Every year for six years Frankie Andreu of Dearborn, Mich., has
competed in the Tour de France, an event he knows he cannot win.
For three weeks he rides more than 100 miles a day, on average,
much of it uphill. For three weeks he doesn't know where he's
going, and he doesn't know where he's been. You ask him, "What
did you think of the peak of Courcheval, Frankie?"
"Where's that?" he asks.
"It's the mountain in the French Alps you rode up today on your
bike," you answer.
"Oh," Frankie says, "that place."
August 3, 1997
For three weeks he doesn't see his wife, for women, basically,
are not allowed on the Tour de France. Well, mothers are
tolerated. The mother of Jan Ullrich, the 23-year-old German who
won the 84th Tour de France on Sunday, was everywhere for three
weeks. So were the podium girls, whose job it is to stand on a
podium and kiss the winners of the daily stages. But the
presence of girlfriends and wives is strongly discouraged. It's
a Tour custom that Andreu, 30, could do without, but he puts up
with it for the privilege of competing. His dream is to win a
stage, get a kiss on the cheek from a podium girl, become a note
in the legend of the Tour. How good that would be. In 1994,
Andreu placed in the final leg of the race, in Paris, on the
Champs-Elysees. He lost the lead within 100 yards of the finish.
He crossed the line with his chin on his chest. How bad that
was. "To a bike racer, winning a stage in the Tour de France is
bigger than winning a gold medal in the Olympics," says Andreu,
who has twice competed in the Summer Games, finishing fourth in
the road race last year in Atlanta.
Andreu knows the Tour shares the problems of cycling and of the
world at large. Many riders, he acknowledges, use
performance-enhancing drugs in their training. One cyclist,
Djamolidin Abdoujaparov of Uzbekistan, was thrown out of this
year's race after a positive drug test. Some reports said he was
using steroids and amphetamines. There's boorish behavior, too.
Tom Steels of Belgium was ejected for hurling a water bottle at
a fellow rider.
Andreu knows also that to ride the Tour is to live dangerously.
Two years ago a teammate, Fabio Casartelli, a 24-year-old rider
from Italy, was descending a mountain in the Pyrenees at about
55 mph when he crashed, his head smashing into a cement post,
fracturing his skull and ending his life. Each night when the
day's race is over, Andreu calls his wife, Betsy, and that is
when her anxiousness for the day is over. "It seemed like there
was carnage every day for a while," Andreu says, referring to
the many crashes in the opening week. "I missed all the bad
stuff." You see him reaching for a wooden beam on a wall and
knocking on it gently.
But ultimately, for Andreu, the charms of the Tour are
irresistible. Several days before the end of the race the riders
took a special train from Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, to
EuroDisney, outside Paris. Hundreds of people gathered at the
station to see off the riders. Spontaneously, the assemblage
broke into song, singing an anthem of Burgundy, Ban Bourguignon,
for the benefit of the riders. When the train pulled out of the
station, Andreu looked out his window and saw the people waving
goodbye. He picked up a paper and read about the race that
absorbs a country. He knew he was at the center of his universe.
On Sunday he rode down the Champs-Elysees once again. Tens of
thousands of Parisians were there, cheering along the grand
boulevard, calling out their thanks. On his arms, Andreu will
tell you, there were goose bumps, and in his spine there was
"By the end you're cycling for the fans as much as for yourself
or for your team," Andreu says. "They are there to say, 'Thank
you for riding in the heat and for riding up the mountains.
Thank you for giving us the pleasure of watching you.' I can't
imagine another sport where the fans are so generous. Coming
down the Champs-Elysees, you're feeding off the crowds, and
they're feeding off you. At that point, it doesn't matter where
you finish, not to you and not to them. The thing is that you're
Andreu completed his sixth consecutive Tour de France. No active
American rider has completed more. He finished 79th. His best
finish in a stage was eighth. He was thrilled.