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By Rupert Guinness
Each year, more and more first-timers join the Tour de France press corps. The American invasion began after Greg LeMond started winning the Tour in 1986, and it has accelerated since Lance Armstrong’s first win in 1999. From an Australian viewpoint, the media trickle from down under has become a downpour (or should that be an up-pour?) since riders like Stuart O’Grady, Robbie McEwen, Brad McGee and Baden Cooke began winning stages.
One of the most interesting aspects of a Tour is to hear the first impressions of those covering the world’s biggest and most prestigious bike race for the first time. I still recall my first Tour in 1987 — its enormity, the sheer size of the event, the number of people, and the chaos otherwise described by the French as a well-oiled organization.
It was after chatting about those experiences this week that we thought it fitting to seek out the first impressions that have been left on Denver Post sportswriter John Henderson, who has now been on the race for just one week. John has covered NFL football, major league baseball, and is now the Colorado daily newspaper’s national college football writer.
John, who is traveling on the Tour by himself, spoke to VeloNews on Friday evening.
VeloNews: How did you get to cover the Tour in the first place, John?
John Henderson: I had just come back from a sabbatical spent in Rome. The boss called me into the office on my first day on the job and said, “I hate to do this to you.”
I said, “What’s that?”
He said, “I want to send you back over the pond to do the Tour de France. Would you (go)?”
I said, “Are you kidding? I’d love to do that.”
It’s incredible for someone like me who loves sport and loves to travel.
VN: Now you have gotten through the first of three weeks on the Tour, what is the hardest thing you have found covering the race?
JH: Directions in the cities. It is just absolutely impossible to find your way around. I get lost going out of town. And when I get into the next town I get lost looking for the finish line. Then after I’m done writing I get lost going to the next town, getting out of town and then lost looking for the hotel. Between cities I’m fine.
The French highway system is very well marked. But a lot of these small towns don’t have street signs because they are so small, everybody knows where it is. Also I have no sense of direction. I lost a rental car once in a shopping mall parking lot in Long Beach for two-and-a-half hours! So … sending me to the Tour de France probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do!
VN: Have you been following the Tour on the race route or by the back roads and highways?
JH: By the back roads and highways. Today I left at 10 a.m. I got here at 6.30 p.m. (90 minutes after the stage finished). I take my time. If I am going to cover the Tour de France I am going to make it an adventure. One of the reasons they started this thing was to promote France. I am taking advantage of it. This is a spectacularly beautiful country.
VN: What is the most impressive thing you’ve noticed about the Tour, or your first week?
JH: The beauty of the little villages. How they’ve kept their charm through 300 years and two world wars. That’s what amazes me. I’m doing a best and a worst of the Tour de France: best meal, worst meal, most impressive performance, prettiest town, and ugliest town. My prettiest town … I’ve got about seven or eight. I’ve got nothing on the ugliest towns. I’ve heard Marseille will make it.
VN: What’s been the funniest experience you’ve had then?
JH: Probably the funniest question I asked was when I was in Troyes. I was with two local guys and two local women. I asked them, “Do you guys drink champagne in Champagne?” They started laughing, “Of course we drink champagne.” I asked, “Only for celebrations?”
They said, “No we drink it all the time.” So I bought a bottle of champagne and it cost me only 30 euros, it was probably a 150-dollar bottle of champagne. It was so good … I had a bottle of champagne after a bottle of wine and no hang over. That’s unbelievable!
VN: Let’s look at the sporting side of things. What do you feel about the Tour as a sporting contest, compared to football and baseball?
JH: I drive here (to the finish). I’m tired. These guys ride their bikes? C’mon! It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t see how they do it. The other day I went to Nevers. I went to the start [in Troyes] and left around 12.15 p.m.
I stopped for lunch, stopped for coffee, stopped for a Coke and took a back road and I still only beat them to the finish by about an hour and half. I don’t see how they do it. I was told it is the world’s most grueling sport event. I don’t see how anything else can match it. I can see why they (the riders) look like they do.
One guy said that they have a skeletal foundation about them. I can see it. And it gets even worse after Alpe d’Huez. But are they tired … these stages everyone is finishing at the same time? They seem fine. Only a few people are getting left behind.
VN: How do you find the super-stars riders to deal with compared to football and baseball stars.
JH: Baseball and NFL players are much more accessible. I think the access to Lance Armstrong is shameful. I know they are trying to get him to a Tour victory, but if they want to promote the sport and him, he should be able to be available for five minutes a day, after the race, because he is going to be in the lead. We want to know what is happening.
I know he has a lot to do right after, but there has to be a way that he can give five minutes a day to the media. He’s going to be the story. Mark McGuire was known for being bad with the media, but if he hit a home run he was there. But Armstrong is really, really, really off limits, which is too bad. I find him very charming. He is very intelligent. He’s very patient with the media. He is funny, analytical, everything you want except with accessibility. It is part to do with U.S. Postal Service.