Memo to the nice lady at the car-rental counter at the Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris:
Sorry about the car. The yellow light in the middle of the dashboard has been flickering for a while now, since somewhere in the middle of the Pyrenees. I am not sure exactly what that means, because the owner's manual is written in French, but there has also been an intermittent ta-chickada, ta-chickada noise upon acceleration. Sorry. I was following Miguel Induráin.
He won his fourth consecutive Tour de France on Sunday, as you might know, coasting down the Champs Elysées to finish five minutes and 39 seconds in front of his nearest competitor. It was quite a feat, and I have to say that the condition of your car—this 1994 Peugeot 306 gray compact—will explain his win far better than any of the accounts you might have read in L'Equipe or seen on channel 2. Sorry. That is 23 days of dirt on top of the car, collected in more than 3,000 miles of unlimited-mileage driving.
There is dirt from the Pyrenees on the car, dirt from the Alps, dirt from the Massif Central and from Provence, dirt from Brittany and Normandy and from Dunkirk and even Euro Disney and, of course, from Paris. Also, I must admit, there is dirt from England in the mix. This car has been under the Channel in a tunnel and over it on a huge ferryboat. Was there anything in the rental agreement against that? I hope not. If so, sorry.
Induráin, 30 years old, a native of the tiny province of Navarre, Spain, destroyed the field in 2,472 miles of racing. He rode so well that virtually every other notable rider quit for one reason or another before the race reached its final eight days. Induráin's main competition, Tony Rominger of Switzerland, retired eight days before the end, simply pulling to the side of the road on the way to Albi, over and out. A field of 189 was reduced to 117 by the end, and everyone remaining was a mere participant in a brutal parade to honor Induráin.
"He is the greatest sportsman, the greatest athlete, in the history of Spain," journalist Luis Gómez of El País in Madrid said. "For a while, there was a debate between Induráin and Seve Ballesteros, but that is finished. Golf is a rich man's sport. Cycling is for everyone. We have never had an athlete who was Number 1 in the world, who has come out year after year and just killed people. Induráin has done that."
I was just trying to keep pace during this year's killing. Sorry.
I forgot to mention when I rented your car that I am a sportswriter from the United States. The way you cover the Tour de France is quite different from the way you cover any other sporting event in the world. The organizers give you a large blue sticker that you affix to the top of your windshield. The sticker, which reads PRESSE TECHNIQUE in large black letters next to an official Tour logo, allows you to drive the same tortuous roads that the cyclists ride every day.
You appear in the vicinity of the starting line in the morning in some French city or town, usually around nine o'clock, maybe 10, to leave perhaps an hour before the racers leave. The roads have been blocked oil' for the entire route, people waving from behind barriers as if every day were the Fourth of July. Or maybe the 14th of July. Whatever. There is a crowd of advertising vehicles and press vehicles and official vehicles leaving at the same time. It is something like a Le Mans start. You jump in your vehicle. You crank the radio to some French station that plays American pop music you haven't heard for a long time (if ever), and off you go.
The goal, it seems, is to drive the daily course—as many as 168 back-roads miles—as quickly as possible in order to see as much of the race as possible on TV in a high school gym that has been converted into a pressroom, then witness the actual finish outside on the streets. You roll up mountains, down mountains, around mountains, past the seaside, through vineyards, around castles and cathedrals and over bridges, all the time with a carload of reporters from Le Figaro trying to pass you on the left, an Italian TV crew trying to pass you on the right, photographers on motorcycles playing out musical sounds on their horns in full pursuit, and Coca-Cola trucks and a large float from a French committee against AIDS, accompanied by workers who distribute free condoms, dead ahead. It is a four-hour, live-hour, sometimes even six-hour driving workout for man and—I must admit—machine.