SUNDAY: The Last Stage of the Tour de France

Trip Start Jul 24, 2009
Trip End Jul 28, 2009

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Flag of France  , Île-de-France,
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Last stage of the Tour de France 2009! I started my day with a great breakfast at the hotel (quite a spread...), followed by a walk up to Place de la Concorde. Everything was already cordoned off, traffic was non-existent on Rue de Rivoli, and the sun was slowly working its way up in the sky. The weather was perfect - warm, sunny, dry. The excitement was slowly building, and already, "Tour-ists" were starting to mill about, trying to find the perfect spot - much like I had done exactly a year ago.

I heard an Australian couple wondering where they should go, since it is difficult to get around, with many of the streets blocked off. I told them how to get to the spot where I was last year, which was a great location. This year, thanks to Kim, I was going to have the incredible fortune of sitting in the VIP Presidential Tribune, as a guest of the American Embassy! If I had needed to sew a Star Spangled Banner on my backpack, instead of a maple leaf, I would have gladly done so. (Kim, I still can't thank you enough...)

I continued my walk on Rue St-Honoré, choosing an item to buy in each window (but how sad, the stores are closed on Sunday; I guess I won't buy all these beautiful expensive things...). It was really shaping up to be a great day weather-wise. There was a definite buzz in the air - a bit of electricity, or energy, that seemed to herald the arrival of the riders later in the afternoon.

I went back to the hotel, and waited to hear from Kim. We had agreed to get together around 12:30-1pm. I had plenty to keep me busy until then - I could have kept walking around, for one thing - but, exhausted, I decided to take a nap. I know, I know, three days in Paris, and I take a nap. But - with the afternoon in perspective, I figured trying to catch up on a bit of sleep was worth it.

Waking up around 12pm, I started to get ready. Unlike last year, when I wore jeans and a yellow TDF T-shirt, being in the VIP Presidential Tribune required a fancier outfit. So I put on a dress and some fancy shoes, make up and jewellery (oh, no worries, nothing over the top, all rather understated, I think), and headed out to meet Kim at Ave de Marigny and St-Honoré (Place Beauvau, to be exact). We easily found one another, and Kim handed me a white envelope with my name on it, which contained a formal invitation for the Tribune Présidentielle, and for a cocktail party which was to follow, at the Pavillon Elysée, located just behind the Tribune, near the Palais de l'Elysée. Oh my! This was getting more and more exciting!

Les Gendarmes let us through where everyone else was being turned away, and we made our way to the Tribune. Sitting there (our names were on the chairs), we had a perfect view of the large TV screens, and we were just past the finish line. I guessed that we would be just in front of the podium (which they pull in the middle of the street immediately at the end of the race). THIS - WAS - MOST - EXCELLENT!

With a bit of time to kill, Kim and I chatted about the last 20 years, about her job as a diplomat and living in Paris. She has a great career - she is super-smart, she works hard, and not everyone could do what she does! Though the part about *living in Paris*, I think I could handle!

The sponsors' parade soon started. I'd seen it last year, but still found it entertaining. Perhaps because it hyped the anticipation of the riders coming, cranked up the atmosphere, added noise and commotion to build excitement! Well done, as clearly, that's the whole point, along with making the sponsors as visible to the public as possible.

 The Tribune was also filling up - with dignitaries, one gentleman in full dress military uniform (with the emblem of Luxembourg on the shoulder), and even two ministers of the Sarkozy administration, followed by cameras and journalists. Rama Yade, the beautiful young minister of Health and Sports, really stood out. She was poised, elegant, and seemed entirely in control. She is apparently very confident...

Once the stage began, we started following the race on the screen. Eventually, the action got closer and closer, as the riders approached Paris. The crowds were massive alongside the Champs Elysées. The Spaniards and Luxemburgers were occupying the same spot as last year, near the Grand Palais. In both cases, this year, they had reason to be proud, with the Spaniard Alberto Contador wearing the yellow jersey, and the young man from Luxembourg Andy Schleck winning second place and the best young rider's white jersey.

