While I was busy playing mini-golf (that’s crazy golf to you) in Santa Rosa on Monday afternoon, about a hundred and forty cyclists in tight bright lycra were whizzing up the coast of California from the San Francisco Bay. It was the first leg of only the second annual Tour of California, our very own Tour de France (but without the whole France bit). Funnily enough, I don’t remember it happening last year, but they assure me that it did. Anyway, it was going to be finishing in Santa Rosa, and I considered going downtown to watch them come in, but the thought of standing beside forty thousand people watching a load of people I’ve never heard of in a sport I’m not interested in didn’t really appeal (I might as well watch the England cricket team, for example). I’m a bit bummed that I didn’t, though, because right at the end there was a crash, a load of cyclists toppling over one another in a mangle of metal, fibreglass and lycra. Yes, yes it’s sadistic I know, but that’s the only reason a lot of people watch such sports, for the crashes. England in the World Cup, for example, they always crash out.
When I lived in Belgium it was the turn of the millennium, a time for Belgians to reflect on their home-grown heroes of the last century. Crooner Jacques Brel was up there, of course, along with the Smurfs, but the one who topped the most polls in that bike-mad country was Eddy Merckx, the ‘Cannibal’. There was always drama around that guy, from serious and lethal crashes, and being punched by Frenchmen incensed about a Belgian dominating their Tour, to breaking all the cycling records anybody could throw at him. Anyway, apart from Lance Armstrong and that kid in ET, he’s the only other cyclist I’ve ever heard of. No chance of them showing up in their yellow jerseys. But when I heard that the second stage of the Tour of California would pass through Davis on its way to Sacramento, well I had to go and have a look.
I’d been ill that morning, but decided to cycle downtown on the way to work to see what the fuss was all about. People were starting to line the streets with bright things to wave at the cyclists (would that not put the poor sods off?), while news crews constantly checked gear, touched up make-up and downed decaf cappucinos. Well, they had to cover the event in Davis, it is ‘Biketown USA’ after all. Occasionally word would get around – ‘they’re twenty minutes away!’ – ‘they’re fifteen minutes away!’ – but in reality they were much further, held up by the wind. A lot of people stood patiently with cameras at the ready, but still no sign of the racers. There was a general feeling of having been stood up, but nobody wanted to leave before the date called to cancel.
And then, a distant cheer, an advancing motorcade, and there they were, the three frontrunners who had broken away from the main group. They were gone in an instant, followed by a couple more pacers on Harleys. “Well those guys are cheating,” I said of the following motorcyclists, my public joke for the day. “No, they’re not actually in the race,” a woman pointed out helpfully and utterly without irony. A couple of minutes later came the main crowd, tightly packed together, zooming down 2nd Street like a herd of wild antelope in plastic helmets. The battle of the digital cameras began and ended before excitement could reach fever pitch, but I have to admit, being there while that pack of cyclists flew by in a blur was slightly trippy, and reminded me of standing hypnotised by those shimmering shoals of fish in the huge tanks at Monterey Bay Aquarium. And then they were gone, leaving nothing but dust, and the crowds dissolved into thin air. And that was the Tour of California. They’re heading south now, towards Big Sur and onto LA. I still won’t follow cycling as a sport, and I still won’t learn any of these world-renowned cyclists’ names, but I’m glad I saw it all the same.