Chaos, hangovers and suffering: Riders reflect on their Tour de France debut
It’s been a great July for Tour de France debutants. Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) have ridden to impressive stage victories. Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) spent some well-earned time in the yellow jersey. They won’t soon forget their maiden rides in the sport’s biggest race.
But then, what rider wouldn’t remember their Tour debut? It’s a race like no other. Making the start is a major career goal for most, and for so many born outside of continental Europe, getting named to the team means a chance to finally tell your friends and family that yes, you have in fact ridden the only race they’ve ever heard of.
We caught up with a few Tour veterans – several active pros and one rider-turned-sports-director – to ask what they remember about their first ever Tour de France. Each had a unique experience, but everyone shared at least a few of the same takeaways from that long-awaited first Tour appearance.
For starters, simply making it to the Grand Départ is a lifelong dream, and particularly magical for some.
“When I was nine years old I told my stepmother that I was going to ride the Tour de France,” said Charley Wegelius, who made his Tour debut in 2007, when the race started in London. “Everyone else was laughing but she remembered it. She promised that if I ever did, she’d bring me a blueberry pie, which is my favorite thing.
“She flew from Finland, went through security and sat with it on her lap on the plane, and brought it to London.
“My future wife was there, my mother was there, my stepmother was there, my mother in law was there. They had a great time. It was special.”
Once the Tour gets underway, debutants finally have the opportunity to experience the immense spectacle of the event. Every rider knows well in advance that the scale of the Tour surpasses that of any other bike race, but there’s really no way to fully appreciate it until you’re flanked by fans on all sides.
“I was surprised at all the spectators on the road, especially in the Netherlands,” said Roger Kluge (Lotto-Soudal), who made his debut in 2010 when the Tour started in Rotterdam. “You wanted to stop to pee, but you couldn’t because it was like 200 k alongside the road there were people watching you. And even if there wasn’t a village or something, people were standing. And just massive crowds at the finish.”
As intense as the hype and suspense surrounding the Tour are, so too is the racing. Again, that’s not exactly news to most riders, but it’s one thing to hear about it from colleagues, and another entirely to be in it.
Kluge’s German compatriot John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) learned that in his 2013 Tour debut in Corsica.
“It was a fantastic landscape — it was more like you go somewhere for holiday than starting the hardest cycling race in the world,” he said. “And then the first stage … the holiday was finished.
“The Tour is so much crazier than any other race. It’s definitely something I experienced then for myself. I’d heard it before that the Tour is so much more hectic and crazier than any other race but you need to experience it for yourself.”
For Bernie Eisel (Dimension Data), at least things got off to an excellent start in his 2004 Tour debut before the suffering really set in. After a strong prologue performance in Liège, Eisel jumped into a break the following day, nabbed a few bonus seconds, and earned a few days in the white young riders’ jersey (Fabian Cancellara was leading the classification but was wearing yellow).
Apart from one silly crash – “[I looked] stupid on TV with all my food flying out of my pockets” — Eisel had a good few days. And then …
“The rest I can’t really remember,” Eisel said. “It was just suffering. A near-death experience. When you’re a young rider, everybody talks about how hard the Tour is and you go in nervous every day.
“The worst thing is when you’re there and literally the only thing you’re thinking is, ‘I can’t let this wheel go in front of me. If I let this wheel go it’s over.’
“You’re literally fighting in the 150th wheel, but you can’t let that wheel go. Nobody prepares you for that. It’s joyful and everything but the Tour de France is the most consuming thing you can do.”
For most Tour debutants, there is little personal glory in the pursuit. Few feel the joyful highs of yellow or a stage victory. For so many first-timers, even for those who ultimately develop into big stars with big engines, it’s three weeks of brutal domestique work.
“My first tour was 2011 with [Alberto] Contador,” said Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo). “I wouldn’t say it was the happiest. It was a hard, hard race. I remember, particularly on the [Col du] Télégraphe, we wanted to make it hard, and we went full, full gas for like 14k in the valley, and then the whole team was dropped, other than Alberto.”
But even Tour rookies have their opportunity to score a result. Eisel’s white jersey was a big personal milestone. Degenkolb finished second on a stage in his first Tour (behind Peter Sagan, who won multiple Tour stages in his debut year). Kluge was thrilled just to have the green light to try his luck in a break, and he made it count, if only for a little while before being dropped.
“The sixth stage, going to Roubaix on cobbles, I had a free role if I wanted to go in the break,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll try.’ I liked cobbles, so I went in the break. That was great. First Tour, first break there, getting on television. I think I told my girlfriend before, ‘I’ll be a bit more on the television, so maybe switch it on.’ And I was.”
Kluge’s Tour ended prematurely on the first rest day after a crash left him with a broken hand. Abandoning was a bitter pill to swallow, but he still looks back on that first Tour fondly. It probably helped that the Tour gave him a chance to secure his future.
While the racing grabs most of the headlines at the Tour, it’s also a critical time for contract talks with the official start of the transfer season looming and so many teams gathered in the same place. With his Milram team folding at the end of the year, Kluge was sure to take advantage of that opportunity.
“I had a talk with Shimano and I knew that I would probably race for them next year,” he said.
That took some of the pressure off for the ensuing weeks; despite his injury, he had already laid the groundwork for a new job the next season. “It wasn’t like, ‘I need to fight for a contract,’ so that was another positive thing in the first nine days.”
With so much to do both on and off the bike for more than three weeks, it’s hardly a surprise that those who do make it all the way through the final stage of the Tour make the most of the chance to celebrate. After all, no matter where you end up in the standings, it’s a worthy achievement for any athlete to finish the world’s biggest bike race.
Any potential Tour debutants out there should keep in mind, however, that you might not want to party too hard before completing that final “processional” stage in Paris.
“Riding into Paris for the first time, Alberto [Contador] said to me, ‘This is going to be the most amazing experience, riding down into the tunnel and up onto the Champs,’ but for me it wasn’t really,” said Porte.
“I had such a bad hangover from the night before that that was all I could remember, that’s it. It’s something that I never allowed myself to do since. Certainly not worth it, because it’s not an easy last stage. It’s not a procession like they say. It’s hard.”
Porte did manage to finish that stage. At least it was a valuable lesson learned, and for most, that’s what that first Tour is all about: learning on the fly, experiencing what can only be experienced from within the race. Taking in the highs and the lows together is what makes a debut Tour so special, and what allows most riders to eventually look back with a hard-earned sense of achievement, even after racking up that second or third Tour start down the road.
As Wegelius put it, “There’s something of everything. There’s always ups and downs. It all seems a bit trivial 12 years later but it’s pretty hardcore at the time.”