Two days on the Champs-Élysées
Listen to the full story recorded by the author Jason Lyon or read his story below.
Two days on the Champs-Élysées podcast
It’s 4:30 pm on July 28th, the day before the final stage of the 2018 Tour de France. I’m standing on the Champs-Élysées, and I can’t believe they’re going to shut this thing down. Cars, trucks, and scooters rumble up the avenue at breakneck speed, closing any gap that opens between them like it’s a sprint to their very own finish line. Tires punch out a staccato rhythm against the cobblestones, and the roar and putter of engines new and decrepit mix with the footsteps of people, people, and more people on the wide sidewalks. People are everywhere here on the Champs.
The Champs. That’s what Taylor Phinney called it in an interview three days ago. He said it half in French with a soft “ch” followed by an open “ah”, but then tacked some American flair to the end with a hard “mps”. Shahmps. It’s cool and casual and I love it. So I’ve adopted it too.
Today, unlike on Tour de France day, you can actually cross the Champs-Élysées. When the little walk sign turns green, you begin your journey on the crosswalk feeling quite Gandalf-like as you halt the growling menagerie of unhappy vehicles. The timing doesn’t always work out though. Begin the cross too late and you get stuck on the central median just as the cars roar back to life on all sides, exhaust fumes billowing into the summertime heat.
It’s a mad, mad place, the Champs-Élysées is. And it’s magnificent. It’s a place where the massive Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde frame a vast tree-lined stage where happenings both historic and personal seem equally epic, stamped in one’s memory for life under the spell of this beautiful avenue.
I have come to this place from my home in Boston, Massachusetts to fulfill a dream. To see the final stage of the Tour de France on the Champs-Élysées.
Now, standing here as I am on this day-before the race, I notice some interesting things. First, one side of the Champs-Élysées is baking in the hot sun, while the other side is nice and shady. As the sun sets behind buildings, those cool arms of shade extend further and further across the southwest sidewalk.
I make a mental note of that.
Unfortunately the shade is on the side opposite the way I’ll be approaching from my hotel the next day. With the Champs uncrossable on Tour afternoon, I assume fans must choose one side of the avenue or the other and just live with it.
But then I make another discovery. It occurs to me that by walking around the upper part of the Arc de Triomphe traffic circle, which is closed to cars on Tour day and open to fans, I’ll be able to get from one side of the Champs-Élysées to the other.
I make a mental note of that too.
Feeling satisfied with my pre-race scouting expedition, I return to my hotel in the ninth arrondissement. Later that night, afflicted by a small bout of Tour first-timer anxiety, I begin scouring the web to see what advice those-who-have-been-there have for a newcomer like me. A common theme emerges — skip the crowds and the craziness of the Champs-Élysées and head down to watch the race on the much quieter Rue de Rivoli or from a spot from along the Jardin des Tuileries.
I consider this. Those are lovely places. But then I decide: I have come to Paris to see the last stage of the Tour de France on the Champs-Élysées, and the Champs-Élysées it shall be. I put my iPhone back on the little hotel room desk and sleep soundly the rest of the night.
The next morning I enjoy a breakfast of cheese, fruit, and a baguette. I take a leisurely walk down Rue Montmartre as Parisians read newspapers at their neighborhood cafés. I buy a Fromage et Jambon sandwich at the local food store, return to my room, and spread my Michelin “Paris par arrondissement” map out on my desk.
It’s 12:30pm. The Tour de France publicity caravan is scheduled to arrive on the Champs around 4:30 and the peloton at 5:30. I could board the Metro at Grand Boulevards station and arrive at the Arc de Triomphe in minutes, but I decide I will make the hour-long walk there instead, up Avenue Haussmann and onto Avenue de Friedland, which leads directly to the Arc. Will the later arrival time cause me to miss out on that perfect spot to watch the Tour? Maybe. But this is Paris, where each moment spent walking its avenues and boulevards is as special as the places to which they lead. I’ll take my chances.
So it is with a spirit of adventure that I place a bottle of water, my iPhone, an extra digital camera, and my Michelin map in my travel bag, throw it over my shoulder, and depart my hotel on July 29th at 1:15pm, heading to Stage 21 of the Tour de France.
