In 1998, I was in France for two important sporting events. I was in Nice on July 12, the night that France defeated Brazil for the World Cup at le Stade St-Denis and I was in Paris 3 weeks later on August 2 at the finish line of the Tour de France.
I must admit that I am not a spectator sport enthusiast. Monsieur, like many Canadians, grew up with the family watching Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday. In my family, my brothers played soccer (football) and we all played baseball and badminton in the summer but television watching was not one of our family activities.
In France, after watching the World Cup game in a bar beside the Mediterranean and watching the night-long revelries in the streets, we drove a rental car through southern France only to find that we were running into the Tour wherever we went.
Spectator-lined streets were closed to cars, accommodation was difficult to find but the enthusiasm of the crowds lining the streets was contagious. Every night, we watched the highlights, looking for familiar landmarks of the countryside. By the time we returned to Paris, we were fans!
Our last Sunday in Paris was the final day of the Tour. In 1998, much of Paris was closed on Sunday and during the month of August. Shops and restaurants in the 14th where we were staying were locked up tightly that day. My friend and I travelled to les Champs Elysées to find a spot to watch the grand finale. Although we waited a long time, what could be more exciting than drinking a cold Stella Artois on a sunny day on the Champs Elysées among cycling enthusiasts from all over the world?
Since 1998, I have watched as much of the race as possible on television. I have learned about pelotons, yellow shirts, and green shirts. I have seen countless French villages and small towns and longed to be among the spectators. Although the Lance Armstrong legend impressed me, I never really cared who won. It was about the countryside, the stamina and the enthusiasm.
This is the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France. I will still watch, perhaps with a bit of skepticism after all the doping scandals but, for me, it is the memories and the enthusiasm of the fans that fuels my loyalty. The race begins in Corsica today and I shall be watching Ryder Hesjedal, a Canadian cyclist from Victoria.