“Now for our mountain sport: up to yond hill; Your legs are young; I’ll tread these flats.” ~ William Shakespeare (Cymbeline III, 3)

One of the things that makes me the most UNunhappiest in the world is the Tour de France. Yes, the sport and race that is now most famous for cheating and doping and controversy is (still) my most favorite sport.  Over the past few years, the revelations, accusations and conflagrations within the cycling world have certainly been depressing and disappointing, but I can’t help it – I’m still in love with the Tour de France.

This Saturday June 29th, the 100th edition of the Tour kicks off on the island of Corsica before heading to mainland France.  Cycling fans around the world are converging on the roads of France, in front of their televisions and computers, and on social media sites like Twitter to bond over their common love and obsession for “la grande boucle” (“the big loop).  The world’s best riders from 22 teams will battle each other and an extremely unforgiving course of over 2,100 miles for three weeks during the world’s most difficult race, all in pursuit of a yellow piece of lycra (and legend).  It’s dangerous and incredible and dramatic and unbelievable and electric and beautiful.  There’s nothing else quite like it.  Count me among the obsessed.

2013 Tour De France route map

2013 Tour De France route map

For many years now, I’ve saved up all my vacation hours each year to take three weeks off in July to watch the Tour.  In 2010, after a year of organizing and saving and planning, I lived a dream and went to France to follow the race around the French Alps for 10 days and to celebrate my 40th birthday.  It was one of the most amazing and incredible experiences of my life!  I will never forget standing on top of the world, the famous Col de la Madeleine in the French Alps, on my birthday, watching the riders snake up the mountain road below our vantage point and then watching them labor by us towards the summit, threading the needle of the massive crowds.  There were thousands of people on that mountain, fans from all over the world, all out in the middle of nowhere screaming at the top of their lungs and having the times of their lives.  I still get emotional when I think about it.  It was pure joy for me.

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

Col de la Madeleine, 2010 Tour de France

I went with a French-organized official tour group and it was great;  we lodged near each day’s stage in beautiful areas, and transportation was provided from one day’s route to the next.  (The only downside was the lack of hotel air conditioning during one of France’s worst heat waves in history.)  I was the only non-native person in the tour group who was fluent in French, and most of the French guys running our tour didn’t speak English, so I ended up being an unofficial group translator between some of the clients and the French-speaking staff.  Sometimes they put me in one of the support cars instead of the bus and I was able to help the French staff provide assistance to those in our group who were cycling the routes ahead of the pro riders each day.  I loved it!  I felt at home and useful and just so happy to be in one of the most pristine, beautiful corners of the world I’d ever seen. 

Morzine, site of Stage 8 finish, 2010 Tour de France

Avoriaz, site of Stage 8 finish
2010 Tour de France

Morzine, site of Stage 9 depart, 2010 Tour de France

Morzine, site of Stage 9 depart
2010 Tour de France

Postcard-perfect town of Morzine, 2010 Tour de France

Postcard-perfect town of Morzine
2010 Tour de France

We had unrestricted access to behind-the-scenes start and finish areas, and it was amazing to see the massive sets, broadcast trucks and media areas up close.  It’s a traveling logistics miracle which boggles the mind.  An entire mini-city is set up and dismantled every single day of the race.  I’d love to actually work for the Tour one day, what a dream job that would be!

At the finish line of Stage 8 in Station des Rousses, 2010 Tour de France

At the finish line of Stage 7 in Station des Rousses, 2010 Tour de France

Waiting for the winners at the award podium at finish of Stage 8 in Avoriaz, 2010 Tour de France.

Waiting for the winners at the award podium at finish of Stage 8 in Avoriaz, 2010 Tour de France.

We got to see lots of crazy sights and even crazier people (the Dutch fans are literally insane).  People line the roads of each stage’s route hours (or sometimes even days) ahead of time to stake out the best spots.  A nice little old German lady cooking a pot of potatoes even let me use her RV bathroom in an intestinal emergency.  The Tour’s publicity caravan passes through on the road an hour or two ahead of the riders and hurls out free swag to the waiting throngs.  Blaring music, girls on roller blades who throw candy at you, and huge dancing yeti monsters all add to the carnival atmosphere.

The Pink Wig Guys - we saw them everywhere we went.  2010 Tour de France

The Pink Wig Guys – we saw them everywhere we went. 2010 Tour de France

Friendly families in their camper vans are on the side of every road. 2010 Tour de France

Friendly families in their camper vans are on the side of every road. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan - here, the yellow jersey sponsor. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan – here, the yellow jersey sponsor. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan - still not sure what this product is. 2010 Tour de France

Publicity Caravan – still not sure what this product is. 2010 Tour de France

I guiltily confess to being somewhat of a stalker during the 2010 Tour de France.  I was on a mission to get up close and personal with one of the most impressive specimens of athletic prowess (and just plain hotness) in all of sport:  the one, the only –  Spartacus.  For you non-cycling readers, that’s World Champion Fabian Cancellara, a Swiss rider of awe-inspiring talent with a jaw of steel and ham hocks for thighs (and pretty nice hair too).  On the rest day in Morzine, I found him (ok, tracked him down) at his team hotel just as he returned from a training ride:

Fabian Cancellara on Rest Day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France.

