Sunday, July 26, 2009

July in France

Tomorrow morning I’m sure to wake up and start going through Tour de France withdrawals, after having watched it faithfully every morning live on TV for the past three weeks. And during that time I’ve been in a constant Tour-haze in which I check the standings and interviews randomly throughout the day, constantly second guess my choices for that day’s online Fantasy Cycling, and always count ahead to see what time it is in France. Oh, they’re waking up now in France. Then, They’re having lunch now. They always start racing hours before I actually wake up, making me feel very lazy.

Why do I watch the Tour so fervently? It all started when I was a kid and my mom watched the Tour de France every summer. The Tour couldn’t have been farther away from our little rural Midwestern town of 3,500 people, but every July, France entered our living room. I knew it must be special, if my mom watched it.

Years later, I discovered excellent coverage of the Tour on the Versus channel, and here I am. It’s the only sport I can actually explain to someone and can actually understand the pre-stage discussion by the commentators every morning. Little-Ol’-Me can actually discuss rules and strategy of a sport. Go figure.

This year was the 96th Tour de France, and it is fascinating to look at old black and white photos of the race, back when they didn’t have cars to follow them for support, when they rode on unpaved roads and smoked cigarettes on their breaks -for their health. In contrast, the science that goes into the race now is unbelievable, making the guys super-aerodynamic.

The cameramen themselves are impressive on the Tour, riding on motorcycles for hours every day, backward, filming the important strategic moves or simple smiles or grimaces of the riders. And the helicopter cameramen follow the line of cyclists as it snakes across the French countryside, past fields of crops, along rivers and the sea, through valleys and over mountains. My favorite shot from this year’s tour was when they caught three white horses running in a field as the cyclists rode by. Oh – and also the shot of the snail who was slowly trying to cross the road as the cyclists flew by in a blur behind him. The cameraman patiently focused on the snail who was lucky enough to be too slow to get into their path.

Of course I’m incredibly inspired by the riders in the Tour. Few sports require such endurance. I love watching them climb the Alps and marvel when they climb past the tree line, their faces stoic with concentration. And they reach incredible speeds as they ride the straightaways, risking crashes that could end their dreams for this year’s Tour. And you can’t use the word inspiration without mentioning Lance Armstrong. Seeing him ride again is like welcoming back an old friend. I even donated to his charity.

Someday I will go watch the Tour live in person; I have no doubt that I will. And I’ll probably shed a few tears as they pass by me. I always tend to get overly sentimental at events where so many nationalities gather together. Men from all over the world join together on these teams, and all nationalities wait patiently together on the roadsides for hours, just to root them on.

And the French people also love their Tour. Knowing the helicopter will possibly put them on TV, farmers construct intricate designs in their fields, shaped like bicycles or spelling words of encouragement. People stand atop castle turrets and wave at the camera, and this year someone released hundreds of yellow balloons as the peloton passed. Their enthusiasm is infectious, even here in my living room 5,412 miles away.

And let’s face it, the Tour is just plain romantic. The commentators have great English accents and gracefully pronounce all the French names of the chateaus and cities they pass. The gorgeous countryside passes by every day, in real time, and I get my own personal tour of France. And sometimes it rains, and I watch through a rain-speckled camera lens as the guys try not to crash but seem unfazed by the downpour. Even the podium presentations at the end of every stage are foreign and romantic, as the podium girls kiss each winner when they receive that day’s jerseys. I never can guess how many of those European cheek-kisses each rider will give. Most riders do two; some three; and a few get four. I’ve always liked those kisses, and I missed them when I moved back to the States after living in Europe years ago.

I guess I should mention this year’s winner, the dark and handsome Spaniard Alberto Contador. He never faltered the entire race, proving that he was to be the overall champion. But instead of writing about him, I want to mention the man who finished last. Yauheni Hutarovich. From Belarus, he finished in 156th place, with over four hours between him and Contador. More than twenty other riders didn’t finish at all, due to injuries from crashes, finishing too far behind the pack and being disqualified, or simply needing to drop out. The ones who finished survived the heat, wind, and rain, climbed mountains, rode 3500 kilometers, and inspired television viewers around the world, including one thirty-something woman who watched faithfully every day, often going late to work so she wouldn’t miss that day’s finish.

I’ll be going to France again next July. Won’t you join me next year?

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