My Dad’s Last Tour de France
"I fell in love with cycling while watching the Tour each year with my father. When he was dying last summer, it became so much more than just the world's biggest bike race."
When I moved back in with my parents after college, my dad’s hearing was waning. My folks, Don and Lynn, lived in Alexandria, Virginia, south of Washington, D.C., on the Potomac River. It was 2003, and I’d relocated to the area to race bikes for a local elite team and compete in the summerlong calendar of national-level events held up and down the East Coast.
At the time, it was hard to tell whether my dad was in denial about his hearing loss—he was only 60—or just figured it was your problem, not his. You’d say something in a completely normal tone of voice, and seemingly frustrated, he’d snap back with a variety of responses: “What?” “Speak up!“ “Stop mumbling!” or “Enunciate,” emphasizing nun, in case you didn’t get it.
“Dad!” I’d yell at him. “You’re literally a caricature of an old man losing his hearing.”
He seemed more proud of that fact than embarrassed by it, and besides, in the basement he’d devised a solution: a cutting-edge home-theater system, complete with a projector TV and a closet full of warm, humming electronics. He’d come back from a long day in D.C., where he worked as an assistant to the inspector general in the Department of Health and Human Services, take off his suit, enjoy dinner and a couple glasses of wine, then unwind on the sectional couch and crank whatever he was watching to eleven.
Be damned his twentysomething bike-bum son who was in the room down the hall, trying to get to bed so he could wake up and ride five hours before working a shift at the bike shop. I’d try to ignore the wall-vibrating bass, put on a pair of headphones, or squish a pillow over my head. But inevitably, the best option was just to go out and join him. In the summer, when the Tour de France was on, I was happy to.
This was near the height of Armstrong hysteria, after all. A small cable channel called Outdoor Life Network had bought the rights to broadcast the Tour in the U.S., and for the first time we could watch the race in its entirety, all 21 stages. Prior to that, my family, along with every other American bike-racing fan, had consumed video coverage of the Tour via a Sunday afternoon special or a daily 30-minute highlight reel on ESPN.
That year, Lance was chasing his fifth Tour win. Each stage went live with the sunrise every morning and was then repackaged into a two-hour prime-time show. My dad appreciated the commentary and analysis from OLN’s polished British announcers, Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett. But he would laugh out loud at the hijinks of Bob “Bobke” Roll, the quirky former pro with thinning hair and imperfect teeth who brought a distinctly American flair to the Tour coverage, in particular, an inability to correctly pronounce the event. His version: “Tour day France.”
For three generations, cycling had swirled around my family. My dad inherited a passion for the sport from his uncle, then passed it down to my brother and me. My parents fell in love on a bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. My brother competed in his first mountain-bike race in the eighth grade, and I followed not long after. We were exposed to classic road races like Paris-Roubaix and Milano-Sanremo via weather-beaten magazines and grainy VHS tapes. In college, when I became obsessed with road racing myself, I read rider diaries from the Tour on burgeoning cycling websites like VeloNews. It seemed somewhat surreal to my dad and me that we could now watch the Tour live from thousands of miles away.
Bike racing is unlike any other sport I know of. It’s an endurance sport on vehicles. A vehicle sport on open roads. A team sport with an individual winner. Life’s metaphors, its various struggles and successes, seem to play out in a more dramatic fashion in a bike race. At least they did for me and my dad. Riders conquer mountains and succumb to crashes on the way back down. They surge ahead of the group with a violent effort called an attack, form temporary allegiances to share the draft and break the wind, and then try to dispatch each other in the closing kilometers. A rider will lead the race alone for a hundred-some-odd kilometers and then get gobbled up by the charging peloton just meters from the finish.
For my dad and me, watching the Tour became akin to an annual fishing trip or a multi-day hike. Growing up, I spent countless hours pedaling behind him on a shiny aluminum tandem, exploring rural North Texas roads, where we lived in the nineties, and tackling the rocky singletrack overlooking Lake Grapevine. When my dad moved to D.C. in the 2000s, he lost his tight-knit group of bike-club friends, and also his impetus to ride. I was too strong, or too cool, to get out with him then. We didn’t bond on our bikes anymore, but watching the Tour, we came to know each other as adults.
My dad gave me his hearty laugh and his boyish eyes, but he could also be stoic, gruff, and comically reserved with his emotions. He’d ask how my car was running, and I understood that he loved me. Watching the Tour together, I cherished that, though my dad had never competed, he understood the sport, and through it, he seemed to understand me. Despite its impracticality, he supported my decision to pursue bike racing professionally. He was good at asking questions, and he didn’t fully fall for Lance’s fairy tale. Over the years, we watched heroic performances with a healthy amount of skepticism but also shared an appreciation for underdogs. An unlikely hero would emerge, and we’d root for him to beat the odds.