Surviving Le Tour
Every year, as the Tour de France ends and the first few days of August arrive, I fall into the same ritual — I sleep in, I eat well, and I visit the doctor. The four weeks before are a struggle for survival, for everyone at the Tour. As a journalist, I subsist on a few hours of sleep per night, little to eat, and hardly a moment oftime for myself — for the entire duration of the Tour. By the end of it all, I am empty.
The Tour demands everything from you. It is the most important cycling race in the world, one of the greatest sporting events on the planet. There is no room for apathy, excuses, or laziness. The race waits for no one. You have tobe excellent. “You don’t abandon the Tour; the Tour abandons you,”the Tour veteran, Iván Gutiérrez once said. His words flash through my mind again and again as the racers push on, despite broken bones, lost skin, and fatigue few ofus can imagine. They are after glory, the dream that sustains them. But the dream is a harsh one. At the Tour, nothing is gratis.
“A Tour debut is preparation for the next one,” the Irish racer, Daniel Martin told me. “You get to know yourself. You realize you had only been using 80% of your potential before you’d ridden the Tour. At the Tour, you’re forced to give 100%.”
Mark Cavendish, once hot-headed, has learnt to temper his emotions. It’s come with fatherhood, he says. From the start, he hated the Tour as much as he loved it. In 2014, he wanted to leave it all behind. “You should stay away from the Tour for a year, just to realize how much you will miss it,” his teammate, Tony Martin advised him. After a heavy crash took him out of the 2014 edition, Cavendish changed his tune. “I’ll compete in the Tour de France for as long as I can,”he told us.
For the three weeks of the Tour, nothing else exists. Your world is the circus. Your competitors are your companions. For the racers are not the only ones racing. The journalists want to be first to the top of L’Alpe too. We want to find the best perspective, discover the best lunch spot, land the first interview. Like members of a breakaway, we go from friends to enemies as the finish line approaches. We devise tactics, push forward, use our elbows.
For all of us, the Tour is about passion. Those three weeks wrench our emotions. I do my best as journalist to get close to the racers’ most candid moments —to their anger, their disappointment, their surprise,and their elation. Those moments form the story I relate to viewers. Often, riders struggle to explain their successes and failures. Peter Sagan had to face journalists after finishing second on a stage five times this year. Despite his openness and good humour, the Slovak surely had days when he would have rather not had to make his frustrations public, days when he wished he didn’t have to stand in front of a wall of cameras to tell the world why he didn’t win. Cavendish surely felt the same way when he had to face those same cameras after failing to take the victories expected of him. Everyday, Chris Froome and his teammates on Sky had to deal with criticism and rumours. Movistar was pilloried when they didn’t snatch the yellow jersey from the British. As for Vincenzo Nibali — well, he said it himself —he didn’t seem like the brother of the Nibali from last year.
But then there was BMC’s narrow victory in the team time trial, and Steve Cummings’ triumph on Mandela Day — the first win in the Tour for Africa’s MTN-Qhubeka — and Simon Geschke’s tears on Pra-Loup, and Nibali’s redemption on La Toussuire, and Thibaut Pinot’s redemption, and Romain Bardet’s redemption. Their victories washed them of controversy. They bathed in glory. For a moment, they were free.
As the days pass by, tiredness sets in. Perhaps, Daniel Martin said it best: “You’re suffering and you don’t understand why everyone is talking about this race. It is only when you arrive in Paris that you realize its magnitude.”