The author’s father, Don (center), riding bikes with his sister (right) and a neighborhood friend
The author’s father, Don (center), riding bikes with his sister (right) and a neighborhood friend
The author’s father, Don (center), riding bikes with his sister (right) and a neighborhood friend (Photo: Courtesy Ian Dille)

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."

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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.

A few years after my dad retired, my parents moved back to Texas, where my brother and I lived. They arrived in Austin not long after my first kid was born, in 2013. By the time kid number two arrived a few years later, they’d become an integral part of our support system. On weeknights, they’d pick up my three-year-old daughter from preschool and drop her off at our house.

On the warm winter evenings leading into 2020, I’d stand at the top of our short but steep driveway and watch them unload. My 76-year-old dad, square bodied with an envy-worthy head of cleanly cut hair, would challenge my daughter, “Race ya to the front door!” She’d take off before he could finish the sentence.

One day, I noticed that by the time my dad reached the porch, he’d begun breathing heavier than usual. Soon he no longer had to feign a tight race with my daughter. Eventually, despite her pleas, he told her he just wasn’t up to racing.

In mid-February, my van broke down. My dad offered to give me a ride to the repair shop. “So I went to the doctor,” he started, easing his truck out into the street. “And they found tumors all over my body.”

I was working as the senior producer at FloBikes, a streaming service that broadcasts professional bike races. I’d injured my knee in 2005, stopped racing, and started writing. As a broadcast journalist for Flo, I’d taken cues from Bob Roll. The day after my dad told me he was sick, I embarked on 26 hours of air travel to the United Arab Emirates to cover the season’s first major stage race, the UAE Tour. Partway through it, a couple staff members from a team based out of Italy got sick with the coronavirus. I awoke to find the glass doors of our Abu Dhabi hotel chained shut. The Emirati government canceled the event, and all 300 or so people in the race caravan took COVID tests. A few riders and staff members tested positive and spent over a month in the UAE, isolated in hospital rooms. My test came back negative, and I returned to Austin in time to be at the oncologist’s office with my dad.

The doctor told him that the cancer came from his esophagus. They’d found a 1.5-inch tumor in his throat. He started an initial round of chemo. If it worked, the doctor said, another nine months or so of quality life could be feasible.

Despite the pandemic, the Tour de France still took place in 2020. Pushed back from its normal July start, it ran from the last weekend of August through the first three weeks of September. FloBikes was the broadcaster for viewers in Canada. It was our biggest event of the year. Alex Stieda, a Canadian who’d worn the yellow leader’s jersey in 1986, would cohost a daily recap show, and the Tour’s sole Canadian starter, Hugo Houle, agreed to produce video diaries.

My dad was on supplemental oxygen by then, his mobility limited by the clear cords that ran from his nose to a whirring condenser. At dinner the night before the Tour started, I told him I planned on joining him to watch the race. At some point over the next three weeks, I said, I hoped to set up a studio in his upstairs office where I could film stage recap shows.

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.

A Tour stage can last up to six hours, with the action occuring in periodic bursts—plenty of time for idle chatting. In middle school, laden with teenage embarrassment of my parents, my mom once convinced me to go on a tandem ride with my dad by telling me, “You’ll have his undivided attention, you can talk to him about whatever you want.” Watching the Tour was the same. “What’re you working on?” my dad would ask, then help me get through the stuck places in a story. I’d get going about office politics, and he’d lean on his 40 years of government bureaucracy. “What’s your plan?” he’d ask. Then we’d plot my next move. I woke up to the first stage of the 2020 Tour excited to watch the race with my dad, one final time. Then I looked at my phone blowing up with notifications and began fuming at myself. This was one of the world’s biggest sporting events, how could I not have better anticipated things would get crazy at work?

