July 27, 2013 9:59:18 PM
Paris, July 21 -- Everyone said the crowds would be horrendous. The woman at the front desk was unenthusiastic. Six cyclists from California who were drinking wine in the lobby of the hotel had been to the Champs-Elysees earlier in the day. They had seen the crowds and the giant flag draped from the Arc de Triomphe, and that was good enough for them. They would watch the finish on TV.
The event in question, of course, was the Tour de France, a 21-day, 2,000-plus mile bike race that this year began on the island of Corsica and, as is customary, would finish that evening on the Champs-Elysees. I happened to be in Paris after a visit with a friend in Germany. I had taken a train here and would be flying home the next morning.
By Sunday the overall outcome had been decided, and, except for a sprint competition, the day's ride from Versailles through the Paris suburbs, past the Louvre and its wonderful glass pyramid and then 10 or so circuits up and down the Champs-Elysees around the Arc de Triomphe was largely ceremonial.
More than one writer had used the word "magical" in describing the Tour's twilight finish.
As a venue for outdoor events Paris is incomparable. Her hundreds-years-old architecture provides a majestic backdrop, be it a musical concert, light show or bicycle race, all of which, as it happened, would be taking place that night.
By Sunday I had been in Paris for several days and had re-familiarized myself with the Metro system. The nearest stop to my hotel was Hotel d' Ville, so named for the palace-like 17th century building with a huge courtyard that serves as city hall. From there I would take the No. 1 Train, which parallels the Seine with stops along the Champs-Elysees.
The guys from California suggested I get off at Franklin D. Roosevelt, two stops before the Arc de Triomphe.
Rather than try to take notes in the swirl of the crowd, I spoke to a recorder.
"It's 10 minutes till 9. A few cars and police on motorcycles are speeding up and down the Champs. People are lining both sides of the streets. Over loudspeakers an announcer is calling the race; sounds like a horse race in Kentucky. Hard to know what's going on. I'm standing about four rows back; the street is made of square brick. Smoother than cobblestones but rough for a bicycle."
You can hear the cheers before you see the riders.
"Here they come and they are flying. The leaders pass and then the pack (peloton). Must be 150 of them (169 to be exact). Beautiful. They're like Easter eggs (with their brightly colored outfits and bikes). They're followed by a fleet of about 50 yellow cars, all with bikes on top."
It lasted a moment; the riders passed noiselessly. It was breathtaking to be so close, to see how fast they were moving, how close they were to each other.
To my right the sun was setting behind the Arc de Triomphe, and I headed in that direction. The Champs-Elysees runs uphill at a surprisingly steep angle. The closer you came to the Arc the thicker (and more animated) the crowds became. Some people brought ladders. A kid in a tree probably had as good a view as any. It was dream-like.
I don't know if I've seen anything quite so beautiful as all this. These athletes are like gazelles, a flash of color when they pass. From the aerial view on the Jumbotron, the peloton looks like a graceful multicolored serpent moving through the streets of what has to be the world's most beautiful city.
Each side of this broad boulevard is lined with two rows of sycamores. The trees reminded me of two friends back home, avid fans of the Tour who live in a house at the end of a drive also lined with sycamores. I wondered if they're watching.
I made it to the Arc in time to see one last pass of the riders. The 200-year-old monument is massive (50 meters high). It's been witness to so much history, much of it rooted in warfare: A huge bas-relief sculpture of Napoleon depicted as a Greek god graces the eastern face. Nearby, under the arches, his victories and the names of now-forgotten generals are carved in the stone. There was the victory parade after World War I (After which a French aviator flew his biplane through the Arc.); the Nazis marched here in 1940 during their occupation and then, four years later, the monument bore witness to the jubilation that came with the liberation.
And now this, here in this ancient and beautiful country on this lovely summer evening, we were celebrating the achievement of these young athletes.
Standing in the shadow of the Arc, I could see to the top half of the Eiffel Tower. A Jumbotron broadcast of Tour highlights showed the cyclists passing through the French countryside. Suddenly lights on the Eiffel Tower began to flash. If that wasn't enough, to the southeast, above the sycamores, a red (and almost full) moon was rising.
The scene was nothing you could convey with a picture. I could only stand there quietly in the Paris night and try to fix it in my memory.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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