Graham Robb

At three o’clock in the morning somewhere between Auxerre and Lyon on the European Bike Express bus, I dreamed that I had an exclusive interview with Lance Armstrong. Armstrong is the Texan cycling supremo who recovered from advanced testicular cancer to win the Tour de France five times in a row. One condition was imposed: the interview had to be conducted on bicycles. This seemed reasonable. The greatest cyclist since Eddy Merckx could not be expected to sacrifice training time to journalistic chatter. In any case, there was a noble precedent. In the first Tour de France, in 1903, a journalist rode along with the competitors for the first part of the 467-kilometre stage from Paris to Lyon, before heading for the nearest train station and rushing back to Paris with his report. Only two things prevented this from being the high point of my career as a writing cyclist. First, for reasons that remained obscure, the interview was conducted in an English town where the car-centric ‘cycle network’ forced us to push our bikes through a maze of potholed lanes and ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs. Second, I woke up before Lance could reveal his secret strategy for winning the Tour de France a record sixth time.

The bus deposited me and my wife and our bikes on the outskirts of Valence at 5 a.m. From there, we crossed the Vercors plateau to join the two million spectators and two thousand journalists hoping to witness the three crucial Alpine stages of the 2004 Tour de France. At the finish line of Stage 15, in a sunny ski resort above Villard-de-Lans, remembering the dream, I wonder what the point of an interview would be. A shiny sliver of blue has just darted across the line: Armstrong has won the stage and now leads the Tour de France. Four other logoed sylphs follow close behind, drenched in sweat but already recovering from the effort of crossing the mountains of the Vercors for five hours at 40 kph. The slightly bulkier sylph in pink is Armstrong’s long-time rival, Jan Ullrich. His Tour is now practically over. With only five stages and 600 kilometres to go, a gap of 6 minutes 45 seconds is too big to be bridged. Ullrich turns his bike, spits, and heads for the team bus. In the time it takes to give an interview and a blood sample, Armstrong will appear on a gigantic plastic podium in front of the several thousand excited, disappointed or pleasantly bored spectators spread out on the sun-baked hillside. He will exchange his blue team jersey (‘United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor’, a Belgian flooring company) for the leader’s maillot jaune. Half an hour later, the last of the 147 riders (198 began the Tour) will haul himself across the finish line while Armstrong’s televised grin beams down from the landscape-eclipsing screen.

The best inside information on the Tour is not to be found in a competitor’s words. In The Rider, his 150-page account of a 150-kilometre bike race, the Dutch novelist Tim Krabbé compares the mind of a professional cyclist to a flawless ball-bearing: ‘Its almost perfect lack of surface structure ensures that it strikes nothing that might end up in the white circulation of thought.’ On a long, fast ride, the run-of-the-mill cycling brain can turn the tiniest flaw into a grinding, unignorable obsession: ‘a pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone’. A rider was once forced to abandon the Tour when a mark on his front tyre became the single focus of his thoughts. Armstrong has long since smoothed away any imperfections. Even the pidgin French he uses in interviews sounds like a lightweight, customised idiom, reduced to essential components, designed to repel the sludge of ambiguities and misperceptions.

We walk beside the riders as they skim through the thinning crowd to their air-conditioned buses. This is the first time I have been close to professional cyclists, apart from the times a whirring blur of colour has passed me on the road. They are a visibly distinct type: small-bodied like jockeys and muscled like acrobats or ballerinas. Even the virtuoso French television coverage of the Tour fails to convey their lightness, just as it never shows the true gradient of a climb. Their faces are familiar from the screen, but the thrill of recognition has a deeper source. These are the ideal shapes that the ordinary cycling body briefly and rarely assumes in the imagination when the bicycle has just been tuned and the rider has yet to notice that the wind is pushing from behind on an imperceptible descent.

Armstrong, predictably, looks different – more compact and pugilistic. A few days later, an expert on France 2 with a freeze-frame monitor and a felt-tip pen will analyse the eerily aerodynamic shape of the Armstrong back. The words bionique, incroyable and extraterrestre are used, hinting at unfair advantages. Why is a nation of alleged Cartesians so troubled by the Man Machine? The TV expert and his colleagues prefer the old-fashioned panache of the boy from deepest Provence, Richard Virenque, who charges up the mountains with his tongue hanging out (and who is now signing autographs from the door of his bus), or the gleeful grimace of little Thomas Voeckler, the Tintinesque hero from Martinique known as ‘le p’tit Blanc’, who has implausibly managed to hang on to the yellow jersey until Armstrong’s victory today.

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[*] by Pierre Ballester and David Walsh (Martinière, 374 pp., €19, June, 2 8467 5130 7).