The Waiting Is The Hardest Part: Visiting the Tour de France

The alarm rang at an unspeakably early hour. The skies were still dark. With some effort, we managed to get showered and ready, and were out the door a little past 7 in the morning. The distance from Angers to Le Mans is around 95 kilometers (60 miles), which meant that we’d be on the road for approximately an hour. We hopped on the A11 autoroute, which is known as L’Océane, and connects the city of Nantes to Paris. Like most French autoroutes (as they call highways here), they are toll roads. The date was Friday, July 8th, 2011 and we were on our way to see the start of stage 7 of the Tour de France.

tour de france

Le Mans is known primarily as the town that has held the annual endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, since 1923. Perhaps you’ve seen the film starring Steve McQueen? The race is so overwhelmingly popular it appears as the first result in a Google search for the city. Its track, the Circuit de la Sarthe consists of 8.5 miles of fixed track and public roads that are closed for the race.

The newly minted MMArena was built adjacent to the Bugatti Circuit and the Dunlop Bridge, all part of sprawling Pôle d’Excellence sports complex, which also encompasses a karting circuit, an equestrian course, and a velodrome. It’s a pretty vast area. The arena opened in January 2011, seats 25,000, and is home to the Le Mans football club. Considering the multipurpose nature of such venues, concerts and such spectacles – as the French like to call them – also happen there.

Johnny Hallyday
Like this guy.

Our ultimate destination, however, was the parking lot. Naturally, we arrived before everyone, so parking wouldn’t be a problem. The big question was where exactly should we park? As we entered the outskirts of Le Mans, the arena and track came clearly into view. It was still so early that the crew had yet to mark even the appropriate directions for visitors, much less do anything else. An inkling of doubt crept in our minds. Had we been deceived? Was this the right day, the right venue? At a stop sign, we encountered a cone crew in a work truck and asked them for directions. They confirmed we were indeed in the right place. At this point, my French was in an embryonic stage, not terribly far beyond the humiliating, “Je suis desolé, mais je suis américain,” so my girl did all the talking.

A few twists and turns – and a blockaded subterranean parking garage – later, we had arrived on the backside of the stadium, where we noticed several large tractor-trailers being unloaded. A couple of consumer sized cars were parked but unoccupied. The size of this little backlot was nowhere near the size to accommodate the thousands of attendees. Some people were carrying metal barriers to a place just beyond our view. I decided to go on an exploratory mission while my girl took a nap in the car.

As I looped around the stadium, a yellow truck came into view. Its trailer was in the process of being transformed into a makeshift podium.

Work in progress.

Tents were being erected and would eventually filled with Official Merchandise or marketing propaganda for the slew of corporate sponsors. Barriers cordoned off the parking lot into sections, which gave an idea of where the starting line might be. Other people – visitors, like me – were gradually trickling in, but where were they coming from? More investigation uncovered the massive parking lot spanning the length of the stadium. Could, should we park there? I had seen signs near our spot indicating the lot was reserved for technical crew.

After a brief deliberation, we decided to circle around the arena by car to access the main parking. As we reached the entrance, we encountered a gate and a security guard informing us the lot was reserved for the racing teams and caravan. Of course! Naturally, the cyclists don’t just arrive on their bicycles ready to ride for the day. This is a huge logistical operation.

Consider, for a moment: each Tour de France features usually twenty-two teams comprised of nine riders each. In addition to the riders, there is the manager, trainers, team doctors, bike technicians, and let’s not forget about the copious amounts of gear (we’ll deftly sidestep an easy joke about doping). Each rider has multiple bikes, including specialist bikes for time trials (which are often equipped with aerobars, made famous by Greg Lemond during the 1989 Tour when he made up 50 seconds in the time trial to overtake Laurent Fignon as the overall leader by 8 seconds on the final day of the race).

Greg Lemond 1989
Oh, the ’80s.

There are team cars emblazoned with sponsors that trail just behind the peloton, which refers to the main pack of riders. The only way to conceivably transport from town to town this enormous amount of equipment is by big rigs, which, as a former employee of FedEx Freight, I can testify to the sheer amount of stuff one can stuff into a 53 foot trailer.

In addition to the teams and their stuff, there are the Tour organizers and their entourage, Tour officials, medical personnel, technical personnel, radio crews, a large security apparatus, including local police and national gendarmerie, and the beehive swarm of omnipresent international media coverage. There are news vans, cars, motorcycles, and helicopters weaving up and down the fabric of the race to give the viewer at home TOTAL COVERAGE about these guys in spandex riding bicycles in the French countryside. And, of course, there is also the elephant in the room, is the caravan.

