One of the Tour de France floats you might see before the peloton reaches town (Photo via)
You began to feel it around Basel. The Tour, I mean, and the wave of energy, nipple tape and extraordinarily expensive bicycles that came with it. There were cycling-themed ads in the train station, lots of men in tiny little polka-dot caps and Americans in luminous spandex asking where to put their bikes.
I felt a pang of half-embarrassed connection with this latter group. Like them, I grew up as a cycling fan in Canada (close enough), and like them I was used to the restricted demographics of North American cycling. Over there, “bike race” means “about 300 well-outfitted software engineers crowding a makeshift finish line at a ski resort”. These were scenes at which you never felt out of place in your little polka-dot cap, or with your £3,000 bike; everyone was an enthusiast, nobody else cared.
However, professional cycling in Europe is a little older and a little more demotic. Here in the homeland, pro-cycling is a chance to watch a circle of sweaty greyhounds burst their hearts open for €50 sprint prizes. It’s a different crowd, and a larger and more varied one. At Saint-Louis, one station into France, a group of prostitutes got on the train and made jokes about their own Lycra sportswear, pointing long polished fingernails at the similar clothing sported by their cabin-mates. The Americans sat there silently.
Unlike Britain’s minor cities, which can be fantastically unsubtle about announcing their shittiness to the world, the industrial cities of France communicate their difficulties in a silent tongue of outdated signage and motor vehicles that look like they were rejected from the Hasbro factory.
Mulhouse – where this year's ninth stage ended and tenth stage began – has that feeling. It's a place of silent houses and aggressively aloof residents; the kind of city you drive through quietly on your way to somewhere else. Which makes sense, considering it's situated in Alsace, a region that borders Switzerland to the south and Germany to the east.
When I arrived at the Market Square I was met by the giant flashing money-machine of European pro-cycling, bearing down on the crowd at 40 mph in the form of a load of floats paid for by sponsors and a truck-borne balloon effigy that looked a hell of a lot like Lance Armstrong.
It was a telling moment that passed quickly. We weren't there, after all, to think about what it meant to have this event’s greatest champion stripped of his titles, to have had to replace years of results with asterisks. We wanted to see the Tour come into town, to place ourselves directly in the path of whatever half-ruined glory it still conveyed and to have garbage thrown at us by large corporations. And when the effigy dragged itself around the corner onto the Boulevard du Président-Roosevelt, and its police-attendants and horn-sections (there were entire trucks devoted solely to the making of noise) passed with it, that was exactly what happened.
First they came with the Haribos, and I said nothing. This is because Haribos are light and squishy, and it’s not a big deal for a woman to stand on a speeding car chucking bags of them in your direction. It’s more worrisome when the Robinsons Fruit Shoot cars arrive and you realise they’re planning on sending grenade-sized bottles of warm juice your way. Those things are fairly heavy, considering the delivery method.
Hoping to avoid a concussion at the hands of an overeager PR, I headed up the Boulevard to check out the finish line. Between there and the Market Square, every block seemed to host a different sort of crowd. Near the Rue Hubner – and less than a kilometere from the finish – there was a very definite lull in the levels of visible cycling fandom, and I wondered if everyone knew exactly what was going on. Further on, under the apartments near the Pont Anna Schoen, I could hear a number of domestic disputes, and a thoroughly pissed man in his late fifties was pushing a cop who'd prevented him from crossing the street.
His wife was crying into a dark headscarf and his friends were trying to calm him down. He appeared to believe that the dispute was due to either his ethnicity or some pre-existing relationship between him and the young police officer. It was difficult to tell. I did notice that when the Vittel trucks came by, the otherwise joyful (in the paid-to-be-that-way sense) water-girl refrained from spraying the altercation with her hose, instead concentrating on a more festive-looking group about half a block away. For a second, it almost looked like the circumstances of the city might overpower those of the Tour, but the loudspeaker put an end to all that. The winner was coming. This was why we were here.
