Monday, July 23, 2007

Le Plaisir de Vous Revoir

One of the most frustrating things about the Tour is that you have to buzz through so many wonderful places at high speed. The only consolation is that you get to go back to some of the same places year after year and take small repeat bites of the same apple.
The Tour usually skirts the Mediterranean Sea every year on its way between the Pyrenees and the Alps, which gives me a chance to visit one of my favorite spots in the world. I love it so much, in fact, that I'm not giving it away, other than to say that it's on an inland body of water about 20 minutes from a major highway. It's a tranquil village near beaches and oyster beds and flocks of flamingos, and I don't know anywhere else like it in France.
The hotel owners know me by now. They know I will arrive late, tired and sweaty, and that I'll want a table for one at their wonderful seafood restaurant, and that I'll bring a paperback and linger a long time. It happened to be Bastille Day on one of my visits, and I watched enthralled as the surrounding communities set off their fireworks shows one by one into the night sky. Another time, I watched a crew from a Belgian TV station, who also apparently were Tour regulars, devour two enormous, multi-level seafood towers like so many sharks.
Leaving and plunging back into the madness is always really hard.
My Tour waystations aren't always oases of this particular kind. I mentioned in a previous post that Toulouse -- an unavoidable destination in any Tour itinerary -- poses special problems for my GPS-challenged mind. My place there sits in a completely nondescript industrial park-type area just off the ring road, but I know how to find it, which is key. It's clean and has all the basics, including a night shift guy who will draw you a draft beer at any hour. I booked it for three nights this year and used it as a hub for several stages.
I hadn't ventured into Toulouse proper in a few years, since a very unfortunate experience in which I became so lost in the maze (to be fair, the entire downtown was under construction at the time) that the hotel proprietors, assuming I would never make it, sold the room out from under me. But a colleague talked me into it last night after we were finished writing our stories off the scintillating Plateau de Beille stage. Knowing my Toulousophobia, he offered to lead me in. That plan worked fine until he swept over two lanes and nipped onto an exit ramp I couldn't get to because of onrushing traffic.
I got off at the next exit and immediately felt a Zen calm descend. It's good to face your worst fears. I kept following signs for the centre ville, communicating with my friend by telephone, and eventually popped out in the Place du Capitole, and it was worth the journey. Here is the view from the dinner table:

Much like a sprinter on an unfamiliar course finish, I needed another lead-out to the autoroute, but I found my little industrial park palace without incident and was unaccountably proud of myself.
Tonight I head for Pau, and in a Tour first for me, will have back-to-back stays of three nights apiece in the same place. I always book the same joint in Pau, too. It's not at all fancy, but it's a short walk from the press center, the stage start and the sweet little pedestrian area where everyone -- riders, race staff, journalists alike -- gathers on the rest day for lunch, dinner and drinks.
There are always other Tour writers at this hotel. Because we usually arrive in the middle of the night from some godforsaken spot in the Pyrenees, long after the owner has gone to bed, he gives us the secret code to open the door and leaves our keys with room numbers and names attached in a white cabinet in the hallway.
I generally call the hotel proprietor every year the day the Tour route is announced to reserve my room. Who wants to take chances with such a jewel? This year, however, I forgot, and phoned him in a panic three days later. "Madame DeSimone,'' he said. "I have saved a room for you. How many nights?''
Many French hotels still prefer to get a real, live fax confirming your reservation rather than a mere ephemeral e-mail. When I send mine off to places like this, I always include a little catchphrase in the flowery style people expect of business letters in France. "It'll be a great pleasure to stay with you again,'' I write, and I mean it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

My Home is Your Chateau

Here's where I woke up yesterday morning. It was a place blissfully without high-speed Internet access, which is probably why I slept so well. Much as I'm indebted to technology, I firmly believe the human brain is not wired to be in touch with others 24/7.

The Tour route this year has been a good one in terms of the "transfers'' -- the euphemism for the times the entire race entourage has to drive hundreds of miles between the finish of one stage and the start of the next.

Tuesday night's transfer looked short on paper, but it wasn't. The stage ended in Briancon and the start Wednesday morning was in Tallard, which meant that all of us had to traverse Gap.

