Tour de PEZ: Mountains of Memories, Memories of Mountains
As I write this, I’m somewhere over Canada, 37,000 feet in the air, stuffed into seat 46C on a packed 747.
My body is here on this airplane, but my head is still somewhere in France. I just can’t get the memories of this year’s Tour out of my mind. The “inside the barricades” access that comes with being part of the PEZ-Crew for the Tour is truly unforgettable. To be a part of this mammoth event, and see it from close-range, can not help but change you a bit.
During the 10 days I covered the race, we tried to give you a daily dose of what it’s like to be along the side of the road as the Tour rolled past. Each day’s story had a special theme or focus, and we tried to bring you just the right amount of words and pictures to illustrate the story du jour.
But some things we saw and did just didn’t fit into the pieces that we posted. We’re left with some great photos and fun moments, and this final “catch-all” report is a way to share some of those with all the PEZ-Fans.
Let’s start in London, on the very first day of the ’07 Tour. While Nick O’Brien had official PEZ duties for the UK stages, I wanted to be there to watch the pageantry and passion of that very first day’s TT.
Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov was one of the clear favorites to be on the podium in Paris. Vino had a strong team, he seemed to have hit his fitness peak at the right time, but… luck was not on his side. One of the inevitable crashes that occur during the first week of every Tour essentially took Vino out of the running, but…
…since betting on the Tour is legal in London, I decided to drop a five-pound note on Vino to win it all. My hopes for a return on my investment yo-yo-ed right along with Vino’s ups and downs – a win in the TT, a total bonk the next day, then another win in the Pyrenees. If not for that early crash, ya gotta wonder how things might have been different for Vino…and then there was that blood doping thing, but I honestly don’t want to fall into that pit right now.
There’s no back-story like that for this photo of Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd…I just think it’s a cool picture.
The start of Stage One in London the next day was incredible. The crowd was estimated at upwards of one million people, the pack of riders filled The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace, and for once, the not-so-luvely English weather cooperated. The Biblical rains they’ve been having this summer held off just long enough to send the riders on their way toward France.
This one needs a bit of ‘splaining. Back in Italy, at the Giro in May, Dave Zabriskie came up to me and said, “Don’t you know what when you come to these European races, you’re supposed to bring me Peet’s coffee from California?”
Um, OK Dave…what kind? “Ethiopian blend, on a #5 grind.”
So I showed up with a half-pound of Peet’s for Dave at the starting line in London. Check out the ear-to-ear grin. Too bad the rest of his Tour wasn’t as pleasant.
By the way…the daily stage starts are always right on time…when they say they’re going to push-off at noon, they leave exactly at noon. But the finishes are another matter. Depending on the pace of the pack on any given day, you can wait for as much as an hour and a half for the riders to arrive. It all depends on how hard they want to hammer it.
On the first stage out of England, in Diksmuide, Belgium, the whole town turned out to watch the last Belgian rider cross the “butter line” that they’d painted on the road. They wanted to promote an upcoming post-Tour crit in Diksmuide, so they awarded 250 kilos of butter to the last Belgian across that line.
This guy was part of the entertainment that day. I don’t know what was more entertaining, his accordion music, or his fashion sense. Nice.
The following day, in Tournai, Belgium, I asked one of the lovely locals if she’d pose for a Daily Distraction shot. She was more than happy to help…and now I know why. She’s a budding singer, so in one of the photos, she held up a poster for her next gig. I’m sorry that we missed her “Attitude Show” that week.
On our first day in France, we went to the start at Villers-Cotterets. At the village they set-up near the start of every stage, we saw Cofidis rider Stephan Auge just sittin’ around shooting the bull with some of the sponsors. I couldn’t resist getting a photo with the day’s holder of the polka dot climber’s jersey, but what really makes this pic for me is the cheesy grin on Auge’s face. I can only imagine all the crap these guys have to put up with from jabloneys like me during the Tour.
All they really want to do is ride their bicycles, but the smart ones understand that sponsor schmoozing and media mugging are things that, in the long run, can only help them and their sport.
We were fortunate to get to know some of the podium girls who grace the daily jersey ceremonies. The girls were all very accessible and agreeable, but my two faves had to be Laura and Emanuelle, the girls who work for Brandt and present the “most combative” honor each day. These two were exceptionally open and accommodating, and their sponsor mentors were tremendously helpful, too. They even let us use their pressroom WiFi one day to file our story – much better than paying the 30 Euros that the charges for daily WiFi access – yup 30 Euros a day!
The day we spent on the side of the road with the Quick Step soigneurs was a blast. Just after we arrived at the day’s designated feed zone, I saw these fans sportin’ a nifty stars and stripes flag for George Hincapie. I walked up to ‘em and said, “You guys have got to be Americans, right?”
