The World’s Worst Spectator Sport

Today’s slide show: Tour de France

The author hunts for a decent vantage point, to no avail

LIÈGE, Belgium, July 3, 2004—I have been thinking the Tour de France is the world’s worst spectator sport for about two hours when I nearly get into a fistfight with a bloated Belgian with a long lens and a short fuse. He speaks no English and I no Flemish (or French), but we understand each other perfectly. We are fighting for a viewing position near the starting line, and he seems to think the fact that his buddies have been standing there since 9 a.m. gives him the right to shove me aside. I assure him most forcefully that it does not. My girlfriend Lorie, who pulls me away after an exchange of sharp elbows and juvenile tough-guy stares, averts a brawl I find myself sorely desiring, much to my surprise.

My tour of Eurosport has made it to Le Tour, the greatest cycling race in the world and for my money the best multiday event going, save the Olympics. After this grueling day, I will be thankful money is no object, as attending the race costs nothing. One pays the price elsewhere—erosion of arch support, for a start.

Liège is about a five-hour drive from Paris. We spent last night in Spa, a town 20 minutes south of Liège. It resembles a ski resort, but Belgium is a Low Country, so the alpine feel is a charade. Surprisingly, many of the buildings are in disrepair, and even the original baths have been abandoned in favor of an expensive version outside of town.

Today is the opening of the 91st Tour, which traditionally begins with a “prologue,” an individual time trial through city streets. This allows for some pomp and for each rider to be introduced, complete with résumé. The rest of the Tour will wind its way through Belgium and into France, circling the country in rough counterclockwise before the final leg on the Champs Élysées.

Of course, the major attraction is Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor turned five-time champion. It is already a difficult Tour for the Texan—a recent book has rekindled the doping rumors that have dogged Armstrong since his remarkable recovery. His main rivals—German Jan Ullrich, American Tyler Hamilton, and Spaniard Iban Mayo among them—sense blood in the water and a chance to prevent Lance from becoming the only rider to ever win six straight Tours.

The Tour is a three-week festival of suffering by the riders for the entertainment of millions. For those who follow the TV coverage, the gallant agony the cyclists undergo makes for compelling theater; for those who come out to watch it live, it is a long wait for a few seconds of blurred Lycra, tooting car horns, and motorcycle cops. For the denizen of a French village, the communal joy of a town picnic in the sun offsets the boredom.

Such is not the case here. The individual nature of the action means no one you wish to see is lost in the peloton (the large clump of riders). It also means standing around for hours beforehand to stake out a decent vantage point, then wedging yourself into place for three hours of largely anonymous cyclists whizzing past. The course meanders through 3.8 miles of Liege centre,so unless you can plant yourself in a spot with a view of a giant TV screen, there is no way to gauge the overall context of what is taking place.

Or you can take the approach Lorie and I took. We shoved our way toward the starting point, a platform encased by what appeared to be a large hand with eight fingers. We then stood in intermittent rain as a parade of floats representing the various team and Tour sponsors rolled by hurling various worthless tokens into the crowd, which set off the expected scrambles. I would consider lunging for some U.S. Postal Service Express Mail stamps, but sadly none were on offer.

The only other entertainment was watching TV crews from Outdoor Life Network vainly attempt to get wet and weary spectators to engage in laughably generic chants for the cameras. I can report that the Belgians are less impressed with the idea of being on television than Americans are (and they probably realize they won’t be able to watch themselves later if shot by a U.S. crew).

After two hours and the near brannigan with my portly neighbor, the time-trialing finally got underway. After a mere 10 or so riders shot off, the thrill wore off. We decided to work our way around the Parc d’Avroy to the finish line, a difficult push through huge crowds and gendarme-created bottlenecks. We finally got some breathing room, only to find that the finish was blocked off to all but VIPs, such as employees of sponsoring companies and Armstrong’s current inamorata, Sheryl Crow.

There were pubs along the route, all jammed, and, much to Lorie’s chagrin, none were showing the Wimbledon women’s final, just the cycling. The fence line along the route offered a few gaps where we could spot a rider chugging along, but after waiting expectantly for three seconds of “I think that was Iban Mayo!” we got bored again. It was far more pleasurable to keep moving, people-watching rather than athlete-watching, occasionally dipping over to watch someone fly past. It came to this—while at the one of the world’s best sporting events, we were happier hunting for some salmon and baguettes at a side-street supermarket.

Finally, after six hours on our feet, it was time for the man everyone wanted to see ride, Lance. The surprising volume of stars and bars around, many of them waved by Europeans, speaks to either Armstrong’s charisma or the nature of front-running fans. Every spot along the fence line was spoken for hours ago. We had two choices—stand on the tips of our tippie-toes and crane over the massed heads or climb something nearby. Most decent lampposts, bus shelters, parking meters, and brick walls were already taken, but there was some room on a long fence being used for crowd control. It had been commandeered by the very sheep it was meant to herd. By balancing with the groin, we could see a decent stretch where the riders whipped around a soft turn

By leaning back, I could make out one of the giant televisions, which was the only way to know Armstrong was off. I adopted an air of studied expertise and pontificated to Lorie that Lance was likely to play it safe, not wanting to take a risk in the iffy conditions. Instead, he came out flying, clearly faster than Ullrich or Hamilton. I was desperate for a closer view on television, but we didn’t come all this way to not catch a glimpse of Armstrong. Indeed, we do, although “a glimpse” is being generous. He zips past at such a clip that I totally botch an attempted photo, which would only be a blur of U.S. Postal Service blue anyway. Moments later, the roar from the finish line drifts to where we are—Armstrong has scorched the course, taking second only to an Italian rider who puts up the third-fastest time trial in Tour history. So much for my predicted conservative ride. True to his ultra-aggressive nature, Lance has decided to wallop his rivals who think he can be had with a psychological blow right out of the gate.

And that’s that. Five hours from Paris, six hours on our feet, seven seconds of thrill. Fortunately, there are still three weeks’ worth of Tour left, and I’ve got a nice TV set at home.