Some people travel across the continent to watch a football game, or the World Series. Johnny Carson goes to England for a tennis match. Jack Nicholson roots for his basketball team coast to coast.
None of that for me. Bicycle races are my passion, and to see the granddaddy of cycling events you've got to do a lot more than save your money, book a hotel room and hop on an airplane. I'm going to wander over the French countryside, never knowing ahead of time where I'm going to sleep, what I'll eat or how I'll travel. I'll struggle for a month to follow, stage by stage, what is often described as the globe's toughest sporting competition.
The 74th Tour de France started Wednesday in West Berlin. This is the farthest start from French borders in the race's history. It's part of a deal designed to bolster the Tour's finances while celebrating Berlin's 750th anniversary.
Like many Tour fans, I dislike the idea. The Berlin start removes the spectacle from its natural home. Worse, it messed up my careful plans to follow the 1987 Tour from absolute start to finish, a journey of 26 days and many hundreds of miles. I've been saving and plotting for more than a year, expecting to travel only through France.
Then came news of the distant start. Schedule and budget just wouldn't permit me to reach West Berlin.
So Sunday -- on the fifth day of the tour -- I will join the racers, the media and the huge, wild publicity caravan as the 3,000-member entourage crosses onto French roads near Strasbourg. To follow this race has been a hope for decades, since I was a young (and not very good) amateur bicycle racer and realized I'd never get to compete in it.
The 1987 Tour promises to be one of the toughest in memory. In last year's Tour, which one rider has called "a French picnic" by comparison to this year's route, only a few more than half of the 210 starters finished the race. By all accounts, none of this year's 207 competitors is likely to dominate the grueling, unusually mountainous route.
The retirement last year of five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault, and the absence of his American teammate Greg LeMond, the 1986 winner who is recovering from gunshot wounds suffered in a hunting accident in April, has left the race wide open.
Watching the race, at least on the terms I've got planned, could be pretty trying. I've spent time in France, so I'll know my way around, and I speak the language passably. But security will be extraordinarily tight; roads will be blocked for miles around and public transit will be disrupted. Crowds will be everywhere. I've watched several lesser bicycle races in Belgium and France, so I know: Nothing moves but the race.
The race is run in daily stages, from one town to the next. My basic plan is to witness selected starts and finishes. Some days I'll pick spots along the route and watch the riders in progress. The cyclists can average 40 mph on level terrain and more -- much more -- on downhill slopes. The only way to see both a start and finish on the same day will be to hitch a ride. That's what I'll try to do.
Gear will be light: binoculars, a camera, a tiny portable television set (for the almost continuous live race coverage provided on French television), rain gear, plenty of francs, maps and very sturdy shoes. I expect to do a lot of walking.
The ascents and descents through the Alps and the Pyrenees are a major factor in the race. This year they will include the Tour of Mont Ventuox, a horrifying climb of almost 6,000 feet over a road distance of 13 miles. The peak hasn't been included on the Tour for more than a decade and all the racers talk about it.
I don't yet know how I'm going to get up there. Maybe I can hitch a ride on one of the many spare-wheel-bedecked team cars that follow the race. But then I'd miss the chance to grab at the pens, T-shirts, bottle openers, hats and other promotional items thrown continuously from the trucks to the spectators.
Sixty percent of the race's funding -- and most of its noise -- comes from this caravan. It served originally as a way to pay for the riders' bicycles, which Tour organizers used to provide in order to neutralize the role of equipment. Today, cycle manufacturers provide the bikes and back many of the teams. But the advertising caravan -- hawking food, vacation homes, magazines, wines and virtually anything else -- has stayed and grown bigger each year.
In LeMond's absence, I'll root for the U.S. 7-Eleven team, featuring Tour veterans Andy Hampsten and Davis Phinney. The team was hurt by the loss of Alexi Grewal, who will ride for a French team this year. The first U.S. team to compete in the race in 1986 and the only one again this year, 7-Eleven might have too little European experience to win. But the team showed well last year, even spectacularly in several early stages, and the 1987 Tour is expected to be full of surprises.
When they enter Paris and speed to the finish on the Champs Elysees on July 26, the riders will have covered nearly 2,500 miles in less than a month. I will have done just a little bit less than that; none of it, I trust, on a bicycle. Thomas Vonier is an architect in Washington, D.C.