By the time they finish on the Champs-Elysees, they will have spun
2,482 miles over cobblestones and mountains, through
thunderstorms and oppressive heat and throngs of idiot fans who
wanted to touch or douse them. But the Tour de France isn't just
tough on the riders. Driving into the city of Castelsarrasin on
the morning of July 16, I could not help but notice a
fright-wigged clown doing a hamstring stretch by the side of the
road, his right leg up on a stone fence and the red ball on his
nose nearly touching his knee.
He was working the Tour route for Aquarel, the official bottled
water of the race. If you're a clown and you've got nine stages
left, you can't risk pulling a hammy. Festively decorated,
bearing water and performers, the open-air Aquarel trucks were
part of the Tour's promotional caravan, a milelong string of
vehicles that precedes the riders by an hour or so, showering
those lining the roads with free samples of the race sponsors'
My traveling partner was Martin Dugard, an American author who
also paired up with me when we covered the Tour in 2001. That
year we lost a bit of time one morning when our rental car
crapped out on the AutoRoute. The car had a diesel engine; I'd
filled it with unleaded. (When I shared the story with Lance
Armstrong, his look conveyed not so much amusement as pity.) This
year we flew into Toulouse, rented a car and hammered north to
the medieval riverbank town of Figeac, hoping to catch the end of
stage 11. Suddenly, approaching from the other direction, came an
enormous, motorized cheese wheel, followed by a car crowned
with--what else?--a red, phone-booth-sized coffeepot. Dugard and
I spoke in unison:
"We found the Tour."
To find the Tour is to pass through the looking glass. It is more
than the caravan that fills one with wonderment. The countryside
is dotted with castles--crumbling battlements and redoubts that
were centuries old before the United States existed. There is the
jagged beauty of the Pyrenees. There are all these French guys
walking around, without embarrassment or shame, in Capri pants,
and there are the stunning tolls one must pay (about 17 bucks per
hundred miles, by my reckoning) to drive the AutoRoutes of this
By far the most surreal aspect of the Tour, however, at least
through stage 14, had been the disappearance of the giants. The
men thought to pose the greatest threat to Armstrong, the
five-time defending champion, could hardly be found. Germany's
Jan Ullrich, who has finished second in this race five times and
won it once and is Mario Lemieux to Armstrong's Wayne Gretzky;
the U.S.'s Tyler Hamilton and Spain's Iban Mayo, both of whom
dominated Armstrong in a tune-up race the month before the
Tour--all three were rinsed away by the rain that poured on the
peloton during last week's initial Pyrenees stage, on the Col
d'Aspin, the first difficult climb of this Tour. With Armstrong's
teammates George Hincapie and Floyd Landis, then Chechu Rubiera
and Jose Azevedo, setting a savage pace, the Texan took 63
seconds out of Mayo, 2 1/2 minutes out of Ullrich and 3 1/2 out
"The rain robbed me of my strength," explained Ullrich, who
dislikes inclement weather and whose autobiography is entitled
All or Nothing. The next day a headline in a Berlin paper blared,
NOTHING AT ALL.
Hamilton, suffering from a badly bruised back incurred in an
over-the-handlebars fall eight days earlier, abandoned the race
during stage 13, on the way to the mountaintop finish at Plateau
de Beille. Mayo nearly abandoned it as well but was talked into
continuing by his team director. Ullrich only looked as if he
wished to abandon, plodding up the mountain nearly three minutes
behind Armstrong, who won the stage and, in so doing, put himself
in an excellent position to win title number 6.
Having taken almost five hours to get from La Mongie to our hotel
the night before--traffic down the mountain is
nightmarish--Dugard and I decided to pitch our tent near the
summit on the Plateau de Beille. We awoke to a light rain,
followed by a rainbow that stretched from Spain--one valley
over--to France. It was a beautiful morning, and Marty sought to
keep it that way.
"Dude," he said when I pulled into a gas station. "Diesel."
The next SI Adventure will appear in the Aug. 30 issue.
COLOR PHOTO: BERND THISSEN/EPA HIGH-WATER MARK The hired clowns who spritz the fans are part of the daily prelude to the main event.
It's not just the race that FILLS YOU WITH WONDERMENT. There are
the castles, the Pyrenees, all those French guys in Capri pants.