Tomorrow the 2017 race of the Tour de France begins. For me, Le Tour is now one of the few sporting events I still keenly follow. This herculean cycling race has amazed me for well over 10 years and I can’t wait for this year’s race to begin. The race holds a special place in my heart, more so after I was able to experience the race live in 2015. This was a dream come true, all through pure chance.
If you’re not familiar with the Tour de France, it helps to know that it’s one of the biggest cycling races in the world. The event is a colossal physical and mental challenge that tests almost 200 cyclists over 3 gruelling weeks. They’re tasked with riding between 150 – 200+ km (90 – 135+ miles) each day in the summer heat, often over some Europe’s steepest mountains. We’re talking the Alps and the Pyrenees, sometimes in the same race. No surprise then that every year a number of riders have to withdraw or abandon the race due to injury or fatigue.
To see the Tour de France in person had been something I had wanted to do for years. Since high school, my Dad and I had stayed up to watch each stage of the race. Due to the time difference, it normally didn’t air in Australia until 10pm and would finish actually around 2am. Good thing then that the race coincided with school, and later uni, holidays. I tried watching it night after night when I was working full-time and it was a real challenge. Anyway, have followed it for so long, it made sense that I would want to experience it live.
My chance to do so came about through sheer coincidence. I had travelled to Belgium for my friends’ wedding and then stayed with family friends after. It was only once I was in Belgium that I realised that a stage of the Tour was passing through the nearby town of Lier. Yes, some stages of the Tour de France actually don’t occur in France at all, which I think is a nice way to share the beloved event with neighbouring countries.
So the day of the stage, I hopped on the train to Lier and ventured into the town centre. Even though I was an hour early, the streets were already lined with spectators and anticipation. Having seen the Tour of Switzerland in person a couple of years prior, I had an idea of what to expect. Well before there’s any sights of the cyclists, an endless convoy of cars pass through. These are the safety, announcer cars, team and police cars. You don’t appreciate the size of the race’s support network until you see that steam of vehicles pass by.
The crowds in the centre of Lier continued to build and I made sure to protect my spot by the roadside. The first sign we got that the riders were approaching was a sudden burst of cheering and applauding up the road. There’s no mistaking it. Before we knew it, the first riders – a breakaway group – were in sight. We were still early on so they didn’t have much of a gap but you could tell they were working extremely hard as they flew over the stretch of cobblestones.
Then the cacophony, by which I mean the peloton (the main group) arrived. At first I was focused on getting photos, which I did, but I then put my camera down and watched the world-class athletes blur by. The sheer intensity of over a hundred people flying past you is hard to describe. Despite the sharp corner they were about to reach, the riders approached it with dazzling speed. No doubt in my mind, that it’s a very brave sport.
Before I knew it, the peloton and even the few stragglers had flown by and it was over. It may seem strange to spend so long waiting for such a fleeting moment, but in that moment you really feel a part of the race. The sound and the atmosphere as the race passes through was seismic, and something I’m so glad I sought out. I’d love one day to follow the race as it charts its way through France, but until then this is my Tour de France memory and following this years race on TV and online will have to do.
Do you have a sports event that you finally got to see live one day? Did it live up to your expectations? If you follow the Tour, who do you think will take the Yellow Jersey this year? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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