Bravo et Merci!
That's the message Claire Pedrono wrote on her chalkboard on this final day of the Tour de France.
For nearly a month Pedrono rode on the back of a bright yellow motorbike, writing the time gaps between the breakaways and the peloton on her board, displaying them to the riders. But today was different. On the first half of Stage 20 there were no breakaways, no chases, and no battles to be fought. Instead of the high mountains and deep forests that were the backdrops for the greatest dramas of the Tour, we saw apartment houses, stores, and parks.
It was, quite simply, a friendly neighborhood bike ride. A time to celebrate and say thanks.
So as the riders patted each other on the back and sipped champagne, our friend Claire Pedrono captured the moment perfectly. "Bravo et merci!" she wrote, and seeing her chalkboard on t.v. I thought to myself: yes, I couldn't agree more.
But if all those good feelings were what defined the first half of Stage 20, the second half was on a different plane entirely. Quietly, as if entering the room through a side door, the riders arrived in Paris, and everything changed.
I say "quietly" because this wasn't a little Pyrenean village they were riding into, with the peloton barreling through narrow streets, larger than life. Here, the great city simply unfolded for its guests -- gracefully, one panel at a time.
The riders passed by the beautiful bridges of the Seine. We television viewers marveled at the pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Way off in the distance we could make out the Louvre and Notre Dame. As the helicopter cameras panned out across the metropolis, each new kilometer revealed so many familiar sights and wonders. And the best part was ... it all came into view at the smooth and fluid pace of a bike ride.
It's the same magical pace that took us through the modern streets of Rotterdam, across the cobbles of Belgium and northeastern France, up the treeless peaks of the Alps, past the sunflower fields of Revel, and over the mightiest passes of the Pyrenees. What a wonderful way to experience this magnificent corner of the world.
And now, as the Tour carried us down the banks of the Seine, deeper and deeper into the most beautiful city in Europe, this smooth cycling motion felt as graceful and stylish as the city itself. Not only had the Tour de France riders earned the right to be here in Paris, they belonged.
With a sweeping turn onto the Place de la Concorde, the final battle began -- this time on the greatest stage of all: the Champs Elysees. Eight laps up and back, all under the proud view of the Arc de Triomphe, surrounded by cheering fans ... the subject of my final Tour de France 2010 painting...
What a thrilling battle it was! There on that long flat avenue, we could see the architecture of the Tour play itself out one last time. The rebellious little breakaway, the Empire that is the peloton, the lead out trains, the breathless announcers, and the breakneck sprint to the finish ... it was as if it was all being etched into our memories, this time for good. And then when Mark Cavendish crossed the finish line, that was it! The Tour de France 2010 -- one of the most exciting Tours in memory -- had come to an end.
So now here I sit a few days later in a Boston coffee shop, writing the end of this post, and I find myself at a loss for words. Twenty stages and countless stories have passed since the Tour began -- what can I possibly write to sum it all up? All I can think of are images: foggy mountain passes, dusty cobbles, exuberant fans, huge windmills, cozy villages, horrific crashes, colorful jerseys, and green forests.
But then I stop trying so hard. I look out the coffee shop window for a moment, reflect back on this extraordinary month-long event ... and slowly a few words drift into my mind.
I realize they're perfect.
So to everyone at the Versus channel who brought us those beautiful pictures...
To Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen, Bob Roll, and Chris Hummer who told us the Tour's stories with such eloquence and humor...
To all the wonderful riders who created those stories on the road...
To the thousands of people lining the streets of France, Belgium, and Holland...
And to all the folks like Claire Pedrono, who worked so hard behind-the-scenes to make the magic of the Tour come alive...
Bravo et Merci!
It was a wonderful ride.