There are three generations of the Tour-owning Amaury family on the plane to Bilbao, breezing past the economy class line and filling the first two rows behind the cockpit. Even without the sport’s royal family on board it’d be a cycling-heavy flight: former pro and TV pundit Yoann Offredo is there, his hand luggage still adorned with race numbers from the Tour de France; there are a couple more familiar faces I can’t quite put a name to. The remaining balance of passengers seem to be cycling fans: sports watches, sensible shoes, and – glimpsed down the aisle – Twitter timelines full of cyclists. About 10 different boys’ trips to the Tour crammed in an Air France Embraer.
The descent to Bilbao is along a steep-sided, lush valley with switchbacked paths up the sides. Leaving the airport, there are team vans waiting to pick people up, while ASO minions wait with a couple of cars to whisk away their rulers. It feels familiar but foreign; the street signs are a complicated mix of Xs and Ks, and there’s a buzz in the air from all the fans who’ve made the trip. Everyone’s here for one thing. Waiting, as the clock ticks down.
The Tour de France is a race defined by numbers, really. First and fastest across the line. Lowest times. Addition and subtraction and sums scribbled in the margins until the ledger is balanced in Paris. But that’s just one way of seeing things, because when you put aside the cold mathematics of the race you see a compendium of human moments. The first times. The last times.
There are 36 riders starting their first Tour de France, seven of them on Uno-X – a team that is in its first Grand Tour. Those riders will know the shape of things from other races, but not here, where it all means so much more. The first pre-race press conference, the first awkward wave at the first sign-on before the first stage. The team cars and team buses standing pristine in a car park, vinyl wrapped and glistening for the first day on the race route.
Then there’ll be the first kilometre of a 3,400 kilometre race, along an avenue in a corner of Spain lined with green and red flags. A few minutes later, the first dropped flag from the race director’s car, and the first opportunists trying to sneak in the first breakaway. A few hours more, back in Bilbao, there’ll be the first stage win and the first yellow jersey.
There’ll be the first crashes, too. The first clatter and thud of body and bike on bitumen, the first torn and bloodied kits cast into a bin. Everyone that rides this race is a different person when they start it to when they finish it, and their bodies bear witness. Tanned skin that will wear scrapes, then scabs, then purply-pink scars.
For some, there’s a full stop hovering over their Tour before it even begins. Mark Cavendish, here to ride his last Tour, looking for one last stage win to seal a record that’s stood for almost 50 years. Thibaut Pinot, bearing the weight of a country’s expectation one last time. Heavy burdens at the end of a years-long road.
A sense of finality doesn’t just apply to the veterans– it’s everywhere, half-masked in the hush of expectation. In hotels around Bilbao, riders preserve their energy for one last day and one last night’s rest before their lives are consumed wholly by Tour de France – fuelling, fatigue, strategy, stress, the ceaseless eye of the world upon them. In this moment, the end of one thing and the beginning of another collide, over and over.
Leaving Paris, our plane banks on its left wing and there, laid out beneath its tip, is the Seine, the Champs Élysées, the Eiffel Tower – tiny like the models of the Eiffel Tower that vendors hawk at its base. Icons in miniature, disappearing into mist as we rise through the cloud cover, away from the end to the beginning.
There’s something striking about it – all of the Amaurys and pundits and punters leaving Paris to go to the start of a race that, three weeks later, will return. Today is the last big inhale before it begins. In the long shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, a lifetime away, the racers will exhale again.
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