The streets are quiet on this Sunday in Paris. I walk by the Opera House, the Place St-Augustin, and a statue of 19th-Century writer Honore de Balzac. At that last spot, as if the great author is summoning his eccentric characters to life, Tour de France fans with yellow hats, polka dot shirts, and cameras with big lenses materialize from the side streets and join my pilgrimage. Then, just as I enter the last block before the Arc de Triomphe, I see the barricade.
Amazingly — because the Champs-Élysées is really long — French security has erected barricades a block out from the entire Champs-Élysées through which everyone must pass. I approach the heavily-armed black-clothed guard, he looks into my shoulder bag, pats-down my pockets, and says something in French I do not understand. I reply “Pardon, je ne comprends pas,” and he simply waves me through.
With that, I am officially in the land of the Tour de France.
Maybe it’s because the barricades form a kind of gateway, through which only those who truly intend to be on the Champs-Élysées will pass. Or maybe it’s because the absence of cars creates a peacefulness that even the Euro-Pop pumping out of the Official Tour de France souvenir kiosks cannot disturb. But there’s a deep sense of quiet here. A quiet not measured by volume — because this place is certainly loud, colorful, and so much fun — but by camaraderie. The car-free Champs-Élysées and the traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe are transformed on a wholly human scale, reflecting the joyful familiarity among those with a shared passion who have come here. We may speak many different languages, but one thing is clear — all of us on the Champs-Élysées today speak Tour.
Here’s the scene: I’m standing on the east side of the Place Charles de Gaulle traffic circle that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe. Metal crowd barriers block off that circle to create part of the Stage 21 Tour circuit route, except for a wide band around most of the circle’s outer circumference. On that band of cobblestones, fans have already made camp. Some sit directly on the cobbles, their backs pressed against the sponsor-laden barriers, squeezing into a narrow strip of shade created by the barrier itself. Others sit on small collapsible stools.
Those fans must really want to wait here, because it’s hot. The sun beats down on the Place Charles de Gaulle traffic circle relentlessly.
Surrounding these camped-out fans is a continuously rotating carousel of people. People with yellow flags, yellow hats, and yellow shade umbrellas. People of all ages. Smiling people who aren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, because they appear content just where they are.
Charting a course around the Arc de Triomphe, I begin my journey toward the shady side of the Champs-Élysées. Fans line the barriers the entire way, and there are still a few narrow spaces left where one person can squeeze into a prime Tour viewing spot. It’s tempting, but I continue onward.
I soon leave the wide open space of the Arc de Triomphe behind me and step onto the multi-dimensional cityscape of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. There are trees here — a whole line of them extending all the way from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. And there are lampposts, big tricolor flags, and advertising kiosks. Those long cool arms of shade I discovered yesterday? They’re still here, but they’re not nearly as long now on this early afternoon.
And then I see it, about a block from the Arc de Triomphe.
There, in addition to the trees that line the curb of the Champs, is a second line of trees about twenty feet behind them. Those trees extend the shade created by the buildings just far enough so that it reaches all the way to the street. Incredibly, there are still open spaces here on the crowd barriers to stand. Maybe it’s because this spot is far from the finish line. Or maybe it’s because most fans in this area prefer the nearby and more dramatic Arc de Triomphe traffic circle.
But this open spot is shady, on the Champs-Élysées, and has a great view of both the avenue straight ahead and the Arc de Triomphe a block to the left.
I do not waver. I have no thoughts of trying to find a better place further down the Avenue. This is it. I walk up to the metal barrier and claim the space as my own. It’s my little patch of Parisian real estate for the afternoon, and I love it instantly.
The publicity caravan should arrive in about two hours. Now, you might think that’s a long time to stand in one place and wait, but there’s something I’ve learned about Paris. It’s infinitely observable. The monuments and boulevards of Paris are grand and glorious, but direct your eyes on a café with its neat cluster of little tables, a colorful shop window overhung by graceful iron light sconces, or a bench placed so thoughtfully beneath a shade tree’s arching boughs, and they’re just as grand in their own detailed way. Look closely at Paris, and it simply gets more beautiful.
