weird. Just watch the videos, you'll understand what I mean.

In case you're wondering, I've migrated again. It's now Monday evening as I continue to write about Sunday, and I'm back at what has become a favourite haunt to revisit in the future: Les Coulisses, near the hotel. Dark gloomy skies which have since exploded kept me near the hotel. But that's for the next entry...

So where was I with the Tour de France? Ah - yes, the sponsors' parade. After an hour of parading up and back down the Champs Elysées, the vehicles went away, and our attention turned to the giant screens located near the finish line. The three screens, including the one I could partially see - half-hidden as it was, by a poorly positioned tree - showed the final stage as it started in Etampes. First the ceremonial start, with the yellow, green, polka dot and white jerseys pedaling side by side, congratulating each other on their respective win of the Tour, the Sprint competition, the King of the Mountains, and the Best Young Rider. Thus, for the first time today, we saw Sastre, Freire, Koehle, and Schleck, all smiles, and barely pushing down the pedals. In Paris, the announcers on the PA system were now going on about all kinds of race-related stuff, first a summary of all the stages, then a little history of the Tour - in brief, anything to keep the atmosphere upbeat, while the crowd grew somewhat restless and tired in the afternoon sun. Anxious to greet the peloton, most of us had nonetheless been there for several hours, and the early morning excitement had waned a bit.

A group standing behind us had recently appeared, with a young woman talking loudly in a rather coarse French accent. All of a sudden, she basically shoved her young son between Damien and me along the barricade, and told him, "Alex, here you go, you have a front row spot now!" I had been standing there for 4.5 hours, and all of a sudden, she was making me uncomfortable by squeezing the space I had staked out for myself. She herself stood there for a while as well, not taking too much space, but we nonetheless elbowed each other discretely a few times, each of us trying to gain an inch. I couldn't help but be annoyed, but didn't really think that making a big stink of it would gain me anything. As long as I could protect my front-row spot, I was ok.

For the next hour or so, we all watched on the giant screen as the peloton made its way very... very... slowly... towards Paris. On the last stage, everything is already decided except who will win the stage that day, and that gets decided on the Champs Elysées themselves. So on the way to Paris, the winning team (CSC) and the yellow jersey concentrate on staying safe and not taking any risk. Hence, a very very slow pace... For us waiting in Paris, much too slow!

I heard the lady next to me say something to her friend about their kids biking up and down the Champs with the teams later. I decided to strike up a conversation, seeing that our elbow game wasn't getting either one of us anywhere. Might as well make friends with her.

Turns out, she and her family and friends were from the Vendée region (south west of Paris), and her twelve-year old son (big brother to little tike standing next to me) had been selected by his cycling club to be part of the ceremonial delegation that precedes the procession of all the teams on the Champs after the race is over and the podium ceremonies have been held. Very cool! The lady was, understandably, very proud and excited, and wanted to be able to see her son and the whole group of several hundred young French cyclists when they went around the Champs Elysées. And there we were: two new "friends" talking about how cool it was to be there.

Eventually, on the giant screen, the image showed the peloton with the Eiffel Tower in the distance. They were arriving in Paris! There was a new buzz in the crowd. We all knew that very soon, they would be on the screen, and right in front of us simultaneously. They kept getting closer, and the ranks of people standing behind us started pushing us in against the barricade a bit more. Where earlier in the day, there had been a single row of people, all of a suddent, we were standing ten, fifteen deep. And I was at the front, rewarded for my patience. I was quite surprised to see how excited yet calm and composed the crowd was. It seems that, while on tour in the mountains, the fans get completely wild, but in Paris, composure and good breeding are the norm, even amongst all the foreigners who were present.

And then - the riders were along the Seine, and we knew... they were mere minutes away!  The advance cars drove in front of us. Can't be long now! Then, on the screen, the riders were coming out of the tunnel, towards the Place de la Concorde, and they were now flying! They would do eight laps from the Place de la Concorde, up to the Arc de Triomphe, then down the Champs again towards the Concorde. They would ride in front of us a total of sixteen times. ...Excellent!

All of a sudden, they were rounding the Place de la Concorde, and all the advance vehicles and motorcycles were speeding in front of us. In the distance, to my left, I could see two police motorobikes, with flashing blue lights, coming towards us. And, right behind them... there they were! In seconds, they were speeding past us, the front runners distinct in their colours, then the peloton, a blur of colour and faint whirring sounds, as a rainbow of riders came and went up the road. We turned to follow them on the screen for the next few minutes, and then the advance cars came back down the road, on the opposite side of the Champs. Then the other cars, followed by the motorbikes. They were here again! Faster - downhill - they literally buzzed by in seconds, as the crowd cheered and clapped and encouraged the riders. They were incredibly focused, and also, oddly very "human". No gladiators or superheroes there - just skinny guys with muscular legs and good lungs, pumping those pedals and trying desperately to stay out of trouble.