This part of France is lovely and very hard to get around. The roads are all two-lanes and there are a ton of trucks sharing them with you. Lodgings are also few and far between.

Gap is a bottleneck under the best of circumstances -- the last time the Tour had a stage start there a couple of years ago, I got caught in a dead standstill in traffic with some non-amused drivers of Tour team buses, and saw the vaudeville spectacle of riders pouring out of the buses, hopping on their bikes and weaving through the jam to make sure they signed in on time.

I didn't have a room, and the race had booked up Gap, so I decided to get a place north of there near a village called Corps. What I ended up with was, in fact, a chateau -- just a modest one for $100 a night on a ridge overlooking the road that goes between Gap and Grenoble. I arrived very late, which always throws the cooks off, but they found a way to feed me. I ate almost alone under the stars; my only company was the chat de la maison prowling around, meowing and deigning to be petted.

This morning, the lady of the house, Mme. Charpentier, who grew up a couple villages away, told me she loves Americans. I could tell she meant it. "I was born on the 19th of August, 1944,'' she said. "That was the day the Americans came down la route nationale to liberate our village. My mother was only a couple of hours away from delivering me. I believe I wouldn't be here if they hadn't come.''

The first time I experienced this kind of volunteered information was when I was a teenager, hiking in Alsace. When I camped with French folks in those days, there was no freeze-dried spaghetti or other such astronaut food. You went to a village in the evening and went shopping for some proper vittles. I became expert at making crepes on a campstove.

I was assigned to go to the butcher's one day, and as soon as I started speaking, the woman waiting on me picked up on my accent and asked where I was from. When I told her, she came out from behind the counter and hugged me. "I haven't seen an American since the war,'' she said. I was startled, and very moved.

Years later, I was touring with my family in the Perigord region and rented a very dusty former parsonage adjacent to a church and graveyard. I saw a woman tending the graves one morning and noticed that many of the deaths had been recorded on the same date. I inquired about it, and she told me several of the men buried there were her brothers and father -- machine-gunned by the Nazis along with most of the men in the town because they were suspected of being in the Resistance. This woman was 9 at the time. I asked her how much she remembered. "Like it was yesterday,'' she said fiercely, 50 years later. She still lived next door and said she could never consider moving.

I never travel in France without thinking about how much people suffered here while two world wars were fought in their backyards and city streets.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Trying to capture the vistas in the Parc National de la Vanoise is a pretty futile exercise, but I went ahead and tried anyway. These were some of the views I had when I came over the Col de l'Iseran from the start in Val d'Isere Tuesday morning.

First, of course, I had to get over the Col, which gave me ample opportunity to reflect on how Europeans are Different Than Us when it comes to mountain roads.

By way of background, it's somewhat remarkable that I am in the midst of covering my 8th Tour de France. I have a few disadvantages as a Tour reporter. First, I'm claustrophobic. Not useful in the crowd scenes at the finish lines, which are rivalled only by the end zones in Central American soccer stadiums (where I've also been foolish enough to go). Second, I have no sense of direction, something that would come in handy while driving 3,000 miles in three weeks.

Third, I'm afraid of heights. REALLY afraid of heights, to the point where seeing someone ELSE standing at the edge of a sheer dropoff makes me nauseous.

If you've driven over any European mountain ranges, you know that the average person over here negotiates them at five times the speed we would. That's not what fazes me -- if someone's tailgating, I just pull the hell over and let them go on their suicidal way. No, what gets me is the people who drive up the Tour course on a climb like the Iseran, or the Col du Galibier, which we also summited Tuesday, and park their top-heavy camping vans at the edge of monstruous cliffs with no guard rails, apparently oblivious to the fact that one stiff breeze could send them pinwheeling, Thelma-and-Louise-like, to their deaths.

Then, they get out and stand there with their toes sticking out over the abyss.

I can't look at them.

So I waited until I was on the south side of the mountain to get out and take any photos, although I did snap this one of people playing in the snow near the top of the pass, from my car window, mind you, in a sheltered spot:

Creativity knows no bounds at the Tour.

