Last Sunday, the final leg of the Tour de France finished in Paris. I am not a huge road biking fan, but I’ve always felt a kind of attachment to the race, mainly because my dad has always been an avid bike rider. I have fond memories of watching the movie Breaking Away with him when I was little and going on “long” rides on the bike trail in Northern Virginia. In any case, when I learned that the “tour” was coming through Paris, I knew I had to see it. (I was a bit surprised when I asked a few locals whether or not they were going – no one was. It is definitely not an event that interests Parisians.)
Actually, although the last leg of the race finishes in Paris, it starts in Versailles, quite a way outside the city (near my office, in fact). Only the last hour or so takes place in the heart of the city, where the riders do several laps around the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe, and finish at sunset on the Champs-Élysées.
Around 9 pm (sunset is late this time of year), I got a call from my friend James, saying that the riders were just arriving – earlier than expected – and that we’d need to hurry if we wanted to catch them. I was just getting out of the shower (trying to cool down in the recent heat), so I threw on some clothes and headed out. We grabbed bikes from the Velib station in our neighborhood, and pedaled over to see the last couple laps.
Race or no race, it is always nice to be riding around the city at dusk. The low sunlight really brings out all of the contours and minute details in the architecture, and it lights up the gold trim on the buildings and bridges to really punctuate the look. But that night there was an extra buzz in the air – an excitement superimposed on the age-old setting. Unlike on Bastille Day, there were people everywhere with flags or yellow jerseys, singing or cheering for the riders from their respective countries.
James and I both live very close to the Louvre, so within a couple minutes of leaving our places, we were standing on a corner watching the pack of riders fly by. We were able to ride around to a few different places, and watch the race go past at different spots in the final circuit. Although we didn’t get close enough to see the finish in person (it would have been impossible with the crowds), we could see it on a big screen TV, only a few hundred meters away, and we could see the riders come past just after they’d finished.
The thing that struck me most was the contrast implicit in hosting such a fast-paced and cutting-edge race in such an established and timeless city. You have hundreds of these highly-trained (and yes, probably drugged…) riders, on the newest and lightest bikes, wearing all kinds of loud colors, and they are whizzing past you on stone-paved streets, in the shadows of somber and imposing buildings like the Louvre. The juxtaposition is impressive.
The end of the race was a little anti-climatic, because the winning team had already been determined over the course of the previous legs (which I gather is pretty typical). So although people still got worked up at the final sprint, it wasn’t anywhere near commensurate with the race’s magnitude and reputation. But it was still exciting to be out watching the real thing, and seeing the riders cross the finish line.