From the magazine: Stepping onto the set of Le Tour

Editor's note: The following column appeared in the September 2005 issue of VeloNews magazine.

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Editor’s note: The following column appeared in the September 2005 issue of VeloNews magazine.

Sitting at a restaurant terrace in Boulder, Colorado, in mid-July, my pal Kirk and I sipped beers and discussed our upcoming trips to the Tour de France. Kirk was packing his bike and heading over with a handful of buddies to ride the cols of the Tour during the middle week of the race, and I was leaving the day after him to join the VeloNews crew covering the race. We’d both be there for the pivotal mountain stages in the Alps and Pyrénées, albeit from different vantage points.

It was Kirk’s first trip to the Tour, and my first on assignment. Neither of us would be carrying a mobile phone, and Kirk didn’t even know if he’d be checking e-mail, but we agreed we’d find each other somehow. We toasted bon voyage, certain that our next beers together would be in France.

The timing of my departure allowed me to watch the final televised moments of stage 9 at home. King of the Mountains Michael Rasmussen won on a solo breakaway into Mulhouse, Jens Voigt took the yellow jersey from Lance Armstrong, and I was off to the airport.

Following a sleepless flight to Paris I bumped into Randi Reich, Dave Zabriskie’s girlfriend, at Charles de Gaulle airport. I had spent a Halloween with Randi and Dave a few years back in Berkeley, California, where the two lived in a tiny apartment above a Nepalese restaurant. Randi and I caught up on our flight to Lyon, and she offered me a lift to Grenoble, where Zabriskie’s CSC team was spending the rest day.

Just as with Kirk, Randi and I were headed to the Tour for different reasons. She was on her way to comfort her man, who had abandoned the race on that mountain stage to Mulhouse. It had been a turbulent week for Zabriskie, who wore the leader’s yellow jersey after besting Armstrong in the opening time trial only to crash days later in the team time trial. Another crash had left the CSC rider covered in bandages and when we arrived at his hotel he could only muster a cautious sideways hug for Randi.

Before we found Zabriskie at the hotel, Randi and I were inadvertently directed to Voigt’s room. As I trailed behind, Randi nearly awoke the sleeping German with a kiss on the cheek before she realized it wasn’t her boyfriend. Less than 24 hours earlier I had watched on television from Colorado as Voigt took the yellow jersey, and here I was staring at the jersey lying on his suitcase. The groggy race leader handed over his mobile phone so Randi could locate Dave. It was all too much for my sleep-deprived brain to absorb.

That wasn’t the last time I felt like I’d stepped right onto the set of a TV program I’d seen a hundred times. Coming to the Tour after following it on TV every day for a week was surreal. Driving up the various climbs each day, I envisioned the crowds of spectators as extras on the sport’s biggest stage. And the recognizable characters occasionally popped up, as if on cue, waiting for someone to yell “Action!”

“Oh yeah, there’s The Devil,” I’d think to myself. “There’s the guy with the football helmet and bullhorns riding up the climb. There are the orange-clad Basque fans, taking their places.” Hours later, in the pressroom, we’d see them again, on television, as the peloton rode past.

Each day I looked for Kirk pedaling up the climbs, but driving the course was another surreal experience. Weaving through hundreds of thousands of fans and staggered publicity vehicles shaped like coffee cups, blocks of cheese or mobile phones felt like something out of Super Mario Bros. More than once I wished that instead of the cute European horn of our Renault Mégane I had some magical blaster to vaporize the loud, oversized vehicles standing between us and the finish line.

Finding my way from the smoky pressroom to the chaos of the finish line wasn’t always easy, and more than once I got lost, searching for the colored-arrow signs that litter France every July. In Briançon, after chasing down quotes and attending stage winner Alex Vinokourov’s press conference, I was again turned around when, to my surprise, a lone Voigt came barreling down the finishing straight right past me, more than 40 minutes behind the winner. I learned later that he missed the time cut by only 40 seconds, the second CSC rider of the race to wear yellow and then abandon the race.

As my Tour days drew to a close I began to have doubts that Kirk and I would connect. But in the sweltering heat of Ax-3 Domaines, the finish area of stage 14, I heard my name called out of the crowd. There was Kirk, on the spectators’ side of the fencing, smiling and tanner than I’d ever seen him.

We found a spot in the shade and Kirk pulled a cold Kronenbourg 1664 from his backpack. It was one of the few moments of the week I’d had to myself. Kirk and I had entirely different Tour experiences. While I was driving the course every day, honking the horn and dodging spectators, Kirk and his crew were pedaling up and over historic Tour climbs like the Galibier, L’Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux. The strongest climber of the group, Kevin, was their honorary KOM, while Kirk, the youngest, was their default white jersey wearer. But Vinokourov was unanimously their hero, and as they rode the mountain passes they continually attacked each other in homage to the Kazakh’s aggressive style. In addition to posting a newspaper photo of the T-Mobile rider on the back of their rental van, Kirk and his pals had developed a mantra for their trip: “What would Vino’ do?”

After the beer, Kirk and his friends mounted their bikes to drop back down to Ax-les-Thermes, while I headed to the pressroom to file a Web report. We made plans to ride together back home in a few days. Watching the teams, race officials, volunteers, thousands of fans — and those pesky publicity caravan people — heading for the valley, I thought about how each person at the Tour has his or her unique experience of the event. Everyone is an extra on the set, a different character on the sport’s broadest stage.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.