This went on for several more turns, and every time, a different leader showed up first in front of us. That's the magic of the final day on the Champs - quite a few riders attack, one after the other, and usually get caught by the peloton. But for a few brief seconds, each of these guys trying to get away is leading the Tour de France for the day, and is a hero going out on a limb. When they get caught, they're exhausted (it's very hard work to pedal alone, trying to keep the super-aerodynamic peloton at bay) and usually "get dropped", meaning that they end up way at the back. Drawn to the light too soon, they're the first to get burned...

We saw a rider with a flat tire just a few meters up the road from us. His team car (Cofidis) was there in seconds, but it was too late for him: filled with rage at the thought that the peloton was moving on without him, he yelled for a new bike, clearly just full of adrenalin, jumped on, and pedaled off in a vain attempt to regain a position in the peloton. Whatever hopes he had of doing well that day were gone.

A few other riders also had flats, which we didn't see. But they would appear, after the peloton had gone by, following their team car, trying to get an aerodynamic advantage for a short while. That's not allowed during the race, but on the last stage, no one will get punished for it.

I knew that the peloton, and especially the leaders go very fast. Forty to fifty kilometers an hour, with sprints in the sixties! Incredible - when they pedal by, the peloton is so tight, so compact, every member is in sync. One twitch, one slight hesitation by any one cyclist, and one hundred riders would go down in a mass of twisted metal and broken limbs. The cobblestoned Champs Elysées is far from an ideal surface for super-fast bike riding, but somehow, these guys manage to make their wheels stick.

Every time the riders rode in front of us, our section of the crowd erupted in cheers and camera clicks, and I could feel the rows of spectators pressing (very slightly) against me from behind. And still, respect and good manners were the norm.

Eventually, the announcer - who was doing a fantastic job "calling the race" - confirmed that this was the last lap, and soon, that the riders were in the last straightaway. We were downstream from there, and they would finish before they came in front of us again. We watched the final sprint on the giant screen - and I had to wait for the announcer to tell us who had won, I couldn't see the screen well enough where I was, and I couldn't recognize which QuickStep rider had won. It turned out to be Gurt Steegmans. Fantastic win!

The podium ceremony followed relatively quickly - they had to move the podium unto the middle of the road, which they had noisily rehearsed in the morning.

Sastre was proud for Spain, as was Freire in green, and Koehle re-established Austrian pride at the Tour. Cadel Evans of Australia finished second - a very honourable spot, if not for the fact that he was expected to win, and also finished second last year. But - his team, Silence-Lotto, is much weaker than Sastre's team CSC Saxo Bank, and under those challenging circumstances, Cadel did great.

The final ceremony was the "lap of honour", with every team slowly going around the Champs one more time, with one last chance for the crowd to cheer them on, and for the riders to thank the crowd who supported them.

The riders were preceded by... hundreds of children from all over France - including my neighbour's son! It was very sweet to see all these kids in yellow jerseys and blue shorts, accompanied by a few coaches, cycling in row after row, ahead of their idols. Then, each team, in reverse order of winning time, paraded in front of us. It was incredibly cool to see them - slow enough to recognize a few faces, relaxed now, in no danger of falling, and waving to the crowds. I filmed every team (some more successfully than others), and yelled out to a couple of riders... Yes, I confess... The Garmin-Chipotle team, home of American Christian Vanderwelde, who did very well, and of the only Canadian on tour, Ryder Hesjedal, went by. On their way back from the Arc de Triomphe, when they were across the road from us, the crowd was fairly quiet. Hesjedal had a huge Canadian flag draped over him, and I yelled, "Way to go, Ryder!!!" loud enough for him to hear me and turn. He scanned the crowd and I waved, and he waved back!

So - if you're detecting that I was acting like I used to when I was 13-14, following the exploits of my favourite baseball team (the Expos) and their players -- yes, pretty much! These cyclists are totally cool - the war on drugs is being won by the clean teams and clean riders, and I have no qualms supporting the guys left in the race at this point.

