Notes From The Scrum: The summer of the stages
BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Just a few days ago, I pulled the final results sheet — wrinkled and written on — from the top of my backpack. It was from a stage in Colorado during the USA Pro Challenge.
A few weeks before that, I was throwing away results from the Metz stage of the Tour de France — what became known as the Metz Massacre. Garmin was crushed; Tom Danielson crashed out, as did Ryder Hesjedal. Johan Vansummeren made his way across the finish line on his bike when in any other sport he would have been on a gurney, giving a thumbs-up sign.
Ah, memories from my first summer on the road as a VeloNews reporter. It all runs together. Suffering, glory, Peter Sagan’s running man, good food, bad food, a press room as hot as a blast furnace, Bradley Wiggins’ stunning vocabulary, Lance Armstrong…
I covered the Tour de France, the Tour of California, the Tour of Utah and the tour in Colorado, otherwise known as the Pro Challenge. I went to Philly to see the Manayunk Wall. I drove thousands of kilometers (one must think in kilometers in Europe and to ignore this basic rule will only lead to confusion) and wrote at least a hundred stories.
I ate so much bad food and drank so much coffee. (To cover the Tour de France is not to take a culinary victory lap around France but rather to convince hoteliers to please leave you a plate of food because you’re arriving hours after closing time — yes, I’d love a beef hoof! — and to learn which gas-station sandwiches to eat and which to avoid. Ham and cheese sandwiches were not created equal).
I watched in horror as the French state police (Gendarmes) all decided to cut us off one day in a toll line that proved to be a 45-minute clinic in rage suppression. Velo tech reporter Caley Fretz and I spent six hours in the car on Bastille Day in a Homeric struggle against a million French tourists to get to Cap d’Agde, where a stage ended. We made it, only barely.
The Lance Armstrong revelations while the Pro Challenge was playing out reduced me to eating candy for dinner and hiding in the press room in case something else happened. While in Utah, I had a brief window for a ride, slinked out of the hotel in my kit (there is nothing that can make you feel fat like walking through the team hotel in Lycra, by the way) and was promptly hailed upon. This was odd, considering it was 100 degrees every day that week except at that moment. This is how it goes on the road. One is better off transcribing notes in the corner of the dark hotel bar with a beer than attempting to do anything else, ever. That’s a rule, from now on.
I did really stupid things, too many to remember. The crowning moment of my idiocy was surely threading the needle of the advertising caravan of the Tour de France in our rental Renault. It was a game of inches for an hour, between the promotional cars fashioned into breadbaskets and lions and a throng of fans on the Col du Tourmalet. I swear, it would have been easier to actually ride the mountain. On a trike. In an exasperated moment, I left the rental car in a parking garage that was near a Europcar sign because the train was coming, and I was not driving it into Paris. These things happen. I even bought coffees from machines, by the end of it.
But this summer of stages was the most beautiful I’ve ever been a part of. The things I saw along the way fundamentally altered my perception of sports, and the people who love them.
Cycling has unrivaled access for fans and for journalists. I saw Chris Froome smile atop La Toussuire once he realized how good he could be, and watched the grace of Fabian Cancellara, who took the maillot jaune proudly for a week and restored a bit of luster to the tarnished RadioShack-Nissan team, if only for a little while. In Colorado, I watched as 10 guys wheeled over to a folded-over Tom Danielson and patted him on the shoulders after his glorious ride into Aspen — my favorite ride of the summer.
An innkeeper stayed up late in France and made us a three-course meal that carried me for days. On the Tour’s first rest day, I somehow, in French, was able to articulate that I needed my laundry done, as I was out of clean underwear.
There were the expressions of Thomas Voeckler, a series of caricatures sprinkled throughout France. He walked by me in Paris in hard-earned polka dots, his young son also wearing the red and white, and I thought all that agony was surely worth it at that moment.
Most memorable was watching Bradley Wiggins turn from a rider angry with the weight of assumption to one who became an entirely human champion and, in one single afternoon, took a signature win in the closing time trial and thanked the press for putting up with him. He was impossible not to like in that moment.
There were the hoards of fans I passed by this summer on the roads, every single day. The ladies in France who wave at every car. The fans in Boulder who partied so hard on Flagstaff that it was more crazed than any Tour mountain stage in 2012.
It’s been an honor to be a part of it at all, to add a stitch or two to the quilt that is professional bike racing. Already, I’m excited for Flanders and for Roubaix. Can’t wait for the Tour, even though I’ll have to fight with the illogical French version of a gas station. (Inexplicable.) Because no matter what happens, cycling is always worth it.
There are no results in my backpack any more. Today, it’s stuffed with road shoes and a wool top, for a ride with little fanfare and, hopefully, an ending that doesn’t involve any cameras or microphones.