Whenever I hear hardcore cycling fans explain the Tour de France to novices, they seem to emphasize one aspect of the race—the suffering—above the rest. Sure, they talk about the sprints and the hills and the strategy, and explain how the cobbles of northern France, when wet, make the road as slippery as a skating rink, but besides the route itself, the thread tying the Tour together is the suffering. The Tour de France is about one's ability to endure pain.
Think about the last time you went for a jog and decided to take it a little fast but then dialed it back because it hurt. I don't mean acute pain, though that's a factor too, but just the dull discomfort associated with prolonged physical exertion. Now imagine doing a marathon as fast as you can, running through that pain. Consider that the top finishers at this year's Boston Marathon—Meb Keflezighi and Rita Jeptoo—finished in 2:08:37 and 2:18:57, respectively. This is a long time to suffer, and those two were able to concentrate their personal suffering into the shortest term. In this year's Tour, the quickest finish so far was accomplished by the Dutch rider Lars Boom, who took Stage 5 in 3:18:35. Vincenzo Nibali, the Italian rider who, as I write, holds the yellow jersey, finished Stage 2 in 5:08:36. The first rest day this year was scheduled after 10 consecutive days of this kind of brutal suffering. The Tour is the world's foremost grind.
The Tour is also a strange sporting event in that it's one of only a few that is probably better to watch on television than it is live. (Bobsledding comes to mind as another.) Stage 2 was 201 kilometers long. In person, you're probably lucky if you can view even 200 meters of the course. The average speed of recent Tour de France winners is around 40 km/h. That 200-meter stretch is not a long window to really observe what's happening in any comprehensive sense. The riders appear and then they're gone. On television, a wide shot from the helicopter might show every rider, across hundreds of meters; the motorcycle cameras stick with the peloton and accompany every attack. You see all the falls, too, the blood, the broken bones, the personal risk these riders put themselves through. (As I write, two of this year's overall favorites, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, along with sprinter Mark Cavendish, have already crashed out of the Tour.) You don't miss a thing, in other words, except maybe that basic, essential suffering. I'm not sure that really comes through on television. But as weird as it sounds, it's something I wanted to see. I wanted to look in the faces of these guys as they pushed through the pain. So last Friday, I traveled to Nancy, a university town in eastern France, to watch the Stage 7 finish in person.
I did not, initially, enjoy myself.
At about 3:30, a full two hours before the cyclists crossed the finish line, a guy wearing a Barcelona jersey and no deodorant stood so close to me our legs touched from heel to hip. I didn't budge. He turned his head and said, "Excusez-moi," as though I could just step aside, but I couldn't—and I wouldn't have in any case. I was in a crush of people, about three feet from the finish line, in downtown Nancy. I had a clear view, something many of the thousands of other spectators at this finish certainly did not have, and I wasn't about to give it up out of politeness. What's weird is that this was the second guy to approach and try to jostle me out of the way and, failing that, engage in a kind of personal-space showdown. It was like the fans could somehow sense my Americanness; they could see my inflated sense of personal space and knew if they violated it for long enough, I'd move. But I didn't, and eventually he scoffed and walked off.
Although I'd won this little battle, I was nevertheless completely uncomfortable. For the finish, organizers had selected the Cours de Léopold, a 500 meter-long boulevard—really a park splitting the street in two—near the old city's main square. Media and team vehicles were parked on the boulevard and along the road's northbound side, and from a distance the scene could have been confused for a traveling circus. The southbound side, where riders would sprint toward the finish line, was barricaded from the thousands of pedestrians, who were forced to squeeze onto the narrow sidewalk, which is where I was. I'd been standing in that same spot for an hour and a half, with another two hours to go before the riders showed up, and I'd been made to pay for every minute of that time. Although I had a clean view of the finish, just about everything else—the beginning of the straight away, the massive screens broadcasting the race, the podium—was out of my line of sight. Behind me, there stood a smoker, who seemed to light one cigarette with the last and exhaled onto my neck with the metronomic regularity of a peddling bicycle. I lacked the French to tell him to knock it off. In front of me, there was a woman whose frizzy hair occasionally tickled my face.
