July 7, 2007


I woke up and had one more thing to cross off of my list, and I enlisted Julie and Ken to help me do it.


In March 2007 I did a triathlon in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The town, the tourists, the locals, the swim course, and the facilities I could have done without (I realize I left very little but all I wanted was a really early race; I got that) but one of the more unusual features of the town is that they have the London Bridge.


No, really. The old one was starting to sink (you may have been five and heard a song about it) and the city of London sold it to Lake Havasu City (motto: "Only Forty Degrees Hotter Than You Can Stand"), where they promptly installed it across Lake Havasu, numbering all the stones so they could put them back correctly. This bridge was part of my run course. Knowing that I was going to be running across this bridge in March, I knew that I would have to run on the real London Bridge during my trip so that I could say I'd done both in the same year.


That was here, on March 26.





I ran for about a mile, jogged some stairs, and turned back around. It was in the low 60s and I'd gotten just warmed up enough to sweat. We hopped back on the tube and made our way back to the hotel room.


We had several things to accomplish before the day's main event. First, we had to pack. Take down the office, pack up all our clothes and souvenirs, and have the bags ready to go so we could check out and leave our bags with the concierge.


Because today was the day that brought me to Europe in the first place.


Today was the Prologue of the Tour de France.


Before I'd been here, I could take or leave Paris. Same with Germany. I didn't think I'd like the people, didn't think I'd care much about the culture, knew neither one of the languages, and just generally thought that I'd want to see it someday, but like you want to do everything someday, like drive cross-country or write a book.


Then last year, things got bad. And my sister, who's a French and German teacher, said, "You want to see anything?" I thought, Now's the time.


She asked if I wanted to see Germany or France. Both countries struck me as equally compelling, but France had one thing going for it in the summer: the Tour.


Every triathlon I've ever run, I'm wearing a yellow bracelet. I'll post the long explanation why in the next month or so, but the short answer is I'm a fan of Lance Armstrong and support cancer research. My mom's a cancer survivor; has been for eight years. Ken's girlfriend lost her battle with brain cancer in April 2005 and that year he contributed an amount of money to charity based on the amount of weight I lost; at $3 a pound, he gave them $210.


So every morning, when the tour was on OLN, I'd be watching it when I was on the elliptical machine at the health club. It was live in Las Vegas at 4 in the morning. At first I was just watching Lance. Then I was watching everybody. I was fascinated.


First off, the speed. Watching cyclists close out a race where the bike's practically swaying underneath them, seeing how they descend hills, watching the entire peloton move like a cloud rather than 180 men-that's amazing. I would go to get some water, touch tires, we'd fall down like dominoes, and that would be it.


Secondly, what it takes to win this thing. You have to be willing to ride a bicycle 2,400 miles in three weeks. You get three rest days in there. Your body has to be so light you'll be about three steps from death even when you take the starting line. You will burn over nine thousand calories per day. You'll go through heat, through cold, through injury, through damned near anything to finish that ride. You finish on the Champs Elysees at the Place de la Concorde, with the Arc du Triomphe behind you, having survived the most grueling athletic test imaginable.


Lance Armstrong


So we had some choices. Julie's Europe trip would end with her school at the end of June, and the Tour didn't start until July. We could maybe catch a stage somewhere in France, but Julie's done that, and she explained how it works. "You go somewhere in rural France and pick out a spot six hours before the race. Then the caravan comes by and you get to pick up the stuff they throw at you. Then there's some police cars and a group or two out in front. Then the peloton goes by in about a minute. Then that's it. It's over." The speed that I marveled at would work against me-I'd be waiting forever for a minute of something to happen. Hardly worth a trip from America for that.


The other option was to catch the finale, which was great. The riders do six laps around, up and down the Champs Elysees, which you're seeing Lance do in his seventh and final Tour victory above. Julie saw Lance's 2003 win and was thrilled to be a part of the crowds and the action, and she was amazed by the speed too-she showed me a picture from four rows back with a yellow shirt at the right edge of the frame and said, "That's Lance." The problem there is that Julie would be in Europe before the start, so she'd have to be there for three weeks, and it would just be too expensive.


The other option is the prologue. The prologue is a time trial that doesn't count for many points in the standings, but it does determine who will hold the maillot jaune (yellow jersey worn by the overall race leader) for Stage 1. The prologue functions like a time trial, so the racers start down a chute, one at a time. It's also very short. This one was only going to be about eight miles. That was taking place in downtown London, and we would be there, on the corner of Hyde Park.


So that was the day ahead. Ken and I went to get some souvenir shopping done at Harrods, one tube stop away and right in our neighborhood. Julie had been there a day earlier and saw all kinds of things. She was able to get a great deal on some stuff I can't disclose yet by joining the Harrods Rewards Club, which promised her ten percent off of her purchases. She got a very nice card and everything. Julie's exactly the sort of valued customer you want because she's going to be in the country for another 20 hours or so. Then again, the margins made a little more sense if they could just hand you ten percent right off the bat.


