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Tour time: 16 years on the sport’s biggest race


Tour de France press officer Philippe Sudres slammed his palm on the table inside the press room for the Grand Départ of the 1996 Tour de France: “Atención! Conférence de presse avec Miguel Indurain commence!”

On a damp summer evening in Holland for the start of the 83rd Tour, Big Mig was at the height of his powers. The five-time Tour winner’s tall, lean, bronzed frame stood in sharp contrast to the slouched shoulders and bulging paunches of the press rabble.

The pushing and shoving was tremendous. Journalists, photographers, and TV crews leaned in to hear Indurain, who was on the cusp of becoming the first rider in Tour history to win six yellow jerseys. In an era before Twitter and Facebook, you were either there or you missed it. Indurain didn’t say much. And when he spoke, it was a rapid-fire whisper, as if he were spitting out marbles one at a time.

Some three weeks later, it was Bjarne Riis, not Indurain, who would claim the yellow jersey. The peloton’s “Mr. Sixty Percent,” so named for his hematocrit level, toyed with Indurain and the rest of the peloton, defying gravity and logic to win the Tour. The Champs-Élysées was converted into a red sea of flag-waving Vikings as half of Denmark invaded Paris. It was Riis’s first, and last, Tour win.

Now, everyone knows how that story ended. In fact, the ending’s been the same for almost every Tour during the EPO era, from Riis to Lance Armstrong, and more, before and since. The tricks, the deceit, the cheating, the lies; it’s all been neatly catalogued for everyone to read. Winners erased, winners with asterisks. From the time EPO gripped the peloton in the early 1990s until just a few years ago, if we dare to believe that true change from within is possible, the history of the Tour over the past 20 years reads like a torrid spy novel.

And I had a front-row seat for most of it — the good, the bad, and the very ugly. From the Festina Affair to Operación Puerto to the U.S Anti- Doping Agency’s inquiry into the Armstrong doping conspiracy, there has rarely been a dull moment.
There’s no more denying it. Doping and cycling were joined at the hip, like a crank that ran on vials, into the veins, via the heart and lungs, out to churning pedals. What now seems so obvious was hidden behind a wall of silence, fear, retribution, incompetence, and greed.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the 100th Tour began under the banner of “new cycling” that somehow felt different from anything we’d seen before. It’s a flag that’s been flown several times over the past half-century, ever since doping controls began in the 1950s and 1960s. But the past few Tours have looked radically different from anything we’ve seen over the previous two decades.

Figuring it out

That Indurain press conference was my first. And hopefully this year’s in Corsica will not be my last. In 1996, I was among a new wave of journalists hitting the Tour thanks to the magic of the Internet. Scribbling stories for Outside magazine’s nascent website and The Associated Press, I was thrown to the wolves, not knowing much at all about how the Tour worked. My editor in Paris said with a shrug, “You will figure it out.” For a reporter, the Tour is a huge, ugly beast from within, and without a doubt the most challenging event to handle, logistically, physically, and — as us front-line hacks all soon discovered — ethically.

It’s hard to remember how I survived that first Tour at all, in the days before GPS and cell phones. It could be maddening. One seasoned American journalist, who had covered Super Bowls, Final Fours, and World Series, showed up one day in the pressroom with a black eye. Asked if he had been roughed up in a low-rent bar, he finally recounted what happened: “I could see my hotel, but couldn’t get to it. After an hour of driving around, I finally lost it, and punched myself in the face.”

In my first Tour, I was hopelessly lost in the approaches to Paris. Desperate to arrive in time for the final stage on the Champs-Élysées, an official Tour de France car drove past. Assuming he was headed to the finish line, I got in behind him. After about 20 minutes of swerving in and out, he stopped and got out of his car. “You are following me, yes?” Er, um … oui, I replied. “I am not going to the Tour. I am going to my mother’s house for lunch!” Needless to say, I didn’t have time to accept his invitation.

