To some it’s the sporting event of the year. To others it’s a metaphorical sensation of discomfort in exactly the same place where the riders experience literal discomfort by the end of the tour.
The Tour de France is many things. It is the world’s most famous bicycle race. It is the world’s oldest continuously held mechanical sports event (since 1903, with a couple of pauses for a couple of unsportsmanlike wars). It is a test of physical endurance that inspires great fervor in France, pretty fair fervor in the neighboring countries and a modicum of moist interest in the rest of the world.
One thing it is not is a tour of France. This was not always true. In the old days, the route actually followed an unbroken circuit more or less conforming to the country’s borders. But, as one can see by comparing this map of the 1911 tour and this map of the 2011 tour, continuity is no longer a priority. The modern-day Tour is plotted out purely in the interest of competition, with a route that differs every year and pretty much gets around to every corner of the country (except Corsica), but the daily stages in the race are usually not contiguous. Most days the riders ride by bus from the finish line to the next day’s starting line.
However, wherever it may ramble, the Tour de France always ends in Paris, always on a Sunday, always in late July. The peloton (which is the French term for the cluster of competitors but sounds like it should be the French term for “phlegmwad”) takes off from the suburbs at 2:30 p.m., followed by a swarm of support vehicles (spare-bike cars, spare-wheel cars, spare-spoke cars, spare-spoke-wrench cars, backup cars, follow-up cars, assistance cars, reassurance cars, dispassionate encouragement cars, condolence cars, we’re-laughing-with-you cars, etc.) and wends its way into Paris at about 4:00 in the afternoon. The riders follow the Seine along the Left Bank before crossing the bridge to Concorde and the Champs-Elysées, where they do nine sprint-sprinkled laps around a 6.5-kilometer circuit before finally crossing the final finish line at about 5:00 p.m.
Naturally, this means that the route through town has to be closed to traffic. So starting just after lunch, hundreds of gendarmes put up crowd barriers and police tape along the quays and stand guard, with an officer every 10 or 15 meters, to make sure that no one violates the security perimeter. Meanwhile, sports fans start amassing along that perimeter, in some places forming a dense crowd.
Cycling fans know that the Tour de France is actually four parallel competitions. The rider with the fastest overall time wins the top prize and is awarded a yellow jersey, while the rider who scores the most points in the sprint sections wins the nearly-as-prestigious-but-nowhere-near-as-lucrative green jersey. There’s also a polka-dot jersey for the best hill climber and a white jersey for the best young (under 26) cyclist. A proposal has been made that next year’s race include a deep-purple jersey for fiercest grimace and a paisley‘n’plaid jersey for most garishly ridiculous outfit.
Cynics say that the Tour de France is really only two parallel competitions:
1. The cyclists against each other, and
2. The team doctors against the drug testers (who, by the way, found very little to complain about this year).
This particular cynic would say that, at least within the Paris city limits, it’s three competitions — those two plus:
3. The citizens vs. the gendarmes. Specifically, the citizens who want to cross the race route vs. the gendarmes who are under strict orders to keep the streets clear.
Even though the roads are closed for hours, the actual passing of the competitors takes only a moment, as you can see in this video:
I stood there for an hour and a half to see the riders go by in ten seconds, for a waiting-to-spectating ratio of 540 to 1.
This year, the tour ended on July 24, and I decided to go see what I could see of competitions 1 and 3, number 2 being invisible to the observer’s naked eye. And, for that matter, to the naked observer’s eye.
I crossed the Pont des Arts from the Louvre side a little before 3:00 and found the Left Bank end of the bridge sealed off, and jammed with spectators, because the riders were going to pass by on Quai de Conti. The entire sidewalk level was off limits, but not the lower embankment level, so I went down the steps and walked east to the next vantage point, across from the Monnaie, the former royal mint.
It would be another 90 minutes before the actual arrival of the race, but there was no lack of drama and excitement: every five minutes or so someone would come up the steps from the embankment and ask the gendarmes to let them cross the street. Predictably, the answer was “no,” with the addendum that one could cross at Saint Michel (five blocks away) through the RER and Métro access tunnels. So it wasn’t impossible to get across, just inconvenient.
