tour de france, in brief retrospective
At a certain point, during the three weeks I spent in France, I realized I was documenting my own life rather than living it. So, for the last week, in a certain act of defiance, I simply decided to live. This wasn’t necessarily or entirely of my own volition — I had many deadlines that were looming for other publications; I had work to do that took me away from examining everything that passed through my senses under the literary microscope. In reality, though, I let the race take me in the folds of its predictable rhythms, let it tousle me forward like waves carry sand onto shore, to mix metaphors. And so, I was carried from mixed zone to mixed zone, from under-cooled press room to under-cooled press room, from the roadside of one tight switchback on some climb whose name I couldn’t pronounce, to the roadside of another tight switchback on some other climb whose name I couldn’t pronounce. All the while, I knew that this was a privilege, a supreme privilege, that this now-quotidian toil was a finite resource, like money, like the time the GC men fought for in seconds, in fistfuls, a smash and grab on this summit or in that sprint. I spent my seconds, pissed them away, and now I’m here writing about it out of compulsion, a need to process.
There are some distinct memories that I have to parse out, lest I forget them, like sitting on the Col du Portet trying not to accidentally end up in a cow pie, watching the race on a big screen in the thin at-altitude air, the cyclists moving their hips to the Ariana Grande that blared on the loudspeakers. (American pop music followed me wherever I went in France, a noted irony.) I noticed the soles of my shoes had split, which is when I decided to abandon them in the hotel room in Saint-Emilion, where I’d be drunk on Bordeaux I didn’t even really care for, again, just for the experience.
We had to take a ski lift to get to the Col, up to the summit, where we went for the atmosphere, spent thirty minutes there drinking in the excitement of the crowds before heading back down because the mixed zone was going to be a shitshow afterward and no one wanted to miss it. I hated the ski lift because I’m afraid of both machinery I can theoretically understand and also of heights. Another journalist told us about his divorce on the way down to distract from the eerie, unnerving squeaking of wheels on cable. I don’t remember why he got divorced, but I do remember the clumps of pink flowers beneath us that set the mountain aflame. The little brook. Cows lingering in places that seemed too precarious for cows to linger in. Shitting everywhere.
That was the day before the Bahrain Victorious raid, I think. The day before things became different for me, when I stopped being so public and noticeable, retreated into myself. The stage — stage seventeen, the first of the Pyrenean stages— was brutal and horrible, so much so that everyone came in shivering and not wanting to talk. Soigneurs draped the riders’ quivering forms in towels, pushed them up the last hill to the team busses, for their legs had simply given out. I never got used to seeing them struggle, never got used to their simultaneous fragility and resiliency. That was the day Matej Mohorič found me in the mixed zone, and upon being asked, “How are you?” he replied with a barking laugh at his own sorry state and shouted, “I’m fucked, I’m fucked!” And I said, “Go, go, I won’t keep you!” to the chagrin of the other journalist in the pen with me, who wanted an interview. Matej’s singsongy “Thank you, thank you,” was lost in the vacuous mountain air as he rode off, disappeared. Even now, I think about this moment. Neither of us — nor anyone else — were any the wiser about what was going to happen in the span of a few hours.
I probably shouldn’t be writing about this, but the suspicion throughout the Tour divided the press room, though not in any kind of combative sense. People settled into camps, quietly. Pogačar was suspicious, but not Cavendish; Colbrelli climbed too well, and what happened with Marc Hirschi last year anyway? And yet, the raid changed everything, deepened this subtle, if cordial, political divide. Guys who were usual fixtures in the mixed zones sniffing around for quotes instead holed up in the press room the day after the raid, their faces sucked into their computer screens, following whatever trails they could get their hands on. And I was left having to choose a side, having to defend believing or not believing. Believing the riders was a form of naivety, not believing them was a form of cynicism. The truth was somewhere in the middle, perhaps. Some took ravenous glee in what had happened — it made their Tour de France, kicked dust up in what had become a rather boring race after stage eight. I mostly said nothing at all. What did I know? Lance Armstrong zipped his lips on live television when I was nine years old living in rural North Carolina, where no one cared about cycling. At the time, it was just another thing Americans were good at, like basketball and securities fraud.
I spent a lot of time talking to Matej Mohorič on the first rest day for ProCycling. He was a guy I always wanted to talk to because the ways in which he won bike races were always interesting and clever. That day, which seems so long ago now, he turned a twenty minute phone call into an hour. He spoke in big paragraphs about all manner of things — about the development of traffic calming devices, about the fires in the Gulf of Mexico, about his various big-picture hypotheses as to why Slovenians were so good at cycling. He gave me a five-minute recap of the plot of Where’d You Go Bernadette?
Most cyclists don’t like to talk to journalists, much to my chagrin. But I suppose that, rather like myself, Matej treated conversation as though there were bonus seconds on the line, and thus buried as much information as he could in what little time he was allotted. After the rest day, he came to the mixed zone just to chat, just to relay the day’s plan and his role in it. It became a regular fixture of the Tour for me, one that made me feel very good at my job, one that gave me a great deal of confidence I would then take into other situations such as press conferences with the yellow jersey. (It’s also why he appeared on The Cycling Podcast so many times.)
And then, of course, the raid happened. The day after, on the Luz Ardiden stage, Mohorič went in the breakaway, which, he conceded to me at the end, was an act of defiance, of personal pride. We play on an even field with all the others. If you hide — I, I don't know. That makes no sense to me, he had said in a rushed stammer, his eyes wide.
