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Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Checking in on the Tour de France

By Carl Ehrlich
Special to ESPNBoston.com

Carl Ehrlich
Carl Ehrlich caught up with the Tour de France after visiting the Arc de Triomphe.

Editor's note: Carl Ehrlich, who was the captain of the 2009 Harvard football team, is in Spain to play football as a linebacker for the Valencia Firebats. He's chronicling his experiences on and off the field for ESPNBoston.com. You can find all of his previous entries here.

I would love to say I traveled halfway across Europe solely to watch the last stage of the Tour de France and report back to my loyal U.S. readers. But I can't; it was a total accident.

Really, I was heading to Paris anyway. Instead of Alberto Contador, Anthony Charteau or Team Radioshack, I was on my way to see the Opéra Garnier, the Arc de Triomphe and la Tour Eiffel. It wasn't until I got into my sleeper cabin on the way to France that my bunkmate reminded me of the Tour. Sunday, he told me, was the final stage, Champ-EÉlysées, which runs right through Paris.

Lying in bed that night (read: sleeplessly curled into a semi-fetal position so as to fit on my bunk), I made up my mind to catch the last stage.

In fitting with the time-obsession of the Tour, I'll be using times to document the experience. This comes in lieu of any respectable literary format -- an advanced apology to all of my high school English teachers.

11:15: Being that it's the final stage of the tour, the hostel desk attendant explained, I had to get to the city center early if I wanted a spot. Quickly reviewing my basic-survival French phrases (kudos to my tutor, Sho) while packing a bag for the day, I threw in my notebook, a camera, three Chupa Chup pops and a can of Pringles and set off to navigate the French metro system.

11:35: "Où est le Tour de France?" "Excusez-moi, where is the Tour de France?" Technically, although it's of little help, the answer to this question is, of course, "France." French people find this hilarious. After wandering, clueless, around the Charles-de-Gaulle Étoile metro station for 10 minutes, I find it something less than entertaining.

11:50: After meeting a nice, English-speaking Parisian, I find my train and make it to the Tour site. The metro exit spits me out smack in front of the Arc de Triomphe, an important landmark for the race. As part of the eight laps the riders do through the city, the competitors climb a half mile uphill towards the Arc, make a button-hook turn, and then race back down. Thinking it a good vantage point, I find an agreeable piece of curb and set up camp.

12:50: Hour two of my curb stake-out. No real crowd forming. Remind me why I left this early?

1:45: Despite the fact that the Tour is a global event, French is far and away the language of choice. Seeing as my French small talk is limited to, "do you speak English" and "I would like a cheeseburger, please," I pass the time in solitude. Crowds begin to form and I stand up.

2:00: Hour three of the stake-out. The only sign of the Tour is an unintelligible stream of Frenchmen coming from a nearby coffee-shop television. After watching the World Cup in three different countries (and three different languages, all not English), I'm ready for some English sports broadcasting. Can't wait for Joe Morgan and Sunday Night Baseball.

2:15: Rations check: I've popped and, as promised, couldn't stop. Pringles supply greatly diminished.

2:25: Pre-race sponsor show. Before the tour passes, cars and trucks, painted to advertise their respective companies, tear through the course and try to get some face time. Honking and blasting music while promoters dance on top of the floats, the drivers weave the vehicles side to side to create attention. The driving is so erratic that the dancing promoters are harnessed to keep from being thrown off the trucks.

2:30: The LIVESTRONG cars and trucks, all black with a single yellow stripe down the side (sans dancers), draw a big applause from the audience. Say what you will about Lance Armstrong (and much has been said), the guy is a hero. While everyone talks about his 18th-place finish, let's all remember he's raised almost $2 million for cancer research this year.

2:35: The LIVESTRONG applause (previously the biggest of the day) is outdone by the crowd's cheers for the Haribo candy caravan. Each one of the painted pick-up trucks is adorned with a massive, friendly looking animal advertising a different one of their brands. One of them looks suspiciously like Sulley from "Monsters Inc." Speaking of monsters, I've finished my Pringles -- they never stood a chance.