Just as predictably, this answer was not good enough for some people. Four cases in particular stood out, each trying a different tactic in the hopes of persuading the police to grant them special treatment:
1. Sob story
The first supplicant came up to the barrier, called one of the gendarmes over and launched into a tale of woe. He lived just across the street (like every single one of the other people trying to cross — go figure) and needed to get home right away because he had just had his wallet stolen with all of his credit cards and needed to call his bank’s hotline to cancel them. For this same reason he had no money and thus couldn’t buy a Métro ticket to get through underground. Crossing at Saint Michel would take way too long, because the pickpocket was at that very moment buying caviar and Lamborghinis with his Visa card. He gave a detailed description of the assault, which in the annals of human loss and suffering should rank right up there with the sack of Rome. It was a believable story well told, but it didn’t work, and he took off toward Saint Michel, grousing and grumbling.
2. S.O.B. story
The second would-be quay crosser came up from the lower level already grumbling and grousing. My guess is that he had just come from a five-pastis lunch. He wasn’t exactly reeling, but he seemed to be the better part of a linen closet to the wind. He must also be what they call a mean drunk, because his tactic was to threaten to be really, really, really mad if he weren’t allowed to cross the street. Why this should be a conclusive argument I don’t know, but he kept saying, “This is going to make me very angry.” And he was right! When the gendarmes, of course, turned him down enough times to finally turn him away, he went back down the steps and tottered off toward Saint Michel, screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs. And big, tall lungs they were, too. He could have been arrested for disturbing the peace. In Versailles.
3. Hot tears
About ten minutes later a young woman came tripping up the steps with a look of panic on her face and begged the gendarmes to let her across. When she got the standard response, her response was to burst into tears. She stood there for several minutes sobbing and gasping, but finding enough breath to rattle off a list of all the places she had already tried to cross, and saying, “I can’t take it any more!” The gendarmes and the people around her were very sympathetic, trying to calm her down and, most importantly, to make sure it wasn’t some kind of actual medical emergency (it wasn’t — personally I would have let her through, but I think it was essentially a ploy). She finally left, drying her tears, possibly saving up fluid for her next attempt.
4. Cold logic
After another 10 minutes, a man came up and fought his way through the crowd, which by that time was four or five deep, asking to be allowed across. He refused to take no for an answer and tried to refute the gendarmes’ argument by the power of reason:
• The riders weren’t coming for at least another 10 minutes.
• It would only take him a few seconds.
• Whereas this argument had already taken a few minutes.
• So why draw it out any longer?
• Besides, there’s no rule against him crossing, it’s just a personal whim of the gendarmes.
This last point was his favorite. Several times he said, “It’s not the law — it’s you who won’t let me cross.” As though one thousand policemen were mustered for a briefing that morning and ordered to “Go stand around on the Tour de France route and do whatever the hell you feel like doing.” Eventually, what he felt like doing was walking to Saint Michel.
By this time, everyone in my little cluster of spectators was following the road-crossing saga with nearly as much interest as the upcoming race. And lo and behold, a couple of minutes later, we saw the boys in bleu at the next security point 25 meters down the street open the barrier and escort a well-dressed middle-aged woman across the street. One of the officers opened the barrier for her on the other side, waved her cheerily on her way, and went back to his post.
Not two minutes after that, a line of police motorcycles with flashing lights whizzed by. The cyclists were coming at last! Those who had been sitting stood up. Cameras emerged from pockets and handbags. A murmur of excitement arose and built to a roar. And there they were! The peloton rocketed by in a dense pack, speeding along as fast as muscle and sinew would allow, each rider straining to keep his position. And then they were gone, on their way to the final laps that would determine the winner — of the green jersey, not the yellow. By the final day, Cadel Evans, the Australian who won the top prize this year, had the yellow jersey all sewn up (so to speak). He was so far ahead that there was no way for him to lose short of spontaneous combustion, but the green was still up for grabs. Mark Cavendish of Britain ultimately took it home, but he had stiff competition right up to the end from the Spanish rider José Joaquín Rojas and Philippe Gilbert from Belgium.
As the crowd dispersed, everyone was talking excitedly. Wondering what position the sprint contenders were in when they passed. Wondering how they would do on the Champs. Wondering who would finally win. But, most of all, wondering the one thing that was foremost in everybody’s mind:
What in the nom de Dieu did that lady say to the cops to convince them to let her across the street?
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