Not to mention that every single price in London was a punch in the stomach. I mean, the exchange rate for the Euro right now is deplorable if you're an American. Right now $1.37=1 Euro. But in Britain, it's downright hideous. Right now $2.28=1 pound. So a 20-pound taxi ride is actually about 45 bucks. But you don't think that when you see the meter; you see a number. That's why we spent so much time eating free breakfasts and pub food; because although I knew there were very nice restaurants around me, I didn't feel like paying $210 for a meal for three (a very pedestrian meal, not like one of Gordon Ramsay's places), which is what we would have paid if our dinners and drinks came to 30 pounds apiece.


So we got to Harrods before opening and waited with the others. Today was a Big Sale.



We got into the store and security guards checked Ken's bag, making me a little jittery about pictures. London as a whole is watching you very, very closely, and even if they're not they are very big on giving you the impression that they are. There are three security cameras in the picture above (at top of window on left side in store, on right side wall, and in bubble above canopy) and there were hundreds more we passed in our time there. I stopped taking pictures in Tube stations after I saw a sign that told me not to. And in London, you swipe your ticket to get out of the subway as well. Somebody knew where my card was purchased. Somebody knew where I was standing. And in London, I got the feeling that the population liked the idea and trusted the Somebodies. In the United States, you're thinking, "What if Somebody is on his coffee break?" and if we don't think the Somebody is up to the job and we're at risk, we hire security or get a gun.


I live and work in Las Vegas and have not be notified so often that I was being monitored by closed-circuit television as I was in London, and in Vegas there's cameras EVERYWHERE.


We finally got inside and saw the damnedest collection of items for sale that you've ever seen. We looked through the souvenir arcade, but all of the items said "Harrod's" on them, and as much of a great time I've had here on vacation, shopping here wasn't my reason for it. I thought they'd have everything I needed souvenir-wise-a hat from the race and some toys for the kids.


We saw none of these things. Instead of a simple baseball cap that had the logo for the Grand Depart, I was offered a cycling jersey with a map of London on it for what I'm sure the salesman thought was a profoundly reasonable price of 210 US dollars, but that I thought was a mite excessive. They sold polo equipment, and not just shirts with little horsies on them-balls, mallets, riding gear, it was there.


I had my eye on a cricket bat for about ten seconds because I liked the idea of it sitting in the corner of my cubicle for no reason at all, except Ken pointed out that I wasn't English, had no idea how to play cricket, didn't have space in the cubicle for sporting goods, particularly one I didn't play, and most importantly, he couldn't figure out how I'd get it home in my luggage. Any airline that would let me get that on a plane wouldn't be allowed into US airspace, and it wouldn't fit in my luggage.


We visited the toy department and I was able to find presents for the kids, something they would recognize. They each like Wallace and Gromit, and one of the shorts featured a sheep called Shaun.



Harrods had a Shaun doll that made a sheep's baa when you squeezed its nose and shivered when you pulled on his tail. Aside from the fact that my luggage made noise every time these items were packed, it was perfect. I picked up two to go. I was looking forward to explaining to airport security why my luggage went "mehhhhhh" when I put it onto the belt.


After this, we made our way back, got packed up, and dropped our bags downstairs. We made our way to Hyde Park. Julie had picked up sandwiches while we were out shopping, and we went to stake out our spot.



We were at the lower left-hand corner of the course. We walked through the west end of Hyde Park to West Carriage Drive. The tour caravan trucks were already in place. The Haribo people, makers of quality Gummi Bears, were setting up a racecourse for little kids:


By the time we got there, there were two security guards blocking a large area in front of a gated off area we later discovered was for sponsors. We moved to the back of the fence and sat down.


Julie gave us the heads-up. "I've done this before. You have to remember there are people here with no regard for your personal space. They're Europeans and they don't line up for anything. They'll step right in front of you if you give them the room to do so. We're going to block off our space and keep it. Put your jacket over there and my purse over there. I'll put the water bottle here. We should be fine."


We had successfully put ourselves directly behind a family of three, who we'd easily be able to see over once the festivities began. Now all we had to watch for was people trying to crowd us or stand in front of us. The good new is there's nine miles of racecourse; they could always find another spot. It was about this crowded when we started out:





See that? Not so bad, hmm? Well, Ken took off to get some souvenirs, and Julie and I were in charge of defending the space. Take a look at some of the tools I had at my disposal:



1. Julie's purse, German, black.

2. Nike basketball shoe attached to my foot, American.


Now Capri pants is eyeing the space to the left of this picture, which is currently occupied by my left hand as I'm being the human sawhorse, like it's, ummm, (must...not...reveal...impolite,,,person's....nationality....)...an overturned cannoli truck. (Dammit.) Both Julie and I managed to speak in a very precise language using only our eyes, saying very carefully (with our eyes, mind you) that if her pudgy little flip-flop clad foot touched either Julie's purse or my foot, it would not be a pleasant afternoon.