As the leading edge of the Tour-convoy – the team cars, media cars and gendarmes on giant motorbikes – made its way into town, we fell into our event-appropriate roles, crowding the barricades. A young German rider (Tony Martin, of the confusingly named “UCI ProTeam Omega Pharma-Quick Step” squad) was coming in alone after breaking away in the hills, around 40 miles from Mulhouse. Guards swept uncollected Fruit Shoot bottles and Haribo packets from the street; it was time to stop thinking about childish things.
I wanted to see what a Tour winner looked like. Cycling is a very difficult sport to televise given that its most incredible feats, when viewed from a barstool, basically look like Dutch people going to work. Would Tony Martin’s arrival reveal anything different? I remember, as an amateur cyclist of 15 or 16, riding up a long Vermont hill where the professionals were practicing for the next day’s race. It was hot and I was suffering, and wobbling along in my lowest gear I began to entertain heat-stroke visions of myself as a pro: could I climb these mountains amid catcalls and cameras? Would I have a hot girlfriend?
If something isn’t true or likely, the world will strip it down until it is. This is why, the second I began to entertain these dream-visions, some sort of military aircraft approached me from behind, sucking thunderous columns of air into its jets. It was US pro John Tomac, and it felt like being overtaken by a speeding locomotive onto which somebody had spray-painted the phrase: “You are untalented.” That was 1993, I think. Three years earlier, Tomac’s Motorola team had declined to select him as a Tour de France participant. He wasn’t fast enough.
Martin arrived amid a train of official vehicles, looking vulnerable. After all, the gendarmes, media cars, sponsor-garbage and circling helicopters had been called into being by this – by the circular leg-movements of these gaunt men in their twenties. The atmosphere around the Market Square was getting pretty festive; from the big-screen televisions – and passed down the barricades in swollen whispers – came the news that Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali had fallen behind, leaving Frenchman Tony Gallopin to take control of the maillot jaune, the yellow jersey that signifies the Tour’s overall leader.
One day before Bastille Day, this was a big deal. With a German stage-winner and a Frenchman leading the race, the regional loyalties of Alsace had been satisfied in entirely the correct order, and after watching the rest of the front-runners roll in and confirm the standings, about 300 of us collectively decided to swarm the beer tent.
“We drank it all!”
Though the Norwegian fans (who were dressed as Vikings, and who were drunk) delivered this information with a sort of jubilation, I was concerned that it would not be received in the same sporting spirit. Had a local brewery not defied Kronenbourg’s monopoly with a modest stall along the Quai de la Cloche, in fact, there could have been a diplomatic incident, because something had shifted and the Tour had passed us by. Now everybody just wanted to get drunk, and the loudspeakers switched over from race announcements to shitty techno.
We dispersed when they took down the barricades. That night, in an attempt to capture some local colour, I trekked to a little bar behind the Place de la Réunion in the hopes that the Mulhousiens would be celebrating and conspiring, offering beery salutes to Martin and Gallopin and exulting about what might happen on the road to Paris. But that wasn’t the case. The football was on, and Germany was tied with Argentina. The Americans were sleeping in their carefully chosen bed-and-breakfasts with their white ProCyclingTours.com vans parked silently outside. The Tour had departed.
“We don’t really care about this,” offered a lanky local. “You should have visited Strasbourg,” said his girlfriend, missing the point.
The Tour de France is delicate and ephemeral. Though we gathered along the Rue de Brunstatt for the start of the next day’s stage, the event’s spirit was long gone, floating somewhere above the Vosges mountains. At the beginning of a stage, nothing happens, and the riders flow along as a sort of broad and slow-moving photo-op. Among the fans, I think, there was a sort of restrained wistfulness, like saying goodbye to your lover at the airport. What was once crazed and joyful was now awkwardly formal, and once the peloton left town, volunteers disassembled the barricades quickly and with what almost seemed like relief.
Dragging my bag down the Rue du Sauvage on the way back to the train, it was only a few bits of brightly-coloured rubbish that remained as signals of the affair; a yellow souvenir bag here, a Vittel bottle there. At the train station, nobody seemed particularly excited, and I returned to Switzerland in a car of silent commuters, some reading about football in the papers and not a single funny hat to be seen.
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