Memories from the Champs-Elysees

I wake up in Paris. The long journey is over. On this warm summer day, I will witness sporting history when Lance Armstrong is crowned champion of the Tour de France for the sixth consecutive year. It is July 2004, and I leave my quiet hotel for the bustling boulevard of the Champs-Elysees.

Walking the narrow cobbled sidewalks, I feel in a dream. My travels began in southern France, where I followed the fields of sunflowers to the base of Plateau de Beille. I cheered the blue army of the U.S. Postal team, as it powered through the small ski town of Les Cabannes before disappearing up the ominous incline to the summit. The next day, I descended from the ancient hilltop castle at Carcassonne to join the crowds surrounding Armstrong, who would end the day in the yellow jersey.

When the peloton headed to the Alps, I detoured to the Riviera. The Texan battled his German rival, Jan Ulrich, while I gazed at the Mediterranean from the cliffs of Monaco, watched glass-blowers in Biot, and enjoyed Picasso’s seaside garden in Antibes. Phil and Paul updated me on the race each night on TV. In Cannes, I dreamed of Sheryl Crow speaking French.

The high-speed train took me north to the capital city, that seems to hum in anticipation of the grand finale. Or are the Parisians aware of the race at all? In the morning, I stroll up the grand Champs-Elysees toward the Arc de Triomphe. Looking back down the boulevard, the bleachers and barricades await the coming crowds. At the top of the vista, I feel triumphant, like I have accomplished something myself. 

Tourists pass by wearing yellow wristbands. Everyone wearing Lance’s team cap or an American flag on his t-shirt wears a band. Even French couples and kids have them, too. It signals their support of today’s man in yellow, and I feel a little left out. I stop a cute young woman on the go selling the bracelets for the Livestrong Foundation. For two euros, I buy one for myself, another for a fellow cycling fan back home. A few weeks later, his business colleagues in posh suits are eager to get ahold of the wristbands. "Where did you get yours?" they ask him. "The Champs-Elysees," he replies to their surprise. I don my bracelet, a wink to the fellow Armstrong fans swarming Paris.

Hours before the cyclists arrive, my daydreaming dissolves as I plot my viewing strategy. No more coffee, no more water, no more bathroom breaks. Groups stake out territory along the barricades, and I feel foreign and vulnerable looking for a spot to stand for the next six hours. A middle-aged man in a Texas cap sits with another couple, all wearing Livestrong bracelets. I figure we’re on the same team and ask if I can join them. Cheerfully, the man welcomes me, revealing a British accent. A cycling enthusiast, he is working in Texas and joined his English brother and sister-in-law in Paris for the race finale. I relax as the French race announcer talks non-stop over the loudspeakers and pop songs play in the background.

The mostly French crowds start to fill in the wide sidewalks, and the next few hours are a lesson in the European disregard for personal space. I have traveled a long way and will not give up this spot at the roadside. I stand elbows out with my feet shoulder-width apart and firmly planted on the ground. My American flag pokes out of my bag like a weapon. If someone tried to tackle me, I would stay standing. In the moments before the riders arrive, the crowd swells, and a French family tries to push their kids in front of me. I do not give an inch. Sorry, I’m not moving, not even for kids.

The race caravan streams into town with hot girls dancing like Mardi Gras and cars in the shape of the Laughing Cow and her triangular cheeses. The noise grows, and the crowd pushes toward the barricades in anticipation of the riders. A young Frenchman squeezes in through the spectators and plants himself up against me, literally up against me. Do I give up my space to escape this creep? Do I ask the British-Texas guys to defend my honor? I will not be moved and do not give in. Just in time, the creep slithers away.

Finally, the cyclists race in for the first of eight circuits around the boulevard. The sprinters are looking for a stage win, and they drive hard at the front of the peloton. I’m thrilled like a girl catching sight of Justin Bieber. They’re here! They’re amazing! In a flash, the riders shoot by, turn at the Arc de Triomphe, and head back down the opposite side of the street. Now, we wait for them to return. The loudspeakers play a recording of Sheryl Crow, Lance’s then-girlfriend. "All I Wanna Do," they blast, but I think more appropriate would be "Everyday is a Winding Road."

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