Tales from the Tour: The size of memories

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The little map in the seat back in front of me says six hours and thirty-two minutes to Paris. It will by my 7th Tour de France, this one. Seven aggregate months galavanting around France, following the circus, part of the circus. We are not the elephants, dancing in the ring, we just tell you what the elephants are up to. How they’re feeling. Why they dropped the ball; how they plan to pick it up again. It’s a strange job sometimes.

I wish I could tell you more tales of my first, the rookie Tour, but they all blend together. Inside these seven years I remember sitting on a set of stone stairs in Grenoble and narrowly escaping a trampling by the swarm of reporters following Cadel Evans to his final press conference. I remember smoke spooling out from under the hood of our Renault on Alpe d’Huez when the clutch went, the victim of a Giro and a Tour and god knows what before. I remember flies dropping from the ceiling into my beer in Lourdes, which is a strange town that fuses Catholic hope and Catholic guilt. I remember Vincenzo Nibali floating across the cobbles in the wake of Lars Boom. He was the last small man standing, and I wonder if that’s going to happen again this year.

I remember eating a bag of crackers shaped like tiny cats and dogs at a petrol stop ringed with blue umbrellas and breaking out in hives the next day. I think the two are related. The crackers, not the umbrellas. I remember Mark Cavendish crashing into Simon Gerrans and rolling across the line with his arm held awkwardly; I remember him sitting in a dark van with tinted windows until he realized he’d have to get out of the van eventually and face the gawking masses. When he did we saw he was broken and all of Yorkshire was robbed of two days of headlines.

I remember standing in a school athletic field at the base of Mont Ventoux a few hours after Chris Froome ran up it and staring out at its bald peak turned pink with sunset, like a sunburned Tom Boonen. I remember sitting in a school gymnasium with a hockey rink underneath it, wearing goose down in July. I remember Nathan Haas’ face the morning he had to pull out of the race because he hadn’t kept food down in days.

Whenever I fly over to the Tour I remember lots of big things and even more small things, because at the Tour things are rarely the size they first seem.

Tomorrow I’ll land in Paris and get on a train to Nantes, where a rental car waits. I’ll drive to the permanence, race headquarters, and pick up a little badge on a flimsy lanyard that lets me go behind all the right gates and fences, where the circus elephants are, so I can tell you what they’re up to. The back of the lanyard is clipped together, to prevent accidental hangings, but also so the green-shirted security guards can rip it right off your neck if they catch you doing something untoward. Then you have to go to the press room and beg to get it back. You might not.

I remember how the English-speaking mouth can’t say the French word for butter. Not properly, anyway. And how my credit card randomly stops working at toll booths. Is there anything worse than reversing out of a toll booth? I remember the kids in yellow hats chasing Pierre Rolland down an alley toward some start line somewhere. I remember the unmarked white van at the top of a mountain with a tub full of ice inside, and how Romain Bardet’s thin arms rested on the edge of the tub as he leaned his head back and stared at the dark ceiling for five minutes without moving, and how it was the most human thing I’d seen all month.

The purpose of this Tour diary isn’t to tell big stories but to tell small ones. There will be stories about Froome, many of them. And Bardet, and Tom Dumoulin, and Peter Sagan and all the rest. But that’s not what this is for.

Vive le Tour.

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