The most glorious and heartbreaking of cycling races, a pell-mell journey of three weeks to Paris.
I was late, oh so late, and my car's GPS had expired in the midst of remote vineyards and stands of cypress and golden fields of humanoid-looking sunflowers. So this American hurtled down medieval farm roads making wrong turns after wrong turns until, miracle sacre, I suddenly found myself at Hotel La Réserve, a handsome country hotel with manicured grounds and a glittering swimming pool. Attractive, if anxious-looking, young men and women parted, and at their center, sitting on a white couch, was poor Thibaut Pinot, the great hope to capture this tour for France.
He wore a 1,000-yard stare.
Tragedy had befallen him a day earlier. The Tour de France peloton, the amoeba-like mass of more than 100 cyclists who ride fast and hip-to-hip, had come to one of the ubiquitous roundabouts when Pinot and his team made a split-second decision to go left instead of right.
That exposed all to cutting crosswinds. He fell dozens of seconds off the pace, and that might as well have been two hours.
Pinot could not bring himself to say much at that news conference. So his manager, Marc Madiot, who had a great mane of white hair and a defiant jut to his chin, commanded the couch like a captain on his poop deck. As my French consists of a bouillabaisse of nouns and verbs, and conjugations that too rarely align, I understood little other than his many recitations of "jamais," as in never give up, never surrender, never.
Afterward I sidled up to him and asked to have a few words in English. Madiot studied me wreathed in a truly fine sneer and said: "En Francais! Seulement!" In French, only.
I was hungry and tired and feared my inner New Yorker coming on, seulement. Our country has enough diplomatic problems in Europe these days. I nodded and returned to those medieval roads.
So it goes in the Tour de France, the grandest of the world's cycling races, a 3500km pell-mell journey from the cobbled streets of Belgium across much fought-over Alsace-Lorraine to the scorching hills of the Côte d'Azur to the thoroughly humbling climbs of 1500 to 1800 metres in the Pyrenees and Alps and finally three weeks on down the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
I had parachuted in when the race was seven days on, which is like nosing your canoe into Class IV rapids. I caught up with the cyclists as they cut across the Massif Central, an austere region of extinct volcanoes and lonely forests and white-tailed hawks soaring above chalky gorges.
I found my way to Lacalm, a 185-person hamlet that sits at 1125m, the highest point of the race this day. I had travelled remote roads, country lanes where you had to eye oncoming drivers and decide which of you would roll onto the grass to let the other pass.
As my belief in reincarnation is less than firm, I deferred.
Downtown Lacalm had a few dozen medieval homes, a shop or four and old bikes decorated merrily with paper carnations. A wrought iron crucifix with a writhing alabaster Jesus loomed over the town.
Up the road, we heard a great roar — un rugissement! — and I craned my neck looking for riders. None. Instead, it was the carnival that traveled across France with the riders, a collection of caterwauling, beeping knockoffs of Thanksgiving Day floats, sponsored by fried chicken and optical chains, sausage brands and an amusement park and Disney. Men rode stationary bikes atop these wobbling floats, and helpers sat in the cabs and tossed key chains and sun visors and candy at the feet of spectators. I got winged by a tchotchke advertising a medical service.
The race this day stretched 218km and came to an end in Albi, a handsome medieval city on the Tarn River. A horde of cyclists sprinted in after 5pm, down a shaded avenue of shedding plane trees, the crowds six, seven deep, waving flags, loosening whistles and raising glasses of wine and beer.
Earlier, this same Pinot had made his fateful decision to go left rather than right, and he was disconsolate as he rolled to a stop, enfolded by sweaty television crews.
Two of his team's soigneurs (caretakers) sprinted over with bottle of water and a towel, trying to wipe him down.
What, reporters asked in four languages at once, happened out there?
Pinot shrugged and began to peddle away. "What do you want me to say?" he said, before adding that it had been a lousy day, using a profanity for "lousy."
It is these vagaries, the unexpected roundabout, the too merry man waving a wineglass midroad, the great green umbrella that was upended by the wind on an earlier day and landed in the middle of the peloton like Mary Poppins on LSD, that make this race so maddening and dangerous and, yes, enjoyable. There is also the ever-present and always unspoken shadow of doping, a generational elixir for cyclists that just might be a touch rarer today.
Early the next morning, I wandered over to the CCC Pro Team's bus. I fell into conversation with Jim Ochowicz, who manages the team and is a veteran of many biking wars. He spoke of France, where the passion for cycling edges into religious passion.
"This is the Super Bowl," he said, but with a difference. Football fields are 100 yards with every detail controlled and manicured to the manic-obsessive inch.
"Our venue is every road in France, and each year the route is different," he said. "If they are doing road work, if there is a pothole, you have a split second to deal with it."
A bit of math: Over the 3,481 kilometers of the 2019 Tour, there are 3,576 obstacles: 404 roundabouts, 308 sections that narrow precipitously, 28 hairpin turns and 334 speed bumps, not to mention rail crossings and drunks.
As we spoke, cyclists glided effortlessly in and out of the crowds, like so many serene goldfish in a bowl. Imperceptibly, at first, a tension built, and I said goodbye and moved with a herd of reporters down the road, following the bikes. Bands played, townspeople waved and the peloton began to move out of Albi, the temperatures already in the mid-80s and the cyclists with more than 100 miles of peddling ahead.
Written by: Michael Powell
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES