dimanche 26 juillet 2009

We were there

Le Tour, Champs-Elysées


Right there.

You don't see us, Audouin and I? Look closer. We're right behind the group of CRS (compagnie républicaine de sécurité, white shirts) next to the television van.

I would have taken far less interesting pictures myself, except that I left the memory card in the memory card reader at home.

We stayed for the "tour d'honneur", when each team parades up and back down the Champs-Elysées, stopping where we were at the turning point just below the Arc de Triomphe for their team photos and a little readily supplied adulation. I like being "that close" to our heros. Audouin thinks the TV is better, but he went with me this year being a good sport. I wanted to be there, not just 45 minutes away on my sofa.

"Tu ne verras pas beaucoup."

"C'est pas grave. Je veux savoir comment c'est, et faire parti de la foule. Soutenir les coureurs."

That's all I wanted. To be there, and maybe catch a glimpse. Be with the people who came from all over Europe and the world to meet the riders after three weeks and 3500 km in this beautiful country, and a corner of Switzerland near Sam and my beloved Chamonix-Mont Blanc. Our neighbors on our corner of sidewalk were from Vancouver, Canada, Portland, Oregon, Australia, Beligum and Suresnes. They looked like everyone in the world. We all waited patiently, and then my phone rang.

"They're in some stupid suburb near Paris. 73 km from the finish," announced Sam matter-of-factly, keeping me posted. Amazingly, there were no Jumbotrons. Nothing to keep us informed. Two guys hawked official TDF products in a nearby van, but not the slightest news of the race. They do 8 times around a loop from the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre, or more than 50 km in the heart of Paris. They weren't far. We'd been waiting only nearing an hour. It rang again.

"They're still in some stupid suburb."

"What do you see?"

"A bridge."

"That could be near Paris. Do you see water? The Seine?"

"Could be. I see trees." The voies sur berges? "Oh, wait. The zoo of Vincennes. They're coming in from the Bois de Vincennes." I turned and informed the crowd around us, waiting expectantly for the news coming from the TV in Moosesucks.

"Your son preferred to stay where it is cool?" I nodded. It was 90° in the shade on the Champs.

And then there was a helicopter in the sky, where we looked up past the top of The Drugstore Publicis.

"Je pensais que c'était pour des travaux tout ça," said my husband. I laughed. He was referring to the curved bits of glass and steel added some years ago to the façade of this venerable all-night Paris destination for those in need of cigarettes or aspirin at 3 am. This is what it has become today, all branché. I remember the one on the Boulevard Saint Germain, ceramic tiled tunnels with glass displays into the various boutiques selling an improbable variety of things, and the late evening trips over there for Marlboros (my then fiancé's, not mine) and ambiance from our apartment a few blocks away. We loved that there were always people on the street and things to look at, a weary waiters in black and white, a corkscrew alongside his own cigarettes in his apron pocket, willing to oblige with a ballon de rouge in a café. It closed some years ago, and everyone sighed, "L'amélioration du quartier," and shrugged their Gallic shoulders. Qu'est-ce qu'on peut faire? C'est le monde qui change autour de nous.

There's probably a boutique or café branché sitting there now. I couldn't tell you which. I don't remember.

"Non, c'est pour faire jolie. C'est éclairé la nuit, bleu, violet --" I looked to our neighbor from Suresnes for validation. She nodded. "Comme notre petit coin de Times Square."

"Tout petit," said the woman from Suresnes.

"Ca doit être plus jolie la nuit," he said, still staring at the bits bolted to the façade.

And then the motorcycles were there, first the Gendarmes, followed by the race motorcycles and the lead cars, 10,000 euro bikes like hedgehog spikes on top, and the first rider, more motorcycles, more cars, the first group of riders, 2, then 4, 6, followed by still more motorcycles, team cars and finally the peloton. In less than a minute, it was over for the next 8, while they picked up speed to race back down the Champs to the Concorde, past the Tuileries and under the Carousel du Louvre, up the rue de Rivoli, the Concorde, up the Champs to turn in front of us again 7 more times.

"Je vois le maillot vert, mais pas le maillot jaune, Contador. Où est -- oh! Il est là. Tu l'as vu?"

"Non," I said, straining to get higher still on the tips of my toes to see through the forest of arms with digital cameras on top that had suddenly sprung up directly in my path of view.

"Dans le dernier tiers du peloton."

"Il s'en fiche. Tout ce qu'il faut c'est qu'il ne tombe pas." I saw our neighbor from Vancouver listening and translated, "He doesn't care where he is in the race at this point. All that matters is that he doesn't fall down and not finish." She nodded.

"I'm here for my husband. He races. He's training for the Canada Ironman. The triathlon, you know." That BC and AK "you know". We turned to watch the sky for the next appearance of the helicopter, at the vanguard of the race leaders.

The best moment? Actually, I hoped it would be seeing Lance Armstrong, but it might have been seeing Andy Schleck light up the Champs with his smile in the radiant sunlight of a late July evening during the photo session for the teams at the top of the Champs, where we were, after the podium and the interviews.

Knowing Lance Armstrong was right there, lifting his bike and smiling for the cameras, and knowing it wasn't easy to be on the same team as Alberto Contador this Tour made it a little bit harder. The French loved him even more this year, though. A complicated relationship, like all relationships. The French know they are. They don't trust them when they aren't, or people when they are less than imperfect.

PARIS -- Lance Armstrong had to go away and come back to be the athlete the French wanted him to be -- imperfect.

The Page 1 headline bannered across the Sunday edition of the French sports daily L'Equipe said "Chapeau, Le Texan," which roughly means, "Our hats are off to you, Tex." It was a shocking turnaround for those of us who remember the year the newspaper displayed a huge photo of Armstrong's back, rather than his face, on the podium, not to mention numerous other stories over the years that attacked the credibility of his performances and disparaged his personality as aloof and mechanical.


Now that he has come in third -- "mieux que je m'attendais", said my husband, who has always admired Lance Armstrong with a small reserve for not being as great as Eddy Merckx, who "won them all", and not "just the Tour", and for winning it without fail -- the French are ready to welcome the return of the King of the Tour, its best student, most valiant rider, and biggest fan with all the enthusiasm they held in check. A favorite son.


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