If a picture is worth a thousand words, you'd think 23,000 pictures would tell the complete story of this year's Tour, or anything else for that matter... but telling is one thing, understanding another. Six months after I shot the last images of our team arriving in Paris, I still haven't been able to put the whole journey into perspective.
Not a day goes by without something or someone triggering a memory from those remarkable three weeks. The more I remember, the longer the Tour gets. A grand tour acts like a giant spring that compresses everything inside it; especially time.
An Incredible Adventure
Early April in Northern California brings clearing skies and the classic Copperopolis Road Race. The course features a punchy canyon climb over terrible agricultural roads pockmarked and cold patched with material of every hue and composition. It's as close as the new world comes to cobbles. I'd driven out from San Jose to shoot the race for the same reason the big field was on the road; to get some race sharpness back. When it was over I posted some images and heard from several riders, including Simon Knops who'd won his flight (the second of three consecutive weekend victories for the young Dutchman).
Simon wanted to use an image on his team website. When I asked about his team, I got my first glimpse of the Tour for Kika project. It's fair to say the idea of fifteen riders attempting the entire route of the 2010 Tour de France, 24 hours ahead of the race itself, interested me immediately. Within a couple of weeks he and I met face-to-face and shortly after that I joined the project as team photographer. It's amazing how sometimes the smallest coincidences result in life changing experiences.
The ASO's choice of Rotterdam for the 2010 grand depart was inspired. Nowhere else is cycling such an integral part of everyday life as it is in the Netherlands. From mothers with infants to rosy-cheeked seniors out for the daily shopping the whole society moves about on two wheels. For a North American cyclist resigned to second-class status on the roads here, it was an eye-opening revelation.
Over the course of two days I met the entire team: Tim, Jolmer, Pepijn, Jeroen, Jasper, Matthias, Michiel, Elmer, Sjoerd, Simon, Lucas, Pico, Joost M, Joost V, and Thijs. While I struggled to remember and pronounce all the new names the team immediately made me feel welcome. We gathered at Tim's Rotterdam loft, perched at the top of an impossibly steep and narrow flight of stairs, to assemble the fleet of Vanmoof cruisers they'd ride for the prologue. Looking out the window I could see the iconic "Parijs 3641 km" sign high atop the Nationale Nederlanden building but it was only a number and Paris seemed impossibly far away.
Dutch cycling legends Jan Janssen and Hennie Kuiper joined us for an easy loop around the closed streets of Rotterdam's prologue course. I liked the fact our boys rode the circuit casually... opting for board shorts and running shoes over skinsuits and aero helmets. They understood the real work would begin the next day on the road to Brussels. If they were nervous about the 3,600 km ahead it didn't show.
Stage One saw the team accompanied by 65 friends and supporters halfway through to the bureaucratic heart of the EU. Everyone was in great spirits but a large group of cyclists unaccustomed to pack riding is a dangerous thing. Several riders went down on the damp stage, taking two of the team with them. Kits were torn, knees and elbows bloodied, but thankfully no one was seriously hurt.
A handful of friends hung with the group to a jubilant finish outside King Baudouin Stadium. After pictures and goodbyes, the team got back on their bikes and rode 5 km to the hotel amid the sounds and smells of Brussel's African district. So began the tour within a tour... the daily grind of hotels, recovery, bike maintenance and almost non-stop eating.
I don't think it's possible to overestimate how critical the logistics are to this kind of challenge. The long days begin with breakfast at 6:00 or 6:30 am, check out at 7:00 am, luggage dropoff at the truck, a scoop of chamois cream, bars and bottles, air tires, apply sunscreen and roll out by 7:30 am sharp. On days when there is a morning transfer the schedule backs up another 30 minutes.
Once the pedaling starts, rest stops every 40 km and a pasta lunch break up the day till the finish. Then its on with the SKINS compression tights and earnest rehydration en route to the next hotel. Some riders tend to their bikes first, others shower, eventually all assemble for a hearty dinner, a run down of the next day's route, perhaps a few minutes of Tour coverage on French television before heads hit pillows. Finding this rhythm is as tough as the cycling.