Unlike our prima donna hockey, football, baseball and basketball players, the majority of these guys don't earn a lot of money doing this. Some do, obviously, but out of 180 starting riders on the Tour de France, many don't make more than $80-100k a year. And it's a brutally hard sport - careers are short (10-12 years), injuries can be life-threatening, and, well, the sport involves riding around France for three weeks, over wicked mountains, in all kinds of weather... Certainly not easy. The boys looked pretty "normal", especially Evans and Sastre on the podium with their children, and even Leonardo Duque, of Columbia (the country, not the team), who did the ceremonial lap holding his baby daughter in his arms! Amazing athletes, ordinary guys...

At some point, I figured that everything was over, and it was sadly time to go home... The crowd had thinned significantly, and it was pretty easy to walk back towards Faubourg St-Honore and La Madeleine. Except that the Avenue Marigny, which I had taken in the morning, was now barricaded off. So I followed the crowd and walked to Ave du Cirque, which I took up to the Place de Beuvai, along with a few dozen people (no major crowd though).

Arriving at Place the Beuvai, I needed to cross the street. There were four cops there, trying to manage traffic and pedestrians. A few pedestrians were in the street, off the sidewalk, and that seemed to bother the cops. But then I realized why there was this mini-commotion: four uniformed cyclists were RIGHT THERE, ten feet away from me, chatting with each other, and with a couple of people from the crowd. I was completely surprised to see them there, and couldn't recognize them, other than to note there was one guy from Cofidis, and three from Columbia. No George Hincapie or Kim Kirchen, but I couldn't figure out who they were. I took a quick snapshot (see attached), before one of the cops yelled at the crowd to get back on the sidewalk, and finally, we all did.

The four guys pedaled away across the Place, presumably heading towards their hotel. Wait a minute...! They just spend 3 weeks and a gazillion kilometers on the saddle, and when the race ends, they still have to ride their bike back to their hotel??? That's kind of like.... if the Ottawa Senators had to skate home on the Rideau Canal after a game! The cyclists just disappeared down the street...

Now - the crowd was a bit smarter... if those four had come up Ave Marigny, which was barricaded off behind us, there could be more coming... Various team buses and official cars came our way one after the other, and a couple of riders did go by without stopping, including Thor Hushovd of Credit Agricole (and Norway's hero), and some of his teammates.

Then -- a group of dark-red-clad riders came towards us. They wore Silence-Lotto uniforms, and pulled to a stop right in front of us ("us" being a small crowd of about 20-30 people). Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen, the two Ozzies with Silence-Lotto, and Cadel the second-place finisher! Oh my God! Cadel was looking a slight bit bewildered -- after all, these guys were completely vulnerable, even with four cops nearby. The crowd could have mobbed them easily... But other than standing there in awe and snapping pictures, the crowd maintained great respect. I yelled out, "Good job, Cadel!", and he turned and looked straight at me with a look that said, "Yeah right... Are you making fun of me...?" I certainly wasn't!

I took a couple of pictures - decent close ups, actually. And then, they too, pedaled off across the Place and quickly vanished down the street. I still couldn't believe that these guys were just riding in the middle of Paris traffic, and were not on the bus or even with their wives in the team cars. I guess they felt their own desire to keep things going, and getting off the bike would mark a final, official end to their great adventure.

After the Silence-Lotto boys, most of the cars coming from the off-limit zone were press cars. I'm sure there were more cyclists who came that way, but it was time for me to accept that... it was over... So I walked down the same street the guys had just biked on, and headed back towards La Madeleine.

Partly de-hydrated (I'd had only two 50cl bottles of water to drink, all day in the sun), and with aching feet and back and hips (you'd think I'd biked 150km today), I quickly lost all ambitions of walking back to the hotel. So instead, I bought myself a bottle of lemonade, and hopped on the subway at Madeleine station, and got off at Notre-Dame de Lorette, about 50 yards from the hotel.

I crashed on the bed, and woke up an hour later, desperate for more water, and a shower. I then headed out for dinner, not wanting to go very far - my feet were quite tender after standing for over 8 hours. I walked on Rue St-Lazare, and within 10 minutes, found the lovely Café du Maugador. My parents and I had discovered it last year, and I'd remembered it fondly. I had a pretty good idea where it was, and found it with no problem. What's so special about it? It's unpretentious, friendly, nicely decorated with a theatre theme, and has a great menu.

Over dinner, I looked through all my pictures and videos of the day - already, it was hard to remember all the details, and to relive the moments. But - the high is still present!

One last note: a little investigative research revealed the identies of the boys I ran into at Place de Beuvai.See the pictures!

And one final final note: one year ago today, my journey through South America had come to an end as I returned to Toronto on July 28th. My, how time flies...
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