I have something to confess, something that can be a little difficult to say to an audience of strangers; I am a hopeless cycling fan and France in July is the holy land to which we all flock. Whether it is racing in the flats, suffering up the Tourmalet, or sprinting through Monaco, the Tour de France offers a window to all the scenery that France has to offer.
With all the controversy surrounding the sport, I can immediately picture the rolling eyes that inevitably follow the very mention of a cycling vacation but let me assure you one thing: as challenging as it is to convince you of its merits, it pales in comparison to the challenge it was of convincing my wife, Julie, to join me. Striking a compromise, we decided to head to Paris for the final weekend to see the battered riders return to the capital and take in some Parisian sights along the way.
It struck me by surprise that upon our arrival on Friday afternoon there was little mention of anything occurring at all. With France’s showcase a mere two days away from completion, I must admit, I expected a little more fanfare. The streets were bustling and the cafés were filled to the brim with patrons sipping espressos and casually smoking French cigarettes giving the place an air of effortless calm. I began to panic a little. Does anybody know what is about to happen? Where are my two-wheeled brethren hiding? I could hear an exhaustive sigh of relief from my wife, realizing that there may be more than cycling on the agenda for our weekend getaway.
Bringing stereotype to fruition, our first cultural exploit was ordering crepes from a street vendor and nearly exhausting our French vocabulary in the process. With this linguistic victory behind us, we shot off toward the river Seine in search of some French tourist attractions to conquer. Meandering along the boardwalk we soon found ourselves at the entrance to the Louvre and discovered the best bargain imaginable. Admission to many of Paris’ major attractions, including the Louvre, are free to anyone under 26, and the lineups miraculously thin in late afternoon allowing us to enter immediately. No trip to Paris would be complete without a journey through arguably the greatest fine art museum in the world. After three hours of exploring the most famous paintings and sculptures ever created, I began thinking that even the curator must still be discovering new treasures because we had barely scratched the surface. At this, our hunger got the better of us and we left in search of some French cuisine. We quickly found a bistro overlooking the river where we watched the sun set to a bottle of wine.
The only way to follow a romantic dinner in Paris is with a romantic trip up the Eiffel tower. At night, the twinkling tower acts as a beacon, guiding tourists along the moonlit river to its sprawling base. Although the upper gallery is closed at night, there is nothing more remarkable than ascending the legendary monument to see the city come alive under the canvas of dark. If you can manage it, I recommend taking the stairs up instead of the elevator; it’ll save you a few euro and lets you skip the lines. Besides this, climbing the tower really connects you to the experience (and works off the bottle of wine with dinner). As midnight approached we descended the stairs amidst the white glow of the tower lights, ending our perfect romantic evening in the city of love.
On Saturday morning we started our day with fresh camembert and baguettes along the banks of la Seine while a hundred locals did Tai Chi in the shade. Following another free attraction, an underground journey through the Catacombs, we returned to the Seine to take in the street performers that filled the ‘plage’ festival, the ‘beach’ in the city. Here I spotted a man in a team jersey, the mark of a true cycling fan, and my anticipation for Sunday erupted. The rest of the day was spent roaming the streets of Paris eating French bread and window shopping in the many boutiques around the city centre. Following another bistro dinner, we walked to the burlesque district to see the Moulin Rouge, as well as the numerous adult shops that old Paris has become famous for. After being tipped off by the concierge to get to Champs-Elysees early, we cut our visit to the Moulin Rouge short, finished a bottle of French wine and retired early.
I quickly donned my King of the Mountains jersey and packed my bag to leave only to find Julie at the ready; it seemed my enthusiasm had become contagious. Our first stop was the shop to load our pockets with food and drinks, then another riverside breakfast and a half hour walk to the Louvre to catch the race. After securing good spots with chairs on the Louvre grounds, we proceeded to bask in the sweltering heat for five hours talking to cycling fans from around the world. Nestled beside us was a pair of Norwegians, a mass of Americans, some Englishmen, Canadians, and some Spaniards bearing a Spanish flag. It was then that it struck me; the thousands of cycling fans that were surrounding us had been there all along but the city managed to hide them from our view for the last two days by providing a myriad of attractions and distractions. Paris is much more than a one trick pony. At long last, the sound of helicopters alerted us to the fact that the show was about to begin.
The final stage usually consists of a leisurely coast into Paris led by the jersey holders so that the teams can take photographs and toast champagne to celebrate surviving yet another tour; this year was different. At the end of the processional is an all-out sprint stage consisting of eight laps around the Louvre and Champs-Elysees. The tour consists of 21 stages, spread around the country to challenge every aspect of a rider’s abilities. One of the titles, the best overall sprinter, was still up for grabs as young Englishman Mark Cavendish looked to overthrow the current leader Thor Hushovd, meaning the racing was far from over. Overshadowing the battle between the sprinters was the battle between seven time Tour de France champion and cycling legend Lance Armstrong and his Astana teammate and 2007 champion Alberto Contador. Months of infighting within the team produced an explosive display of both cycling skill and ego. Coming in to the final day, Alberto had firmly won the title and Lance had secured third, but it remained to be seen how each would react to the finality of it all.
In a flash, team cars and a sea of color shot past us signifying the start of the sprint course. At the end of four laps, the field was separated by a large gap; the sprinters were in front, and the peloton lagged behind, unable to match the breakaway’s speed. In a close finish, Cavendish secured his sixth stage win of this year’s tour, but still finished with fewer points than Hushovd for the overall win. The drama at an end, the crowd cheered as the riders leapt off their bikes in triumph at completing the three week endeavour. All eyes remained on team Astana and the icy exchange that was bound to happen between two champions forced to ride together. To my surprise, even Julie was fixed on the drama and fought to the front of the huge mass of fans for a closer look.
The Tour brought me to Paris and, as an addict, will probably draw me back many times. But this isn’t why I fell in love with Paris. The food and culture are so infectious that all of my strongest memories have nothing to do with the sport. Cycling’s rivalry will return in 2010 and, with a little luck, so will I. Next year will be different though. Julie will be the one pulling on a jersey and racing out the door and I am all too happy to let her.