While the 176 riders left in this 99th Tour de France—after the injured Tony Martin predictably withdrew following the stage 9 time trial, and French climber Rémy Di Gregorio was unpredictably taken into custody by French police as part of another doping investigation—I would like to bring you another chapter of my book on the Tour titled “23 Days in July.” This story also took place on a rest day before the Tour headed into the Alps, not among the Burgundy vineyards as we are today, but a little farther south among the vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon in the beautiful city of Nîmes. This is where writers of the past reflected on topics of the day over dinner and a glass or two of wine, just we did on that Tour rest day eight years ago. The topics haven’t changed much…. * * *
When Ernest Hemingway had a summer place in the hills outside of Nîmes, he'd come into town on June weekends to catch a bullfight at the Roman Amphitheatre, have dinner at a restaurant on the Avenue Victor Hugo, and then drink through the night at the Hotel Imperator. The marble-topped bar at the Imperator is a pleasant spot to choose on a warm evening like tonight's, to listen to a string quartet playing in the elegant restaurant and then sit in the cool shade of waxy-leafed trees in the charming courtyard.
It's another "rest day" at the Tour de France, a Monday, and the eponymous Bar Hemingway is closed tonight. "Desolé, messieurs," says the concierge. And so, being writers and journalists who never take desolé for an answer, the four of us chug over to the Place de la Maison Carré, a flagstone plaza in front of a 2,000-year-old Roman temple. There, at an outdoor café, we order some beers and a bottle of Côtes-de-Rhône. A pleasant breeze blows in from the Mediterranean, and the supercharged mobylettes that scream around the broad curves of the avenue aren't too disconcerting.
After our wine is delightfully uncorked by a stunning, dark-haired waitress who would have certainly caught Hemingway's eye, we raise our glasses to "Le Tour." And that's the subject at hand. What do we—Andy the American, Rupert an Australian, Jonathan a Canadian, and myself, an ex-pat Englishman—think about the Tour de France. Not just this particular Tour but the event itself, its charisma, its chauvinism, its idiosyncrasies, and, yes, its Americanization.
Where to start? Well, it is the last week of the Tour, and it has been twenty days since three of us left our wives for this annual rite of summer. So what better starting point than women? The lovely waitress wiping down the adjacent tables is a reminder of what we are missing; so are the young lovers she's serving coffee to right now.
The story of women and the Tour is a complicated one. It's one that has taken a long and circuitous route that, for us, reached its high point today at the Park Hotel in Orange, when the Tour's paparazzi surrounded Ivan Basso's wife, Michaela, who was wearing a fashionable Italian dress and the most outrageously shaped Dior sunglasses that any of us had seen since those black-and-white Antonioni movies of the sixties.
Up until fairly recently in its long history, women weren't officially allowed on the Tour, not even in a professional capacity. And the only race photos you'd see were of men: sweating, struggling, mud-splattered cyclists. Now, here we have an Italian beauty posing for the Tour photographers by a swimming pool with her husband and baby daughter.
"We've come a long way from the doctrine of Tour founder Henri Desgrange," I remind the others. "He wrote in his training manual that sex and cycling don't mix. He even recommended abstention for several days—and nights—before a race." To guarantee that happened, neither the Tour nor their teams allowed women to be anywhere near the race. The racers' wives were sometimes permitted to visit them at their hotels on rest days, but not stay the night.
Women have always watched the Tour, of course. But no women photographers, journalists, or TV reporters were allowed to officially join the Tour's media entourage until the mid 1970s. And today, while the Tour is far more open, it's still a world that's 90-percent male.
"I think the first woman who wrote about the Tour was Colette," I say, lifting my glass to toast her. "When she saw the finish of the Tour in 1912, she was amazed by all the vehicles that preceded and followed the race. She ended her piece talking about this huge 'mechanical tempest' that was stirred up by 'two miniscule untiring cranks…the two spindly legs of the winner.'"
"Spindly?" says Rupe. "That's a little insulting."
"Yeah. Maybe she was just reacting to an event that seemed so dominated by men and machines."
Although women were banned from the Tour for its first eight decades—other than an annual Miss Tour de France beauty contest started in 1920—some exceptions were made. As the oldest at the table, I remember Yvette Horner, "who played her accordion in the publicity caravan for a dozen years, starting in the mid-1950s. She slipped past the system because she didn't have to be accredited by the Tour organizers. She was one of its attractions."
The biggest breakthrough against sexism at the Tour was achieved about twenty years ago, Rupe says, by America's Greg LeMond and Australia's Phil Anderson. "Both raced for French teams, both were married, and they both hated the system—especially the part about no visits from your wife. So they ignored it. Kathy LeMond's family and Phil's wife then, Anne, rented RVs for July and followed the race around. Sometimes they parked outside their husbands' hotels. Those French officials finally got the message."