I spent the next 16 hours hammering my keyboard, sending email, and taking calls. I was bleary-eyed with screen fatigue by the next day, stage two, a mountainous route above the French Riviera. Sinewy French star Julian Alaphilippe launched on the steepest section of the final climb, drawing out a group of three racers. The trio plunged back down a switchback descent toward the finish line in Nice, the chasing pack closed in, and Alaphilippe kicked. Crossing the line, he kissed his index finger and pointed to the sky. In a post-race interview, emotional behind his mask, Alaphilippe dedicated the win to his father, who’d passed away a few months prior.

I was time-coding footage, or posting a highlight, or replying to WhatsApp messages from international correspondents when my phone pinged with a text from my dad: “Are you coming over to watch the Tour?” I’m not sure I even responded.

My folks’ house was only ten miles away, but it took until almost the end of the race’s first week before I made it there. My mom was folding laundry in her bedroom when she looked up and mentioned that someone from hospice was coming by. She explained how the tumors restricted my dad’s ability to breathe. He was suffocating. “This is it,” she said. She started to cry. I stood up, gave her a big, long hug and tried to figure out what to do next. Channeling my dad, a master at running errands, I offered to go to the store and get him some soup and Ludens cough drops.

Driving, my clammy hands left wet imprints on the steering wheel.

Don and Steve as kids
Don and Steve as kids (Courtesy Ian Dille)
The author and his father at their home in Southlake, Texas
The author and his father at their home in Southlake, Texas (Courtesy Ian Dille)

The Tour went into the Pyrenees during the race’s second weekend. My family brought over doughnuts and breakfast tacos, and my dad and I sat down and watched stage nine. The young Swiss rider Marc Hirschi had dropped his breakaway companions on the wall-like gradients of the Col de Marie Blanque and was now driving through the long, flat valley to the finish, his head down and hands draped over the handlebars. Behind him, a small group of yellow-jersey favorites closed in.

In bike racing’s rarest instances, a cluster of big leaders will find themselves isolated from the teammates they normally rely on to shepherd them until the stage’s most decisive moment. They’ll look around, realize their most feared rivals are now their only allies, and begin working together. My dad and I watched with delight as the Tour’s defending champion, 23-year-old Colombian Egan Bernal, joined forces with the season’s most dominant rider, Slovenian Primoz Roglic. Another Slovenian was in the mix, too, Tadej Pogacar, just 21 years old but already a contender in his first Tour de France. They traded pulls into the wind, putting time into the competitors behind them, and diminishing Hirschi’s lead to a handful of tenuous seconds.

The evening prior, my mom had texted my brother and me: Could we come over? It was after dinner, and my dad was in bed. The tumors in his throat and chest made his voice more gruff than usual, but he didn’t appear to be in pain. He explained why he’d decided to formally enter hospice and asked if we had any questions. They were mostly logistical. What forms had he signed, where were they?

Then, for the first time that I can remember, my dad said, “I want you to know, I’m proud of you.” He coughed. “I’m proud of the lives you’ve built, the families you’ve made.”

Of course, most of what I’d accomplished I owed to him. A consummate provider, he gave me the freedom to pursue my passion as a career. He had four kids in total, my brother and I in Texas, and my older sister and brother, who lived in California. He’d set high standards for himself and seemed to expect a similar level of accountability from us. One time, after I’d become more interested in riding the mountain bike I’d gotten as a gift than completing my schoolwork, he overheard me quip to my mom, “The bare minimum will do.” He flew to my side, his face red. “You think that new mountain bike came from doing the bare minimum?”

In high school, to convince him he should drive me to a mountain bike race on the Texas-Mexico border, I showed him a training plan handwritten in a notebook, months of diligent efforts on the trails around the lake near where we lived. It worked. I can still recall how well that desert singletrack flowed, the warm and mildly sweet handmade tortillas he ordered from a taco cart after the race, and the long drive back, my dad singing out of tune to the Dixie Chicks. He thought I was asleep in the passenger seat. I don’t even remember where I placed.

In college, when I showed an interest in road racing, he bought me a midrange bike. I finished school debt-free, thanks to him and my mom, and when I moved into their Alexandria home to pursue racing, I made a point of doing the dishes every night after dinner. My dad hovered over me, directing the proper placement of plates and forks in the dishwasher.

