Follow the Tour de France for any amount of time and it becomes clear that this bicycle race is not just a sport and a science -- it is also an art.
Get past the maddening caravan of commercialism -- garish corporate trucks that toss hats, candy, refrigerator magnets, key chains, sausages and sachets of coffee to the 12 million to 15 million fans who line the route. Ignore the company logos on every uniform, car, bus, truck, motorcycle and crowd-control barricade that accompanies the race.
Overlook the fact that the aftermath of a Tour stage is one big rolling traffic jam, a bloated crush of support vehicles, team buses and hundreds of press cars, not to mention those driven by the fans, ferrying thousands of people down narrow mountain roads to inns and cafes in tiny villages that have exploded in population.
At the center of this madness is what the Tour is truly about: a celebration of an exquisitely simple, infinitely refined means of transportation.
The bicycle has undergone myriad improvements but is essentially unchanged since its design was perfected early in the 20th century: two wheels, frame, crank, handlebars, seat. It is a profoundly modern masterpiece, with the aesthetic simplicity of two circles and a triangle. It is both locomotion and, under the power of the Tour riders, a weapon -- a means of attacking and destroying opponents.
It is also delicate. The Tour bikes are a scant 15 pounds, with wheels as thin as your little finger. Their most important parts look improbably delicate: the filament-like spokes, feather-light wheel rims, the rear-wheel cassette tiered like a wedding cake with gleaming sprockets. Put the components together with skill and artistry and you have a machine capable of delivering its rider up precipitous Alpine passes and then sending him down at highway speeds.
The two rest days during the three-week-long Tour are a feast for connoisseurs of bike components. The team mechanics station themselves in the parking lots or on the sidewalks near their hotels, cleaning, polishing, lubing chains and making intricate adjustments to dozens and dozens of the Maseratis of the bike world. Passersby chat with them, admire the bike frames, inspect the cassettes and their layers of teeth, ask pointed questions about torque and stiffness and depth of wheel rims. You'll see people -- men, usually -- park themselves against any nearby wall for an afternoon of ogling.
"The perfect bike -- you can't ride it" in the Tour, says Craig Geater, a New Zealander who has worked as a mechanic for Team CSC for four years. On a rest day earlier this week in the south of France, Geater was in the parking lot of his team's motel in the ancient Roman town of Orange, washing one of the team cars. He had just spent the morning building a new bike, a carbon fiber beauty manufactured by the Canadian firm Cervelo -- but it turned out to be too light for Tour requirements.
The ideal machine, Geater said, would be "as stiff as possible, so when a sprinter gets out of the saddle it doesn't go sideways. But it needs to be comfortable and look nice; and when you pick it up it feels light." He nods at the other mechanic, who has just hoisted a bike off its stand with one hand, as easily as you'd lift a broom.
"A bike at the end of the day is a bike," Geater said nonchalantly. "There are good ones and bad ones. We're lucky that at the level we're at we only work with nice bikes." But the beauty of this race is not entirely about the bike.
There is also the reedy, lithe and attenuated look of the riders in their Spandex shorts. Here, the human form is whittled down to the essential, to exactly what is needed to speed the bike and nothing more. That means powerful thighs and bulging calves, and above them strong back acting as a fulcrum against which the leg muscles can push. Everything else -- arms, shoulders, waist, hairstyle -- is as trim and light as possible to ease the sprints and the struggle up the mountains.
Man and machine are an inseparable match, a yin and yang of form geared to function. Bike and rider combine to create a unit of incomparable force, agility and grace. This is apparent off the race course as well. Each morning a horde of fans and journalists clusters around the team buses as the riders emerge to line up at the start. Watching the cyclists swing a leg over their bikes and effortlessly navigate the gaps between autograph-seeking children and TV cameramen and mechanics' cars jockeying for position is like watching fish darting through a coral reef.
On the road, you see a multitude of riding styles. There are cyclists who thrash their way up a hill, rising out of the seat with knees splayed, the bike swaying from side to side nearly as much as it surges forward. Then there is five-time winner Lance Armstrong, who has studied every nuance of form. His upper body hardly ever changes whether he's standing on his pedals or not. As his feet pump out his trademark quick and tick-tock cadence, his shoulders and back are rigid and square. He is an unswerving, 155-pound Mack truck that surely strikes fear in the heart of any cyclist who glances over his shoulder and catches sight of the advancing Texan.
