It's Not Just About the Bike
For this diehard fan, tuning into the Tour de France is a religious experience.
By Stephanie Hunt
With mind-melting heat and the impossibility of placating a bored teen, a moody middle schooler and a restless 7-year old, each of whom wants to be somewhere different, doing something different, at the same time, there’s only one good thing to me about the month of July: the Tour de France.
The speed! The hills! The wrecks! Those sinewy, lithe, lycra-clad European men! OK, so I'm a Tour junkie. I spend July tube-tied, watching complete coverage on VS, the obscure former broadcaster of Large-Mouth Bass tournaments, where commentator Bob Roll insists on calling the world's most elite bike race and perhaps the most grueling sporting event since ancient gladiator days, the "Tour day France."
Ever since my first blue Schwinn with big fenders and a supersized S scrolled in white on the wide, springy seat, I've loved biking. I two-wheeled it through childhood, spending hours and hours pedaling through my neighborhood, memorizing all the humps and cracks in the sidewalk. I was devastated when my first 10-speed, a sparkling red, white and blue Bicentennial edition Schwinn with curved handlebars and a sleek frame, got egged by no-good neighborhood boys.
My college graduation gift was a custom-ordered touring bike, which I proceeded to ride through cow-studded back roads from Quebec through Vermont. I've biked the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace, the outskirts of Boston, and these days, wake up early on Sunday mornings for a 30-mile spinning meditation before church. For me cycling is aerobic psychotherapy and, as cars whiz by only inches away, existential exercise. Hugging the shoulder is tempting fate or an act of faith, or both. I ride along that thin veil, that white lane line, between life and death.
But my love affair with biking is not the only reason I watch the Tour. Sure, I fantasize about being able to ride as fast as those guys (when’s a gal going to break into the Pelaton?), but mostly I tune in because the Tour's the ultimate in reality TV. There's beauty, with that fairy-tale landscape of green fields and castles; there's drama, sport, blood, danger, ego, scandal, sex, i.e. those slinky women in yellow kissing each day's stage winner, and of course, though it's done in the most subliminal way, the Tour's got religion.
The race might be better called a steeple chase as the course passes by umpteen flying buttresses and glorious architectural odes to piety. On TV, the Tour seems like a three-week long panoramic ecclesiastical postcard, and a clear message from God that aesthetics definitely count. The helicopter cameras spend as much time zooming in on every ancient gothic cathedral and country church spire as they do following the pastel-colored Pelaton, the core clump of cyclists that snakes around hair-pin turns and from on high resembles a briskly moving bag of tropical flavored Skittles. So far I'm averaging about 20 steeples per 100+ kilometers.
And then, of course, there's the Devil. For an endurance test as hellish and grueling as the Tour, it's fitting that El Diablo, fully outfitted in red tights, horns and a menacing pitchfork, makes a daily appearance. Which is exactly what maniacal cycling obsessive Didi Senft has done for the last fourteen Tours. "I wanted to root for the riders like nobody else did," the fan from hell once explained in an interview. He sleeps in his van and wakes up before dawn every day of the Tour to claim his spot along the route and paint huge devil's forks on the road. Senft is the German counterpart to the John 3:16 guy at major American sporting events, and he looks like he's having a helluva lot more fun.
Beyond the backdrop and the sideshow, the heart of the Tour is the cyclists themselves, facing soul-testing battles. Indeed, the Tour's underlying themes have to do with faith, forgiveness and resurrection. Lance Armstrong, with his "Live Strong" gospel, was the seven-time messiah who came back from cancer suffering and near-death to resplendent yellow glory. Last year Floyd Landis, sadly, was a momentary miracle boy, who resurrected himself in a stunning show of athletic esprit only to fall, ever so resoundingly, from grace. And now, reeling from Operation Puerto's doping crackdown, fans are asked to have faith, to believe again that there's no added oomph in the engines.
With many lead contenders banned from this year's Tour, the field is wide open, waiting and ready for the Second Coming of a cycling superstar. Without big names like Lance usurping the media and setting the pace, this Tour's tenor is different. It's more grit than glam. The break aways are less predictable, the crashes seem a bit more dire, perhaps because more hopes are dashed than in years past. Cheery yellow "Live Strong" bracelets have been replaced with black "Harden the Fuck Up" wrist bands . Translation: when the cycling gets hard, harden up. As the race heads toward the Sermon on the Mount, a.k.a. the Pyrenees, blessed be the mighty, the daring and the pure in blood oxygen. As the Devil himself yells each day, "Allez, Allez, Allez!"
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Contributing editor Stephanie Hunt's last piece for SoMA was Now That's a Stretch.
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