"That's a big contrast to the Tour today," Andy says. "Look at George Hincapie. He started dating that podium girl at the Tour last year. Now they're about to have a baby. I wonder what Henri Desgrange would have made of that?!"
"Then there was Shelley Verses," I add, "the first woman soigneur at the Tour. She came with 7-Eleven in 1986. I was reminiscing with her last month, and she told me how she was kind of interrogated by the team directors before they hired her, to make sure she wouldn't consort with the riders! Shelley's pretty buxom, and a blonde, so you can imagine what the traditionalists thought about her; but she won over the other soigneurs at the race with her professionalism."
"I guess that was the first Americanization of the peloton," Andy says. "Now a lot of teams have women soigneurs and PR people."
"I've even seen a woman working on the heavy-lifting gang that takes down the barriers every night after the finish."
"But let's get back to the Americanization of the Tour," Andy persists. "Or should we say the Lance-ification?"
"When Lance shows up, it's not really a race," Jon complains. "We know what's gonna happen, and if he wants to win, he's gonna win, and that's that. Is he too strong for his own good? And yet the audience plays into that. They seem to love it…. But there's a sense that he's depriving us of the show that we want, right?"
"That's what happened during the Induráin years," Rupe remembers.
"Thing is, Americans love winners," says Andy, going back to the Lance factor. "Jan Ullrich finished second in the Tour last year and won Germany's Sportsman of the Year award. If Lance had finished second at the ’99 Tour, he wouldn't even have gotten on David Letterman that first time!"
"Truth is, Lance needs the Tour de France as much as the Tour needs Lance."
"Yeah. The Tour and Lance. It's a marriage they both benefit from. He needs the Tour, he continually needs it, and when he does retire from the sport he's gonna have to think carefully if he wants to keep that high profile."
"But he's not bigger than the event," Rupe says, lifting his glass to make a point, "because he's needed the event."
"That's the same for a lot of other people," I point out. "Look at Virenque."
"Yeah," Rupe agrees. "When he won the stage on Bastille Day, all the French journalists in the pressroom stood up and clapped, while the rest of us just groaned. How can the biggest drug cheat in the sport be so popular? He wouldn't be if it weren't for the Tour de France."
"Let's talk about this year's Tour," I suggest, pouring wine for the others. "There's a week to go. Lance still doesn't have the yellow jersey. And he's only 1:17 ahead of Basso. Does Basso have a chance of winning?"
"No," says Jon. "Basso can't time trial, so Lance will probably win by six minutes."
"But Lance still considers that Ullrich is his biggest rival, even though he's almost seven minutes ahead of him."
"There's no way Ullrich can win," Andy says.
"You're right. So Ullrich has nothing to lose. And if he attacks tomorrow, that could open up things for Basso, especially if Postal just focuses on chasing Ullrich. There are a lot of climbs tomorrow and they're not too long. That means guys like Voigt and Sastre can help Basso. Too bad that Julich is injured. He could've helped, too."
"Look, Postal is so strong, they don't have to worry," Andy says. "They can ride like they did the other day and just kill everyone off."
"They can't do that all the time, though. Those guys must be getting tired, too, even Lance."
"We'll see," says Rupe. "I'll never forget my first Tour in eighty-seven. Jean-François Bernard took the yellow jersey on the Ventoux and all the French thought he'd win the Tour. Then the next day, on a stage like tomorrow's—same start and finish, but some different climbs—Mottet, Roche, and Delgado all attacked in the feed zone, and Bernard finished four minutes back."
"The Tour has changed since then," I reflect. "It's much harder to do things like that now. But I still think guys like Ullrich should try something. They're not gonna beat Lance in the time trials or the mountaintop finishes, so they have to try on stages like tomorrow. It's hard to understand why none of the challengers made a move in the Massif Central, on those stages to St. Flour and Figéac. That was perfect terrain to attack on. If you don't try something on stages like those, there's no way to beat Lance."
"Yeah," Andy agrees, finishing off his Cointreau. "But it's a pity guys like Tyler and Mayo had crashes. They would've done something. I guess we'll have to wait another year to see what they can re-ally do. Anyway, guys, I have to go and work now. Sorry to break up the party."
Pas de problème. Because even if it's a rest day here, our newspapers and Web sites still need stories from us. We pay the bill, and leave a nice tip for that waitress.
It's late, past one o'clock again. But it's invigorating to be in Nîmes, with its balmy air, beautiful old buildings, and cafés that stay open late into the night. "Wouldn't it be great if all the stage towns were like this?" I say to no one in particular, as we walk down the tree-lined boulevard to our hotel. "Maybe next time the race comes here, we can get to the Bar Hemingway."
Hemingway was drawn to bullfights, boxing, deep-sea fishing, and bike races. He loved his women. But he also loved the world of men.
—Extracted from “23 Days in July,” by John Wilcockson, published by Da Capo Press. You can order the book’s paperback edition here: 23-Days-July