Posted by Editor on 10/30/19
This year, Canadian commissaire Adrien Lévesque from New Brunswick became the first race official from Canada to work the Tour de France as part of the panel that is in charge of making sure that the race is run correctly and adjudicates when the rules are contravened. We asked Adrien if he would be willing to write about what it was like to work at the biggest cycling race in the world, and he was kind enough to agree.
Adrien Lévesque at the 2018 Road World Championships in Austria
The July I Spent in France: My Tales from the Tour
This year was already shaping up to be a big year, with race assignments on three continents. As a commissaire, you strive to find a balance between your development as an official and passion for cycling, with everyday life. It can be a challenge, given time away from family and work. But when the call came to add the Tour de France to my calendar, there was simply nothing to consider. It may have been somewhat unexpected but it was a challenge for which I felt more than ready.
Speaking with colleagues who have worked a Grand Tour, I was told to expect something between 'the experience of a lifetime' and 'just another bike race'. The truth is, the Tour is all that. And everything in between. Although we went about our tasks like any other job, looking back I realize much of it is simply surreal - from VIPs siping champagne in the back seat of your car, to stopping the race for the King of Belgium, to riding the French President's bumper through the hoards of screaming fans up the Tourmalet - and yet at the time it just seemed like another day at the office. I have quickly given up trying to convey what it's like to work the Tour de France; it's something you have to experience to appreciate. So instead I've summed up my Tour in a few short stories and anecdotes that marked the July I spent in France.
If I was under any illusion the Tour is just a bike race, it quickly dissipated. While that's the show you see on TV, it's far from the only spectacle on the ground. Cycling is more like the premise to a month-long celebration of national pride. It's a cultural phenomenon I can't imagine existing anywhere else.
On some of the longer flat stages, if you're (un)lucky enough to be at the front of the race, you might just ask a moto commissaire to take your position so you can drive a few kilometres up the road and stop for a quick break. Finding a deserted spot is next to impossible, so you strike up a conversation with whoever's around and quickly realize most are not cycling fans at all. They may know the names of a few French riders and hope to catch a glimpse of the yellow jersey but, as one lady proudly explained to me, she had come to see the Tour as a child and had fond memories of a day in the countryside watching the promotional caravan roll by followed sometime later by the whizz of the peloton. Today she had brought her small children to share the same experience. It's only then you begin to understand how the sport is such a big part of the country's fabric as it is passed on through generations.
I actually only had one challenging moment and it happened before the race even began. I flew the red-eye to Brussels on Tuesday night and we started work Wednesday morning. I have this routine to deal with jet lag which involves lots of exercise and no coffee or alcohol. But after two nights of sleeping like a log, I allowed myself a glass of wine at dinner on the eve of the Grand Départ. I went to bed around 10:30, but promptly woke up at midnight. It was almost 6:00 am when I fell asleep again, and only woke when the hotel rang me at the request of my colleagues who were already at the start. I jumped out of bed, figured out where I was, didn't bother to shower, which would have been pointless as I ran a kilometre and a half to the start line, getting there in a sweaty mess. I had almost DNS'd Stage 1.
Although they tell you about it, the scrutiny to which you're subjected to at the Tour still comes as a surprise. As a technical commissaire on the panel, part of my job was to ensure the conformity of riders' equipment. So when someone snapped a picture of me measuring socks before the start of the Stage 2 team time trial, I would never have imagined the media fallout that ensued. That evening I deactivated my Facebook account. When I finally returned to social media about a week after the Tour ended, I learned more about myself on Twitter than hours of therapy could have ever provided. And yet, there is a certain disconnect. I probably would have felt bad for the guy had it not been me just doing my job. And, for the record, during the entire Tour we measured a total of two riders' socks that clearly did not conform to regulation.
I Love My Mom and Dad
My parents won't soon forgive me for telling this story, but when you leave your life behind for a month to jump into the vortex of the Tour, any news from home quickly becomes the highlight of your day. I don't recall my parents ever watching a bike race, even when I rode as a Junior. But they were glued to their television throughout July, perhaps hoping to catch a shot of me popping out of the sunroof, but more likely just wanting to share in the experience. Most evenings, my mom would send me a message asking questions about the day's stage, which I would do my best to answer in the least technical terms.
On a particularly long stage, where I sat behind a two-rider break for some 200 kilometres - we had already stopped for lunch (twice), our guests in the back seat had finished their foie gras and champagne, and were engaged in a late afternoon "sieste" as if this was the Vuelta, and I was doing my very best not to join them - I get a text from my mom telling me she's on the edge of her seat willing the breakaway on to certain victory. I've always wondered if the TV feed to Canada is actually live or if there is a broadcast delay so I simply reply by asking how many kilometres are left. She texts back the answer (the images are indeed live) and we leave it at that. A day or two later I'm talking to my wife who tells me my dad had stopped by and, never at a loss for a good fishing story, went on about how he and my mom singlehandedly saved a stage of the Tour de France from pending disaster by bringing me up to speed on the race situation. I haven't had the heart to correct them yet.
