Monday, July 27, 2009

Vive Le Tour!

Out for dinner with friends on Saturday night, and my mobile rang. It was my buddy Steve, calling from Paris: “If you can get here by noon tomorrow, you’re going to have a great day,” was all he said.

It didn’t much prodding from my dinner companions to decide. I hit the road at 5am, southbound for France. As the sun rose over the Dutch and Belgian countryside, I got another reminder of Europe’s beauty.

Finding a parking garage was pretty easy, and I made my way toward Steve’s hotel near the Champs de Elysees. It was a very warm day to be wearing a suit, but since I had a few “official” duties with Steve’s firm (he manages the hospitality for the Cervelo cycling team’s supporters), it was the least I could do to (try to) look sharp. My job was to simply assist Steve and make sure that the guests were well-cared for (escorted here and there, etc.).

Exiting at the FDR metro stop, I saw that the boulevard was already humming with activity at 11am, over five hours before the riders would arrive. Lunch was a splendid affair at one of the nicest hotels in Paris, period: The Hotel de Crillon, overlooking the Place de la Concorde (the location of the Obelisk that the riders encircle during their 8 laps of the Champs. After a very leisurely lunch, we took the short walk to one of the guest pavilions near the finish line on the Champs. The location was incredible--located directly across from a massive jumbotron, the riders passed us seconds after crossing the finish line on each lap. The shade offered by the canopy above us was quite welcomed, as temps were characteristic of the hot weather that had plagued the Tour for the previous 3 weeks.

Every time the small breakaway group and the peloton crossed in front of us, I almost had to pinch myself to make sure that it wasn’t a dream. I’ve been fortunate enough to see many incredible sporting events, including some of the classic cycling events in the world. But there’s certainly something to be said about being on the Champs de Elysees for the finish of the Tour de France.

After the race, with the green points jersey firmly attached to Cervelo rider Thor Hushovd (yes!!), it was time for the awards ceremony. Remarkably, the podium was located just off to our right, and we had a clear shot of the proceedings. Andy Schleck (2nd place overall plus winner of the white best young rider’s jersey), looked ecstatic. Alberto Contador (race winner in the yellow jersey), was obviously thrilled with his second TdF victory, though I don’t care much for the finger “pistol” salute that has somehow become his trademark touchdown dance. Lance looked...I’m not sure. It was mixture of one part disappointment at not being able to win, one part contentment of making the podium after one of the greatest retirement/comebacks in modern sports history, and one part classic Lance “I told you so” to his French naysayers.

A shot I did like was one of Lance in a tent after coming down off the podium with him and his three older kids and his new baby on his lap. Very nice.

Interesting side note: Over the course of the day, I randomly saw three Americans whom I know!

Finally, the parade of teams wrapped up the amazing day. Smiles all around.

As a cherry on top of the dessert, as I walked out of the pavilion area to catch the metro back to my car, I walked past three men--one of whom was Bernard “The Badger” Hinault, one of the greatest cyclists in history. I turned toward him, smiled, gave him a bon jour and a merci, and shook his hand. Excellent.

Thanks to my buddy Steve for the invite! Thanks to Paris for...well, just being Paris. And thanks to the cyclists of the Tour de France for giving us one of the greatest displays of sport on earth. I’m so glad I was there to witness the finish in person.


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