Approximately two hours before the official start of a stage, what amounts to the world’s longest parade begins the day’s festivities. For the 2011 Tour, there were four official broadcasters (just for France! Who knows where the journalists for OLN or Versus or NBC Sports or whatever they’re called these days were hiding out), four Tour de France “club members,” which means their corporate logos were everywhere, ten official partners, two environmental partners, seventeen official suppliers, five technical partners, and two institutional partners. All these sponsors and many others not listed on the the official Tour site have cars, floats, trucks, and miscellaneous people distributing an endless flood of promotional materials. One estimate places the yearly number of items at 11 million, with each person in the caravan handing out between 3,000 to 5,000 items per day. Zooming in, back in 1994, an insurance company called GAN handed out 170,000 caps, 80,000 badges, 60,000 plastic bags and 535,000 copies of its race newspaper, totaling 32 tons. (Please note: information gathered from Wikipedia) Zooming in further still, I stood there amongst the masses with a sturdy plastic bag filled with crap.

Škoda, the Czech car manufacturer and one of the premium club members of the Tour de France had flags waving in the wind, a beautiful car on display and a life-sized snow white yeti strutting around in the name of children’s entertainment.

yeti

The Nesquik bunny was there too with a small army of volunteers who were passing around single serving packets of chocolate milk powder. Since we had arrived before everyone else, as the crowds had started to fill in, we were front and center to receive the free handouts. On their first pass, I missed out on the Nesquik sample and failed to hide my discontent, as if they were somehow not only valuable but rare. I must have brought home 30 of the damn things and might have one or two still hidden in the kitchen.

The Nesquik Bunny: seen here with a terrible mustache.

One poor guy had to dress up as a cell phone that looked like a model from 2001 in the name of Alcatel-Lucent, the French telecommunications company that acquired Bell Labs – the former R&D department for AT&T, which pretty much invented modern day technology – back in 2006. (James Bond) Unfortunately, their awesome free gift was not a free cell phone but a lanyard. Yep. The representatives from Škoda gave out free white bucket hats. Cochonou, makers of saucisson (a type of dry cured sausage, like a hybrid of salami and deer sausage), also distributed bucket hats.

Vittel, in addition to giving away bottled water and nylon flags, also had a crew of performers there to energize the crowd. One of them was strongly reminiscent of one Ernest P. Worrell.

Ladies and Gentleman, your 2011 Tour de France!

He had with him a bike that looked like a rusted Huffy and managed the skillful feat of pulling off wheelies and tricks while constantly looking like he was about to wipe out. The female member of the Vittel team was wearing an awful lot of red lipstick and gave me a kiss on the check.

Bic, the manufacturer of super reliable ink pens, cigarette lighters and cellphones (?!) had a car in the caravan. No memory of what they were giving away. Haribo, the makers of mass produced confectioneries, had a slew of cars and candies in the caravan. Festina, the luxury watchmakers (best remembered for having sponsored the infamous team from the doping plagued 1998 edition of the Tour) had a giant replica of a watch resting atop a car. This is the primary mechanism that puts the show on the road. In a mere 21 days, these skinny guys on bikes sprint around 2,200 miles across French countryside, race up the Pyrenees and Alps, and finish in Paris on the Champs Élysées where the victor shall be crowned. Sponsor’s money makes the wheels go round.

Despite the staggering, almost unending length of the caravan, it is, to my knowledge, never televised. In fact, since the rise of TV advertising in the 1960s, the caravan’s importance has diminished. Still, the preceding spectacle of the caravan gets the crowd into the proper pre-race spirit. After having watched the Vittel performance sketches and go-go rally, amongst other speakers and performers – including the flamboyant dandy in cycling shorts atop an old-fashioned oversized tricycle, twirling what appeared to be a yellow feather duster (journalistic integrity prevents me from making this stuff up) – we relocated to another barrier near the starting line.

By this point, the crowds were starting to fill in. I have no idea where these people parked. A radio booth was broadcasting nearby. Promotional and merchandising tents were in full swing, selling the usual assortments of shirts, jerseys, caps, keychains, coffee mugs, water bottles, etc.

The caravan began. Adults clapped. The children cheered, hoisted atop their parent’s shoulders, or were otherwise on the ground and on the lookout for candy. At one point, the gray clouds transformed into temporary rain clouds and we got wet for about ten minutes. Afterwards, it was sun the rest of the way.

The caravan continued. People spoke from megaphones and microphones. Lots of conversations were happening around me in a tongue I didn’t understand. Music blared from all angles. Each car appeared to have its own expensive stereo system, and everyone played something different. It was a cacophony of noise. The omnipresent 4/4 Eurodance beat seemed to be the underlying spine holding it all together.