A few nights were unexpectedly spent under the stars in hayfields or along a riverbank. One time I pulled off near a farmhouse in southern France and rolled out my sleeping bag. The owner came up, and spying my press sticker on the car, said I could sleep in his house for free. “I always liked that LeMond fella. Come on, sleep with us, vive Le Tour!”

But I wasn’t complaining. Just holding a press credential at the Tour was like a dream come true. Before the Internet, only a few Americans managed to cover the Tour — a crew from VeloNews, Sam Abt from The New York Times, and maybe a few others, but it was a small band of brothers in those days.

The media landscape has changed as dramatically as the peloton. Long before 4G and the immediacy of updates on your cell phone, just getting online was a major achievement. I remember that glorious screech of the modem connection, like someone scraping fingernails down a chalkboard. It was better than Beethoven. Now, fans have the luxury of watching the Tour live on TV, and can get direct reactions from the riders via social media. The news is no longer who won, but how they did it. The story behind the headlines is what everyone is chasing today.

That first experience of the 1996 Tour got me hooked. Anyone who has watched the Tour knows the feeling; there is simply no other sport like it. The stadium is L’Alpe d’Huez one day, Mont Ventoux the next. Rain, wind, heat, even snow — there is little that can stop the peloton once it starts spinning toward the finish line.
Back in 1996, my editor suggested I go a day early to Spain to report on how the Spaniards were taking Indurain’s imminent loss. Ready for some of Spain’s famous nightlife after nearly a month of missing dinners in France, we trotted into Pamplona’s historic city center ready for fun. We were dismayed to find the streets empty at 9:30 p.m. We found an “asador” with only a few patrons, and asked with relief if it wasn’t too late to dine. The waiter shrugged his shoulders and pointed us to a corner table. Of course, we were too early. By the time a band of Spanish journalists rolled in to eat at nearly midnight, they laughed, “Ah, look, the Americans are already having dessert!” When we hit the street, it was so crowded with revelers we could have bodysurfed from bar to bar. The next day, the small Spanish cafés were all full of dismayed fans as their beloved “Miguelón” succumbed to Riis.

And being part of the Tour entourage is unlike any other sporting event. While the Olympics are bigger in scale and volume, and the Super Bowl is louder in hype and commercialization, the Tour remains true to its French roots, keeping it unique to the nation and culture. It is more than a bike race; it is part of the French cultural landscape, an essential rite of summer, passed down from generation to generation.

The Tour’s roving caravan becomes professional sport’s largest moving city, with more than 5,000 riders, sport directors, soigneurs, mechanics, podium girls, race officials, jury members, drivers, journalists, and a few hangers-on — and now, we hope, a few less dope runners — all sweeping across France like an invading army.

The Tour sets up camp like carnival hawkers, explodes in a fury as the stage winner crosses the finish line, then quickly packs up and leaves in the middle of the night, hurtling blindly toward another village or city. The French are loath to change their dining hours, even when the Tour rolls into town. Restaurants will close at their appointed time regardless of how many haggard journalists are begging for a meal. Waiters seem to take a sadistic thrill from wagging their fingers in their faces, pointing to watches at five minutes past 10 p.m., and saying, “Ah, too bad for you! Zee kitchen is closed!”

Like the riders say, the Tour remains the sport’s most important race, not so much for the prestige and history that come with cycling’s first grand tour, but rather because it’s the one race of the year where everyone brings his “A” game. No cyclist lining up in Corsica will be using the Tour to prepare for the Tour of Poland in August. From the water carriers to the GC captains, just about everyone who has made his team’s “Tour Nine” has been dialing in his mind and body since November to be there.

Because the riders’ fitness is so high, the Tour can sometimes seem neutralized, a function of the differences between the top GC contenders, which can be fractions of a fraction. Riders are shaved to the bone, walking a tight rope of top form, trying not to fall off the other side. Other races, such as the Giro d’Italia or Vuelta a España, can be wildly unpredictable because everyone is all over the map on form. Only at the Tour is the entire peloton at its absolute peak for three glorious weeks.

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