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An American in Paris

Cyclist with no chance of victory enjoys the race

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Posted: Saturday July 03, 1999 06:36 PM

By Michael Bamberger

Issue date: August 4, 1997

Every year for six years Frankie Andreu of Dearborn, Mich., has competed in the Tour de France, an event he knows he cannot win. For three weeks he rides more than 100 miles a day, on average, much of it uphill. For three weeks he doesn't know where he's going, and he doesn't know where he's been. You ask him, "What did you think of the peak of Courcheval, Frankie?"

"Where's that?" he asks.

"It's the mountain in the French Alps you rode up today on your bike," you answer.

"Oh," Frankie says, "that place."

For three weeks he doesn't see his wife, for women, basically, are not allowed on the Tour de France. Well, mothers are tolerated. The mother of Jan Ullrich, the 23-year-old German who won the 84th Tour de France on Sunday, was everywhere for three weeks. So were the podium girls, whose job it is to stand on a podium and kiss the winners of the daily stages. But the presence of girlfriends and wives is strongly discouraged. It's a Tour custom that Andreu, 30, could do without, but he puts up with it for the privilege of competing. His dream is to win a stage, get a kiss on the cheek from a podium girl, become a note in the legend of the Tour. How good that would be. In 1994, Andreu placed in the final leg of the race, in Paris, on the Champs-Elysees. He lost the lead within 100 yards of the finish. He crossed the line with his chin on his chest. How bad that was. "To a bike racer, winning a stage in the Tour de France is bigger than winning a gold medal in the Olympics," says Andreu, who has twice competed in the Summer Games, finishing fourth in the road race last year in Atlanta.

Andreu knows the Tour shares the problems of cycling and of the world at large. Many riders, he acknowledges, use performance-enhancing drugs in their training. One cyclist, Djamolidin Abdoujaparov of Uzbekistan, was thrown out of this year's race after a positive drug test. Some reports said he was using steroids and amphetamines. There's boorish behavior, too. Tom Steels of Belgium was ejected for hurling a water bottle at a fellow rider.

Andreu knows also that to ride the Tour is to live dangerously. Two years ago a teammate, Fabio Casartelli, a 24-year-old rider from Italy, was descending a mountain in the Pyrenees at about 55 mph when he crashed, his head smashing into a cement post, fracturing his skull and ending his life. Each night when the day's race is over, Andreu calls his wife, Betsy, and that is when her anxiousness for the day is over. "It seemed like there was carnage every day for a while," Andreu says, referring to the many crashes in the opening week. "I missed all the bad stuff." You see him reaching for a wooden beam on a wall and knocking on it gently.

But ultimately, for Andreu, the charms of the Tour are irresistible. Several days before the end of the race the riders took a special train from Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, to EuroDisney, outside Paris. Hundreds of people gathered at the station to see off the riders. Spontaneously, the assemblage broke into song, singing an anthem of Burgundy, Ban Bourguignon, for the benefit of the riders. When the train pulled out of the station, Andreu looked out his window and saw the people waving goodbye. He picked up a paper and read about the race that absorbs a country. He knew he was at the center of his universe.

On Sunday he rode down the Champs-Elysees once again. Tens of thousands of Parisians were there, cheering along the grand boulevard, calling out their thanks. On his arms, Andreu will tell you, there were goose bumps, and in his spine there was tingling.

"By the end you're cycling for the fans as much as for yourself or for your team," Andreu says. "They are there to say, 'Thank you for riding in the heat and for riding up the mountains. Thank you for giving us the pleasure of watching you.' I can't imagine another sport where the fans are so generous. Coming down the Champs-Elysees, you're feeding off the crowds, and they're feeding off you. At that point, it doesn't matter where you finish, not to you and not to them. The thing is that you're there."

Andreu completed his sixth consecutive Tour de France. No active American rider has completed more. He finished 79th. His best finish in a stage was eighth. He was thrilled.

Update, 7/10/98: The indefatigable Andreu, who finished 79th overall in the 1997 Tour de France, has qualified and will compete for the seventh straight year.

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