Watching on the screen, we saw the riders crossing the Seine, and then pedaling alongside it. Eventually, we saw them entering the Rue de Rivoli! At the same time, the official car race zoomed by in front of us, closely followed by a few motorcycles. The riders were coming!!!

And then - the breakaway riders - mainly from French teams - rolled past us, followed about 30 seconds later by the rest of the peloton. While I wanted to hoot and holler (like last year!), I remembered where I was and joined in the polite applause, all the while trying to take pictures and tweeting like mad on my BlackBerry.

I had promised to tweet live from the TDF, but it actually proved a bit challenging. It is harder to know the details of what's going on with the race when standing there and watching it, without the benefit of commentary and information from the TV broadcasters, and much noise and chaos all around. In addition, watching the peloton go by takes all of a few seconds, after which we go back to watching on the screen, until they come back on the other side of the Champs Elysées.

All the while, the energy and enthusiasm were increasing, the excitement kept building, and the natives were going restless. I could barely sit in my seat, and kept trying to get a better vantage point to take pictures (very easy, in the Tribune, where our view was unobstructed). It was all so much fun!

Kim introduced me to a Norwegian diplomat, and soon after, a British diplomat. I practiced my own diplomatic skills when I offered congratulations to the Norwegian gentleman for Thor Hushovd's green jersey victory as the best sprinter, and soon after reassured the British gentleman that Mark Cavendish would absolutely win the sprint on the Champs Elysées, as he was the greatest sprinter. One's the best, the other the greatest. I see no conflict and no offense to either party in that, do you?

And by the way, my Cavendish prediction was absolute, without caveat, and it was my first official stage win prediction. And I was right. (I would eventually reassure the same gentleman, much later in the race, when Cavendish was still in the pack trailing the leaders by 30 seconds. "His team knows what to do - they'll pull him to the front at the right time, he'll be unbeatable." I said. Hey, Versus, do I win the predictions yellow jersey game?)

With every turn of the road and riders zooming past us, the excitement kept increasing and was palpable. I had the best opportunity to take pictures right at the front of the Tribune. Capturing pictures in "multiple frames/second" mode, I got some great shots of the riders!

The whole time, hostesses were walking up and down the steps of the Tribune, offering us free bottles of water and other beverages, making sure that we (non-athletes) did not get dehydrated under the protection of the wide awning, in our comfy chairs. Then, with four of eight loops completed, a lady from the TDF organization came up to us and said, "Would you like to ride in one of the cars?" My inside voice: "car? What car?". My outside voice, while Kim and I exchanged a quick glance, said, "Oh absolutely!" even though we had no idea what she was talking about. We were ushered down the steps towards the street, and told to hurry and get into car #16, a dark grey Skoda.

We got in, and I'd barely managed to pull in my dress and close the door, that the driver floored it! OH MY GOD that was fun! The riders weren't in sight, and he was trying to catch up to them. He was doing 120km/hr on the Champs Elysées, with the only other vehicle in sight another grey Skoda in front. The Arc de Triomphe rushed towards us, with Kim and I laughing hysterically in the back, occasionally giving a wave to the crowds who were looking at us wondering just who we were and what we'd done to deserve being in a car on the Champs. Ah, the sense of power is addictive, I tell you...!

It was the same kind of rush one gets on a roller coaster - all adrenaline, with a desire to scream or laugh as loud as possible! After making a screeching turn at the Arc de Triomphe end of the Champs, we rushed back in the direction of the Place de la Concorde. The driver suddenly stopped on the inside lane, and on the other side, heading towards the Arc, the riders raced past us, some no further than about ten feet away! The adrenaline rush increased even more!

After the peloton had gone by, we sped up again (now to avoid being caught by the riders) and raced towards the Obelisk of Place de la Concorde, and then hooked right, around the Louvre, through the tunnel, and back to the other side of de la Concorde. He slowed down again and stopped, along with a couple of other Skodas. This time, he did let the riders catch up to us, and ride just past us on my side of the car. They were going so fast! They get clocked at 50km+ on the Champs Elysées, which is unbelievably fast, on two thin wheels on cobblestones!

