You may remember from my last post that we had bought rail passes for the immediate network of regional trains. The original motivation behind these was to roll out of town a ways and glimpse part of the Tour de France. It has been a longtime dream of Karl's to see this event in person, and somehow in past years we were always out of the country when it came time for the fierce and fearless road racers to make their way across the mountains, plains, and villages of la belle France. Here was our big chance!
Sandwiches and fruit nestled into our backpack for later, we boarded the train to Montargis, east of Paris. When we jumped down on the platform about an hour later from the air-conditioned train car, it was sweltering. The blinking green cross above the pharmacie registered 37.5 + C (99.5 F), reminding us to hydrate and stay out of the sun. We managed to down gallons of water but shade was harder to come by. What I wouldn't have given for a hat. Even at 3:30 in the afternoon, the merciless rays stood at high-noon attention. Undaunted, we kept pouring water down our throats (and backs and feet and heads) and secured a spot right along the barrier about 500 metres from the "arrivée". In French, they use the word "arrival", not "finish line". Remember that for later.
We expected some sort of excitement to be afoot. Karl had this idea that they throw cookies at the crowd, for example. O...K. But nothing could have prepared us for the chaos and merriment that ensued. Think hometown parade, but bumped up a few hundred thousand euros in budget. Haribo trucks full of smiling girls throwing bags of candy, a giant chicken car that wove and wobbled and threw out Mont-St.-Michel cookies (ah-HA!), and best of all, almost every sponsor had some kind of hat to throw to the crowd: gingham boat hats, fold-up safari hats, bike caps with the red-polka-dots (like the jersey), and umbrella hats. We scrambled after the showers of giveaways like little kids again, danced around to the booming music with umbrellas on our heads (yes, all we'd had to drink was water, honest!) Once the parade was over, we chatted with a nice French man who wanted to talk about New York, cyclotourism, grandkids, and bridge.
A lull. More swooning in the heat, this time with proper headgear. And then, it came. The pitch rose, hands beating on everything they could find as the peloton swarmed around the corner and into the straightaway to the end. One blur, one being. In advance, I had dutifully memorized the jersey numbers of the top three American riders, and Tyler and Lance were somewhere in the heart of that beast but there was no way I'd catch them solo. Just thirty seconds, a blast of wind and color. Karl's hat blew straight back off his head, it was so powerful. We caught a few snippets of riders on our camera phones, but mostly were stunned by the sheer velocity. Then it was done, and the crowd took over the barriers, tearing them down and we triumphantly walked the last 500 meters together, shoulder to shoulder with the Norwegians, French, Spanish, Dutch - you name it, they were all there. Someone had won the stage, but it didn't seem to matter much to anyone but the Norwegians. We elbowed our way through mass of bodies to try to see the awarding of the jerseys, but all we got were glimpses on huge screens and garbled messages from a loudspeaker. Fair enough, the real show was over.
We've continued to follow the race since, from a distance. I read an article today from the AP: "Shouldn't Lance Armstrong just quit?" The reporter expresses a little bit of admiration to the cycling veteran's commitment to finish a race he won't win, but I found the overall tone of the article to be bothersome. The general message was he should have quit while he was ahead...he is a has-been, 13 is one two many Tours. Now, there has been nothing exceptionally graceful about his fits and starts, bumps and bruises this time, but what about the sheer honor of arriving at each finish line, 12 of 20 crossed as of tonight? What about the love of the sport? Even if his strength is waning compared to his early years, what is shameful about facing the grueling mountain passes for one last time? Maybe this is the amateur in me talking, but isn't it incredible to finish this extraordinary race, period?
Inspired, the day after the Tour, we took bikes out to a town called Mantes-la-Jolie, hoping to ride all the way to Giverny. While it was a lovely trip, a couple hours of wrong turns and hot sun, punctuated by a nasty fall on my part left us much like Lance in stage 8, hands on hips and shaking our heads. No sag wagons for us, but we wouldn't make it to our destination in time and were woefully unprepared for the trip. After exploring Mantes-"the-Pretty" a bit, that day's "stage" was over. Man, I hate not finishing. But you couldn't beat the scenery.
In life we have seasons when we run glorious and strong and others that are sadder, strewn with hardship. In our human pride, we hope that the world's videocameras will turn away when we falter and trip and look stupid, but fortunately for me I have a God who doesn't look away embarrassed. More than that, He picks me up, dusts me off, and reminds me that it's the "arrivée" that counts. I just love the words of the Apostle Paul:
" I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:12-14).