ALBI, France — I was late, oh so late, as my car’s GPS had expired in the midst of remote vineyards and stands of cypress and golden fields of humanoid-looking sunflowers.
So this American kept hurtling down medieval farm roads making wrong turn after wrong turn until, miracle sacre, I suddenly found myself at Hotel La Reserve, a handsome country hotel with manicured grounds and a glittering swimming pool. Attractive if anxious looking young men and women parted, and at their center, sitting on a white couch, was poor Thibaut Pinot, the great hope to capture this tour for France.
He wore a 1,000-yard stare.
Tragedy had befallen him a day earlier. The Tour de France peloton, the amoeba-like mass of more than 100 cyclists who ride fast and hip to hip came to a ubiquitous roundabout, and Pinot and his team made the split second decision to go left instead of right.
That exposed all to cutting cross winds. He fell dozens of seconds off the pace and that might as well have been two hours.
Pinot cannot bring himself to say much at this news conference. So his manager, Marc Madiot, with a great head of white hair and a defiant jut to his chin, commanded the couch like a captain on the poop deck. As my French comprises a bouillabaisse of nouns and verbs, and conjugations that too rarely align, I understood mostly his many recitations of jamais! as in never give up, never surrender, never.
Afterward I sidled up and asked to have a few words in English. Madiot studied me with a truly fine sneer and said: “En francais! Seulement!” In French, only.
I was hungry and tired. I could feel my inner New Yorker coming on. Our country has enough foreign policy problems, so I nodded and returned to those medieval roads.
So it goes in the Tour de France, that most glorious and heartbreaking of the world’s cycling races, a many thousands of kilometers pell-mell journey from the cobbled streets of Belgium across so often conquered Alsace-Lorraine to the scorching hills of the Cote D’Azur to the thoroughly humbling climbs of 5,000 and 6,000 feet in the Pyrenees and Alps and finally after three weeks into Paris.
I parachuted into the race seven days on, which is like putting in your canoe in class-four rapids. I caught up with the cyclists as they cut across the Massif Central, an austerely beautiful region of extinct volcanoes and forests and white-tailed hawks soaring above chalky gorges.
I found my way to Lacalm, a 185-person hamlet that sits at 3,694 feet, the highest point of the race this day. As half the roads in the region were closed to traffic, I had traveled ever more remote roads, country lanes where you eyed an oncoming driver coming fast and tried to decide which of you would roll onto the grass to let the other pass.
As my belief in reincarnation is less than firm, I deferred.
Downtown Lacalm had a few dozen medieval homes, a shop or four and ancient bikes decorated merrily with paper carnations. A vast wrought iron cross with a writhing alabaster Jesus loomed over the town, which felt metaphorically appropriate given the imminent appearance of grimacing lung seared cyclists.
Up the road we heard was a great roar – un ruggissement – and I craned my neck looking for riders. Non. It was the carnival that traveled across France with these riders, a collection of caterwauling, beeping knock offs of Thanksgiving Day floats, advertising fried chicken and an optical chains, a brand of sausage and an amusement park, and every one moved at high rates of speed. Men road stationary bikes atop some of these wobbling floats, and helpers tossed key chains and sun visors and the odd candy and paper at the feet of spectators. I got winged by a tchotchke for a medical service.