One writer's touch-and-go journey through the Tour de France - NBC Sports

One writer's touch-and-go journey through the Tour de France
Sleeping in cars and stalling on climbs while driving 2,000 miles through the Alps

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July 19, 2013, 4:45 pm

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LE GRAND-BORNAND, France -- I had little idea what I was getting into when I committed to following this year's Tour de France from start to finish.

I hadn't stepped foot in a non-English-speaking country until this May, and my knowledge of the French language was a faded textbook memory from four years of high school, nine years removed. Nor had I been to a single cycling event, let alone a Grand Tour covering 21 stages and 2,000 miles.

So, I sought advice from veteran cycling writers a few weeks before the Grand Départ on June 29.  

Welcome to the jungle! Most journalists say the Tour de France is the hardest duty they've ever pulled, but it's all fun and games in the end.

***

It's badass. Keep extra water and food in your car, you never know when you'll need it. I've even had to sleep in my car over there before.

***

As you head into the thicket of drunk Basques near the top of the Alps, lock your doors. Those folks have been drinking and waiting for days for some action, and they sometimes decide roughing up a media car is sufficient amusement till the cyclists arrive.

All were right.

In the last three weeks, I've seen inexpungible gratuitous male nudity, stalled out driving up a mountain, twice, and spent one night sleeping in my rental car. 

I've lived out of one suitcase and, given the daily problems I created, the prospect of doing laundry has seemed an impossible luxury.

But, hey, this is the Tour experience. 

I gravitated toward cycling when Lance Armstrong won his seven straight titles from 1999 to 2005 and, even as doping accusations, denials and confessions developed, my passion only grew.

Perhaps sadly, I could find no better way to spend summer vacation mornings than waking to an alarm to watch skinny men in tight jerseys pedal to British commentating.

Last summer, I decided this had to be the year I experienced the Tour in person rather than on TV.

It's the 100th edition, the route features two famous mountain stages (Mont Ventoux, the so-named "Giant of Provence," and Alpe d'Huez and its 21 switchbacks) and was to include the deepest field of former Tour champions and contenders I could remember.

The sporting event itself has been less than memorable. Last year's champion, quotable Brit Bradley Wiggins, pulled out with a knee injury in May. 

The resulting obvious but not overwhelming pre-race favorite, Kenyan-born, South African-raised, British-licensed Chris Froome leads by a gaping 5 minutes, 11 seconds, with one mountain stage and the celebratory ride into Paris to go.

I can't wait to get to the Champs-Élysées to complete an experience that, from day one, has conjured one descriptor: harrowing.

The daily routine -- wake up, materialize what city or town I'm in, go for a run (this has become less and less regular) and hope not to get lost. Then discern what won't make me sick from the hotel petit dejeuner spread. Cold meat for breakfast? No thanks.

A European novice, I didn't realize my American credit cards do not work on both gas station machines and at (very, very pricey) French tolls, where there are no manned booths.

It's not hard to find a fueling stop where one can pay a cashier inside. Except at nights, on weekends and in pastoral mountain areas.

Twice, I've given up. I found a card-only station, waited for somebody to drive up and waved a wad of cash in one hand my Visa in another. I apologized for being a clueless American and, thankfully, received sympathy.

I was also blind to the scarcity of automatic rental cars over here. Europcar offered me one non-stick, non-minivan option. I hesitantly took it.

My white-knuckled driving came to a head Thursday on a nightmare climb up Alpe d'Huez. It must have taken an hour to tick off eight miles from an elevation of 726 meters to 1,850 meters -- an 8.1 percent gradient, as they say in cycling.

It's estimated between 500,000 and one million fans line the routes of Tour mountain stages. I saw all of them. One I'll never forget, a man without clothes. He's etched in my mind not because of his nudity, but because he was waving a stuffed boar.

On Alpe d'Huez, I lost contact with the officials and media caravan in front of and behind me. Have you ever seen how cyclists squeeze through throngs of fans up those mountains? Try doing it in a car.

Not just any car, but a Smart car. I was on an island in a laughable automobile, the perfect target for the drunks mentioned by one writer above.

I somehow crawled through the infamous "Dutch corner" on one of the 21 switchbacks. Windows up. Doors locked. Sunglasses on. I wasn't about to make eye contact as beverages were splashed on my windshield. 

I had stopped listening to French radio after about the 20th playing of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," so I was also subject to the chants, screams and soundtrack of the inebriated crowd. I hadn't heard "Livin' la Vida Loca" in years.

A few minutes later, the Smart car stalled and started rolling backward. Restart. Inch forward a few meters. Stalled again.

I broke into a sweat and raced from panicked thought to panicked thought.

These spectators are going to rock my car and tip it over if I don't start moving.

I'm going to hold up the entire Tour, the idiot member of the media stuck near the summit.

Will they bar me from the media buffet for this?

I restarted one more time and reached the finish line -- the centre de presse.

Journalists see the defining moments of the Tour the same way I did as a teenager at my parents' house, on TV. There are about a dozen screens scattered across each day's makeshift media center (gymnasiums, soccer stadium press boxes, even warehouses). The only difference is it's the French commentary. 

I wish they would talk slower, but I can make out bits and pieces, such as when a rider is "en difficulté!"

Near the end of the stage, the writers quit cramming free Madeleines and venture near the finish line. They gather around a small TV as if they're listening to one of FDR's fireside chats.

The riders zoom through the finish and keep pedaling toward their team buses, which can be up to a kilometer away. 

I've seen cyclists ride past me, and, a few seconds later, a cameraman stumble by, much slower of course. The chase looks futile.

Many here hope that, after interviews, writing and getting back to the car, there's some place around still open for dinner. If not, that bread and water in the glove compartment actually becomes appetizing.

One night, on Mont Ventoux, I became so delayed by extenuating circumstances that I knew I would not be able to check into my hotel until 10 or 11 p.m.

I called the place and left a voicemail. I emailed and didn't get a response. I arrived at 11:30 and was locked out. These being the Alps and this being the Tour, there were no available hotel rooms nearby. Surely, none of the bed and breakfasts had 24-hour reception.

So I drove back down the mountain to that day's press center, turned into the empty car park and set up camp for the night. 

As I craned my neck and crammed my feet against the passenger's side door, I had one thought.

I wish I rented the minivan.

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