Spectating at a bike race involves a lot of sitting around and waiting for the moment when the peloton whooshes by, at which point you jump out of your chair, scream something like, "Get to the front!" and try not to spill your beer. Then, you turn to your friends to comment on how so-and-so looks strong or super tired, sit back down, and, if it is a criterium or circuit, wait for the next lap.
Tour spectators are like regular spectators on steroids; they have the stamina to camp out days in advance, wear ridiculous costumes, and do whatever it takes to maintain their position along the barriers lining the final 1k. The most impressive display was the final stage, Paris Champs-Élysées. After leaving the clear mountain scenery of Bourg-d'Osians that morning at 6 a.m. to drive six hours with two empty bike boxes precariously strapped to the roof of our tiny rental vehicle, we arrived in Paris. Greeted by traffic comparable to Austin at 4 p.m. on any given Friday, we missed our exit and added an extra hour to our trip. After checking into the hotel, we found an amazing Indian restaurant where we eagerly chowed down twice the normal-sized lunch the average patron dares ingest in one sitting. There, we watched live coverage of Froome sipping champagne and posing for photos holding a cigar; the excitement of seeing the finish was too much! The owners gladly gave us directions to the nearest metro station, where we made our way to the famous Champs-Élysées.
Although the finish was not until 9:30 p.m., people were camped out the night before to camp out again, all day, in the spot with the best vantage point for viewing the ten-lap circuit-like finish that circles the Arc de Triomphe along Place Charles de Gaulle. Throughout my time here, spectating became more about people watching than race watching. People of all ages, speaking different languages, and coming from all economic backgrounds were united by their love of these heroes on two wheels; they leaned over the barriers in the same manner to cheer on their favorite skinny gladiator. As much as I despise hanging out in crowds, I felt connected to these folks, particularly the French moms who took the time to haul all three of their yellow capped, polka-dot-clad kids to watch the Tour; in fact, the majority of fans were women and children.
As the roar of the crowd grew closer, we instinctively rushed to the best spot we could manage given our last minute arrival; they were here! With every lap, I'd find myself further and further up toward the barrier until I was completely squashed against metal, a tree, and some random Scandinavian men with a clear disregard for deodorant. This, despite the uncomfortable situation, was the moment where I finally felt close to the racers. Froome, Cavendish, Sagan, Quintana; they flew by over and over; I could not help smiling, yelling my head off, and nodding in acceptance to the odorous Scandinavian men. See, I'd spent years of my life idolizing, emulating and following these athletes and, after following them in person and finally seeing them in action, I cannot say that the moment was like I'd imagined. In fact, it was quit the opposite: I now see them as human.
On the final lap, it was every man for himself, pushing and scrambling his or her way to one of the jumbotron viewing areas to catch a glimpse of the final sprint where Marcel Kittel (ARGOS Shimano) took the stage victory, out sprinting Mark Cavendish. And so it was: Froome, as expected, took the Yellow jersey, and Quintana—quite unexpectedly—finished second overall and took both the polka dot and white jersey back home to Columbia. Quintana represents the future of cycling, which, for me, must include a trip to London for the 2014 Grand Depart.
Preceeding the podium ceremony (which was impossible to view as a spectator), the French television station played a montage summarizing the hundredth edition of the Tour. To my surprise, everyone stopped dead in their tracks to watch it. A woman in tears silently fumbled through her purse looking for tissue. I must admit that I felt nostalgic and proud as I watched the summary of the stages, all the climbs, the agony of the time trials, team tactics, disappointing crashes, and the unexpected victories unfold in five minutes of well-edited film. The expression of the men as they roll across the finish for a stage win is the ultimate combination of pain relief, pride, and joy in it's purest form. After riding a few of the same miles that these men have ridden, and seeing the how much the communities that host stages support bike racing, it would be hard to not be swept away by emotion. All I can say is: Let's do it again next year!