The south side, as I said, was even more amazing than I remembered it. I hadn't seen it without snow since I hiked there as a kid. I did go back to Val d'Isere a few years ago, before the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, to talk to a young, then-unknown maverick downhill skier named Bode Miller. We sat in the U.S. team hotel lobby for about two hours and shot the breeze about his unusual upbringing. The next day he went out and won his first World Cup gold medal, so if you're superstitious, you can either credit or blame me for everything that's happened since.

In summer, the wildflowers alone are worth the trip. I probably would have stopped and gazed at them longer, but every time I got out of my car, I could hear the faint, percussive boom-boom-boom of the trashy music emanating from the publicity caravan behind me, sort of like an army of Orcs in pursuit of Frodo. As I explained in a previous post, it's absolutely critical for my Tour sanity that I stay ahead of the parade, so I got back into my car and left this lovely place behind.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Mountain Jam

When you get a media credential for the Tour, you receive a big, heavy stack of books, all of which, unfortunately, come in handy and have to be hauled around.
There's the priceless livre de route, or road book, that has the stage map for every day, diagrams of the start and finish, and the off-course route if you want to drive straight to the finish. There's the histoire book, with cumulative stats, facts and figures (this is the one that has now scrubbed Bjarne Riis and partially scrubbed Floyd Landis). There's the guide touristique, which has a textbook-like rundown of the history, economy, literature and gastronomic delights in each town and region the Tour passes through. There's a lodging book that lists the locations, names and phone numbers of all the team hotels. And there are two rulebooks -- one for the riders and race itself, and one that details all the stuff you should and shouldn't do to avoid having your car thrown off the course. These latter rules are mostly common sense, like not driving too fast and not talking on cell phones while driving, and they are widely ignored.

There are certain Tour rules that don't appear anywhere in print. Here are a few of them:

1) Eat whenever there is food available.
2) Buy gas whenever you see a station with no lines, as opposed to when you really need it.
3) Never leave the press room without grabbing several free bottles of water from the big tub.
4) If there's no parking space, improvise.

The above may sound trivial, but when you're driving a couple of hundred miles a day under severe time pressures, they become paramount. They become especially important when the Tour enters the mountains, as it did today. They become cardinal on a summer weekend, and critical on Bastille Day.

I broke rule No. 2 on the way to Le Grand Bornand, and wound up behind a long queue of clueless holiday travelers at a rest stop. Having a Tour sticker on your car tends to make you a little imperious, and I was out ranting at folks who pumped gas, then left their car next to the pump instead of getting it out of the way while they went inside le boutique and shopped for Cokes and cookies before paying.
Following rule No. 4, I stashed my car on the sidewalk in LGB, which the Tour passage had transformed from sleepy Alpine oasis to Woodstock, complete with a few guys standing around their trailer wearing '70s-sized Speedos and nothing else. Did I need to see that?

When I got to the press center at the finish, I obeyed rule No. 1 even though I wasn't hungry -- a good thing, considering what happened later -- and remembered rule no. 3 when I started out for the long trek to the finish line and the team buses. When it's hot and you're at altitude, you can dehydrate fast and that does not help interview technique. You have to think like a camel.

I wrote for a few hours and then took off for nearby Annecy, where I was staying the night. "Nearby Annecy" proved to be an oxymoron, as I completely spaced on Tour Rule No. 5:

5) Anytime you assume a drive during the Tour will be easy, it turns ugly on you.

Navigating the Alps or Pyrenees during the Tour is very much like listening to the old Allman Brothers number, "Mountain Jam,'' that occupied both sides of a 33 rpm record album (actually half of the double album "Eat a Peach"). It began as a riff on Donovan's "There Is A Mountain" and evolved into a freeform showcase for all the band members. You have to stay loose; you have to be ready for some psychedelic experiences; and you have to endure some long, pointless drum solos between great melodies. (My apologies to Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson, who actually combined for the drum duet.)

Annecy, where I'd been once before, has an old center and pedestrian area built around a lake, and more modern sprawl surrounding it. I remembered having a tough time finding my way through the maze of streets on my previous visit. Some French towns are just Bermuda triangles that swallow you whole no matter how ardently you study the map.
This time I stumbled into Dante's eighth or ninth circle of hell. Annecy apparently throws one of the biggest Bastille Day fireworks shows in the region, attracting tens of thousands of people, all of whom walked in front of my car at one point or another Saturday night. The other issue was that the very nice lady I phoned at the hotel, like most French folks, can't give directions. They tell you to follow signs for destinations like "downtown" or "the train station,'' and invariably, the signs run out and you're lost. (In Toulouse, the biggest directional black hole in France, people advise heading for particular parking structures.)