2:45: Rations check: second Chupa Chup pop gone. I've now been standing on an incline for an hour and my legs are getting tired. I'm consoled by the fact that there are six "high mountain" portions of this year's tour, each measuring roughly 200 kilometers. In total altitude, riding the Tour De France is like climbing four Mt. Everests. With this in mind, I guess my legs aren't that tired.

2:50: Xtra laundry detergent wins the prize for most extreme display. The promoters, all male and scantily clad, look like they were recruited from Chip-n-Dales. Why, I wonder, is the laundry detergent float the only one with half-nude people? What about this implies fresh laundry?

2:55: The wind has picked up and there are heavy rain clouds forming. What would a thunderstorm mean for the race? Seeing as I was watching at a button-hook turn, it probably means a greater chance for wipe-outs. Is it okay to root for these? Isn't that why people go to NASCAR?

3:00: Vittel, a popular European brand of water, has a questionable ad campaign. Despite the cold wind and threatening clouds, they continue spraying the crowd with "spring fresh water" from their water bottle-styled space ships. It's also a questionable political campaign, as the policemen are less than pleased to be caught in the cross-fire.

3:20: The last of the commercial trucks has gone by and the crowd is again silent. Random thought: The Arc De Triomphe is 29.19 meters tall in the middle. To put that in perspective, that means you could stack almost 14 Rasheed Wallace's under the arch (and 4,256 career technical fouls).

3:25: The crowd begins to do the wave. Unsurprisingly, it's started by a nearby group of Americans: I'm swelling with pride for my countrymen.

3:30: Wave in full force. Now it carries for a few hundred yards. As flags pop up in unison with the wave, and I count seven countries represented. France is noticeably absent.

3:33: Wave dies.

4:20: Officially 48 hours until I catch my flight home. Family, friends and girlfriend will be nice to see, but I really can't wait to hang with my dogs.

4:35: Police procession leading up to the race. Anyone who dares take a run for the course is in trouble; half of the French security forces walk around in full fatigues, fingers on the trigger of assault rifles. That's probably why no one has interrupted the race since 1999 (even then, the blockage was staged by local firemen on demonstration).

4:39: There's a sudden buzz in the crowd and, on tip-toes, I can just see over the crowd of raised digital cameras and make out a pack of bikers. Just after I catch a glimpse, the man in front of me hoists his son on his shoulders. Five hours of waiting and I'm left staring at the back of a seven-year-old kid. Touché, monsieur, touché.

4:47: The riders come up for the second lap and I'm starting to regret my placement at the curve. Whereas I thought it would be an intense battle for the inside track, the riders take the turn carefully and then race back down the hill. With all the elbows and dirty looks I'm getting from the crowd around me, I feel like I'm jockeying harder for inside position than the riders.

4:50: OK, I'm an idiot, but am I the only one who thought he can pick out Lance Armstrong by looking for the yellow jersey? After spending seven years with the yellow as his second skin, I've been spoiled by his success. This year's accident made a return to the podium unattainable.

4:55: Third lap. As soon as the riders make their way up the hill, cameras are raised and children are re-hoisted on shoulders. A quick survey of the crowd and I'm not sure there's anyone to lift me. From what I can see, a few of the riders are starting to pull away, but I have no idea who they are or when they made their move. Could really go for those Pringles now.

4:58: Still disappointed with how slowly these guys take the turns -- I was really looking for some action. The only real contact between riders this year was Mark Renshaw, who intentionally hit another rider with his head while trying to gain position. For this, he was disqualified. Movement to reinstate?

5:03: Fourth lap swings by and I've now got a feel for what this is all about. Really fit guys, in tight suits, riding bikes really fast. I guess what I was really looking for was something closer to Roman chariot racing. You telling me the race wouldn't be more gripping if the riders had spears coming from their spokes? Not sure how aerodynamic those tunics were, though.

5:07: During the post-lap re-scramble for standing position, I become conscious of a shady-looking guy on my right who is eyeing people's bags. Tour de Protecting My Wallet begins. I'm currently in the lead.

5:10: Fifth lap coming and I swear if another father picks up his & oh, wait & five feet in front of me, a 20-something guy hoists his girlfriend onto his shoulders. I'm out of here. Next time, ESPNBoston, I want a press pass.