The Tour de France is not a bicycle race.
The Tour de France is not a sporting event, not an entertaining show, not a business venture. Not even close.
The Tour de France is an exaltation of our human spirit. Our souls sing: This is how great we can be! This is who we really are! We are courageous! We are honorable! We aspire to the heavens!
On this Monday, in the 15th stage of the Tour de France, some 150 or so young men punish and push themselves up the soaring 10,000 foot high Col du Tourmalet pass in the Pyrenees, out of the searing lowland heat and into the mountain mists blanketing the roof of the world.
They don’t do it alone.
Hundreds of thousand — hundreds of thousands! — of screaming fellow humans, beside themselves with joy and hope, standing mere feet and inches from the racers’ faces, literally form a human tunnel that propels them upward. In no other event in the history of the world do supreme athletes intermingle so intimately with so many people. They need each other and they become one on this snaking road.
Everybody’s racing up that mountain. Some burning the muscles in their legs and heart, some burning their vocal chords, some crying, some leaping and clapping and waving flags from all over the world. Everybody’s racing up that mountain.
LANCE ARMSTRONG, ALL-AMERICAN Boy, is in the lead peloton, or pack of riders, surrounded by the Blue Train, his USPS teammates. He wants to win his fifth consecutive Tour. Good God how Lance wants victory! He’s had his problems, though. Stomach flu. Ambitious competitors. A body mysteriously not responding to his will. Swallowed into 30 bicycle pile-up on the second day. Dehydration. But we’ve all got problems.
Jan Ullrich is close by. He’s finished second in the Tour four times. That gets old. If you think Lance wants to win this race … After more than 1,500 miles of racing, Ullrich is 15 seconds —- 15 seconds! —- behind Lance.
The peloton begins its first climb. Lance plans to attack, or break away, on the final climb, not now. He’s content to let his team burn their legs out early and pull him along, blocking the wind, creating a draft, allowing him to conserve his energy until the final kilometers when he’ll unleash it in full fury.
These celebrities are in the peloton, but the Tour isn’t about Lance or Jan or Iban Mayo or Tyler Hamilton or any one racer. It’s not even about who wins. It’s about … the race.
Even Lance and Ullrich speak in reverence of the Tour. They’ve chastised riders who haven’t given it proper respect. The riders are openly humiliated, too, for they defer to the likes of Armstrong and Ullrich. One rider said of his maneuver in an earlier stage, “I lost time, sure, but it was the right thing to do. And I don’t want Lance or Jan upset with me.”
Respect. Doing the right thing. Vital elements to men who race down steep mountain roads at 60 miles an hour, virtually naked, shoulder to shoulder.
The peloton, a tightly knitted mass of speeding humanity, blasts a gust of wind at people as it explodes forward. It could hit a semi truck head-on and flatten it.
BUT WAIT! LOOK! ULLRICH pulls ahead of the peloton! By himself! Lance can’t let him escape, not now, not this early, not with only a 15-second lead. He’s forced to leave the peloton and chase. Iban Mayo, in third place in total standings, joins. Except for French madman Sylvain Chevanel frying his legs out way, way ahead, the top riders are at the front of the race at the beginning. Alone! This is just insane, it’s not done this way! But the hell with sanity, this is a race. This is the Tour! By God, these men won’t emulate triangulating politicians. They’re putting all they have right on the line, right now, win or lose. This is it.
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