I drove in very, very slow circles for more than an hour, engulfed by mobs of people eating, drinking, blocking intersections and having a wonderful time until I stumbled on my hotel around 11:30 p.m., more by chance than skill. Then the charming side of French hoteliers kicked in. Very few of them will allow you to go hungry, and when I mentioned I hadn't eaten, the lovely night shift guy threw together an assiette froide, which has saved me from starvation many times. It's basically whatever is left in the hotel fridge -- greens, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, cold cuts, cheese, olives, etc. -- arranged like a work of art no matter what time it is.

Tomorrow is Tignes and the first gear-grinding trek through the delirious crowds. I have a full tank of gas, but I'll buy more on the way.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Le Jour de Gloire

When I described the relative absence of rider-oriented signs along the Tour route, I neglected to mention that most of the ones I HAVE seen were in support of French riders, like these kids cheering on Christophe Moreau at one of the starts this week. (The kid with the Spanish poster must be an iconoclast.) A TV crew walked by, and the kids' chaperone said "C'est la tele!'' and like kids everywhere, they went wild for a moment, then calmed down and went back to craning their necks. Their Hero arrived shortly afterwards, doing his vaguely Roger Daltrey thing. The throwback jersey he's wearing is the French national road champion's getup he earned last month.

The French are hungry for a podium, and Moreau, the 36-year-old, much-traveled, once-disgraced, now redeemed, occasionally hot-headed dean of the Gallic riding corps, is their best hope. Moreau was 10 the last time a local won the race, and there are various explanations about why that is.

A somewhat depressing theory popular in France is that the 1998 Festina scandal ushered in an era of stricter enforcement here than in other countries, thus putting French riders at a disadvantage (i.e. they couldn't cheat as easily) compared with the peloton as a whole. Some students of the scene say gifted young athletes began avoiding cycling in droves because it was perceived as grimy and un-glam, choosing soccer -- which had its zenith here the same summer cycling had its nadir, as Les Bleus won the '98 World Cup in Paris -- or snowboarding, or just about anything else instead.

Some of the riders who have been the most outspoken advocates of clean sport have been French, but as we've learned to our sorrow, talk is sometimes just that.

The French cycling federation has mandated longitudinal testing -- long-term compilation of blood profiles that can flag suspicious deviations before they're actually positives -- for some years now. This is the same methodology being used by the teams doing so-called "internal testing,'' like CSC, T-Mobile and Slipstream.

Moreau was one of the riders who admitted to taking part in the Festina team's systematic doping and served a nine-month suspension in the days before the WADA code standardized punishment. He confessed rather quickly and didn't even miss the Tour the following year. He later jumped to Credit Agricole, which has maintained a decent reputation (although CA just announced they're ending sponsorship after 10 years, which is about the longest shelf life you can expect in this sport). He's now having the season of his life with the Ag2R team (possibly one of the most awkward team names I've ever had to type) at a time when most riders are well on the south side of their careers. There are lots of people by the side of the road who want to trust him. Can we?

We followers of cycling -- journalists and fans alike -- are just now learning to pick our way through some of these minefields. I will be very interested in what media coverage will be like here if Moreau or another French rider pulls off the sentimental win on Bastille Day. As the national anthem goes, le jour de gloire, or the glorious day, has arrived. It would be nice if the result was gloriously earned.

Bastille Day means horrible traffic (especially when it falls on a weekend, as it does this year) and lots of revelers keeping you up if you're in a populated area. On the other hand, tonight I arrived in Villefranche-sur-Saone dead tired, a million miles from tomorrow's start or finish (and surprisingly, encountered other Tour journalists here -- rooms were ridiculously tight in the finish/start city of Bourg-en-Bresse), and opened my 4th floor window and saw the gorgeous sight of fireworks peppering the skyline.

The real Tour starts tomorrow. It's freakin' hot and we're all about to start losing water weight.

