The 100th Tour de France just ended today, and the last leg came through Versailles. Though cycling isn't something I care much about (or even care enough about to have noticed before today that this year was the Tour's centennial edition) I wanted to go. The idea that something big and noisy was happening just a few blocks from home was too intriguing.
The Tour bounced around the Château's large park before heading circuitously back to Paris in time for a candlelit finish on the Champs-Elysées. This afternoon my husband dug the bicycle pump out of the basement and filled up the tires on our bikes that had spent the last five years in the back of a dark storage closet at our old apartment. He and Le Petit headed out to do their own tour of the park while I stayed home and Mademoiselle napped.
Twenty minutes before the coureurs were scheduled to zoom past the point closest to our apartment, I woke Mademoiselle up.
"Do you want to see the monsieurs go fast on their big bicycles?"
She was game, but told me that she wanted to take her vélo as well -- a little red Radio Flyer push toy without any pedals.
"Sure," I told her, "but you'll have to let Mommy carry it until we get to the park."
We toddled down the hot sidewalk, Mademoiselle sometimes "racing" fast enough that I had to walk briskly, me looking at my watch. Ten minutes to go... five minutes...
"C'mon, you're my strong little girl, let's go, let's run!"
Le Petit and my husband were already among the spectators. Le Petit wasn't tired, even after riding his too-small-for-him bike through tall grass and gravel in the scorching afternoon heat. He reportedly had looked so determined that passersby cheered him on: "Keep going," encouraged one man, "And you'll catch the rest of the coureurs!"
Mademoiselle and I joined the crowd that was waiting by the side of the road with less than five minutes to spare. Official cars and motorcycles were already speeding past at regular intervals. I lifted Mademoiselle onto my shoulders.
"You let me know when you see the bicycles, and then you clap and yell 'Bravo!' OK?" I explained.
The Tour is as much about the spectators as the athletes; a shared moment in the summer when the entire country stops looking outside its own borders and instead watches familiar countryside roll by on their television screens, at the speed of a bicycle, a chase car, or a low-flying helicopter. The Tour on television is strangely hypnotic: there's not much action, just bent backs, bright helmets, and bobbing knees. So the commentators comment on the scenery, naming monuments and recounting tidbits of poorly researched local history. My husband remembers this patter as the soundtrack of his childhood summers.
While watching the Tour on television is slow and mesmerizingly dull, watching it in person is rapid and pointlessly exciting. You wait and wait, and then during approximately thirty seconds the pack of cyclists comes by. You have to choose between photographing the moment or actually observing it. I took pictures, and it was only when I looked through them afterwards that I noticed I'd actually seen the yellow jersey. Mademoiselle clapped slowly on my shoulders and called out 'Bravo!', but it seemed she didn't know what to think.
Once the excitement was over, she returned to her first priority:
"Maman, can I ride my bike now?"
And so I put her down on her little red trike in the middle of the dusty path under the linden trees, where le Petit and my husband shortly found us slowly scooting along.
Back home Le Petit plopped down on the couch to watch the rest of the race. He's fascinated with geography, and called out all the local landmarks he recognized. We regretted not tuning in days earlier because he would've loved traveling virtually across France. But, of course, there's always next year.