A morbid thought crossed my mind the other morning while I was transfixed in front of the tube.
No matter what, the Tour de France is going to end on Sunday with the ceremonial ride up the Champs-Elysées, and then it will go away for the next 49 weeks.
Why does it have to go away?
The Tour catches my attention like no other sports event; I’ve covered parts of six or seven, sometimes driving the course just before or just after the riders. Now I watch the live show on NBC Sports Network every morning (Tuesday is a rest day.) as the cyclists flit from mountain to coastline, from country to city, always something different around the next turn.
The riders all look alike, with their thrust jaws and wraparound shades and wiry physiques hunched aerodynamically.
For the viewer, the cyclists come to individual life through the expertise of Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett, two Englishmen who have been broadcasting the Tour since humankind invented the wheel. They know all 198 riders registered for the Tour and, as the day’s race unfolds kaleidoscopically, they discuss which rider is a sprint specialist and which one a mountain man.
One thing is certain: the Tour endures despite the retirement and current legal troubles of Lance Armstrong. Whatever he was doing chemically, we all saw him whup a bunch of riders who actually did test positive. He was a great force but he is long gone now. And the land and the riders remain.
As seen by camera from a Tour helicopter, a knot of riders banks to the left around a curve on one rainy desolate section of country road. In the background are sheep or maybe one tent pitched in a field. A couple stands by the wayside, clapping politely. The mind snaps the picture and the camera rolls around the next bend. While the network breaks for a commercial, the camera may focus on a crumbling hilltop castle.
Here is the ultimate truth about the Tour de France: the star of the show is one of the most beautiful and diverse and historic countries in the world.
I know, I know, one does not need the Tour to drive through Normandy or down the Rhone valley or across the haunting Massif Central. (I tremble as I type that name.) For three weeks a year, the network brings France into my house. I try not to dwell upon that grim moment, coming next Monday, when the Tour goes away.