But no one can top Frenchman Richard Virenque for finesse on wheels. The domineering mountain climber is incomparably smooth on the bike. He glides up the road like a sail in the wind, elegant, not an ounce of wasted effort in his forward rush. An avid downhill skier, he understands the fine transfers of weight used to slip swiftly and efficiently over snow. Shooting down a mountain descent on a bike, he incorporates the same silken sense of flow. You see him swish by and you can imagine the moment set to music.
The peloton, as the main pack of riders is called, is an improvised dance on wheels. The teams start each day with a plan -- send the strongest climber out to the front to lead a chase and tire out the others; cling to the front to set a fast pace and wear out those following. But throughout the day, riders must react to their colleagues' moves with skill and instinct, anticipating hazards and attacks. The best of them thrust and parry with a velvety propulsion married to a chess master's mind for strategy.
The team time trial in the Tour's first week, where entire teams raced one by one against the clock, was an especially artful demonstration of choreography on rubber and road. Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team won that race, their graceful single-file pace line -- where one rider pulls briefly at the front, then swings to the side as his teammate comes to the fore -- serving as a model of well-rehearsed rotation contributing to relentless velocity.
The Tour is a fierce competition where men endeavor to outdistance and demoralize their opponents over hundreds of miles of punishing terrain. But there are moments of solidarity that put a compassionate polish on the cold reality of the contest and demonstrate the beauty of sportsmanship.
Iban Mayo, captain of the Basque region's Euskaltel-Euskadi team and a bantam-weight climber of driving ferocity, was considered a threat to Armstrong's quest for a sixth consecutive victory. But Mayo crashed and lost time early in the race, and during the first climb into the man-eating mountains of the Pyrenees, a series of mechanical problems with his bike left him so hopelessly behind the leaders' infernal pace that he veered over to the side of the road and unclipped his feet from his pedals. Clearly, he meant to quit.
His team car pulled over (were Mayo's managers reminding him about his contract?), as did his teammates, and after a few moments of discussion Mayo got back on the bike. His teammates gave him quick pushes up the rise. When he rejoined the peloton, members of other teams also put their hands on his back, encouraging him, giving him little shoves up the slope that was lined with the notoriously impassioned, orange-clad Basque fans who had come by the busload to cheer their team. Less than a week later, Mayo would abandon the race, but that day the peloton helped him save face.
The peloton has had other opportunities to aid comrades in distress. One steaming day the Quickstep team car pulled up alongside a suffering Thomas Voeckler, a member of another team, and passed him water. Another day, Virenque, who rides for Quickstep, hung back to help Voeckler, a fellow Frenchman who at that time was wearing the leader's yellow jersey. With the veteran Virenque riding in front, easing Voeckler's battle against the wind, the younger rider was able to rejoin the peloton and finish in enough time to hold on to the leader's position for another day. A Tour commentator hailed Virenque that day as a "bon Samaritan."
Talk to the professionals and you'll hear different angles on the aesthetics of biking.
"The art side of me isn't really the biggest," confessed Floyd Landis, Armstrong's stellar Pennsylvanian teammate who a few years ago could be found mountain-biking in the Maryland foothills. "But maybe what's most compelling about it is how everything else disappears and you're completely focused on what's right around you." For the competitors, there is art in concentration, in losing yourself in the moment, in entering the zone. And, for those who have given up the frenetic pro pace, there is satisfaction in now being able to savor what they had always been too busy to notice.
"The beauty of cycling is riding in nature," said Jean-Louis Gauthier, an assistant for the Credit Agricole team. He helps pack the riders' lunch bags and hand out water bottles, following the cyclists in a team car. But 25 years ago he was competing in the Tour de France, riding on the team of Dutch Tour winner Joop Zoetemelk.
It is only now, Gauthier said, that he has been struck by the artfulness of his sport. It's the smell of the countryside that he pedaled through that lingers in his mind, he said. In the villages, it was the fragrances wafting out of pastry shops and bakeries.
"The problem is that there was no time [to appreciate them] in competition," said Gauthier. "Now, as I drive by, I think, 'Ah, yes, that's a beautiful route.' "