We held the line like this and saw some fascinating things. For instance, we were against the fence for the sponsor's area; that's the empty space to the left of us. most of the people who were walking towards us wanted to get in there, but it was reserved, and they'd have to go back through the park to get around it. I saw a mom and her wheelchair-bound son turned away from here, and I saw a blind man with a cane told to negotiate his way through a green-space park rather than going through there. It made me wonder if anyone WOULD get through; I hadn't seen it happen yet. I started taking pictures of all of the people pleading to get in, as I was sitting directly below them. I mean, after they told the blind guy to turn around, who else was left?



These are paramedics, assigned to an area on the other side of the gates. They were told to go around.



This was my favorite. The guy in the picture has a tray with two bowls of strawberries and cream as well as pastries. It's got to weigh 30 pounds.The two people behind him have the same. He is pleading with my man in the orange (who is actually from New York City, heard my accent and said he was "really glad to have some Americans nearby today, I like you guys") that he and the food should be allowed on the other side. He didn't get through and was sent away to the jeers of some of the people in the park, who said that if he put the food down on the other side of the fence they could take care of it until he got there. (They weren't as nice to the lady in the purple sweater.)


There were only two people I saw them open that gate for, and that was London Metropolitan Police and the mom and the kid in the wheelchair, because they had no acceptable path on the other side. They did let reason prevail there. But I told Julie that if there were an ambulance crew with a gurney and a guy with a severed arm on the other side of that gate, the rule would have been, "Go around."


Ken made it through and took a spot along the fence. We ate our sandwiches. Then all of a sudden we heard a wharmwharmWHARMWHARM sound. I looked up, and the riders are getting ready. They have disc wheels on the back of their bikes, to cut the wind, and even though we're at the sharpest turn on the course, they're moving fast enough to make that noise.


We watched individual riders fly through, and then I heard something that was pleasingly familiar: a French police siren. DAAHHHHHdahhhhhhDAAAHHHHHdaaahhh, and that's followed by a giant yellow megaphone.



you thought I was kidding about the megaphone, huh? Well, no. It announced that "The caravan is coming! Please clear the road!"


The Tour de France Caravan is a parade that precedes the race and is a set of commercials for the sponsors. They throw stuff from the floats to the spectators, and the people cheer like crazy for these giant rolling advertisements. Now, Londoners and Americans like myself don't know what to make of this, so they did not go mad with excitement when they saw, say, a recycling bin driving down the street. But if you were in rural France, this beats the circus by a country mile.


However, the nightmare-fuel potential of this stuff becomes evident pretty quick. It's like the Rose Parade on mescaline. Observe what followed the megaphone:



15-foot-tall stuffed lion from Credit Lyonnais bank.



London taxis for Orange Mobile with people throwing pens out of the window.



More cabs with very attractive women promoting the Sea France ferry to Calais, which takes twice as long as the Chunnel train, and is only 25% cheaper.


Yeah, fine, Jim, it's a parade. When did it get WEIRD?



When the Haribo bear started throwing samples into the crowd, that was a little bizarre...



That horrible bird on the back is selling detergent...



But this had me ducking behind the fence. "Oh, Jesus, Ken!" I yelled. 'They're gonna throw TIRES at us!"



Aquarel went by with a series of floats that appeared to discuss how good the water is for your family. The part that I liked best was the gentleman with the megaphone on the float, whose command of English was about as good as my command of French. "HELLO! HOW ARE YOU DOING!" Because we had a good view of about a quarter-mile of the course, we could hear him yelling this same phrase all down the street. I'm sure he'll do a better job of interacting with the crowds next week, but for today and tomorrow I think "HOW ARE YOU DOING?!?" was going to be about it.



These are giant red devils on the back of PT Cruisers...



...and this is a man in a devil's head and a truckload of women dancing to Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape." Julie pointed out that this is a furniture store. You'll note the dancers are harnessed to the truck with technical climbing gear. I don't know what this had to do with anything involving cycling, or furniture for that matter, but I was certainly willing to buy some.


The very best shirt of the whole Tour was across the street from us:





So you've got a good idea of the caravan. They didn't throw chunks of brie at us, but I was ready if they did. I don't really need to show you any...OK, one more.