Earlier in the day, a French restaurateur named Sami told me he wasn't a fan of the Tour because it was "too much work." I had assumed he was talking about the actual act of cycling, or at least the work it takes to really follow the Tour from home, which is considerable. I now realized he very well might have been talking about watching the Tour live.
Another thing about the Tour that doesn't really make it on TV is what they call the Caravane Publicitaire. If the finish from the distance resembled a traveling circus, the Publicity Caravan, not the race, was the real performance. I had been warned to arrive early, because organizers shut down the route in advance of the Caravan, which I assumed was a string of support vehicles: station wagons with bikes on top, race organizers, motorcycle cops. But no. The Caravan is a parade of cars—or floats—put on by the Tour's corporate sponsors. There was, for example, a dune buggy carrying a gigantic lion, a bank's mascot. A fiberglass boxer dog the size of a clydesdale motored across the finish surrounded by a phalanx of oversized, Kleber tires, each of which was built on the frame of a Smart Car. Many of the floats featured people on flat beds, dancing. There was a man harnessed to a scaffolded apparatus who pretended to ride a bike up an enormous Vittel water bottle.
These floats numbered in the low hundreds. The Caravan lasted well over an hour. Somewhere around the 45-minute mark, when a float promoting household dusters passed with several strapped-in riders dusting the exterior, I couldn't help but feel like this were all some kind of joke, like we were being trolled by the race organizers, or that maybe the Tour was designed so that the suffering included audience participation.
Maybe it was the heat, or the constant tightening of the crowd, or the fact that I was in France, but I took a philosophical turn there at the finish line. It's hard not to get all existential when you're fucking miserable. What is it about cycling that makes someone want to put himself through this kind of punishment and personal risk? The stories of agony in cycling are epic, perhaps none more so than the case of Tyler Hamilton, who broke his shoulder in the 2002 Giro d'Italia, got up, and eventually finished second overall. He ground his teeth to take the pain and had 11 of them capped after the race.
But why? For money? Glory? In the hope that, at the end of it, the riders might be remembered and somehow feel a little less lonely in this world? There's something meditative about fighting and coming close to overcoming something as basic as human pain. Not the kind inflicted on you by others, but the kind you seek out and look in the eyes. The kind you challenge. There is, deep down, a value in this kind of struggle. It gives spectators a sense of agency, a broadening of what's possible. Overcoming is what separates the strong from the weak. To be truly good at something, you must suffer. The Tour started in 1903, and Nietzsche was dead by then, but I wonder if he ever had a road bike.
When the riders finally came down the straightaway toward the finish, the crowd had become so congested I could no longer see anything but a two-meter section of the finish line. Andrew Talansky, perhaps the best American rider at the Tour, crashed 200 meters out, tumbling over his handlebars at top speed, but I didn't know it happened for another half hour. There was a photo finish, but the riders went by too fast for me to take a photo.
It wasn't until the crowd began to dissipate that the real appeal of being at the Tour hit me. It's not watching the race, which is borderline futile. (I'm sure it's more fun in the mountain stages, when things slow down, and you can watch the riders meander, slowly, toward your position.) What happens after the stage though is a little bit magical. The route isn't barricaded all the way to the various team buses, and so when the barricades end a hundred meters or so after the finish, the riders pass through the crowd, which parts as they approach. Often the athletes ride through the mass of people one by one, stopping to catch a breath, give their water bottles away as souvenirs, sign autographs. Imagine if, after a football game, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady had to walk through the stands to get to the locker room.
It's different than that though, because there's a kind of respect between the crowd and the riders, a sense that we've all engaged in something together. They've ridden to us, and we've waited for them; by watching and by riding, we've given each other meaning, and now we commune together. Riders and team managers give interviews from the doors of their buses and fans jockey for position at that interview along with the reporters and camera crews. If you go to the Tour, you can ask you favorite rider how it went, and he might answer. And the next day, if you wake up feeling fresh, you can do it all again.
Top photo via Getty; inset photos by the author.