History de Lance | PostIndependent.com

History de Lance

Plenty of good reasons can be found for visiting France sometime other than July. The heat and humidity are stifling, and so are the crowds at tourist attractions. And airline tickets are at high-season prices.

But there’s at least one great reason to go there this time of year: the Tour de France.

Particularly because it was the event’s 100th anniversary, I didn’t want to miss it during a recent European vacation with my wife. But I also went into the whole affair fairly clueless about how to catch the bike race.

Though the endeavor wasn’t without its challenges, the result was one of the highlights of our trip.

If you ever want to watch a Tour stage, understand that from the strict perspective of following the competition itself, you’re better off finding a TV. But to view the Tour as spectacle, there’s nothing like being there. And once you’ve seen one of the races in person, you’ll follow it in the future with a level of appreciation TV can’t provide.

Still, even though the event is free to the public, it isn’t an intuitively simple sporting event to attend. Planning the trip months ago, I fretted over some of the challenges involved.

For one thing, most stages of the race involve relatively flat routes in which a huge pack of riders goes by all at once, with perhaps just a few racers ahead of them and a few stragglers behind. The pack must be something to behold, but it comes and goes in a flash. Too fast for my taste, after traveling halfway across the world to see it.

One seasoned tour-watcher from the States advised that the best way to watch a flat stage is to go into a local bar along the route and watch the race on TV. When the television helicopters can be heard outside, that means it’s time to head out to see the race in person.

A better way to see the Tour is to catch a stage where the racers are spread out. This means either a mountain event, which separates strong climbers from the rest, or a time trial, which entails a staggered start.

A mountain stage would be the ultimate to behold. But it’s no simple matter to drive up the mountain to a vantage point. There’s often only one road up – the race route. It can be narrow and twisty, and the thousands of vehicles on race day back up traffic for hours before and after the race.

If you’ve got the lungs and legs for it, I’m told, the best way to see a mountain stage is to ride up the route early by bicycle.

I settled on a time trial stage – actually, a team time trial ending in Saint-Dizier.

We were staying in Verdun, about an hour’s drive away. I went to pick up the rental car I had reserved in advance.

Just one problem: The rental car agent wasn’t there. It seems he had taken off to watch the Tour.

Thankfully, another rental agency saved the day.

Heading to the race, my wife and I were helped immensely by the official Tour Web site, wwwletour.fr. It provided mile-by-mile race route descriptions, and even down-to-the-minute estimates of when the racers would show up at various course locations.

We hoped to park somewhere near the end of the time trial route, so we could check out the race but also be within walking distance of the finish line. As luck would have it, we did even better, managing to stumble right into the finish line area in Saint-Dizier. We had arrived early enough to find parking easily in a shopping plaza that appeared to be largely shut down due to the day’s events, and set off on foot to the finish line.

Our luck got even better. As we passed a hotel, we noticed some U.S. Postal Service team racing vehicles parked outside. Intrigued, and noticing a small gathering of people waiting between the hotel and vehicles, we joined them. Before long, a Postal Service team member sauntered out of the hotel and into a vehicle. Another followed him.

Then we noticed an autograph-seeker in the gathering waiting with a copy of Lance Armstrong’s book “It’s Not About the Bike” in hand. Hmmm … Could he really be on his way out the door?

Sure enough, he was. As he and other teammates headed out to be driven to the race starting line, Armstrong didn’t have time to sign many autographs. But we’ll still never forget having him stride within feet of us, and briefly acknowledge his fans. We later were thrilled to have cycling legend Eddy Merckx walk right by us into the same hotel.

One beauty of the Tour is how close the fans are able to get to these world-class athletes. They can get too close sometimes, as occurred later in this year’s Tour when one of them tangled up with Armstrong, causing him to crash. As for us, we spent our afternoon watching team after team zip down Saint-Dizier’s charming streets in a tight pace line, little more than an arm’s length away, lathered in sweat as they sprinted toward the finish.

Later in the day, just after Armstrong crossed the finish line, we watched from nearby as he hugged a teammate and smiled widely. The trouble with watching a time trial in person is figuring out who’s ahead. Though we never understood the French race announcer, we realized based on Armstrong’s emotions that he was celebrating a U.S. Postal Service victory in that day’s stage.

For us, watching the Tour meant seeing a small French town be transformed for a day into the center of an international sporting event. By arriving early, we were able to see the circus-like Tour caravan drive the race route in advance of the racers. Decorated vehicles promoted everything from tour sponsors to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s newest movie, and representatives of commercial interests handed out candy, T-shirts, bike hats and other goodies to willing takers who included kids, nuns in full religious garb, and even shameless middle-aged men like myself.

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