The Smurfs are coming!

After the caravan passed, we were still standing there waiting. Standing in one place for so long hurts the feet after awhile. It’s like waiting outside the dressing room while your Significant Other is trying on clothes. You shift your weight from one foot to the other, roll onto the balls of your feet, or go to the tops of your tippy toes. Perhaps you’re one of those people who have no embarrassment stretching in public without the excuse of going on a run. Despite the flash of sound and color all around, boredom becomes a real possibility. We’d already been awake for hours. With the recent rain, increasingly claustrophobic crowding and jockeying for a good view, not to mention the prospect of yet more waiting, my girl began to voice tiny complaints about being tired, and tired of waiting. I could relate, but I felt bad for her since she was doing all this for my benefit. Bicycles have never been her thing. Whereas some of my earliest memories are learning to ride a bike. To me, they have always been liberating experiences. I have never felt more alive and free than when flying down a huge hill with my hands spread wide like wings and the wind whipping at my hair. Of course, normally what follows is another hill to climb.

When I was a teenager and following the minuscule Tour de France coverage on ESPN (props to deceased announcer Adrian Karsten) before it blew up during Armstrong boom years, I would daydream of climbing the legendary “Hors catégorie” mountain passes on Mont Ventoux, L’Alpe d’Huez, or the Pyreneean Col du Tourmalet, breezing along the idyllic French countryside, and finally, imagining the inimitable commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin calling the race with their supremely British verve and charm as I finished first in the final sprint along the Champs Élysées, hands raised in victory as the lunatic crowds cheered. The chances of that were always realistically kept small, but merely visiting France and seeing the Tour seemed like the next best thing. I just never thought I’d end up doing it. It’s secretly thrilling when dreams come true, even if they don’t match your expectations. I had a similar experience back in November 2005 when I flew to Las Vegas to visit my brother and we saw George Carlin perform in the MGM Grand a few years before he died. I thought, “Holy shit! I am seeing a living legend, one of my formative comedic heroes perform here.” (Now paging Steve Martin…) Sure, his standup routine wasn’t up to his heyday standards – he was more cynical and morbid in his cranky old age – but still, George Freakin’ Carlin, folks!

Finally, a bit before noon, a few actual cyclists appeared near the start line. Each rider had a brief introduction at the yellow stage and I think signed what amounts to a daily attendance sheet. At first, there were only a handful of them and they killed the time standing there haunched over their handlebars with the occasional foot propped up on a pedal.

The bikes they had were sleek, practically super sonic. And I didn’t even recognize these youthful looking domestiques. I saw a few professionals I recognized, including Thor Hushovd, the Norwegian sprinter and wearer of the yellow jersey that day. I also recognized the Aussie (and eventual winner of the 2011 Tour) Cadel Evans by his distinctive cleft chin. Gradually, the route filled with racers and their rainbow of technicolor jerseys – hues of neon pink, beige, sky blue, maroon, teal , etc.- lest we forget the famous yellow, green, and polka dot jerseys, which signify the overall leader, leading sprinter, and King of the Mountains, respectively. The crowd adopted a bit of a rock concert mentality, swaying, shouting, and clapping in anticipation of the start of the stage. This is what I had come to see.

Suddenly, by the sound of a gun, or perhaps a whistle or cheerful “Allez!” the riders mounted their bikes and began to surge forward with locomotive force. And in just a few seconds, they had all passed under the start banner and were out of sight.

I knew their route for that day. First, they’d travel over to the Bugatti Circuit across the way mimicking the route of the auto race and passing under the Dunlop Bridge, exiting Le Mans and making their way gradually south to the town of Châteauroux some 218 kilometers (135 miles) away. With the racers gone, the crowd began to disperse and the crews had already started to disassemble equipment and things since these were still the early stages with still two weeks of racing to go. On the way to our premium parking spot, I stopped at a souvenir tent and coughed up 10€ for a small ‘yellow jersey’ yellow coffee cup, commemorating Le Tour.

With the day still being young and it being a Friday, my girl and I made our way into the well-preserved old center of town where we browsed the streets and shops.

We ate lunch at a restaurant where I had a mouthwatering andouillette sausage with a bowl of mashed potatoes. Driving home, we both felt worn out but content, having experienced a unique and fulfilling day. I have yet to see another stage of the Tour live, but I think next I’d like to travel south to the mountains (either would be fine) where the spectators and racers become intimately close as they slog their way slowly uphill. All dreams eventually come to an end, but sometimes they go on to have second acts.

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