I lean my arms on the barrier and look around.
Across the avenue is the Maison de Danemark hotel, stately and solid, with its typically-Parisian mansard rooftop transformed into an outside deck. As if inspired by Norwegian Corner farther on down the circuit route, Danish flags have been draped over the barriers and are flying high on the sidewalk. People begin to appear in the hotel windows overlooking the Champs-Élysées, and the crowd on the rooftop grows more and more festive as the afternoon progresses.
All the while, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées itself remains eerily quiet. I study the curvilinear pattern of cobbles, and the old stones appear thankful for their traffic-free respite, worn as they are from the daily hammering of history into their flattened surfaces.
The open space next to me on the crowd barrier is soon claimed by three Americans: a couple from Indiana and a man from Texas. The Indiana-couple are on their way back from a cruise that ended in France, and the Texan is relocating to Paris to live with his French wife who is a composer and pianist.
A group of very excited and wonderfully friendly Colombians take a spot about 50 feet up the avenue, part of Nairo Quintana’s huge contingent of fans. They hang their yellow, blue, and red-striped flag from the barrier and snap group photos. Not to be outdone are the Peter Sagan fans from Slovakia, who spread their enthusiasm up and down the Champs by parading on the sidewalk, proudly waving their flag overhead.
It isn’t long before the entire length of the barrier is full of people. There are couples sharing drinks and snacks they packed for the day, single people accompanied by seriously complex cameras, and families with polka-dot clad children. No one I meet is obnoxious or tries to squeeze into a space that does not exist. No one appears intoxicated. The barriers are well-placed so that fans can lean as far forward as they like and not get anywhere close to impeding the riders. And if you even think about moving beyond those barriers, armed French security will quickly dissuade you, positioned as they are every one-hundred feet or so down the entire length of the Champs-Élysées.
I feel secure, content, and at peace. When you’ve spent the better part of your adult life enthralled by the Tour de France, two hours on the Champs-Élysées is not a long time to wait. In fact, it’s simply marvelous.
The Tour de France publicity caravan. It’s one of those mysterious things those of us who watch the Tour on television hear about in passing, but rarely see. I’m filled with curiosity and anticipation.
The Caravan arrives in my area of the Champs-Élysées at 4:30 pm — or I should say, the sound of it arrives, because the first indication that this grand armada of advertising is approaching is a cacophony of music, horns, and engines booming across the cobblestone horizon.
That sound is followed by the most colorfully decorated cars, trucks, and vehicles-that-defy-description I have ever seen. I decide that there is no proper word in the English language to portray this French phenomenon — a mix of commercialism, youthful enthusiasm, and cheesy panache. So I choose an English word and make up a new spelling that seems to fit: Crazeee!
Take any Tour sponsor that you see on TV — for example, the car company Skoda that sponsors the Green Jersey — sprinkle the publicity caravan magic on it, and watch it grow to larger-than-life proportions of size and good taste as it becomes a fleet of swerving cars with huge plastic riders perched on top and floats of young people happily riding stationary bicycles as they wave to the crowd. There are cars in the shapes of lions. Lotto number-orbs on wheels. Huge and happy motorized Gummi bears. My personal favorite is Bic, with its iconic four-color pen riding atop a bright yellow truck, proclaiming its Fabrique en France goodness.
The fun and the fascination goes on for over a half-hour. When people on the floats wave to the crowd, I happily wave back, and those of us on barriers seem to come together in joyful disbelief at the sight of the ever more outrageous gleeful giants that pass us by. Finally, as the last of the floats makes its cheerful farewell, a suspenseful calm descends on the Champs-Élysées
There’s nothing left to come up the avenue now … except the Tour de France.
I decide to make some photo-taking plans.
First, the basics. Once the riders enter the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, they make eight laps on the Paris circuit route — down the Avenue, by the Seine, in front of the Louvre, alongside the Tuileries, up the Champs, around the Arc de Triomphe, and back down the Champs-Élysées once again. Standing where I am with a view of both sides of the Champs-Élysées, I will see the peloton head up the incline of the Champs on the far side of the street, after which the riders will pass directly in front of me as they careen back down the avenue toward the Place de la Concorde.