After the boys had gone past us, we rode back (still at full speed!) to the Tribune, where Kim and I, completely giddy, went back to our seats. With only two loops to go at that point, teams Garmin and Columbia alternately took control of the peloton, eating up the lead that the break away leaders had built, and positioning their respective sprinters (Cavendish for Columbia, Farrar for Garmin) to have a chance at the stage win.

"Last time around, ladies and gentlemen, last time around for the riders! A big round of applause for all these athletes, as their next time around will be through the finish line and will mark the end of the Tour!", said the public announcer. Everyone who wasn't already standing stood, and up in the Tribune, and all along the Champs Elysées, the crowds clapped and cheered loudly for "the boys" as they continued to pedal by, ever so urgently, catching up to the few leaders up front, and ensuring that the sprinters would get their day.

In the end, we saw in the distance and in more detail on the giant screen, the very successful sprint of Mark Cavendish, led in by his teammate Mark Renshaw. They finished 1-2 on the day, followed by Garmin's Farrar. A great explosive acceleration right at the end makes Cavendish unbeatable in such sprints, and he proved once more that he was a champion, with six stage wins in this year's Tour. Amazing.

Almost immediately, several workers - stage hands? - put together the podium (indeed almost directly in front of us), the flag poles, and the media tribunes directly across from the podium. Within a few minutes, the ceremonies started: stage win (Cavendish - walk up on podium, flowers, trophy, kiss-kiss podium girl #1, kiss-kiss podium girl #2, walk off stage), green jersey for top sprinter (Thor Hushovd, walk up, flowers, trophy, kiss-kiss/kiss-kiss, walk off), polka dot jersey for king of the mountains (Franco Pellizotti, walk up/flowers/trophy/kiss-kiss x2/walk off), white jersey for best young rider (Andy Schleck - you get the drill...), and finally, the man in yellow, Alberto Contador.

Then - the full podium of first, second, third: Contador, Schleck and Lance Armstrong. Lance had to be pried away from a on-camera interview next to the podium, and as he climbed up the steps to the bronze medal position, he did not look particularly happy. No smile, hard-set jaw, and determined eyes... He gave his teammate Alberto Contador a perfunctory hand shake that lasted a half-second, and shook Andy Schleck's hand more warmly, exchanging a few words with him.

The "ice" on stage was thickening by the second. Everyone had known all along that Lance and Alberto were not friends, and were rivals within the same team. On the podium, it was blatant from their body language. Lance is not a guy who accepts anything less than first place, and certainly not what he might have considered bad sportsmanship from his teammate. Nonetheless, he finished third - a highly remarkable feat in the world of professional sports/cycling/Tour de France, by a guy who retired four years ago and made a come back just a few months before the Tour.

However, he "unretired" because he wanted to win again, and he knew he could (otherwise he would not have gone at all). So third was a success - but no doubt, Lance would have preferred wearing yellow again. Next year, Lance, next year! (OK - I confess: I realized at the end of Week 2, once it became apparent that Lance would not win, that I really wanted him to. Until then, I had thought that whoever won, I'd be quite happy about it. Turns out, I wish Lance had won.) [UPDATE OCTOBER 2012: I NEVER DID REVISIT THIS ENTRY UNTIL NOW. I WISH I HAD. RE-READING THIS NOW MAKES ME FEEL RATHER FOOLISH. I'VE KNOWN FOR A WHILE ARMSTRONG WAS A FRAUD AND STOPPED CHEERING FOR HIM A LONG TIME AGO. I HAD FORGOTTEN WRITING SUCH MISGUIDED WORDS...]

Once the ceremonies wrapped up, after Alberto's speech, Kim and I headed to the Pavilion Elysée for the cocktail party. The Pavilion is a beautiful classic building, with a stylish decor, the perfect venue for a cocktail party. Champagne, fancy canapés and amuse-gueules - excellent! We made the rounds and chatted with a few folks. Kim eventually had to leave for an evening with her sister and friends, and I left the cocktail with her, to return to the Champs Elysées.

I wanted to catch a glimpse of the post-race teams parade, as it is a great opportunity for pictures. With every step I took closer to the road itself, I was afraid someone would tell me "you can't be here, you have to go back outside this gate or that gate", but I got all the way to the street itself. The teams had already started parading and I had missed a few, but I still saw several, including all the winning teams. So much fun to see them up close and personal!

