Tour de France cyclists race along the Rue de Rivoli, with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
What better way to cap a five-week vacation in Europe than to watch bicyclists whoosh through the streets of Paris on the final day of the Tour de France?
Now, I had no idea when I made my reservations at a Left Bank hotel that July 24 was the conclusion of this 22-day, 2,132-mile race. But I was excited to learn when I arrived in Paris that I’d be able to observe this world-renowned sporting event.
However, in contrast to the Super Bowl or the Indianapolis 500, the climax of the Tour de France is often, well, anti-climactic. This year, Australian rider Cadel Evans was so far ahead of his competitors after the first 20 stages that the only way he could have lost on the final day was if he’d wrecked his bike in a spill.
That knowledge didn’t keep hundreds of thousands of spectators from lining the streets hours before the riders were expected to sprint to the finish line at the Arc de Triomphe.
After a grueling effort, I made it to the Arc de Triomphe. (OK, I took the metro, but still…)
Since I had other things to do in Paris that day, such as wander through the Musee d’Orsay, we didn’t try to get a viewing spot until about 2 p.m. By then, we discovered, there was no way to get near the Champs-Elysees. But we did secure a good spot on the nearby Rue de Rivoli, from which we could stare at the Eiffel Tower while waiting for the cyclists to show up.
We also were able to pass the time watching an hour-long parade. But this wasn’t the sophisticated event you might expect in a place like Paris. There were no marching bands or torch singers performing the best of Edith Piaf. Instead, we were treated to float after float hawking the wares of all of the race’s corporate sponsors. There were dancing Michelin tires, potato chips and detergent boxes. Scantily-clad young women (and, this being egalitarian France, a few hunky guys in speedos) stood on the seats of convertibles and tossed free samples to the crowd as rock music blared from speakers.
Thankfully, the cars and motorcycles finally disappeared, and you could sense the anticipation building among the spectators, many of whom were following the progress of the race on their iPads and Blackberries.
Suddenly, faint cheers were heard in the distance, and the noise grew to a roar as the riders got closer and closer. Then, there they were, 167 cyclists in a spandex rainbow of blue, green, yellow and red outfits, zooming by us in a remarkably tight cluster. Within seconds, they were gone, though they did race by us three more times in the race’s final laps.
We decided to slip away from the crowd and made our way to a sidewalk café near the Paris Opera. Then, we headed to the Arc de Triomphe to observe the post-race festivities. To our great delight. Most of the riders were still there, hugging one another, dousing each other with champagne and posing for pictures for the huge international press corps.
Tour winner Cadel Evans raises his bike in triumph after crossing the finish line.
I was able to see the winning cyclist, the aforementioned Evans, hoist his bike over his head in triumph, and then dive into a crowd of cheering Australians who were chanting his name.
I was surprised to see so many people from around the world who had come to wave their flags and cheer their countryman. I encountered dozens of Norwegians at various points during the day, some carrying signs paying tribute to the victims of the Oslo shootings that had occurred only two days before.
That massacre in Norway had a special resonance for me, since I had just spent 10 days cruising the Norwegian fjords and enjoying the warm hospitality of the easygoing Norwegian people. I couldn’t help thinking that some of the young guides on our shore excursions into the mountains were the same ages of those students who had been slaughtered at that island campground.
Though I’d never pass myself off as an expert on the Norwegian psyche, I am optimistic that Norway will emerge stronger from this tragedy. And I’m confident it will retain the optimisitic, open spirit that makes it such a wonderful country to live in, and such a wonderful place to visit.