DUBLIN, Ireland --The preparations begin early, crowds gather and the excitement mounts. Suddenly there's a flash of color, a burst of noise, and then it's gone again, leaving people slightly unsure of what they've just seen. So it is that cyclists fly by as you watch from the side of the road, and so it is that the Tour de France leaves Ireland after three memorable days.
It might seem as if a bike race with 189 cyclists (none of them Irish) might cause only minimal disruption and raise little interest in a country growing increasingly used to an influx of foreign visitors. But the Tour de France is both an engrossing sporting event and a spectacle of huge proportions.
The Tour is the largest annual sporting event in the world, with a global TV audience of around 950 million people. This year its start coincided with the climax of the soccer World Cup in Paris, and even the sports-mad French pondered the wisdom of hosting both events in the same country simultaneously. To give the race some added sparkle, and after persistent and persuasive campaigning from the Irish, the Tour started last week in Dublin. It was the biggest event to happen there since 1979, when the pope said Mass in Dublin's Phoenix Park for over a million people.
The scale of the Tour operation is breathtaking. The entourage comprises 5,000 people, 3,000 vehicles and three helicopters. The TV crews following the event arranged their own transport to and from mainland Europe -- ARD from Germany rented an Aleutian 80 transport plane (the largest of its kind in the world), while the French channel Antenne 2 acquired a ship. The race even brought its own police force -- 50 French gendarmes checked their guns at the door, but rode around on their motorbikes with impressive hauteur and cool sunglasses.
The center of Dublin was closed to traffic from midnight Friday until 5 p.m. Sunday (setting up Car Exclusion Zones on behalf of bicycles, met with wry approval from the more regular cyclists in this hugely congested city -- no chance of this being permanent, I suppose?). Similar measures were taken all along the route, as the race wove its way through Wicklow on Sunday and through the south of the country on Monday, heading for Cork.
That this mammoth force came at all is a testament to the Tour's regard for history. Ireland produced two of the best cyclists of recent times in Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly. In 1987, Roche won the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the world championship, a feat not since repeated, while Kelly rode in 14 Tours de France, winning the green jersey competition (for the most consistent daily finisher) a record four times.
Both men are held in high esteem in France, and were involved in the campaign to bring the Tour to Ireland. The Irish government, knowing a perfect marketing opportunity when it saw one, also came up with more than $3 million of funding. Local government authorities found money to resurface roads on the route, while countless committees worked for months on arranging events to coincide with the race.
However, since the heady days of Roche and Kelly, Ireland's enthusiasm for cycling has waned, and as a sporting event the Tour can be difficult to understand.
This is partly practical. Each day the cyclists ride well over 100 miles, traveling at speeds of around 25 mph. As a spectator on the route, you see a flash of brightly colored Lycra and the group is gone. As befits a race devised by a newspaper, the Tour as a sport can only be understood by access to the media. Helicopters follow the cyclists, and motorbikes weave among them carrying cameramen. While a member of the crowd at a baseball or soccer game might not get the best view of the action, he or she would at least know the score. With the Tour de France, you can only appreciate the day's racing by watching it on television.
And even then, it can be difficult to follow. The race lasts for three weeks, with a stage almost every day, and the man who has taken the least time overall to cover the course wins. This sounds simple enough, but behind this lies a great deal of complexity involving team tactics, specialization and obscure vocabulary.
There are 20 teams of nine riders, and each team contains perhaps one rider who has the best chance to win the race overall and claim the famous yellow jersey. A well-balanced team would also have a sprinter (capable of winning when the whole group, or peloton, is together at the finish of a stage) and a climber (capable of cycling up steep mountain passes as if they were flat Dutch lanes, and fearlessly coming down them at speeds of more than 50 mph). Teams also have a number of lesser riders, known as domestiques, whose job is to support the team stars in whatever way they can -- to the point of handing over their bike if it comes to that.
Add in time-trialing (stages where all the cyclists ride individually against the clock) and the complex art of breakaways, where members of different teams work together to escape from the main group before fighting it out among themselves for the stage win, and it's an enthralling sport, but one that's very difficult for the novice to appreciate.
Especially if the novice is standing on the side of a road as all this blurs by. So why would you bother? Because, as Ireland saw, the Tour as a spectacle is unique and often beautiful.
The first day of the Tour involved a time trial around the streets of
Dublin, and more than 200,000 people were out in the city to watch
brightly clad men power their science-fiction machines past historic
landmarks and countless pubs. Trinity College provided the starting
point, while Westmoreland Street housed the team vehicles. Both the cyclists
and the equipment they brought with them were unlike anything seen in
Dublin before. Men wearing sculpted helmets and sunglasses that seemed
based on alien technology swung their shaved and oiled calves across
machines more closely resembling fighter aircraft than bikes.
As the cyclists careered around Merrion Square and past St. Patrick's
Cathedral, they were each accompanied by a motorcycle escort of one
local policeman and one gendarme, and by a team car shouting
instructions and advice. The bigger names were joined by a camera
motorbike and a helicopter following overhead. All afternoon, three
helicopters crisscrossed the city center -- "It's just like home,"
remarked a wag from the border country of Northern Ireland, where
British army helicopters patrol continuously.
At the finish in O'Connell Street, a cosmopolitan crowd bellowed and
banged on the advertising boards as each cyclist forced one last effort
from his legs.
The stage went to Englishman Chris Boardman, who received a
rapturous response from the crowd. As well as the large British
contingent that had made the short trip over, many Irish people saluted
him, and Union Jacks waved wildly outside the General Post Office, heart
of the Easter uprising against the British in 1916.