As I consider this, my mind drifts back to summertime visits to my parents’ house in North Carolina, which my mother and I time so that we can watch a week of the Tour together. She is as big a Tour de France fan as I am. We each supplement our Tour viewing with nightly projects like Tour-inspired collages, stage-by-stage decorated notebooks, writings, and watercolors, because the Tour de France is so great that you have to do something. Since her health prevents my mother from joining me on this trip, sharing the drama of this race with her inspires my photo-taking.
Watching the Tour on television, my mother and I often like to wonder what we would do if we were French fans watching the Tour come through our quaint little village. After all, there are only seconds to enjoy the race and then that’s it. The riders have moved on. Would we take videos with phones firmly planed in front of our faces? Try to fumble with cameras to snap photos? Or would we put all devices away and just enjoy the race free of distractions, left with nothing tangible but memories?
Fortunately, the Paris circuit route relieves fans from having to face those decisions. There are eight laps. Eight chances to experience the Tour in eight different ways.
And so as clouds roll in overhead and drape Paris in a cool late afternoon shade, I make plans. I will watch the first lap technology-free, just watching and hearing the peloton speed by. Then during subsequent laps I’ll alternate taking video, photos, and then just watching again. I can share all of these experiences with family back in the U.S. — the photos and videos through texts, and my memories through nighttime emails from the hotel. With eight laps as my canvas, I can give them a good feel for the race.
According to the Tour de France website’s online tracker that a fellow barrier-mate has brought up on his phone, the riders are getting closer and closer to Paris, but they’re moving at a crawl, as they always do on this celebratory last stage of the Tour before they break onto the Champs and fire up their racing jets once again. I envision the four jersey-wearers now posing arm in arm before the press photographers, like four musketeers making their way toward a fateful rendezvous in Paris.
We are waiting for them, patiently. We the Parisian barrier keepers, three rows deep now.
The internet keeps us informed. The riders enter Paris. They’re racing around the the Rue de Presbourg and down the Rue Marceau — out of sight, but tantalizingly close.
Then way down on the avenue, I hear a faint roar from the crowd.
The peloton is on the Champs-Élysées.
No one is looking at their phones now. All eyes and ears are on the empty avenue before us.
First I see a police motorcycle, chugging up the far side of the Champs toward the Arc de Triomphe.
Then a red commissar car.
When the iconic bright yellow Mavic neutral service vehicles bounce their way up the cobbles, then I know: yes, this is real. I am here. On the Champs-Élysées. I love where I’m standing. I love the people around me. After years of staying up way too late on hot July nights to watch a race halfway around the world that taught me to believe that magical things in magical places can happen, that race is heading my way, right now.
And then they are here.
The united peloton is met by a wave of applause and cheers that follow it as the riders labor up the opposite side of the Champs-Élysées. The ascent from the Place de la Concord to the Arc de Triomphe looks like an optical illusion created by the lofty Arc, but it’s no illusion. It’s an incline, and the riders are working hard to climb it. Following them are the team cars, patiently keeping pace.
That steady pace does not last long. Something happens during the time the peloton rounds the Arc de Triomphe and heads down my side of the Champs-Élysées: what was once uphill now goes down, and the formerly steady slog becomes a high-speed riot.
The peloton races by me so quickly that I can feel wind on my face as the riders cut through the air. The Mailot Jaune passes amid a splash of color created by all the surrounding team jerseys, and the faces above those jerseys look intensely confident within a breakneck atmosphere that, from my roadside perspective, inspires no confidence whatsoever! Yet I sense that each rider knows exactly where he wants to be on the road as the neat lines of bicycles bump and bounce on the cobbles — cobbles that rupture the graceful downhill momentum and send the riders upwards and sideways in ways nearly imperceptible, but achingly apparent in the tension and fury of the race. The experience is entirely sensory and emotional.
And the team cars? They’ve become a wheeled mess of multitaskers desperately trying to keep up with their charges as they fly down the avenue.
Oh, it’s a spectacular sight.
