To continue what Marcie wrote in her blog earlier this week… we were trekking along a little used back road one day, our collective minds lost in thought about who knows what, when we came to the small village where our hotel was located. Nothing unusual about that, except that the hotel was locked up tight and the only intersection in the village was barricaded off by what appeared to be the entire local gendarmerie. What's more, about twice the number of people that could possibly live in this little village were lined up along the street.
"Hmmm. What's up?", we wondered. A French holiday maybe, and a parade about to start? Maybe it's a local tradition to sit by the road at 1pm on Tuesdays and watch the farm machinery drive through town? Nope... the great Tour de France was passing through the village that afternoon!
There was a time when I paid attention to the Tour de France, but the great Greg LeMond has long ago retired, and after Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles because of the doping scandal, I lost interest in it. Now, however, we had stumbled onto front row seats to the most famous bicycle race in the world, a race that people travel halfway around the world to see. How could we pass it up? We bought a baguette and a cold Coke, spread our little plastic tarp out in a shady spot, and waited for the racers.
The Tour de France uses a different route each year, and the actual route details for this year's race were released last October. The 2019 route is 3460 km (2180 miles) long- about the same length as the Appalachian Trail, and has 21 stages, beginning in Brussels and finishing in Paris. The stages vary from speed trials, to long flat days, to grueling 8000' mountain passes. It's meant to be, and certainly is, a three week long endurance test. To make it even tougher, another heat wave moved into France this past week, with several 95-105 degree F (35C-40C) days. The day we watched was plenty hot enough for us, and the temperatures were only in the high 80's.
As we munched on our baguette and waited for the racers, the anticipation grew. A few police cars and motorcycles buzzed by, sirens blaring, to clear the street. The racers must be getting close! Then a steady stream of news and team support vehicles drove past. The racers will be here any minute! Then more police, news and support cars. More motorcycles, a few vans... an ambulance or two. By then I was pretty sure we were soon going to see a squadron of Shriners on tiny motorcycles. There must have been twenty cops, ten support people and fifteen reporters for every racer in the race. Then, off in the distance several miles away, we saw a swarm of helicopters buzzing around in circles and slowly moving our way. That's got to be them and they really are getting close now!
About twenty minutes and fifty or so more vehicles later, the helicopters were almost overhead, and soon the racers were rounding a bend in the road and coming into sight. There were three bikes that flew past a few seconds ahead of the pack, then the main peloton passed, hot on their heels. Next, there were two smaller groups, followed by a few stragglers, and then... it was over - except for another twenty or so support vehicles, two more ambulances, and enough cops to surround the entire village if need be. The actual race, other than the two hour lead-in and ten minute denouement, lasted maybe two minutes.
We knew enough about the race to know that the overall race leader wore the coveted yellow jersey, and we hoped to pick him out and maybe get a picture. He wasn't at the front of the pack, not surprisingly, because until the very end of the stage, the leader usually saves his strength by slip-streaming behind a teammate. What we didn't know was that some of the teams also wear yellow jerseys, and there must have been ten racers wearing yellow jerseys. Marcie snapped as many pictures as she could, and maybe we got the leader in one of them, and maybe we didn't.
After the last police vehicle had passed, the barricades were quickly removed, the villagers returned to their homes and shops, the visitors climbed into their cars and drove off, and as for us... we packed up our tarp, hoisted our packs onto our backs, and shuffled off to our hotel - which was now open. The entire staff, it turned out, was watching the race as well.
We loosely followed the route of the race on subsequent days, and many of the towns and cities we walked through were decorated with banners featuring favorite sons, sculptures, stenciled streets, and brightly painted bicycles. The racers made much better time than we did, of course, so we didn't see anymore of the Tour de France after that first day.
Some Tour trivia:
The first Tour de France was in 1903. For the first two years, each stage was so long that the riders would start one day, ride through the night and finish the next afternoon. After a few incidents where riders were accosted and/or beaten up by drunken rival fans, and several instances of cheating occurred during the night (one racer, believe it or not, loaded his bike onto a train and completed part of the race by rail), the stages were shortened so that they could be completed during the daylight hours.
Except for the war years of 1915-1918 and 1940-1946, the tour has been held every year since 1903.
The bikes of 1903 were far different from today's racers. A 1903 racing bike typically weighed 40 lbs. (18kg), and by race rules, could only have one gear. Today's racing bikes must weigh no less than 15 lbs. (6.8kg) and have 20-22 gears. The gear cassettes are changed to provide different gear ratios depending on the terrain.
A racer will burn about 4500 calories a day, or almost 100,000 calories for the race. That's equivalent to 385 Big Mac's or 182 Big Mac meals.
Three cyclists have died while competing in the Tour de France; two due to crashes and one from heart failure.
Around 12 million spectators line the route each year, the most to watch any one sporting event in the world.
About 3.5 billion people tune in to watch the event on tv. Compare that to the 125 million who watch the Super Bowl.
For the last decade, Americans haven't participated much in the Tour de France. Last year saw five American racers and this year there were only four, none of whom are in the top fifty positions in the standings as I write this.
There are several coveted jerseys:
Yellow: at the end of each stage, the racer who has the lowest total cumulative time is given the yellow jersey to wear the next day. This is the general classification leader.
Green: for each stage, the top ten finishers are awarded points, with first place getting ten points and tenth place getting one point. The racer who has the most points at the end of each stage wears the green jersey the next day. This is the point classification leader.
White with red dots: the first ten racers to complete each of the mountain passes is awarded points, with first place getting the most points and last place getting the fewest. The amount of points awarded for each mountain climb is based on the steepness and length of the climb. The racer with the most points at the end of each stage wears the white with red dotted jersey the next day. This is the mountain classification leader.
White: the racer who is younger than 26 that has the lowest cumulative time at the end of each stage is given the white jersey to wear the next day. This is the young rider classification.
The rider that is awarded the yellow jersey at the end of the last stage is the winner of the Tour de France.
This year, the total prize money awarded will be just under €2,300,000 ($2,576,000), and the winner of the race will get €500,000 ($560,000). This seems like a lot, but it's pretty measly compared to other sports. For example, the winner of the men's singles at Wimbledon makes somewhere around $1,500,000, and the winner of the Masters golf title takes home more than $2,000,000.
Watching the Tour de France was a fine, fun experience and I'm happy we happened upon it. On the other hand, I'm also pleased that we didn't travel all the way from Las Vegas for the sole purpose of watching a stage of the Tour de France. Of course, if they could find some Shriners, baton twirlers and a few fire trucks to liven up the prelude to the race, I might reconsider...