When the Garmin team came by, I (much like last year....) yelled out for my compatriot Ryder Hesjedal, the only Canadian in the race, who "carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders!". The other Garmin guys yelled back to him, "Ryder... It's for you...", in the same tone that parents call to their teenagers for whom the phone rings all the time. Ryder turned and waved! Then, when Liquigas came by, Franco Pellizotti was very close to the barricade - in fact, no more than about 5 feet away from me! I shouted, "Franco, Franco!", he looked, smiled and waved, and "click!" -- see picture attached.

I tried to capture as many of the teams as I could - but the results are mixed. Sadly, no real good pics of Team Astana - I was too busy looking at them to take a good picture. I had never seen Lance on a bike "live" up close before. Very cool... [UPDATE OCTOBER 2012: AGAIN, PLEASE REFER TO NOTE ABOVE] Alberto? The yellow outfit requires good sunglasses to stare at for any period of time - it is quite bright... The main "missed"? Saw Cadel only from a distance, missed Silence Lotto's parade.

I stuck around as long as I could, until les gendarmes finally chased all of us off the actual road and back onto the sidewalk and park nearby. They were trying to clear the way for the teams to leave safely, and for workers to quickly start tearing down the barricades and stands, so that by Monday morning, the Champs Elysées could function again as a main thoroughfare. So with regret, I started walking away from the Champs. I decided to try my luck at Place Beauveau, where last year, I stumbled upon a number of riders who pedaled their way through there, on the way to their hotel. I got some good shots of a few of the cyclists there. (The way I'm describing this, I'm starting to feel like a paparazza... I swear, I'm not...).

I hung out at Place Beauvau for a short while, but it seemed that I had missed them already. Eventually, reality had to set in: my Tour de France 2009 experience was drawing to a close. That was it. The race was over. The podium protocol was over. The after-race parade was over. The "hanging out at Place Beauvau hoping they go through there" was over.

Time to walk back to the hotel. Sigh... That's when the adrenaline somewhat faded, and I realized I had huge blisters on my feet and was in some pain. I thought of Kurt and Levi and George, who finished stages with broken bones, and decided, "If the boys can bike with broken bones, I can walk a whole 1.3km with blisters!". Yes, much drama - nay, melodrama - in my Tour de France! 

Back at the hotel, I realized I was completely exhausted. Hey - it is TIRING, walking around in fancy shoes (total of about 5km), and being pumped with adrenaline all day! After lying there for 30 minutes, I realized I was also starving. Must - go - eat...

I switched into jeans and my Garmin T-shirt, and left the hotel around 9:30pm to start walking towards the Opera -- wearing comfy shoes and several Band-Aids on my tortured toes. I wanted to have dinner at the same little café I went to last year after the Tour, Café du Mogador. I was sure I could find it again, near Gare St-Lazare. I had to walk around a bit more, and eventually remembered to head further east, as it was directly across from the Eglise Ste-Trinité.

While I hate "routine", I do like "tradition", so I'm quite pleased that I now have been to Café du Mogador three years in a row, had the exact same thing for dinner ("Grande Salade d'Eté, a white beer, and a crème caramel with an Espresso for dessert"), and was even served by the same guy as last year (not that he remembered me, mind you).

I left the restaurant at 11:45pm, and decided to walk home. I know what you're thinking - was it safe to walk alone at night in Paris? Yes, totally. I felt safe and was safe. I'm not saying nothing ever happens in Paris - but in the centre of the city, in the neighbourhoods of large department stores and churches and nice apartments and tourists, I felt totally safe. It was a beautiful night, still warm, and *quiet*.

It was a lovely walk, down Rue du Mogador and Rue Scribe, and onto the welcoming Boulevard des Capucines (which becomes Blvd de la Madeleine), Rue Royale, then St-Honoré, and soon enough, back home at the hotel by 12:30am. I probably walked about 10km or so that day, and "my dogs were barking", blistered and sore as they were... I hit the hay, tried to relive every moment of that day, and soon passed out, completely knackered.

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