– By Rachael Aulich –
: This is no feminist rant about the Tour de France for Women, nothing like that, it’s about love, actually.
I stood on a hot street today, a long but tight curve, in Arles, for Stage 3.
My first ever live stage of the Tour. I was hoping for the penultimate ‘Ventoux’ but with two small kids in tow, there’s a give and take, and so Arles it was.
I have watched the Tour televised for years. Being Australian that requires a serious committment to nearly a month of waking in the middle of the night, or taping it and watching it the next day, ducking your head at any headlines as you walk to work, and blocking your ears when ever anyone who stayed the distance the night before, mentions it.
In the last few years it has been at least live and when I had my first child, his night feeds worked in perfectly with sitting in the semi-darkness, or was it the other way around, did I make his feeds fit in?…
Now living in Scotland, I am, it feels like, just a breath away from it all. Yesterday, I really was.
As if by magic, we got a perfect park in the very crowded city. We walked a 100 metres or so and there we placed ourselves on a bend. A mix of shade from the colomns of the Theatre and striking sun, already beating invisible, silent corrugations into our skin.
I was impatient, the entourage seemed to take forever, with big gaps in between. My 3 year old son Joe of his own accord, like it was something innate in him, was cheering, his hands and arms held openly above his head, asking me to hold his water while he did so, he seemed too, to be under some kind of Tour spell.
The sun can do strange things to your mind, it begins to play tricks. There began a pacing feeling in the crowd, where were the riders? It was four already.
Taking a leak? Taking it easy? Come on don’t you know we are waiting here for you? Then the pacing stops and everybody instinctively looks in to the distance and you believe they’re coming, yes they are!:
Backs become arched and toes are stood on and the sway begins as people move heads to see, and the picture is fuzzy, but no it’s a mirage. And we stand down, take a sip of water and calm our racing hearts.
And then the breakaway, the group of four, come past, I don’t even know who they are, and in a way that doesn’t matter, we’ve been given at last a snifter, a dram of a taste. Our palates are whetted, God, like they needed teasing any further!
If it weren’t for the heat, I swear that crowd would have been salivating, small pools of it’s own sweat, right there on the street.
But it isn’t long before the pacing begins again.
I think about riding, what it would be like to ride the Tour. Seeing the guys line up in Monaco, they looked so fit. Tanned. Stripped down to the bone. Are they always like this, every year? So lean. Glinting eyes.
I am not technical really when it comes to the Tour, I like that side of things, but I relied upon my brother-in-law Damien to feed me and build up that part of my experience. I’m more interested in looking at the physicality of the ride, the presence of the riders in the race.
I like the focus, the determination, the decimation, watching them slowly fall apart with exertion and rebuild themselves over and over during the weeks. Like childbirth, why do they do it again and again? Because you forget pain.
These guys come back because they forget how it hurts, they have the memory but it fades and it isn’t enough to stop them coming for more. I daydream about what sort of rider I’d be, not a sprinter, not King of the Mountains, though I likes hills, not a solo performer… no, I think I’d be a ‘domestique’, a work horse. Hours and hours of plugging it out, an honest role.
But I’ll never ride the Tour, I am not a professional cyclist, I’m not even a guy, there’s the rub.
Back to the race itself, now finally the crowd shifts a little differently, and we know as a group they are coming this time. The peloton is extraordinarily beautiful in the real.
It’s shape changes with all the elements, and the mundane: to protect itself, to muster collective strength and to plot out a new race, to gather in the rebels and expel the weak out the back. I am so astounded by how I feel seeing it for the first time. They round that curve and I am so utterly moved that I think I put my face in my hands. Did I miss it then? I’m not sure. A fleeting glimpse of something you love, and then gone. The absence of Damien, his death in this moment is like a gaping hole, for although he was naturally technical, he too could see the poetry in the peloton.
It’s over, our collective shoulders sink a little, we begin to feel the sun burn. I realise watching people here, why they’re here, why the riders do it, yes the kudos of winning is a big draw, but beyond that. The Tour was about connecting France with itself, connecting ‘Pays’, in print but also through the concept of the ‘crowd’; people with each other. It is foremost about the love of ‘it’.
The riders race the meat off their bones, for love. We stand in the sweltering heat watching them do it, for love.
As John Donne, the first English poet to write about matters conversationally, wrote of love:
“Nothing else is.”
For the Tour riders and watchers over the next few weeks, nothing else is.