[Champs Elysees, Tour de France, 2005. We were babies!]
It’s July which means that, as you are reading this, there’s a pretty good chance that I’m camped out in front of my TV, glued to the Tour de France.
NPR did a series a few years ago about the sounds associated with summer. People talked about their favorite sunshiney songs or the trill of crickets or the sizzle of a burger hitting a grill. I went home, turned on the Tour, and realized that my sound of summer, without question, is Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen’s lilting British voices calling the race over the cheers of the crowds and the ever present hum of the choppers.
I started watching the Tour back in college when an American who no one outside of the cycling community had ever heard of with one hell of a story started winning the race year after year. I was deeply entrenched in the triathlon world and fresh out of a several year on again / off again relationship with an avid amateur cyclist. Pro cycling was something that I knew nothing about but was eager to eat up. I couldn’t get enough.
Back in 2005 I spent a summer studying international law in Austria. It was no accident that the program I chose landed me in Europe in the month of July. My then-boyfriend (now-husband) flew out and for a few days he and a friend and I followed the race around. We spent a couple nights in Lyon and watched as the time trial blew through Saint Etienne. We stood on the Champs Elysees and toasted champagne as that American hero that got me hooked on the sport rolled in for a 7th TDF victory.
And we believed.
We believed that a man with a compelling story and unimaginably high VO2 max could somehow beat the sport’s toughest racers in it’s hardest event. And we believed that he could do it cleanly, seven years in a row. We believed he was innocent when all signs pointed otherwise, when one by one the riders that he shared those podium steps with fell from grace. We chalked his victories up to impeccable training and a smart and strong team. We bought into the hype. And when he won for a 7th time, we celebrated in Paris, talked about just how big that moment was, and marveled at how lucky we were to watch it in person.
Despite being firmly on the Lance train, I was happy when he retired. I hoped that the questions of doping would go away and the race would be shaken up with young, fresh blood. And then Floyd Landis happened. And Alberto Contador happened. And Ricardo Ricco and Denis Menchov and Frank Schlek happened. And, long before I read Tyler Hamilton’s book or watched when Lance sat down and spilled his guts to Oprah, I realized I had been very wrong about our American hero for a very long time.
And yet I kept watching. Because I love seeing the race unfold and watching the countryside fly by. I love to believe that these things are possible and that you can ride clean and still win the toughest endurance event on the planet.
The race is supposedly cleaner these days. I want to believe that it’s true but I’m not sure that I do. I try to put my hard-earned cynicism aside and tell myself that things have gotten better but I’m not surprised when I learn that they haven’t. I try to believe that, when something amazing happens, it’s the product of fast bikes, hard training, and a willingness to bury oneself in the name of sport. But there’s always a question in the back of my mind, always an asterisk threatening to shatter the fairytale that I desperately want to believe in.
And I watch anyway. Because it’s July and this is what I do.
Vive le Tour!