Fabian Cancellara on Rest Day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France.

I was just a few feet away from cycling brilliance, and as he walked inside the hotel, I summoned the courage to follow him and ask him to sign the Texas flag I’d brought with me.  He did and I fainted Just kidding, but my heart was pounding pretty hard. He was all sweaty and when I asked him if he’d take a picture with me, he leaned in and I swear I could smell just a whiff of Swiss chocolate.  🙂

As if that weren’t enough, when I went back outside to the hotel patio, Jens Voigt and Andy Schleck had also just returned from their rides, and they also talked to me and signed my flag!  Tour-tough-man Jens is also one of my all-time favorite riders (as he is for most cycling fans), such a funny and all-around nice guy, and Andy Schleck from Luxembourg – well, if you don’t know who he is, he only ended up winning the Tour that year.  Yup, I hung out with the champion for a while.  No big deal.

When I approached Jens, he jokingly asked “Is it even legal to sign a flag?  And before I do, do you even know who I am?”  I was so flustered the only thing I could think to say in response was “Of course, you almost died last year in that horrible crash!”  Oof.  He laughed and said, “Well, next to my signature I’m going to print my name so you can tell which one it is later.”  Which he did. 

Jens Voigt signs my flag. 2010 Tour de France

Jens Voigt signs my flag.
2010 Tour de France

Andy Schleck took a picture with me and asked me a few questions, then signed the flag as well. He was a very nice guy.  I wanted to feed him a double grilled cheese sandwich.

Andy Schleck on rest day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France Winner

Andy Schleck on rest day in Morzine, 2010 Tour de France Winner

I also was able to talk to and get signatures from Sylvain Chavanel (France), also one of my favorites, as well as American sprinter Tyler Farrar, Kiwi lead-out man Julian Dean, and up-and-coming USA hopeful Taylor Phinney.  I didn’t set out to be an autograph hound, honest; but it ended up being a convenient vehicle to use to start talking to them.  That’s one of the great things about cycling events – they’re FREE (as long as you can get yourself there), and you can walk right up to your biggest crushes idols and just have a conversation with them!  It’s amazing and I hope it stays that way forever. 

I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the helmeted gorilla in the room: the 2010 Tour was Lance Armstrong‘s last.  He’d made his much-touted comeback the year before, and the rumor was this would be his final attempt.  Sharing a hometown with the guy, and listening to many wax nostalgic about this being his last hurrah, I did feel a strange pull toward him at this Tour; heck, he was kind of the reason I’d even become a cycling fan in the first place.

Lance during the 2010 Tour de France. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images Europe

Lance during the 2010 Tour de France.
Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images Europe

When I returned from the Peace Corps in 2001 and stopped in Austin on my way home to Albuquerque, I went to the huge outdoor celebration that the city threw for him on the lakeshores of downtown.  He’d just won his third Tour, and I attended more out of curiosity than true fandom.  I’d been in Africa for his first two victories; what I knew of him so far was just what I’d read in our agency-provided Newsweek magazines.  But, like so many others, I got caught up in the story, and from that point on I started following cycling much more closely. When I moved to Austin in 2009, the frenzy over his professional comeback ushered me into this city.

Everyone has their own opinion on Lance.  This story isn’t about him, although he is part of my memories of my trip to the Tour…

While we toured the area around the team buses prior to the stage start in Chambéry, one of the publicity guys from the RadioShack team noticed my Texas flag.  He interviewed me for a team video that they watched at the end of each day, just a few seconds of who I was, where I was from and why had I come to the Tour.  He then told me that if I stuck around, he’d talk to Lance about signing my flag.  A few minutes later, Lance descended the bus stairs, talked to the media for a few minutes (actually he got into a heated argument with a woman reporter who questioned him about doping), and then proceeded down a line of fans.  When he got to the end where I was, we talked for a minute about Austin, he thanked me for traveling all that way, and then he signed my Texas flag in the middle of the white star.

Lance signs my Texas flag. 2010 Tour de France

Lance signs my Texas flag.
2010 Tour de France

My 2010 Tour de France Texas flag.

My 2010 Tour de France Texas flag.

Stars burn out, as we’ve seen.  But memories last forever (hopefully).  Despite all the disappointments of recent past, I still love the Tour for the memories I have of it, and for the dogged determination of the human spirit that personifies the competition within the race.  I believe cycling is reinventing itself for the better, one pedal-stroke at a time.  If you are a fan of cycling and especially the Tour, you MUST get yourself to France one day to be a part of it.  It’s really impossible to accurately describe the atmosphere and the dedication that goes into every part of the Tour; you must see and experience it for yourself.  France is a spectacularly beautiful country, and I can see why they are so proud of their Tour; it shows off the best of what they have to offer.  

Back Camera

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I plan to go back – next year, in fact.  The 2014 Tour de France’s “Grand Depart” is going to be in England, the other place of my dreams and UNunhappiness – there’s no way I can pass up that opportunity.  I hope to see you there!

For now, I’m off to stock up on croissants and Camembert.  Vive le Tour!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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