It was a childhood case of chicken pox which first introduced me to the Tour de France. The year was 1989, fortunately a very choice vintage indeed, in which Minnesota’s Greg Lemond clawed back 58 seconds between Versailles and Paris to defeat the hapless Parisian ex-dental student Laurent Fignon. I remember my confusion, a common response among those new to the Tour, as to which of the two was actually the Frenchman.
I’ve followed every Tour since. The time commitment involved has ranged from glimpsing the almost non-existent American television coverage during the five victories (1991-1995) of the inscrutably placid Miguel Indurain, to the seven “all-Lance all-the-time years” of 1999-2005 and now to the luxuriant four hours a night of live coverage provided by SBS here in Australia.
I love the Tour, even when it is very badly behaved indeed. In the years when I gave up bike racing myself, I always followed the Tour each July. And following entails what a professor of comparative literature might call ‘close reading.’ It means enlivening a steamy transitional stage though Provence by scrutinising the colour of the riders’ handlebar tape. It means catching yourself pondering why a certain rider is mixing a 2009 Shimano Dura Ace crankset with 2008 gear shifters. The Tour is one of the few contemporary things I know—whether buildings, movies or books—which rewards endless scrutiny. With a Gehry building or a DeLillo novel, however great, there always comes the point at which the eager reader must pull back for fear of being disappointed by the details.
The Tour gives us fresh white handlebar tape, the mute shiny weave of carbon fibre, the domestiques bearing jerseys full of water bottles for their teammates. There is the glory of an unfolding landscape, like a three week long tracking shot. Best of all are the riders themselves, the personal qualities they come to embody as their limits are tested. The Tour can be seen as a kind of finely balanced ecosystem in which — though there are many paths to survival, or even glory — nature is always a mean and indifferent taskmaster. Perhaps the worst indictment of doping is the way it upsets this ecology.
Imagine a lush rainforest. As you stare from the comfort of a rare clearing, as your eyes adjust to darkness, what appears to be undifferentiated rank greenery gradually reveals a diverse profusion of life. There are monkeys and spiders, parrots and panthers. There are legendary champions like Indurain and Eddy Merckx who coexist with strange creatures like David Moncoutié, the Frenchman who, unfailingly, year after year, rides at the tail of the pack because he is afraid of riding in close proximity to his colleagues. He wastes energy back there until the day he decides to seek redemption in the form of a stage win, preferably on Bastille Day. The French contingent are no doubt haunted by the fact that none have won their home tour since 1985. Time may prove Fignon’s loss of the Maillot Jaune on the final day in 1989 to be a curse of the Bambino moment, or, more likely, the French are simply victims of the race’s prestige and the growing internationalism of the field.
The Tour has of course been hard to love in recent years. The editions tarnished by doping — 1998, 2006, 2007, and who knows which others — threaten to reveal the whole sunny yellow undertaking as an illusion. The ghastly nadir of my Tour obsession would have to be the spectre of 2006 — a testosterone-juiced Floyd Landis, raised by Mennonites, effortlessly riding away from the entire peloton the day after he himself was shattered and left behind. And yet there was never any question that the Tour would live on.
I mention the odious Landis because I find it hard to separate that image from its narrators, two superstars of English-speaking cyclesport, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. The television commentary of Phil and Paul, Liggett and Sherwen, is inseparable from the race itself. This year we learned from Phil and Paul that their car was blown up by Basque separatists in 1988, obliterating, much to Phil’s delight, Paul’s music collection. We learned that newts live in a pond atop Alpe d’Huez, and that Paul, when he rode the Tour de France, was voted the most amiable rider by Belgians who didn’t know what amiable meant. Paul takes joy in the details of passing chateaux and bauxite mines while Phil seems able to identify, appreciate and read the mind of the most obscure rider from the merest helicopter-elevated glimpse. Any bike racer of your acquaintance who denies that P+P’s disembodied patter has occasionally narrated their own solo training rides is lying. And they are “bike racers,” not “cyclists.” Phil and Paul speak the Anglo Saxon language; a struggling rider is suffering, yes, but he’s also “digging into his suitcase of pain.” Their neologisms have spawned websites, books and fan clubs, which only tends to undersell the quiet warmth of their friendship, or the brutality with which their innocent enthusiasm for a fraud like Landis has occasionally been repaid. None of us can protect ourselves from the consequences of misplaced enthusiasm.
This year’s race was probably the best since ’89. Less than a minute separated the top six riders until well into the third week. Among them were a silent Russian, a rough-looking Austrian and an American riding for a team sponsored by manufacturers of GPS systems and burritos — two accessories loved by all bike racers. The final wearer of the Maillot Jaune was the serene Carlos Sastre, who lead the devastatingly Yankee-esque team CSC-Saxo Bank. The runner up, as in 2007, was Aussie Cadel Evans, a nuggetty little battler saddled with an inept low budget team and a body battered by a high speed crash in the second week. Sastre won in the fairest squarest way imaginable, riding alone up 21 hairpin bends to win on Alpe d’Huez. The race welcomed an unusual number of young, hopefully clean, riders such as South African John-Lee Augustyn, who led the race over the highest pass in Europe only to miss a corner on the other side. As his bike tumbled to the bottom of the valley, Augustyn, “independent as a hog on ice,” as Tom Waits might say, staggered back up the shale covered slope with the help of a spectator. The Col de la Bonette-Restefond looked like the surface of the moon. Later two wild horses galloped along a faint track beside the peloton.
Sport is ridiculous if you look too close. Thyroid cases slamming balls through baskets, hitting orbs to the fences of lyric little bandboxes, simulating trench warfare with padded shoulders. I fell out with a friend in high school because of an ongoing argument about the purity of sport. I, having fallen out of love with the expense and frustration of bike racing, argued that running was the only pure sport. I take it all back. Now I understand the elevating power of the bicycle. It is a child’s first taste of freedom, it helps carry the baguettes back for lunch and it alone enables men to lap France every July. I will keep watching no matter what happens.