I distinctly recall how angry he was about it, flustered, insulted — and that was his fatal flaw — you’re never allowed to be angry in cycling. You have to be gracious about everything, about losing, about crashing out, about burning every match in your body day after day often for nothing, about having your hotel barged into by the Marseilles police in the middle of the night, about having your clothes and your food taken, your phones, in the most humiliating way possible. Anger is always seen as a pretense to guilt, and once the riders did something wrong, or had been accused of it, you, the journalist, weren’t allowed to have empathy with them anymore. Their flaws became your headlines.
I’m writing about it here because I feel as though — have always felt — that honesty is important, that it is pretentious to act as though one knows all the answers, that one has mastered the delicate balancing act of ethics, that objectivity is the same as feeling nothing. But on Luz Ardiden, when I had asked Mohorič if his plan was always to go in the breakaway and he rattled back the whole day’s racing in his same pointillistic, rambling detail, I knew nobody would care about that, nor would they care about anything Matej Mohorič would have to say about bike racing and its ever-adapting strategies from that point onward. They only cared about the doping inquiry. That, to me, was unfair. Which is in no way the same as saying that it shouldn’t have happened or that he or anyone else was innocent, or that I believed him over others. It’s me saying that this is a fucking tightrope I hate walking. Caveats are the enemy of good writing, and this subject — doping — is nothing but caveats.
On Luz Ardiden, the last time I felt truly mindful, alone and at peace watching the race, I stood at a corner and saw Tadej Pogačar come around the bend first, stomping on his pedals in that ungraceful way of his, brutalizing the final 250 meters, making ribbons of asphalt under his tires.
He was smiling.
I spent so much time observing Tadej because I never got to speak to him one on one, though I tried, would shout Tadej! when it looked as though he would stop — it was fruitless; he wouldn’t have had time for the written press anyway, the yellow jersey never does. Sometimes I got a nod of acknowledgment and he would answer my questions in the press conferences, which was enough, I suppose. Even though I never spoke privately to Tadej, I learned all about what others thought of him — teammates, friends — about his easygoing disposition, about his genuine and total love of the sport. He had no other life outside of cycling, and wanted none. The boy had a one track mind, sometimes to his detriment.
The only questions he ever liked to be asked were about the race, about the decisions on the ground, about his ideas of how things were going. People wondered why he would do things that seemed irrational — constantly attacking, getting isolated, sprinting for the most minor of places, burning energy he shouldn’t have — and the answer was always simple: he’s a bike racer, and that’s bike racing. For him, it’s not a cold war, like we’ve gotten so used to. Say what you want about Tadej Pogačar, but he’s not boring.
If you’re wondering about the radio silence from me after Mont Ventoux, the truth is, I had a hard time meting out portions of myself to other publications — I promised to write about being on the motorbike for the magazine, to speak of my personal journey in my audio diary for The Cycling Podcast. Like I said at the beginning of this post, I was so busy documenting my life that I forgot to live it. I forgot to write things down. I wondered why I was doing all these interviews in the morning and afternoon, hoarding them. Maybe I’ll transcribe them and publish them here. Everyone probably wants to know who’s nice and who’s mean, whatever the latest gossip is, what it’s like eating nothing but croissants for breakfast for a month (I gained ten pounds.)
Most of the time, I was simply working, just like I’m working now in a coffeeshop. Most of the time, working the Tour was simultaneously unglamorous and the most glamorous life I could think of. Decidedly boring and yet absolutely thrilling. And now, now that it’s over, all I want is to go back. More than anything, I want this. More than anything, I want to go to the Vuelta. More than anything, I want to see their faces again, hear their voices, tell their stories. I want to feel small among mountains, small in the presence of boy kings and blackbird-like flocks of buzzing back wheels spinning at fifty kilometers an hour. I want to be filthy and exhausted in hotel rooms. I want to be alone when surrounded by people. I want to breathe worthless alpine air and have my lungs burn for more, to be lightheaded. I want to get into arguments about who’s the next Eddy Merckx (it’s Tadej, sorry.) I want to bum cigarettes off of the guys at Eurosport even though I don’t smoke, the stress is just that high sometimes. At the end of the day, I left an idealist and came back a simpering addict. It happens to the best of us. It’s the same reason they climb up mountains that are frankly inconceivable as places where bikes could be ridden. They love a certain kind of suffering and I love another, slower kind.
But it is love. Of that, one could be absolutely certain.
I realized shortly after publishing this that I had fallen into the same trap as the others, and, as such, I wanted to rectify this by publishing somewhere, on the record, what Matej Mohorič had said about being in the breakaway on Stage 18, because it was interesting — it documented with great completeness the strategy for and the end of Bahrain Victorious’ and Wout Poels’ long campaign for the King of the Mountains jersey, a race-changing event that was completely overshadowed by the doping discourse.
Was that the plan all along, to go in the breakaway?
Uh, no, actually we tried to go [into the break] with Wout [Poels], but then the first attack played out. I was also supposed to try and I followed that move — and it was actually good for us because if they [the peloton] were to let it [go], I would take away the mountain points, no? For the jersey [on behalf of Poels, who was leading the King of the Mountains at that time]. And then it got complicated because Alaphilippe made it across and he would outsprint me for the points, then he would have the jersey at the end. So I stopped -- I stopped working at the front and we [the team] started pulling in the back to try and at least limit the damage, try to get some points on the Tourmalet and just hope that Tadej's not going to win the stage. Then for some time, we changed the idea again because I felt super good and I also wanted to try and go for the stage and to fight with Julian for both the stage and the jersey, but then the other teams picked up the initiative and took us back, kept us close. So they closed the gap on the Tourmalet. Then, of course, Wout tried to get some points on the Tourmalet, but he was too tired from the last climb and he couldn't make it in the top positions to get any points. So Tadej got the jersey and I think he also deserves it, no?