Wednesday, May 16, 2012

AMGEN Tour of California, Stage 4, Sonora

The big news in Sonora today is the start of Stage 4 of the AMGEN Tour of California. I’m trying to imagine what it might be like to ride 130 miles on a bicycle through this mountainous area, surrounded by a pack of murderously competitive, sweaty men, all going too fast for road conditions. I mean, there are stretches of the road that they will take today that I navigate with genuine respect, even in a car. There are steep downgrades, engine-overheating upgrades and hair-raising turns, one of which is a blind hairpin with a cliff dropping off to the west and a bulging wall of bedrock protruding into the east lane. Even my lead foot eases off, in that neck of the woods.

Despite the thrill and bloodlust of such a macho spectacle, this event has failed to arouse my interest, however. International bicycle racing is a fallen god to me and I’ll tell you why.

On July 19th, 1981, I was in Paris and, on a whim, decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower from my hotel, a matter of probably three miles. Walking in Paris is my favorite activity. Every block reveals something either curious or heart-stoppingly beautiful. Usually, I try to get myself lost but that day, with the Tower as a landmark visible above any given point in the city, I didn’t succeed.

I arrived at the base of the Eiffel Tower in early afternoon, as I recall, and was suddenly engulfed in a herd of small, sweaty men in very short shorts. They were huffing and puffing and runnels of sweat were springing like freshets all over their mostly exposed bodies. I assumed I had happened onto the finish line of a foot race through Paris, until I saw the bikes; and then, the big sign declaring TOUR DE FRANCE.

There was a podium set up under the girdered legs of the Eiffel Tower, like a nest under a vast steel chicken. On it, if my memory serves me, stood the recently-elected Président de la République and ex-officio Co-Prince of Andorra, François Mitterrand. Beside him, as Master of Ceremony, was Olympic ski racer Jean-Claude Killy, who later became Président de la Société du Tour de France, from 1992 to 2001.

I stood there amazed. These were the vaunted he-men of the Tour de France? They barely cleared my shoulders. I stood among them like one of the architectural features of the Tower itself. Why, I could have picked up two of them, one under each arm, and carried them away, possibly to a nearby bistro for a cool drink.

I have nothing against short men, mind you, but my image was shattered. Despite the fact that I could not, on my best day, accomplish one one-hundredth of their route in ten times the time, I realized that a chasm had forever emerged between me and international bike racing. (A similar disenchantment happened to my friend Linda, who encountered Sylvester Stalone and described him as “four-foot-ten,” or just slightly taller than the giant guns he lugs around, on-screen.)

I have no idea if the athletes of these races have changed over the years. Certainly their racing uniforms have. Silk shorts have been replaced by Spandex leggings, which is too bad because those racers of 1981 had powerfully muscular, sun-bronzed legs, from the hair of which depended droplets of sweat, like raindrops on twigs. It was definitely their best feature. Maybe today’s herd of racers is long and lean or tall and blocky. I have no idea. And I’m not about to push my way through the expected 10,000 spectators to find out.

Long, short, broad-shouldered or thin, I wish them all Godspeed and a safe arrival at their destination, somewhere down in the San Joaquin Valley near Fresno. No  matter what their builds, they’ve all got one feature in common: huge hearts!

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