This irony was not lost on many in the crowd. As the roads were being
blocked off in Dublin so the world could watch cyclists zoom up and
down, the world was also watching roads being blocked off in Portadown,
Northern Ireland, so members of the Protestant Orange Order could not
march through a predominantly Catholic area.
The entanglements between Britain and Ireland might seem to be a matter
only for themselves, but historically, the French have also been
involved. One of the reasons the Irish organizers were so keen to host
the Tour this summer is that it coincides with the bicentennial
celebrations of the 1798 rebellion, in which a force of United Irishmen
made up of both Catholics and Protestants rose up against the British
and appealed for aid from the French. However, due to bad weather and
worse timing, by the time the French arrived, the rebellion had already
been savagely put down by the British. Nonetheless, the Year of the
French is still recalled with pride, and as the Tour started its third
stage in Enniscorthy, the roads were lined with men in period costume
However, the contemporary cost of such a bloody history was brought home
on the morning of the second day of the Tour, as the news broke of the
death of three young brothers, burned in their beds in a sectarian
attack in Northern Ireland.
A hundred miles away in Dublin, the day saw the first full-length stage,
with all the riders on the road together. The race started in Dundrum,
the Dublin village that's home to Stephen Roche, and as it headed for
the Wicklow Mountains, crowds lined the route, and small towns and
villages staged festivals and parties as the images were beamed to the
millions watching around the world. The cyclists passed the beautiful
medieval monastic settlement of Glendalough, and for those of us
watching on TV, it soon became apparent how wise an investment the
government's contribution to the funding of the Tour had been.
As with Dublin the day before, even skeptical locals were forced to
admit that the countryside looked great as the helicopters sent back
shots of the green fields, dense forests and brooding gray mountains.
Here was a new perspective on Ireland. However, as the race reached the
top of the exotically renamed Col de Wicklow Gap, you could have sworn
the scene was somewhere in the Alps. Hardy souls who had been waiting
several hours for the peloton to pass roared their encouragement as the
cyclists struggled into a strong wind and sporadic rain.
The crowds were equally dense as the race headed back to Dublin for a
finish in Phoenix Park. A crash in the last few miles added to the
excitement, and while people might not have been entirely sure what they
were watching, they knew it was something special.
Part of the reason for this sense of carnival is the procession of
vehicles that passes along the route around an hour before the cyclists.
The caravan publicitaire underlines the commercial value of the Tour as
a marketing opportunity. Sponsorship from large companies such as Fiat,
Compaq and Michelin helps fund the race, and while their primary concern
is the huge TV audience, they work the spectators with a combination of
unlikely vehicles (motorbikes with huge back wheels, jeeps with giant
watches on the front) and free goodies. Pens, maps and caps are all
handed out to those nearest the barriers, and it all adds to the building
excitement as the race approaches.
Not everyone in Dublin was so taken with the Tour, however. Merchants
complained about the reduced access to their shops caused by the traffic
restrictions, while one Sunday newspaper pointed to the persistent
rumors that many cyclists use banned performance-enhancing drugs.
Journalist Diarmuid Doyle remarked, "There are enough drug-related
problems in the south inner city without bringing in 200 professional
Dublin people are also famously blasé about impressive events.
Celebrities always talk about how little trouble from fans they have in
Dublin, and this largely stems from the feeling that to get excited
about a pop star (or a major sporting event) is somehow to admit to your
own inferiority -- something no Dubliner is likely to do.
In the smaller towns through which the race passed, there was no such
churlishness -- the idea of the world arriving on your doorstep was just
too amazing. The third day of racing began in the small town of
Enniscorthy, and, as in Dublin, a whole new village had been constructed.
French station TV5 was broadcasting from a studio on a Gaelic football
field, with stories about Irish cooking and music-making, while the
Irish Food Board treated the 1,000 accredited journalists to breakfast.
All around, English cyclists were giving interviews in French, Italians
answered questions in fluent German, and for a brief while this small
County Wexford town was a cosmopolitan hub at the heart of Europe.
Once on the road, the race passed through Carrick-on-Suir, home of cycling
great Sean Kelly. The crowds there were as large as anywhere, and the
majestic TV images continued as the cyclists flashed through the walled
medieval town of Youghal. On the road into the town, a young girl was
hit by a racer and taken to the hospital, and a separate crash on the way
into Cork saw the leader, Boardman, withdraw from the race, and end up in
the same hospital. An event this size seems to call for casualties, but
as yet it's unclear what sort of recovery the girl will make. The race
swept on, however, and the scenes at the finish in Cork were fantastic,
as another bunch sprint brought the Tour's brief stay in Ireland to a
The whole operation still had to make it to France for a start in
Brittany the next morning. Everything from the gendarmes' motorbikes to
the inflatable podium on which the winners stood had to be packed and
shipped. The caravan publicitaire had gone through Cork and headed
straight for the harbor, where three huge car ferries had been specially
rented for the occasion. The cyclists themselves flew to Brittany (with
a separate plane for the bikes), but the queue of official vehicles
waiting to board the ships stretched for three miles. Everything passed
off without a hitch, however, and the huge mobile extravaganza
reassembled in France ready for the next day's racing.
It had been two centuries since the French had arrived in such numbers
in Ireland, and this sporting event had been run much more efficiently
than the military operation that preceded it. All over the country, a
newfound enthusiasm for cycling saw people discussing Jan Ullrich's
chances of defending his title or Mario Cipollini's inability to stay on
his bike. That may fade as the bunting comes down and life returns to
normal, but we'll certainly remember the magic of the Tour en Irlande.
Phil Liggett, the veteran British cycling commentator, had the following
advice for the country: "Make sure you enjoy it, savor it and remember
it, because it will never happen again in your life." But one spectator in Youghal gave the suitably Irish verdict: "It's a great party, and a race
runs through it."