It's Tour time again, and that means more eyes than usual are on cycling as the world gets ready for three weeks of rolling madness across the French countryside. Having covered the Tour for years first-hand, it's
not just the racing that excites me, it's everything that goes on around the race. Don't get me wrong, the Tour is every bit as amazing as it appears, even if the cycling fan inside me remains a bit partial to the spring classics in April. But what surrounds the Tour- the increased media attention, the mind-boggling logistics, the thousands upon thousands of fans, and the three weeks of hard work for all involved- is something to behold.
For those working within the race, the daily routine has its own rhythm that begins long before the first pedal stroke and ends long after the sprint. It's a stressful three weeks, generally revolving around the three-pronged search for parking, food, and more time. The only thing to do is remember that this is the Tour and this is what it's all about. In my years at the Tour I also remembered an important equation:
comedy = tragedy + time.
For journalists in particular, the daily grind tends to break down like this:
Wake up, bemoan the lack of sleep, and check out of your closet-sized hotel room. Where is today's stage start? Chances are it's not in the town you slept in last night so break out the Michelin map book and find your way to town. This year, at least, the Tour organizers have drastically cut down on the transfers necessary between stages, which is a good thing.
Once in range, find the PPO, or "point passage obligatoire". This is the entry point for all Tour-related vehicles into the semi-controlled start zone. Thus begins the fight to beat traffic, flash your credentials, and avoid unnecessary and typically fruitless arguments with the Gendarmes and Tour staff. Bon courage, as the French would say, because these squabbles are a fundamental part of the Tour experience.
With the car awkwardly wedged onto some sidewalk in front of a patisserie or pharmacie in the middle of town, much to the chagrin of the local shop owner, it's time to find the Tour village for a bit of socializing and catching up on the previous day's events. This is usually accomplished by looking at your race guide book, following the crowds, or simply following the booming voice of Daniel Mangeas screaming his head off in preparation for another day of relentless commentary.
Mangeas is known as the "voice of the Tour de France", or any other major race in France for that matter. He's a friendly fellow with an encyclopedic knowledge of every rider and every place they've ever achieved since they first started sprinting with their friends to the town limits sign and he can usually be heard at least two towns away. I suspect that even when he goes out with friends he talks into a microphone.
After a drink and possibly some snacks from the local farmers, a quick read of the newspapers, and a chat with colleagues, the team buses begin to arrive. Thus the work begins, grabbing some quotes, getting some fresh photos of the headliners, and feeling confident that you have a better idea than anyone of how the day's stage will play out.
As start time approaches, it's back to the car to set out on the parcours ahead of the peloton. The initial nervousness of getting going and not being caught up in the pre-race traffic jam eventually subsides as the wonderful French countryside unfolds, lined with faithful fans who will make a day of waiting for the peloton to stream by in 30 seconds.
When in the car during the Tour, there are two speeds: fast and faster. If the Tour riders cover around 2,200 miles in three weeks, anyone working on the race is likely to drive closer to 4,000 miles. Why spend any more time in the car than necessary? And while the French police have cracked down in recent years on speeding vehicles on the race course, the fact remains that the race route is fully closed to traffic hours in advance of the race and everyone trying to get to the finish will take full advantage of a veritable rally car course to the finish. The only things that slow this other sprint to the finish are the publicity caravan, a 50-odd vehicle assortment of floats and sponsors throwing useless promotions at the masses, and the mountains. Combine the two and you're in for a real headache. Did I mention that these publicity vehicles are typically driven by fresh-faced French teenagers, probably on their first summer job?
Having covered the realm of Tour emotions throughout this drive (stress, excitement, frustration, fatigue), the finish comes into view. Now it's time once again to search for parking as close to the press room as possible. (See above: fruitless arguments with Gendarmes and Tour staff.) Work space is staked out in the press room (near the televisions, away from the worst of the chain smokers), the stage finishes, photos are captured and stories are written and filed, analyses and still more predictions are shared with colleagues, until at long last it's time to call it a day.
But the work isn't quite over yet. Where is tonight's hotel? Again, it's probably not close, even if you do get lucky sometimes. The final sprint of the day is the one in the car, to the hotel, to find dinner before the restaurants close for the evening and get the room keys before the front desk staff have packed it in as well. The last thing anyone needs is to be locked out of his hotel at 11pm after a 12+ hour work day.
Hauling your luggage up to another modestly appointed room, all that remains now is a short prayer for a decent Internet connection, a little energy to do whatever remaining work must be done before crashing for the night, and some personal reflection on the toughest, but most exciting, three weeks of the year. Then sleep.
Tomorrow is another day. Allez Go Go Go.