The Thrill and the Agony

Tour de ‘Fans’: Who’s following Lance?

If you haven’t watched any of the Tour de France on the Outdoor Life Network, how can you call yourself a sports fan? You don’t have to be a cycling nut to enjoy watching. “Au contraire,” as the French say. You simply have to love being a sports fan.

This month-long, multi-stage bicycle race is now celebrating its 100th year. Few professional sports allow fans to get as close to competitors as does the Tour de France. There are swarms of fans lining the road on either side, from the streets of Paris to the Pyrenees Mountains. They part like the Red Sea as the cyclists zoom through. They wave flags from all countries and shout encouragement, “Allez, allez!” (Go! Go!) There are no hecklers – only total enthusiasts.

A few hardcore fanatics occasionally break out of the ranks and sprint alongside of the riders for a few seconds, waving their arms as if to create a tailwind. Frankly, I’ve been surprised that there have not been more collisions between fans and riders. Even the cameras get a little too close – mounted photographers on motorcycles or in minivans, zooming along inches from the bikers’ noses, with telephoto lenses showing us every wrinkle and grimace, every bead of sweat and globule of spit.

There are other things the Tour de France has to offer, of course, like the pure excitement of the race itself. Packs of bikers ride through beautiful flat stretches of the countryside, strain their way up mountains, and smile with the reward of accelerating down the other side. American Lance Armstrong is currently first in the overall standings, with a lead of just more than a minute over German Jan Ullrich.

Lance pulled ahead, in fact, on a day when a fan’s bag caught his handlebars and sent him crashing to the ground. Rather than exploit Armstrong’s misfortune for their own gain, Ullrich and other leaders slowed to wait for him to remount and catch up. Another fan broke out of the ranks and patted Armstrong on the back, as if to apologize for the previous fan’s faux pas (or perhaps to nudge him slightly and help him gain momentum). And then Lance passed everybody on his ascent to the top of Mount Luz-Ardiden.

Armstrong is pedaling to win his fifth straight Tour de France, a feat accomplished by only one other person, Spain’s Miguel Indurain (1991-1995). The final day of riding is Sunday, July 27, so be sure to tune in to the Tour. Lance can hear us cheering from across the Atlantic.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org