The Digital Journalist
Tour de Lance
August 2004

by Alex Jones

Three weeks. 3,500 miles. No credentials.

Team USPS heads down the section of cobblestone road known as pavé in Gruson during Stage 3.

Photo by Alex Jones
How do you even begin to describe an experience like Le Tour? For 3 weeks I neglected things like sleep, food, reliable power, and personal space to give myself an opportunity to shoot the Tour de France. Each day the caravan and the riders passed in a fleeting moment the spot I had meticulously staked out hours or days before.

I learned how to drive an underpowered Fiat RV with a touchy stick shift -- the fear almost overwhelmed me driving through the narrow streets of Düsseldorf on Day 1, hopelessly lost, trying to find the airport. Weeks later I grinned as I rounded a corner in Paris, shifted gears, and flew around the Arc de Triomphe.

Lance Armstrong smiles before the start of Stage 9.

Photo by Alex Jones
I spent long hours waiting (and waiting, and waiting) by the side of the road, watching thousands of spectators fill the route from start to finish, conversing in languages I was only beginning to understand. The same spectators' faces lit up at the arrival of the Caravan every day, and its parade of sponsors' floats that passed out things like candy, noisemakers, t-shirts, and little sausages covered in fat. I saw the same people on the same floats for 3 weeks straight, and they were still smiling at the end. Somehow they survived the swerving roads, jeering fans, and the same jingles blaring over loudspeakers, day in and day out.

Rain followed us the first week and it always seemed to wait until shortly before the arrival of the Peloton to pour down. Standing on a hilltop at Cap de Fréhel as a storm blows straight off the English Channel and into your face is not a pleasant experience. Trash bags become your best friends.

I endured long mornings in parking lots and barricaded streets waiting for the US Postal bus to show up, and long hours against the rope fence with photographers and reporters from around the world who shared stories while waiting for Lance to make his appearance. I laughed with the Cutters, self-described "super fans" whose early morning taunts provided some much-needed comic relief for everyone (even Lance's bodyguards).

I stood on the Champs-Elysees as Lance finished his final lap for victory #6, past German fans who spit on him, Spanish fans who flicked him off, and some who accused him of doping.

Lance waves to the stands after his victory lap on the Champs-Elysees.

Photo by Alex Jones
I will always remember what it's like to see an event as large as Le Tour from a fan's perspective. I was able look around and take in my surroundings for a few hours, and get to know the people I was sharing my time with. I remember listening to a Gendarme explain for almost an hour how much he liked America after I told him what a great country France is. I chuckled to myself when the packs of wire photographers on motorcycles blew through the spot where I had camped out for hours, ignoring the place I had stopped to appreciate.

The scary gas station showers, short tempers, and endless fatigue will fade away. And in the end, I'll be left with only memories -- and a picture here, a few seconds of video there -- but years from now, when my children ask me to tell them a story, I'll be able to tell them about the time I spent 3 weeks at the Tour de France and watched a man from Texas named Lance Armstrong make history.

© Alex Jones

Alex Jones, graduate of the 2003 Advanced Platypus workshop, is a freelance photojournalist based in Austin, Texas.