The announcer’s voice way down by the finish line booms through the air, piped in from speakers positioned all along the circuit route. He’s speaking French, of course, and in my incomprehension I imagine his deep voice is invoking strange spectral cycling spirits to impel the riders forward. But I know what he’s actually doing is telling the story of this race. For the remaining seven laps that’s what all of us on the barriers do too, piece together a tale playing out in snippets of action before our dazzled eyes.
There’s Taylor Phinney leading the breakaway. There’s Peter Sagan, looking sharp in the Green Jersey. Is that Sylvan Chavanel leading the peloton? No, it’s not. Sure looked like him though. Who’s that rider stuck in the back with team cars? What happened to him? A flat tire? With each pass of the riders, the tantalizing mystery deepens. And it’s good and it’s right. I’ll get the full story later, and when I drop these personal recollections into place my very own 2018 Tour de France narrative will be complete.
I keep track of the laps … two, three, four, five, six. At the passing of the seventh lap I turn in the direction of the faraway finish line and listen as a quiet descends over the Champs-Élysées. Soon, faint but clear, I hear the bell, pealing through the late-afternoon air. It’s the final lap bell, rung by hand at the line.
Tour de France 2018 is almost over now, and as the riders race by me for the last time they’re all together again except for remnants of the exhausted breakaway lagging off the back with the satisfied air of those-who-tried. The sprinters appear desperate to secure prime positions within the peloton while everyone else warily hangs on for the perilous 2.5 kilometer ride to the end. These cross purposes are clearly visible, like intersecting lines that hold the peloton together and threaten to dash it apart.
I cannot see the final sprint where I am standing, but I can time it with near clockwork accuracy by the increasingly excited cadence of the announcer’s voice. Like a wave his voice crests to a frothy peak, engulfing the entire Champs-Élysées.
Then it’s over. That voice that was so frenzied by the present now seems to be calmly describing what has passed. I listen for a repeated name, perhaps indicating the stage winner. Do I hear Kristoff? Maybe.
The race has ended, but the Tour de France’s lease on the Champs had not expired yet. There’s still the awards ceremony coming up at the finish line. I say farewell to my barrier mates as we disperse into the crowd, spreading out across the grand sidewalk. Everyone on the Champs-Élysées is an individual again, released from the magnetism of the cobbles but connected by the calm of those who have seen something extraordinary and still have a little time left to savor it.
I stop at a Tour de France souvenir kiosk and purchase a mug, magnet, and a big yellow Le Tour de France flag. I start to make my way down toward the finish line area, but I do not rush. I have seen the Tour de France now. I feel a deep sense of accomplishment. Anything else is extra.
I walk past the rapidly filling sidewalk cafes, around the Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées, and into the lightly wooded area near the Grand Palais. There’s a large crowd ahead, looking in the direction of the Place de la Concorde. Off in the distance I see a jumbotron broadcasting the Tour de France award ceremony, and beyond that I can see the back of that ceremony’s sweeping podium itself. I have reached the finish line.
This is a good crowd. A decent and kind crowd. They clap and cheer for everyone. Geraint Thomas waves, and we all wave back. Maybe he can see us, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. We wave anyway, because we are Tour de France fans and we’re all together here where nothing but the Tour matters and we’re happy.
I cannot hear Geraint Thomas’ victory speech, but others listening more attentively than me apparently can as they chuckle at his charming awkwardness. I just enjoy this finale to a great day. When the ceremony ends, Sagan and Quintana fans get into a good humored who-can-cheer-the-loudest match across the avenue, their national flags waving high. I linger for a bit, but I sense the time to bid adieu to my Tour de France 2018 has come.
I know I will return to my hotel the same way I came, retracing my steps up the Champs-Élysées, around the Arc de Triomphe, and onto the boulevard that lead to the ninth arrondissement. It’s the long way back, and that’s okay. In Paris that’s always the best way.
Over the next week, I will navigate the labyrinthine halls of the Louvre, climb the steps to Sacré Coeur, explore the bookshelves of Shakespeare & Company, and walk the narrow streets of Montmartre. I will strive to be a good Parisian tourist. But for now, for a few more fleeting moments, the Champs-Élysées of the Tour de France is my Paris. The Paris I dreamed of for years. The Paris I create just by being here. And I am home.