Looking back, there are a few pivotal instances that I can say with some certainty either created or drastically altered my cycling life. Like waiting in the checkout line at Farm Fresh with my mom around 1989, seeing the issue of Mountain Bike Action with the white Nishiki Alien on the cover, and thinking that maybe bike racing was something worth checking out. Or the afternoon a few months later when I talked my way into my first shop rat job, roughly 75 yards from that same Farm Fresh and a few hundred more from the sands of Virginia Beach. Other key moments followed in the same general vicinity – first group rides in the state park, early races in the Virginia mountains.
Around that mountain bike boom time, lots of guys around me were having those same sorts of experiences, though, and most of them don’t think much about bicycles anymore. Maybe that’s because they didn’t have the other more distant experience I had about 4,000 miles from home, the one that chained me happily to cycling for the next 20 years and counting: On July 10, 1990, my father took me to see Stage 10 of the Tour de France from Geneva to Saint-Gervais. One hundred and eighteen kilometers of alpine roadway that changed my cycling life, and I didn’t even ride a single one of them.
Our trip to the Tour de France that day was not, to put it mildly, an extensively planned excursion, though it was an offshoot of one. My family was about halfway through a month-long European trip to visit and travel with family friends – my father’s old fraternity brother, his wife, and their two children. Their son was my age, and and our families were close enough that I mistakenly thought he was my cousin for much of my early life. They’d lived in Richmond for years, until a job transfer took them to Lausanne, Switzerland, and summer vacation took us to visit them.
Though not without considerable cultural and comedic merit, for two 15-year-old boys, it was a sometimes rough trip: a few too many historic churches, frequent early morning departures, and pointed lectures on why climbing up the balconies is not an appropriate way to navigate pastoral German hotels, or on how the Swiss are notoriously uptight about people blowing shit up in broad daylight with giant French firecrackers. And though I couldn’t spot it at the time, I’m sure we demonstrated our frustrations in the time-honored 15-year-old ways. I’m sure because I’ve been reminded ever since that we did.
Fortunately for Tim and me, my father is the kind of dad who could both sense and sympathize with our plight, and who was willing to facilitate some kind of reprieve. So when he realized the Tour was nearby during a laundry-and-mail stopover back in Lausanne, he suggested the three of us go to check it out. It was an easy sell, even for Tim, who was ambivalent on the whole cycling aspect – “the three of us” was a considerably less finicky and far more mobile formation than “the eight of us,” and the trip counted neither cathedral nor time-stamped itinerary among its features. Planning consisted of having a vague idea of the route gleaned from the newspaper and some sense of how long it would take us to drive to the start in Geneva. For the rest, we figured we’d just wing it.
On hindsight, it was a plan born of that beautiful sort of ignorance that grants you the protection god typically reserves for children and idiots, the state of grace that allows you to somehow get away with things you couldn't if you actually knew what you were doing. People spend months planning how to follow a day of the Tour now – you can watch them do it on any online cycling forum. Which stage? Where to park for the start? How far ahead of time to get there? Best viewing spot? Which Michelin map to buy? Useful expressions in the native language? What to bring? And if we’d known at all what we were doing, we might have thought about all those things, too. But we didn’t, and thank god, because if we did, July 10 could have been just like every other leg of that broader trip. Instead, we just got up a little early the next morning, got in the car, and left. I think we might have brought a bottle of Evian.
My mental snapshots of that day are still so vivid that writing them down is both daunting and, unavoidably, inadequate. There was the nodded permission from a Panasonic pro to scrutinize his bike as he waited for the start, sitting on a park bench and looking out at the vast blue of Lake Geneva. Catching a first glimpse of Greg LeMond lined up behind the race director’s screaming red Lancia. Harried Tour staff stopping their packing to hand us skinny, floured baguettes from the rider’s food table as we ran back to the car to chase the stage. The almost spaghetti-Western emptiness and the trail of tiny Coke cans in one mid-stage village that told us we were still behind the race, or should have told us that, anyway. Crouching behind a hay bale wrapped in red and white striped plastic with a herd of French schoolchildren, watching the peloton rail the high-speed right-hander that launched them onto the final ascent to Saint-Gervais. The riders' sharp, loud whistles as they descended back through the departing crowd, wrapped in post-stage hats and jackets. Mont Blanc looming in the backdrop.
Thierry Claveyrolat, the fantastic French climber for R.M.O., might have been the first to streak past me and start the climb, but I wouldn’t have known it. I was far more familiar with the likenesses of John Tomac and Ned Overend at that point. Whether he was in front at the start of that final climb or not, though, he won the stage, 1:54 ahead of Uwe Ampler, and 2:29 ahead of GC men Greg Lemond and Claudio Chiappucci, the Italian with Carrera. St. Gervaix was the big score that would help “Clavet” take home the mountains classification jersey that year, his best Tour performance and one that helped him land a job with LeMond’s Z squad in 1991.
The next day, the Tour left Saint-Gervais for Alpe d’Huez via the Madeleine and Glandon, but again, that didn’t mean much to me then. But on the strength of that day at the Tour, I did my first road race later that summer, and by 1999, the year I interned for VeloNews and Claveyrolat killed himself in his basement, the name Alpe d’Huez meant a lot. And in 2003, when on the tail end of an interview I told LeMond that I’d been there that day, he smiled sadly and said, oh yeah, Thierry won that day, and by then I knew why it was sad and I knew why that day was important to me, too.
Smashed in a photo album somewhere, I still have a stack of newspaper clippings about that 1990 Tour, presumably about LeMond’s feverish race-long pursuit of the errant Chiappucci. They’re just from the regional newspapers of wherever we happened to be at the time – knowledge of the absolute indispensability of L’Equipe was still years away.
I don’t look at the clippings much, though, because the directional sign at the top of this post, the one that my dad cut from a telephone pole when we were walking back to that godawful Mercur rental car, has always been the key that unlocks those memories for me. Maybe it’s because the sorts of details in the yellowing newspaper articles – who attacked who and at what kilometer and how many seconds they gained, all those things I’ve written about for magazines and websites since – aren’t what hooked me on road cycling that day. It was the cycling writ large on the road to Saint-Gervais that did it – the faces, colors, sounds, and crowds, the adventure, the drama and European foreignness of it all. Sharp black arrows on bright yellow signs framed against mountains and always pointing up the road. And that’s still what I’m hooked on 20 years later.