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.
At least half of France leaps out of sofas and chairs as it watches this on television. The other half listens on radio. The Pyrenees’ human tunnel goes berserk. Lance and Jan are assaulted by an unending cacophony of screaming. Beethoven didn’t write more inspiring music.
The three men race. This is history! Incredible! They don’t know if they’ll win, but they know if they don’t come through now they’ll surely lose.
The miles fly by in this 99 mile stage. They’re on the final climb, the Luz-Ardiden ascent. Only eight miles left. Never, never has there been a stage packed with such drama. It’s the seventh game, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, down by three, full count. Times ten. With 300,000 people out of the stands packing the field.
Lance catches Ullrich! Mayo on his tail. Lance passes Ullrich with Mayo still on his tail! How can they even think with all these people in their faces? It’s insane! Lance banks into a right hand turn, Mayo so close he can lick Lance’s rear tire. People can’t stop themselves from reaching out to wave or shake their fists. An arm, a yellow bag, catches on Lance’s right brake lever. Bam! Lance smashes to the ground! Mayo crashes on top of him! This can’t be happening! Unreal! Ullrich veers, misses them by inches, maybe not that much. Lance looks up. Holding the yellow bag is a little kid. A KID FOR CRIPES SAKE! A kid destroys the greatest race in history? Say it ain’t so, Lance!
Miraculously unhurt after slamming into the pavement, thereby proving God’s existence, Lance leaps back on his bike, Mayo mirroring his move. Dozens of riders pass them as they fumble back on the saddle.
Something snaps inside Lance. He now pedals like a madman. He explodes. Too fast, maybe, because his foot slips off the pedal. His crotch painfully slams into the handlebar post and he falters, begins to fall along with Mayo, close as a shadow. Not a second fall! Unbelievably, they both recover.
Ullrich is way ahead, now guaranteed today’s victory and almost certainly the Tour victory. He’ll garner fame and millions of dollars. But what’s this? Ullrich, sits up and slows down. He’s waiting for Lance! Even at the risk of finishing second for a fifth time and seeing Lance finish first for a fifth time. But Ullrich doesn’t want to win because a kid’s handbag tripped Lance. That would dishonor him. And the Tour, especially this 15th stage, is about the aspiration and celebration of the soul. Piss on the money, the yellow jersey, the trophy, the fame. I want to win honest race. Let’s go, Lance, you and me, to the wire.
Ullrich’s steely face and cold blue eyes have let the others in the pack know they’d damn well better slow and wait, too. If they don’t … Jan will think less of them. Wouldn’t want that. They slow.
Lance pedals like an avenging angel. Blood coats his injured arm, his lips are chapped, his face dark with grime. He wears the countenance of unsparing determination. His face is both beautiful and frightening in its naked, savage intensity.
He overtakes Ullrich. Impossible. But there it is. Ullrich gives it his all, but the seconds stretch out. Lance is a full minute ahead. Lance catches up with leader Chavanel, gives the French youngster a quick hug while pedaling full blower to let him know he’s honored the Tour by riding so fast for so long. Then he speeds off to win. Wow. Wow!
MERE WORDS MAKE THE EXPERIENCE sound trite, but truly there is something spiritual about climbing to the summit of a mountain. You’ve pushed your body, your heart is jackhammering into your ribs, you know you’ll die in moments. But you look out and down. Your feet are on top of the world and your face is touching heaven. It will be okay to die. It will be worth this moment.
We’re all climbing the Luz-Ardiden ascent on the 15th stage of the 100th Tour de France, wanting to brush our faces against heaven. Six thousand miles away, even I climb the mountain with them, albeit via live Internet text updates at five in the morning.
We’re all climbing mountains, every man and woman of us. Our bodies despair, the mist is thick, handbags will trip us, our place at the finish line is uncertain. Yet we cheer ourselves on, seeking to practice determination and courage and honor. The epic 15th Stage of the 100th Tour de France is our perfectly polished mirror. We look damn good in it.
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