Le Tour: Or How I spent July Mornings

My name is Alma and I work my schedule around the Tour de France live broadcasts. It is the ONLY sporting event I plan my schedule around. No, I don’t ride. I don’t even own a bicycle at the moment. I don’t have a team I root for any more, or a favorite rider, although I usually cheer for the guys trying to get their first stage win, or whoever is working the hardest that day, and I always admire the guys who push through after bad falls. So why am I glued to the tube in July? Well, it’s complicated.

In part it is for the scenery. No, not the hundred and fifty fit guys in very snug clothes. The landscape. The Tour covers huge stretches of France, different stretches every year (more or less). As I typed this, they were working their way through the Tarn River Gorge, a dramatic landscape of steep blue-grey and tan cliffs, whitewater, a few castles and châteaux, and mountains not far away. There are hoodoos in a few places . . . and the President of France just tangled things up by joining the race in the race organizer’s car to watch the last 20 KM or so. Ah, President Blancmange. Where was I? Oh yes. This is a part of France I will not get to see in person because of the logistics of having to get over there and needing to rent a car to drive myself into that area. But watching the Tour I can see it from above and within. I’ve read about the Tarn Gorge, and now I can see it.

Ditto Normandy and Brittany, and parts of the Pyrenees. And even on the flat areas, the announcers and photographers find old churches, châteaux, and other interesting bits to focus on and mention a little history about. The commentators are all former cyclists and Tour participants, so they add little bits from their own experiences, funny and occasionally sad. There have been fatalities on the Tour, and serious injuries (as happened this year, when the field got winnowed hard the first week.) But I’ll never have the chance to take a helicopter tour of the great battle sites of the Cathar War, for example, which is what some of the stages of the Tour de France have turned out to be. This year, the first week of the tour was in the WWI battlefield areas, and the producers spent a goodly amount of time on the battlefields, cemeteries, memorials, and other things.

I think I started watching back when Lance Armstrong was going for his 4th win. After that it became a bit of a ritual in July. After going to France a few years ago, it became  “Hey, I remember that bit!” Now it’s both fun and a habit. And it’s given me some story fodder. You can tell what I wrote during July, because minor characters end up with riders’ names. And one of Rada’s aliases is borrowed from a rider. I do need to finish that one about CERN, the Tour, and the dragons, though . . .

And there’s a bit of sadism, I freely admit. Especially on the Alpine uphill finishes. That is work, hard work. The sprint specialists crack, then more riders start to fail, and more, and pretty soon you have a few diehards slugging against the pedals, struggling, looking miserable as they chug up the slope. And I’m sitting at my computer chair with a cold drink enjoying the helicopter shots. Or two days ago, when a storm in the Pyrenees hit the finish line, grounded the helicopters, and dumped hail on the press people, shorted out cameras and broadcasting gear, and made the talking heads more-or-less miserable. Yeah, I have a mean streak.

The tech bits can be interesting as well. I’d never thought about how the guys on the motorcycles got their images to the main broadcast trucks. It turns out they have an AWACS. No, not the military aircraft (I don’t think) but a fixed-wing aircraft with a bunch of transmission equipment that flies at 10,000-12,000 feet AGL, above (most) weather. It serves as the relay, picking up the camera signals and tossing them to the main station at the finish line, which then sends them to the satellites. (Which makes sense, given the number of European races and events that are broadcast like the Tour is.) The “Ask Bobke” answers can be fascinating as well. Bob Ralls, aka Bobke, gets questions ranging from the humorous to the serious to the painfully technical, and answers a couple of them every day.

But back in February I realized that perhaps I’ve been watching the Tour for too long. I was on the new, super treadmill at the gym. It plays videos, including landscapes that you can hike, run, or cycle through. I picked one that is cycling through the Italian Alps. “Oh, cool, a mountain stage,” I thought as I trotted along. Then the camera panned out for a scenery shot, and some art shots through wildflowers and native grasses, and I swear, I imagined the Tour filler music and heard Phil Ligget’s voice talking about cutting to a commercial.

I think I’ve imprinted!