Our Company of Riders was Not Alone
Our Team rode South to the Alps through sleepy country villages, over rolling roads flanked by majestic trees and fields of waving yellow grain. There were busy stretches through larger towns but for the most part the roads were rural and clear of traffic. Decorated bicycles and creative artwork welcoming the Tour were everywhere. The French people were friendly and curious about our team appearing one day before the expected arrival of the Tour. In several towns we met with mayors and local officials to receive donations to the Kika Foundation, these breakfast gatherings would contribute to the 100,000 euros the team would ultimately raise.
Wives, girlfriends, and family appeared at various stages throughout the tour to bolster the team's spirits. Their arrival never failed to brighten the day. They cheered from the roadside, waved Dutch flags and plastered their cars with team logos and photographs. They painted messages of encouragement on the tarmac and bunked in with the boys during our first rest day in a roomy Morzine chalet. I'm sure that violated the old adage about weak legs.
There was also a special camaraderie among cyclists who rode beside us... sometimes briefly and sometimes regularly with the handful of riders attempting the entire Tour route like us. The seventy-year old Belgian master riding his fifth complete tour, the young Dutch journalist in the polka-dot jersey who leapfrogged us daily for the first week until illness forced him to drop out, a lone investment banker from Canada chaperoned by two pros and Steve Bauer's outfit, and finally a pair of Belgians who managed the whole tour and proudly rode into Paris with us.
After Morzine everything began to speed up. The first mountain stages were behind us but fatigue and the Pyrenees were out there waiting to punish any weakness or inattention. The team continued to ride smart. After lunch it was normal for the peloton to break into two groups... the composition of which changed daily. The lead group was feeling good and for whatever reason wanted to plow ahead on the stage, the other group was in conservation mode... never more than 30 minutes back on the flat, still making good time but going easier.
Our French hotels were generally very good, even if only a third of them had air conditioning and many presented plumbing puzzles in the operation of their showers. Food was always plentiful at mealtime, and the team surprised more than one establishment with the sheer volume of calories they put away with double and triple portions. Given all the exertion there seemed to be few sleepless nights... and by the half way point the travel, and meal routine had become virtually automatic.
The boys ate well on the road too. The support van was stocked with a dizzying assortment of fruit, pastries, drinks, cookies, pretzels, potato chips, bread, nutella, honey, jam, peanut butter and chocolate. All this variety was clearly designed to keep the team eating the 6,000 to 8,000 calories necessary to get them through the day; and it worked.
Up into the Pyrenees
The Southern mountains brought new faces to the front; those who had been saving themselves for the ultimate challenge of the Tourmalet and it's sister peaks. The days grew hotter and longer as we approached the Queen stage. We had a quiet lunch that culminated in an unexpected spiritual ceremony; the riders joined hands, closed their eyes and stood silently for three minutes as our Pyreneean hosts anchored the circle, wishing us good health and safe passage through the mountains. The unrelenting pace of the Tour was already compressing and blurring everything around us, if only for a few minutes this gentle pause slowed things down and gave the team a rare chance to reflect on how far it had come.
To this point the team had ridden without mishap but a couple of riders went down on a tricky descent, and one lost a fair amount of skin on his upper arm and hip in the process. The next day was tough in his banged up condition, but there was never any question of him completing the stage.
The final mountains were upon us. As the road kicked up, the slopes were thick with mushrooming campers and a building anticipation for the professional showdown behind us. For the most part our team rode on oblivious to those battles. Stage 16, Bagnères-de-Luchon to Pau, over the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and the Aubisque was an epic struggle for us. Legs and hearts were tested, but one by one the team arrived at a sunny Tourmalet summit elated at their accomplishment. And though two-thirds of the monster stage still remained the mood was jubilant. Parents and family joined the festivities on that iconic ridge before the team remounted to tackle the Aubisque and the spiraling descent to Pau. I believe it was here that many of the riders put away any lingering doubts that they'd make it to Paris. A day's rest and one big mountain stage was their last major hurdle between them and the city of light. In the meantime the champagne flowed and they celebrated in a deserted parking lot opposite the Pau finish line.
