A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
(This column was originally published at Potable Curmudgeon on June 30, 2014 and has been updated only slightly)
American clocks do not synchronize with Europe, and so each year that I'm stateside during the Tour de France, I must adapt with breakfast buffets of espresso, baguettes, gnarly goat cheese … and beer.
I’ve seen brief snippets of Le Tour in person on two occasions, in 2001 and 2004. Oddly, both glimpses came not in France, but in Belgium. The first viewing was in Lo, a very small town, and the second came in Liege, a very large city. Rural or cosmopolitan, the vibrations were identical, and it’s a thrill to be in proximity to the festive atmosphere surrounding the Tour, watching people of all ages gather to witness what can be the most fleeting of sporting seconds.
But first, an obligatory word from the Tour’s sponsors, namely, the mechanized entourage preceding the cyclists’ arrival, equal parts dromedary and circus sideshow.
In Lo, we got to see it all.
Support vans for the various teams roll through at intervals, and there is no mistaking which corporation pays their freight. Dozens of vehicles in all shapes and sizes belonging to various subsidiary sponsors dart past, leaving mounds of advertising paraphernalia strewn in their wake. When this colorful parade is over, there is a pause before sirens blast, bells toll, policemen noisily clear the street, and the actual cyclists finally make their appearances.
When riding on flat ground, the peloton can go past so incredibly quickly that if you yawn, you’ll miss it. Once past, enterprising spectators then rush back to their cars (or bikes) to take pursuit, and perhaps choose another vantage point further down the road.
But in Lo, it struck me that residents of villages not graced with the Tour’s presence for many decades take a far more leisurely opportunity to make a day of it, first introducing their children and grandchildren to the event’s history, and then watching the pedal-by before returning to their homes for cocktail hour and the evening news.
Having taken up walking, I’ve done little since 2013 to merit the description of bicyclist, but still consider myself a lapsed, casual, commuting cyclist. My riding resumed in the late 1990’s after a long hiatus, beginning with a mountain bike for short jaunts only, then graduating to a hybrid – a heavier frame and wider tires.
I still have the bike. Except for the original frame, every bit of it has been replaced numerous times with replacement components. It has traveled with me to Europe on at least four occasions for the pursuit of beercycling, or the discriminating art of doing just enough riding to justify the beers (and meals) that come afterward.
It is inexcusable hedonism at its finest, though not without informative sightseeing, hearty exercise and enriching camaraderie. If you can bike past a Belgian frites stand without stopping, you’re a better – and thinner – man.
In beercycling, one experiences the cityscape and countryside, just not at speeds customarily traveled by Tour de France riders. I weigh more than them, and they climb mountains like the Pyrenees faster than I traverse the neutral terrain of Flanders. Their support teams are not at my disposal, although in the early days of the race, riders were compelled to carry everything they needed to make necessary repairs.
And, much as now, the Tour de France’s cyclists used to seek the assistance of performance enhancing substances. A poster on the wall at the Public House shows 1920’s era Tour participants on break, seated on the steps of a café, with admiring children clustered behind them watching intently as they hoist big mugs of beer.
A few years ago, I read Tour de France: The History, The Legend, The Riders, by Graeme Fife.
Fife, an English amateur cyclist, provides a workmanlike and chronological, if sometimes meandering, account of the race’s century-long history, as well as gritty descriptions of his own two-wheeled gonzo ascents of the particularly gruesome climbs expected of riders each year in the Alps and Pyrenees.
These climbs provide instruction as to why drugs of all conceivable types have always been taboo, as well as being (arguably) indispensable elements of the Tour. Before the fame and riches, there came a race designed by its founder to be a superlative, supreme test in the annals of human endurance, something otherwise found only within the pages of a US Marine Corps training manual.
In fact, early Tour routes were calculated, lengthened, augmented and toughened according to their prime mover’s earnest (warped?) desire for the “perfect” Tour, one so abominably difficult that only a single rider would survive each year to approach the stand and claim victory.
Perhaps this is why I feel about the Tour de France much as I do about American baseball: Some sportsmen may well be cheating dopers, and I’ll waste no time defending their actions, preferring to gaze benignly past the ephemeral, toward the timeless and true essence of the sport itself, this being what matters the most to me.
Accordingly, my personal Tour de France moment was in 2006 in the Czech Republic. In one grueling day, my sadly departed compatriot Kevin Richards (R.I.P.) and I rode roughly 125 late summer kilometers through ceaselessly hilly, gorgeous Bohemian countryside, fully laden with panniers, stopping exhausted just before dusk at a three-word, multi-syllabic town, renting a room, showering, and finally dining on beer, wine, duck, beef and more beer. These are the drugs of choice for the discerning beercyclist.
Vive la France! … and, long live Ceska Republika, too.
In 2001, the Lo year, we beercyclists made the newspaper in Poperinge. As translated by the inimitable Luc Dequidt, here is the article.
Did we really say that about Lance Armstrong?
Maybe it was the beer talking.
4 Americans visit the Tour - Beer and Cycling
Four Americans stayed this week at the Palace Hotel in Poperinge - Bob Reed and Kevin Lowber from Kentucky, Tim Eads and Roger Baylor from Indiana. Mainly here to sample local brews, they did not want to miss the Tour de France; they watched it from the terrace of a local pub in Lo, a more than unique experience for the four Americans.
Kentucky is mainly known for breeding horses, so horse racing is extremely popular. Indiana is more industrialized with steel industry around Lake Michigan. Needless to say that they were charmed by the peace and quiet of the Poperinge area, a cyclist's paradise. Their home states are more car orientated.
On Monday they cycled to Lo; they had never seen the Tour or any other main cycling event. American TV pays more attention to extreme sports, cycling is not one of them despite the presence of Lance Armstrong. They were impressed by the publicity caravan, carnival as they called it; a Michelin flag or Champion cap made a nice souvenir. They watched out for the American cyclists; they recognized the US Postal shirts but not who rode with a blue shirt. They strongly believe in another victory of Lance Armstrong but did not hear yet about the cooperation with the controversial Italian doctor Ferrari.
They do not speak in public about drugs. "Armstrong seems to be an honest guy." They would be very disappointed when it would appear that their hero in the Tour takes illegal products.
They do not know many names of Belgian cyclists, exception made for Tom Steels and Eddy Merckx, of course. After the Tour passed through Lo, Westvleteren was the next stop for a delicious Trappist.
Roger, Tim, Kevin and Bob already visited Poperinge in 1999 during the hop fest. Bob remembers the refreshing taste of Hommelbier and still speaks highly about the Hop Queen.
Again local real ales are the reason for staying at the Palace. Landlord Guy serves them another brew each evening in a matching glass; no less than 130 different beers are available at the Palace.
Before leaving Poperinge, they cycled up the Cassel-mountain and visited a local inn, het Kasteelhof, where another local ale was tasted.
As a salesman, Kevin introduced the Hommelbier in quite a number of American pubs and also Roger serves it in his Rich O's Public House. He will soon serve his own homebrew.
June 29: ON THE AVENUES: Back in the USSR, with my old friend Barr.
June 22: ON THE AVENUES: Train Whistle Reds, or my journey from Budapest to Moscow by rail in June, 1987.
June 15: ON THE AVENUES: Hi there, NAHA wastrels. My name is Peter Principle, and these are my friends Deaf and Dugout.
June 8: ON THE AVENUES: Since 2004, "Two way, better way."