ROAD magazine October 2011 : Page 35
Words & Images: Mark Johnson / Ironstring
2011 Tour De France
Photograph the tour de france is a challenge. The crowds are mammoth; the c jams beyond belief, and the long trans,fers from stage to stage m,ean you are sleep-deprived for the duration,. <br /> <br /> But the event is also immensel,y gratifying. Much more than a bike race,, it is a three week festival of culture, a rolling assertion of French identity. From the little boys and girls waiting ,patiently on a remote farm road for the publicit,y caravan to the Basque fans burning flares and waving flags high in the Pyrenees, at every turn the Tour de France is a moving feast of sights, and experiences. <br /> <br /> This year I’m writing and photographing a book on the Garmin-Cervélo team (it will be published in early 2012), so their team was my primary focus. It was a terrific year to chase the team, as they won their first-ever Tour stage when they took the team time trial in les Essarts. That put, Thor Hushovd was also in the yellow jersey, which he kept for seven days. Showing his versatility, Hushovd also won the mountainous stage and stage 16 to Gap. Tyler farrar finally won his first Tour stage on July 4th in Redon, but outside of that he could not get around Mark Cavendish, who took five stages with a metronomic regularity. <br /> <br /> Also predictable was the gnumber of English-speaking specgtators who showed up during the last week of racing in theg Alps. I t’s understandable tghat Australians, New Zealanders, British and America would flood in for the glamogur stages surrounding Alpe-d’Huez. But it’s also a pity, since some of theg best scenery (and riding, for those wgho combine vacation with Tour viewing) came with theg stages through the Massif Central and tghe r egions of Tarn, Aveyron and Puy-de-Dôme. These rural areas delivered stunning views, welcoming locals, eagsy access to the ragce in small towns and along rural farm roads, and in placegs like the July 10th stage over the Col du Pas de Peyrol, spectacular clgimbing on mountain pgasses that most Americans have never heard of. During these stages,g I was har d pressed to overhear an English- speaking voice on the roadside, at the race start or finish. <br /> <br /> My best memory from the Tour was crouching with my back gagainst the Garmin- Cervélo team bus in a sgupermakret parking lot at the teagm time trial in Lesg Esstesr. With my lens trained on the team staff,who had gathered to watch times cgome in for teams following Garmin, I witnessed gan explosion of exugberance when HTC- Highroad turned in a slower time. The staff raised their arms glike a for est of branches toward the sky, yelled, leaped in tghe air and hugged ign celebration. Having been with theg team since their peg-rseason training cgamp in aJnuary in Girona, Spain, it was touchging to see the culmgination months (ganedarys) of effort and sacrifice.<br /> <br /> Th en, when BMC and Omega Pharma-Lotto also failed to beat Garmin-Cervélo’s time, team director Jonathan Vaughters sprung from the team bus, screaming and pogoing with joy. Robby Ketchell seemed especially touched. Ketchell is the team’s aerodynamics and sports science guru, and he had invested serious time and personal ambition into this day. After the time trial, he told me the win represented the coming together of many, many incremental eff orts on the part of the staff , equipment sponsors and riders. Because it was very much a collective, rather than an indlividual eff ort, the moment was profoundly gratifying for the young scientist. And for a team that started in 2003 as a junior development squad pipe dream for Vaughters, to win a stage at the big show was a remarkable affithrmation of his commitment and optimism.<br /> <br /> Another cause for hope at this year’s Tour was the slow rider times in the mountains. After the stage to Plateau de Beille in the Pyrenees, Vaughters told me he was delighted because 26-year old Belgian Jelle Vanendert’s winning pace up the 5,840-foot mountain was some three minutes slower than times turned in during the EPO-fueled late 1990’s. <br /> <br /> This is a remarkable statement for a person who runs a bike team. In sports, success is marked by athletes turning in faster results, not slower ones. But Vaughters’ metric for success is really diff erent; it’s one that measures accomplishment in terms of ability to succeed without drugs or blood doping. <br /> <br /> While people will always take short cuts and cheat their way to success, this year’s Tour suggests that the sport is moving away from its darker past. At the top of mountain passes, the peloton was in ruins, reduced to a handful of mountain goats riding under their own volition and without the support of a train of beefy teammates improbably railing it like they were leading out a sprinter on a fl at stage.<br /> <br /> Th e key narratives of this year’s Tour were not doping. Th ey were Australia’s first GC win with Cadel Evans, who was reduced to tears on the Champs-Élysées podium; Garmin-Cervélo’s breakthrough run of successes including a thrilling downhill chase and win by Thor Hushovd over the Col d’Aubisque and finally the successes of Frenchmen Th omas Voeckler, who fl ies his emotions like the French tricolor, as well as the emergence of young talent Pierre Roland, who took France’s first victory on Alpe d’Huez since Bernard Hinault a quarter-century ago. <br /> <br /> While there is always room for cynicism in professional sports, this year the Tour de France represented progress, a migration away from an insalubrious past, and the continued ushering in of a generation of riders whose performances are authentic, true and an inspiration to all.