A lesser team might have miscalculated the effort required to summit those last Cols. It was waged on a cool wet day over slick, fog-shrouded roads. The steep changing pitches of the Col de Marie-Blanque came first, followed by the Soulor and the final summit finish on a rainy, misty Tourmalet. It's amazing how in those conditions all sense of elevation is absent. With visibility limited to 50 metres, there's no vertigo, no fear of the precipitous edge as mountain drops away from road, only a disconnected dream of muffled cowbells, wet pavement and shadowy figures drifting in and out of low hanging cloud. There would be no lingering atop the Tourmalet on this ascent. Happy but shivering the team descended 4km to our waiting vehicles as it began to rain heavily. Standing in the open luggage van they tugged off their soggy, salty kits, pulled on warm clothes and bundled into the team vans grinning. Three days of riding remained but they were all going to make it.
Dreams of Paris
The numbing boredom of Stage 18 to Bordeaux and the short TT course to Pauillac were anticlimactic. The team was already savoring the ride into Paris, a little nervous about traffic and navigation but anxious to crown the achievement of a lifetime on the boulevards of the storied capital. That final day was from Longjumeau was pure magic.
I remember the thrill of sighting the Eiffel Tower for the first time as we paralleled the river Seine. We stopped for a team picture, then made for a fortuitous rendezous with the Tour's own Flechage (signage) unit. With klaxons ringing and lights flashing they escorted us straight up the Champs Elysees. The team popped champagne corks and toasted each other as they rode 15 wide up the avenue just like the pros. Hundreds of Parisians and tourists cheered them on as I hung out our photo car trying to record the scene. At the Arc we took more photos under the bemused stares of the Gendarmes, unaccustomed to this kind of escorted arrival en masse outside the actual race.
Triumph and bittersweet sadness mingled in those minutes under the Arc. Joost Vastert embraced his father and two brothers. The three had ridden the entire last stage with him in memory of a beloved wife and mother taken by cancer a month before the Tour began. Teammates looked on concerned then hugged him.
Eventually the Gendarmes ushered the group off. My wife Juli appeared from the crowd of tourists and we scrambled back into the car for a short drive to the Anquetil Velodrome and a reception of 150 friends, family, the Mayor of Rotterdam and the Dutch Ambassador who waited to congratulate the team.
Hearts and Legs
Before the tour began I had my doubts. There seemed little chance the whole team would ride every kilometre to Paris. I expected, perhaps even hoped for the drama of individual difficulty as a counterpoint to team success. I don't believe that was cynical, it was just that in my own experience riding and photographing riders much more experienced and prepared than I, I learned that something always happens. Fifteen riders covering a combined 54,615 km unscathed just wasn't going to happen.
By the end of the first week, the team had me hoping and believing I was wrong. They'd done their training, built a cohesive team, surrounded themselves with wonderful supporters, and thoroughly researched every stage leaving little to chance. Week two saw them get stronger as minds and bodies adapted to the single-minded focus of the grind. Perhaps most importantly they continued to have fun, spontaneously dropping their bikes on the grassy verge and jumping into a fountain in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout or taking a road bike spin around a local bmx park. The countryside flew by in a rippling blur of heat hazed sunflower yellow and lavender purple accompanied by the wavering thrum of a million cicadas. Week three saw them overcome Pyreneean giants and gnawing fatique to emerge, as if from a long narrowing tunnel, on the sunlit streets of Paris.
It was truly inspiring to be there with them and to document the journey in photographs. I close my eyes and the memories come flooding back. Thousands of moments, flickering expressions, laughter, a chainring striped calf, music in the Mirepoix cathedral, a rickety wheelchair stranded on a rainy balcony in Lourdes, the patisseries, and the soaring swallows over the River Isère, but most of all I remember the boys, their sweat stained faces, rolling up smiling at the end of each day.
To those of you still reading, thinking about whether you've got a grand tour in your legs. You'd be surprised like I was that it is possible if you've got the heart. I hope you'll join us this summer... I really want to go back and experience the magic again. Another team, another route but the same rewarding struggle. It will change your life, it has changed mine. Grand Rêve.