a certain kind of magic

june 23-24

There’s a certain kind of magic in seeing them for the first time, alive, in the flesh.

I was walking with my colleagues Jonny Long and Peter Cossins trying to find something to eat (an ill-fated journey), and on our way back to go fetch the car in pursuit of a grocery store, that’s when we saw them. Neilson Powless and another rider from EF were out on their bikes, riding along what was, to be honest, a rather dangerous highway. As the buzz of their back wheels merged with the roar of traffic, they were so close, so tangible, their bright pink lycra crisp against even the dullest of gray afternoons. Cofidis, in a train, followed, going the opposite direction.

They’re very different in real life — small, elegant, decidedly fragile. It is astonishing to me that a body purposefully composed, shaped, and disciplined to do this one specific task, this sublime, arduous, brutal task, is one that is so compactly delicate. There’s something soft about them, something textural — maybe it’s the day-glow freshness of their kits and the immaculate smoothness of their skin, but I got the distinct impression that if one were to reach out and touch them the sensation would be velvety, similar to dragging a highlighter across paper. I can’t explain it — I don’t even know if it makes sense. They are so very much alive, moving and breathing and when you see them, the thought of them crashing becomes suddenly unbearable. In real life, the way they perch upon their bicycles takes on the quality of dance, light and airy, gestural. I did not realize just how much I had to see them in real life in order to understand them until I looked and they were there.

Every single one of them is beautiful.

It’s hard to sit down and write about every day, every detail.

I remember getting the press pass, holding it in my hand and feeling goosebumps sprawl across my skin. I remember ordering chicken tenders to my hotel room because I didn’t have the stamina after a day of travel to go out and try and brave French. I remember the second hotel (an AirBnB) being a scam and having to order a new one, which was dingy and cold. (Movistar were staying in the hotel across the way.) I remember going up to the podium to ask Simon Yates a question and my pen bag spilling open all over the floor like a scene from a schoolgirl’s nightmare. I remember settling into my press desk and finding it a very easy place to work, coffee-shop-like, full of ambient noise; I remember how much it instantly felt like a job, a practical reality. I remember going to dinner with The Cycling Podcast’s Richard Moore (for whom I’m recording an audio diary) — he was staying in the same hotel as the Bora-Hansgrohe boys and over his shoulder I watched as Wilco Kelderman and Ide Schelling paced around the lobby on cell phones. Each of these events presented a kind of out of body experience. What is my life? What is this life? What other sport gives one such access? What other sport is this rewarding, so immersive? What other sport involves drinking so much wine?

I remember the first press conference, the Jumbo Visma one, remember seeing Roglič come on screen with Merijn Zeeman and Robert Gesink, watching him put a Heineken 0.0 on the table and crack it open. I’ve spent so much time with Roglič — perceiving him as a subject — that, by this point, I’m very good at discerning when he’s doing a bit. Not very many press folks are as amused by his antics as I am (in fact, most of them seem to dislike him, for fairly understandable reasons), but in that moment he was definitely doing a bit, and in that moment, I was thankful for it. Swept away in that sea of unfamiliarity, much of it overwhelming, at least one thing was familiar: Roglič and his bits, his non-answers, his poised, outward facing stoicism. Roglič, to whom I owe my legitimacy, to whom, in some way, I owe all of this.

I expected the team presentations to move me, but that was before the organizers situated them in an industrial straightaway instead of some resplendent city square; that was before the breakdancing French children came on. A bird shat on the guy sitting in front of me. I took terrible pictures of the riders for my friends in order to stave off the urge to take pictures of them later.

However, from the presentations, there are some takeaways. I didn’t realize how small Mark Cavendish was until I saw him there next to Tim Declerq on stage. Stefan Bissegger is built like a brick house, utterly square. Julian Alaphilippe smiles with his eyes. Wout van Aert is tall, like, really tall. When Roglič came on — good old familiar Roglič — and did his Uhhh yeah bit on stage, I tried so very hard not to laugh. One rider, however, was particularly striking to me in person: Tadej Pogačar. On camera, Pogačar appears shy and adolescent, when, in reality, he carries himself like a boy prince. There is a regal, benevolent quality to the way he stands, slightly leaned back, his shoulders relaxed, his limpid eyes peering out at all of us. He is ethereal. He has a discernible aura that can only be perceived when he is right in front of you. Many people refer to him simply as ‘the boy’ — and when spoken the moniker takes on a sheen of bewilderment.

On my way back to the car, I was walking with Richard when we saw van Aert and Roglič riding up the hill back towards the team busses. I took at my phone to film them in order to send a video for my friends for clout, but that plan fell to pieces when Roglič smiled and waved to me and said hello, surprise on his face. I dropped my phone, smiled and waved back. (You can hear me go, “heyyyyy” in the background of the botched video.) All this time, I admit to thinking that he wouldn’t remember me, even though we’d had so much to say to one another. But he did, instantly, with warm friendliness. Something about that makes the rest of this feel easy even though I know it will be difficult — everyone keeps telling me so. By the end of the third week, you’ll hate the Tour de France. I don’t think that’s true, though time will tell. Perhaps this will look hilarious when I get to the third week and my newsletter reads I’m dying, when will this infernal circus end? However now, in this moment, I don’t think I could possibly hate this.

Right now, I don’t think the wonder — the magic — is ever going to wear off.