It turns out that they’re Belgian. …The shirtless guy on the left is the brother of Discovery director sportif Dirk Demol. Dirk is able to get these guys some nice team swag, and every now and then, he gets ‘em into some of the Disco events. Hence the support for Hincapie.
That same day, we watched the caravan roll by ahead of the pack of riders. The caravan is a show unto itself…dozens and dozens of vehicles and people, zooming along about an hour ahead of the race, promoting all kinds of products to the folks who line the roads every day.
Aquarel is the official water sponsor of the Tour, and atop one of their vehicles, they have a guy spraying water on unsuspecting fans. Sometimes the guy with the hose just goes nuts. On this day, he unloaded on some guy…absolutely drenched him, for no apparent reason other than the fact that he could.
The consolation prize… in exchange for a good soaking, the Aquarel folks tossed him an eight-pack of water bottles. On a hot day like this one, it was a helluva good gift, nevermind the soaking.
July 14th is Bastille Day in France, when the whole country celebrates the storming of the Paris prison in 1789. But not everyone is a Frenchman on that day…there were a few loyal Yanks sportin’ the stars and stripes, too.
No, these French gendarmes are not holding hands just ‘cuz they like each other… this is the human fence that’s set up at the stage finish every day to keep the hungry media at bay. Don’t get me wrong…our access to the race and the racers was great…but a chosen few media-types had even better access than us. They were the ones inside these human barricades.
There were times when I had to pinch myself… here we were, in the trusty PEZ-mobile, cruising down the middle of the course for the Tour de France, behind the caravan and just a few minutes ahead of the thundering peleton. Zoomin’ under the red kite at the 1km-to-go marker, with no one telling us to slow down or get the hell outta there…was pretty amazing.
There are some photos that have little, if anything, to do with the race, but they just seem to capture the spirit of the moment. This shot, of four boys waiting along the side of the road on the route to the Col du Tamie, is one of those photos. To me, this captures the essence of what it’s like to be a kid in France, on a care-free summer day, watching the best bike racers in the world.
But it wasn’t all open-access and takin’ the high road …let me show you the yin-and-yang of life on the Tour.
If you’re gonna be in Europe for two solid weeks, you either need to pack enough stuff to get you through the whole 14 days, or hope for a friendly laundry service along the way. Not wanting to overload myself with clothes, I opted for the latter…and spent a couple hours one morning washing and drying my stuff. Pretty glamorous, eh? Well…
…for two nights, my dinner was a late-night salad at McDonalds in Seynod, just outside of Annecy. Why McDonalds? Well, it’s cheap… and if you buy something, even a Coke for one Euro, they let you use their in-house WiFi for free. Such a deal!
So, this was my “office” for two nights of the Tour…but the next night…
…things were a little different. I was the guest of a Tour insider (who wishes to remain anonymous). The view from this restaurant was just spectacular…and quite a bit better than the scene at McDonald’s the night before. Needless to say, the dinner tab at this place was probably enough to feed you for a whole year at Mickey D’s.
But the next day…aaahhh, the next day…was magic.
The plan was to spend the Tour’s rest day riding the dreaded Col du Galibier. I spotted a good omen in a local Champion supermarket along the way…they actually sell PEZ candy here. I know, it’s not the same PEZ, but it’s still cool to see it in a French food store, and who doesn’t love Pez candy?
We rode the Galibier on the rest day, the day before the Tour hit this hill. Right outside of Valloire, at the base of the climb, the local street sweepers were cruising’ the course, doing their best to get all the little bits of stuff out of the riders’ path. Thanks, boys.
I won’t bore you by recounting the climb up the Galibier again, suffice to say that it was hors-beyotch, but topping out at an elevation of 2,645 meters is immensely satisfying.
Want to see what that climb looks like in miles and feet? Check out the stats from my Garmin GPS…just over 11 miles, an elevation of gain of more than 4,000 feet, and a top of about 8,700 feet. Ooohhh, yeah it hurt, real bad. But quitting before the summit was not an option. And descending back down to Valloire was a total blast.
After struggling up the hill the day before, I was blown away by the power and speed of the guys in the actual race. When Juan Mauricio Soler came across the top all alone, in no apparent sign of distress, he earned everyone’s respect. These guys are complete studs.
My final view of the Tour is perhaps my most vivid memory…the long line of riders, snaking their way down the back side of the Galibier, screamin’ toward the finish in Briancon. The power, and beauty, and pageantry, and history of the Tour de France are all wrapped-up in this one image.
This is the reason we all come to the Tour. This is truly a remarkable experience, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
…but first…can we follow the lead of this guy, and catch-up on some much-needed rest?
Vive la France…Vive le Tour.