That Time I Covered the Tour de France, Interviewed Davis Phinney and Watched the 7-11 Boys Eat

It’s was 1988, and I was in Nice. The sports editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer finally decided, after weeks of hemming and hawing, that he wanted me to cover a few days of the Tour de France. Starting in Bordeaux. Where the day’s race would end. Editors! I don’t think he understood Nice and Bordeaux where on opposite ends of the country. So, I took the overnight train from Nice and …

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Fortunately, there was a shower in the Bordeaux train station. And, for a train-station shower, it was pretty nice. I paid, showered and emerged feeling somewhat clean, sort of awake and excited to be in Bordeaux to cover the Tour de France. But a bit disoriented. Even more disoriented when I finally figured out that while my map of the Tour, which I’d torn out of the International Herald Tribune newspaper, said the Tour finished in Bordeaux, it didn’t actually finish in the center of Bordeaux. The finish line of the day’s 123-mile race from Pau was somewhere near Bordeaux, at some sort of lake resort town.

Now remember: It’s 1988 and there’s no internet. Or smart phones. How did we survive? How did we find things and places?

I think I took a bus to the lake town (my memories of getting there and where it was are quite fuzzy) where the race would finish, arriving at 10 a.m. Which was a couple hours before the day’s race had even began. Actually, there were two separate races that day, a bit of a rarity and something they don’t do any more. The first was 22 miles from Luz Ardiden to Pau. And then 123 miles from Pau to the lake near Bordeaux.

In other words, I had several hours to kill and, once again, no smart phone. I found the finish line, which was a ghost town. Nobody was there, except a few workers setting up the fences that line the final kilometer or two of the course. Found a bench, and took a nap, like some sort of homeless sportswriter.

A little after noon, things began happening. People arrived, tents and stands were erected. I found the press tent, showed my Philadelphia Inquirer press card and … nothing. They’d never heard of me. There wasn’t a press credential with my name on it waiting for me.

My editor had never called to set it up as he’d said he would do. Editors!

Uh-oh, I was in trouble. No access, no story. Finally, after pleading with one of the press guys, and standing there in silence while he lectured me, he waved me in. And gave me a credential. That would never happen these days.

Photo by Chris Peeters on Pexels.com

And so, I spent the next several hours watching the Tour on the TVs in the tent, while a friendly reporter from Belgium filled me in on what I needed to know. There was a large table filled with food, and, famished, as I hadn’t eaten since the night before, I scarfed down as much as I could without drawing attention to myself. The key is to only take a little bit at a time, but to make several trips. I set the record: 24 trips. Nobody noticed. Except the the guy from Belgium sitting next to me.

Finally, the peloton arrived, in mass, a colorful flash of bikes and jerseys. Dutch rider Jean-Paul Von Poppel won the sprint finish. I’d been hoping that David Phinney, an American sprinter, who’d won the stage into Bordeaux in 1987, would somehow win again. That would have made for a great story. Phinney finished seventh.

I followed the swarm of reporters, who moved in a giant mass, out of the tent, and then split, amoeba-style, into two packs: One to interview Von Poppel, the other moving inexorably toward Pedro Delgado, the Spanish rider who was the Tour’s overall leader.

Off I went in search of Phinney, as it made more sense for me to interview and quote an American. The 7-11 team was the “American” team and included Phinney, Bob Roll, Andy Hampsten and Ron Keifel. They were the brash, bold young Americans, taking on the more experienced European teams. And the 7-11 boys were doing quite well. Phinney won a stage in 1986 and 1987; Hampsten finished fourth overall in the 1986 Tour; Jeff Pierce won a stage in the 1987 Tour.

Somehow, I found the hotel where the 7-11 team was staying. They were eating dinner by the time I found them and nobody stopped me as I entered. Here’s what I remember: A long table filled with heaping mounds of food. Giant piles of pasta. I approached Phinney, who was kind enough to agree to meet me in the lobby for an interview after he ate a few more pounds of food.

“This race is one of the most physically demanding events there is,” Phinney said. “You just have to reach down and come up with whatever you have left to get through the day.”

Each day, he said, consists of: Rising early and eating breakfast, a warm-up ride, more food, and the day’s race, which is usually four to six hours long. Then it’s back to the hotel, which is hopefully close to the finish, for a massage, a huge, carb-filled meal, then back to your room to wash out your dirty bike kit (clothes) in the sink, hang them up to dry, and, finally, go to sleep and get up early the next morning to do it all over again.

I’m pretty sure, these days, the riders no longer have to wash out their bike clothes in the sink and hang them up to dry in their hotel rooms. Can you imagine Lance washing his own stinky bike jersey in the sink? I can’t. Unfortunately, we Cyclotourists have to do sink laundry.

“I’ve seen guys who have done this (race) for 10 years and it shows on their faces,” said Phinney, who was 28 at the time. “Sean Kelly (an Irish rider) is 32, but he looks 45. I hope I have enough sense to quit before that happens to me.”

I raced back to the press tent and wrote my story, by hand, in a notebook. With the help of the handouts. The handouts included all the results and quotes from the leaders, in several different languages.

Now remember, it’s 1988. How was I to get my handwritten story from France to Philadelphia? I raced over to a hotel, and made a phone call. Back then, many hotels had a couple of telephone booths somewhere in or near the lobby. You’d give someone at the desk the number you wanted to call, they’d tell you which booth to wait in, the phone would ring, and you’d pick it up and start talking.

Trust me, nobody on the sports desk of the Inquirer wanted to be the one stuck taking my call, and typing the story I read into the computer (yes, we had early-version computers back then). This is a crappy assignment under normal circumstances, and even harder in this instance, as my story contained a lot of hard-to-spell words and names. For example:

V-o-n-space-p-o-p-p-e-l

A-l-p-e-space-d-apostrophe-h-u-e-z.

FYI (1): Two days later the news broke that Delgado was doping. He tested positive for phobenicid, which is used to mask anabolic steroids. While phobenicib was already on the banned list for the Olympics, it hadn’t yet been added to the banned list of the International Cycling Union. Delgado was allowed to continue. He won the Tour, but it was a tainted win.

FYI (2): Phinney never won another stage of the Tour de France. He did have a long and successful cycling career, finishing with 328 total wins, the most by any American. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1999. Here’s what sticks out in my memory about him: A really nice guy.

FYI (3): I did a Bordeaux ride in 2018, and looked for the town on the lake where this 1988 state of the tour ended. My best guess was Lacanau, maybe Arcachon (a bay more than a lake) but when I got there … nothing. Nothing seemed to jog my memory. Nothing seemed familiar. I just spent several minutes searching the internet, but no luck. Every website and story says that this stage ended in Bordeaux. But it didn’t end in Bordeaux, I’m sure of it. Unless I’m caught in The Twilight Zone – The Tour de France episode. 

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