A Personal Detour

Sorry to have been off radar the last couple of days. I've been grieving the sudden loss of my cousin Gary, who died this week after a short illness. He was only 56. Gary was a gregarious, original personality with intense blue eyes and a thick head of prematurely white hair who could do anything with his hands -- sketch, grow 10-foot-high tomato plants, cook an Italian feast for 100 people, or renovate a house. When I was little, he helped teach me to play pool, and he used to turn himself inside out to make me laugh. I'd give anything to be at his wake tonight where many amazing stories will be told.

I'm sure those of you with close extended clans can relate. First cousins are your peers, the people you imagine standing with you through life as the older generation passes away. My family mosaic has been rearranged and I can't quite get used to the new picture. I've been driving the roads of France through tears. Today I hope to feel in a more celebratory mood about Gary's life. He devoured it. That's certainly what he would have wanted and I can hear his gruff voice scolding me for making such a fuss.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

You Know The Music

You never know what you're going to encounter at the Tour start village. These gentlemen provided entertainment in Villers-Cotterets and then, I think, went on a foxhunt. But first, they waited along with me to get up close and personal with Team CSC.

Working the start, for a journalist, is usually a lot of effort balanced against very little face time. The traffic getting in is insane. The exit is insane. If you do what I did today and park in "presse avant,'' meaning I drove the course ahead of the race, you have to jump when the Tour rings a series of bells, get in your car and vroom off (think checkered flag) or you'll be blocked for hours.

In the little bit of time when you're meandering through the team bus area, grabbing a rider here or there for a quick interview, you risk being elbowed out of position by a) a kid wielding an item he/she wants autographed, b) an adult fan wielding an item he/she wants autographed and a digital camera or cell phone, or c) a TV cameraman who doesn't care if he gives you a concussion by whacking you with the non-business end of his equipment. I get testy on these occasions and swear in two languages. (This tends not to happen when I work in MLB clubhouses or NBA locker rooms). The foxhunt crew was most civilized and didn't clock anyone with their French horns.

Then I drove the entire 193-kilometer course because I wanted to see what the crowds were like. It took me five hours. The first two or three were enjoyable. I saw about 14,000 people I wanted to talk to and things I wanted to photograph, but I held off, just wanting to get an overall impression. There's a feature story every five feet. There are big family groups having elaborate picnics -- the kind you might see at an upscale outdoor concert venue like Ravinia in Chicago, or Tanglewood in western Mass. There are workers on their lunch break perched on tractors or uplifted steam shovels. There are screeching day camp groups and senior citizens with faces for the ages, watching the circus go by with rather nonplussed expressions.

What I didn't see were a lot of banners touting specific riders, which made me wonder.

I also wondered during my many solo hours in the car whether it's the right thing this year to write, as I sometimes do, offbeat stories about the characters and atmosphere of the Tour after the deluge of sobering revelations about doping in the last 12 months.

More on that later in the race.

The end of my trip was less fabulous. I have a blue sticker on my Tour car, which in the hierarchy of things means I can drive the course but can't pass the publicity caravan. This is a prudent rule change made a few years ago to cut down the number of cars slaloming through the caravan and lessen the chance of accidents, but it's a pain in the bumper when you run into the butt end of the caravan and have to slow to a crawl.

The guys in the caravan caboose reminded me of the rule, and asked me to turn my headlights on. We crept along for a while, and then they decided to take a bathroom break. They pulled over. I pulled over. They stopped. I stopped. They emerged from the car and with a furtive backwards glance at me, ran up the embankment and took a leak. I busied myself with Tour literature and didn't join them. They got back in the car and got back on the road and so did I. Such is life when you're low on the Tour car totem pole.

About 30 kilometers from the end of the stage, I saw Devil Man. Everyone who has driven the Tour is familiar with Devil Man and his getup. Usually DM cheers me slightly because it means I'm getting close to the finish. Today, in a sign of my mentality at this Tour, I thought, "Cycling has its demons, and he's not one of them.''

Matthieu Desplats, the efficient and irreverent guy who has run the Tour press room for the last many years, once told me he knew I'd get along fine at the Tour, with all its weird bureaucracy and sublime to ridiculous sideshows. "Tu connais la musique,'' he said. You know the music. It was a compliment. You have to deal with the genre changes at this event, which range from classical to John Cage to marching band and everything in between.