Every commissaire will tell you it's a team effort. And when you spend three weeks on the road together, you naturally create a special bond. So we all took it very hard when one of our moto commissaires went down, resulting in a week in hospital. We received daily updates on her progress and kept her in the group chat so she would remain part of the team, if only from the sidelines. But this is the Tour, and so we simply move on to the next town carrying with us the empty feeling of leaving behind a fallen comrade. A new official was brought in overnight and put in the impossible position of joining an already well-oiled team halfway through the race. The near seamless transition is a testament to the quality of officials we work with and the professionalism that is expected of us at this level.
Philippe, driver for Tourmalet
I was again tasked with bike check for the time trial in Pau and so my driver would take VIPs around and I was to hop in at the end to follow one of the last riders. Before I got in the car, I introduced myself to the distinguished gentleman in the back through the open window on the passenger side. He spoke French but given his thick accent and certain 'rondeur' from being hunched in the back seat, I just assumed he was a German aristocrat. As I sat down I turned to introduce myself to the beautiful lady sitting next to him who had a perfect American accent if there ever was one. We set off and the guy immediately starts talking about how the rider is losing time here, not putting enough power on the pedals there ... typical armchair athlete stuff. About halfway through and by now realizing he is also American, I turn around and ask: 'I'm sorry, what did you say your name was?' "Greg ... Greg Lemond."
My 'Perfect' Day
If I'm being honest, I started the Tour with no more excitement than any other race. Of course, I was very happy and honoured to be there, but I approached it like any other assignment, relaxed and focused. Day after day, I felt like we got the job done, forgot about it and moved on to the next stage. The penultimate day to Val Thorens also started out that way. This was a shortened stage due to landslides, meaning crowds would be more concentrated and riders more eager to give it their all before the final parade into Paris. I was working the front with two moto commissaires who had won over my confidence throughout the Tour.
A sizeable break got away and had a reasonable gap as we hit the foot of the climb when things started breaking apart, with riders going forward, backwards and sideways. We had 15 or 16 team cars to our three officials, more TV, media and photo motos than we could count, and riders spattered all over the narrow mountain roads.
Once the field hit the climb a few minutes later, radio tour came alive with the chaos behind, which is usually a pretty good sign we would be swallowed up quickly. But the gaps to the front were holding. I often say no two scenarios are ever alike, but as a commissaire your approach should be systematic - you do your best to make it work and when it doesn't you simply regroup and start over again. And that's exactly what we did, with one moto controlling the lead, one yo-yoing behind, and me trying to manage everything from somewhere in the middle.
I don't know how many barrages we did that day, or if there was one, one-hundred or one-hundred thousand fans along that mountain side, but what I will never forget is the immaculate image of a worthy winner coming across the finish line - the sole survivor of the day's break - the pristine alpine backdrop, and not a car or moto in sight.
After a quick trip to the TV van to handle post-race tasks, I returned to the finish area to trade high-fives with the colleagues who shared in what I can only imagine is as close to a perfect day as one can hope for as a sports official. As the race continued to crawl in, I used whatever data was left on my SIM card to FaceTime my wife to share the scenery, the atmosphere, the ongoing roar of the crowd, and my emotions as it finally dawned on me that I was about to complete the one dream I would never dare say aloud; that of officiating the world's biggest bicycle race, and I could not have hoped for a more positive experience.
Following the highs of the previous day, nostalgia began to set in as we made the transfer to the outskirts of Paris. Fittingly - and for the first time during the Tour - it was only the driver and myself in the car as we set off from Rambouillet for the final stage. There was none of our usual banter. When things are going well, you wish it could go on forever. But at the same time, you know all good things must come to an end.
The previous stages had provided so much excitement that the race into Paris almost seemed anticlimactic. But that all changed once we hit the Champs-Élysées. Seeing the riders string out along the pavé as they round the Arc de Triomphe, your thoughts drowned out by the deafening noise of the crowd, you quickly rediscover what made you fall in love with cycling in the first place. Everybody wants to win. But everyone just wants to finish. The festivities don't preclude you from your duties and so, after a quick meeting, we are whisked off to the hotel where we make time for one last late night meal together. I hopped an early morning cab to the airport and just like that, the Tour was done.
I know enough about this sport to confidently say no one makes it to the Tour de France without merit, whether you're a rider, mechanic or commissaire. And yet I can't help but feel like I cashed in on all the hard work and good reputation of Canadian colleagues who helped me along the way. People like Louise Lalonde, who was my mentor early on and without whom I would never have made it this far; but also Pierre Gagné, Josée Bédard and others. And I wouldn't be at all surprised nor disappointed to learn I somehow rode the coattails of Wayne Pomario, who cut a whole new path for Canadian commissaires and brought a new level of legitimacy to cycling officials outside Europe. At a certain point you have little left to learn from a book and therefore rely on the experience and expertise of fellow officials to keep improving, and that has certainly been true for me.
Working a Grand Tour was the one remaining objective I had set for myself when I became an international commissaire over a decade ago, and will undoubtedly prove to be a highlight of my career. And yet I am more motivated than ever. But along with the great memories and friendships the Tour has given me, what I cherish most now that I've had a chance to take it all in, is not so much the July I spent in France, but the long road that took me there.
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