Folks, if you don't have a firm grip on your sanity when the recycling bin drives by, you'll feel it go a little wobbly there. Now imagine if you live in the middle of rural France and this comes rolling through once every few years. I think the Andy Griffith show could have used an episode where Andy and Opie and Barney are standing in downtown Mayberry and the recycling bin drives by, in full color just like "Pleasantville."


Well, it was almost time for the Big Show. They had rolled the big Festina clock into place and they were starting to clear off the last of the warmups.



We could hear cheers in the sponsor's tent just north of us, to our left. Phil Liggett and Bob Roll were on the broadcast, as much a part of summer in my home as air conditioning. The crowd cheered quickly when they each started talking. We could see one of the TVs about 50 yards away. The crowd was being kept lubricated with Kronenbourgs, and they started moving towards the fence.


We then saw the clock start. They were underway! Nothing was happening in front of us, though. We saw about four minutes go by on the clock. and then started to hear a roar.


A French gendarmerie motorcycle came screaming through the corner. The roar got louder. Then, five seconds after him, came the first rider, in tight to the fence, going about twenty miles an hour on the tightest turn on the course.



His team car was behind him, shouting out his split time. The first one came through in about 5:41. We didn't know where they would finish; all we knew was what their split was when they got to the corner, because that's what the nearby Festina board showed. There was enough of a concern about speed that you can see hay bales next to the outer fence, and I've seen riders go spinning into them if they lose the edge on a tire.


And that's when the gentlemen next to us got into the act.



Below the Festina sign behind their heads, there's three numbers. One's a best time, another's the current time, and the third is the difference.


The six of them, drinking at the sponsors event, figured out after about three riders that they could start a pool about who was going to finish where.



"Now the first geezer did about a 5:39. You've got to figure some of these guys are capable of about 5:10."

"Then take 5:10."

"D'yer think teammates care where they finish?"

"But this is for the yellow jersey."

"I don't think he was really pushing himself."

"Then put in your fiver and see if you're right."


Ken and I are hearing all of this and can't stop laughing. It's like being at the track next to a bunch of people busting each other's balls for no reason. And hell with "like"-that's what it IS.


"He really screwed you over. You had 5:24, and he picked 5:23, and somebody else has 5:25."

"We'll see who's laughing when I jump the barrier and tackle the geezer."


We watched for an hour and a half. We screamed and clapped for all of them, and we saw wide lines that put the riders feet away from us, and some who took the line so tight we thought they would hit the spectators at the corner.


Want to be discouraged about your level of fitness? Check out the calves on this guy from T-Mobile, which was par for the course:




Of course, there's part of me that reminds myself that this guy can't jog for nothing.


Part of the issue was not just holding our space, but maintaining the level of personal space that we were used to as North Americans. One of the nice things about being in Europe is that I'm a good 4-6 inches taller than most of the men here. That and my overall size move from the "big guy" category to the "nightclub bouncer" category, and at least three people found out that it was not a good idea to walk between us and the nice group in front of us.


"Excuse me?" I said loudly each time. I chose these words because they work in American and UK English, in French (the phrase is "excusez-moi") and in Italian ("scoozi"). Combined with that eye language that Julie and I were using, the fact that I was wearing all black clothing, and my continental height advantage, and we found that the usual exchange went something like this.


(Spectator twists body and walks between me and Ken or me and Julie.)

Me: Excuse me?

Them: "I'm sorry I don't speak English."

Me: (drawing a circle with my index finger around the area in front of us and looking them in the eye without smiling) We're here.

Them: go stand ten feet behind us; eventually leave.


It was a different feeling, being someplace where you were relatively sure you weren't going to be shot for no reason. Julie heard two French teenagers complaining to each other that we wouldn't let them stand in front of us to take pictures, and she deliberately started moving her head in front of the camera just show she could hear how upset they got. That's us, your International Ambassadors of Goodwill.


We had a train to catch, so we started walking back out of the park toward our hotel. We unchecked our bags from Jury's and headed for the Tube.


The problem was, so had about a million other people. The turnstiles were no longer operational, so our escape plan was shot. We had to hail a cab, and this involved getting more pounds from an ATM. We were sixth in line at a cab line by the South Kensington tube station when a cabbie saw us with our bags and stopped in the roundabout to wave us in. I'm sure he was thinking "Heathrow," which is 45 minutes away on a good day, but it didn't matter to us. We piled everything we had into the cab while the cabbie was getting honked at.


With so many streets blocked, he got us there so early we had time for a sandwich. I remain bewildered by the shortcuts he took; ma'am, if that was your living room in Knightsbridge that we drove through, I apologize.


We boarded the train and tried to catch our breath. World-class tennis. The start of best cycling event anywhere. A week of Paris in front of us. As we barreled back into France, I marveled at how fortune had continued to smile on us.



Above: View of sunset in Northern France aboard Eurostar train from London to Paris, 10:35 PM 7/7/07.


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