I’d come back from my daily training rides and lean my racing team’s custom-painted titanium road bike against a cabinet in the foyer of my parents’ home. It was the first thing my dad saw when he came in, but he never asked me to move my bike to the garage where it belonged. One time I overheard him showing it off to a friend, who needled my dad, “It’s as nice as your bike, Don, but Ian didn’t have to pay for his.”

And on the night in 2005 that I came home from my sales gig at the bike shop at nearly 9 P.M. with a printed contract for a U.S.-based pro team, I was ready to sign and crack a celebratory beer. But my dad sat me down and we read through the entire thing line by line.

Fifteen years later, watching the ninth stage of the Tour in the living area of his home in Austin, I found myself shouting at the TV. I wanted Hirschi to keep riding hard toward the line, even with the chasing group of favorites foretelling his inevitable demise. I looked over at my dad and could read his expression: He’ll never make it.

A few kilometers from the finish, Hirschi sat up and let the favorites catch him. He made a valiant sprint, but Pogacar threw his bike forward at the line and crossed first.

My dad slapped his hands on the arms of a leather chair and nodded, saying, “Exciting stage.”

My dad’s younger brother, Steve, visited during the second week of the Tour. Wheelchair bound by that point, each morning my dad asked that we roll him into the living area to watch the race. The drugs made his fingers numb, so I’d install his hearing aids for him.

The three of us looked on as Bernal’s team, the INEOS Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky), amassed at the front of the peloton. The winners of seven of the last nine Tours, they formed a snaking line in their black jerseys, driving the peloton through Massif Central’s mountains toward the volcanic summit of Puy Mary. Less storied than the Alps or Pyrenees, the lower-lying climbs of this highland region often deliver unpredictable moments in the Tour.

My dad was in and out of a morphine fog, but he perked up while rehashing memories with his brother. As kids, Steve saw my dad as the leader of their tribe of siblings—four children in total, the first three born just a year or so apart from each other. They’d grown up in Tacoma, Washington, skiing at Snoqualmie Pass. Their uncle Harold had served in the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division, and my dad mimicked him in becoming a fluid, controlled skier.

Harold rode bikes, too. In 1976, he started a ride in Astoria, Oregon, and continued on a route dubbed the Trans America Trail across the country before riding back. My dad didn’t share Harold’s tenacity on the bike, but he rode like he skied, with souplesse, as the French say—efficiently, like he could ride forever.

Where his body fell short, my dad often compensated with gear. On my parents’ first date, across the Golden Gate to Sausalito, my dad huffed on his old cruiser, trying to keep pace with my mom, who owned a Monarch racing bike and sometimes took jaunts up into the Berkeley Hills. Soon after, my dad upgraded his ride. He bought an ornately lugged touring bike, crafted by one of North America’s first handmade frame builders, Albert Eisentraut. Equipped with some of Harold’s old Campagnolo Nuovo Record components, including a rare triple-front chainring and long-cage rear derailleur, the low-geared bike glided along my dad’s favorite routes on the California coast, up Highway 1 to Bodega Bay, through fragrant redwood forests, and past the old schoolhouse where Alfred Hitchock filmed The Birds.

Bikes could bring back a spirited youth, racing around the neighborhood on single-speed Schwinns with Steve, playing cards clacking in their spokes.

In the early nineties, we moved to the Dallas–Fort Worth area. In Texas, he joined a club ride hosted by the Greater Dallas Bicyclists and made a friend. He kept showing up and made more. Eventually, he became the club’s president. My dad organized trips with bike-club friends to the piney woods of East Texas and the scarlet mountains encircling Big Bend.

At work, my dad wore a tie for 40 years. But on those bike trips, he let down his managerial demeanor. He’d arrange everyone for a midride photo, then right before the shutter snapped, jump out and turn his backside to the camera, cackling like a kid. Bikes could bring back a spirited youth, racing around the neighborhood on single-speed Schwinns with Steve, playing cards clacking in their spokes.

Sitting there in front of my dad’s TV, we watched as the peloton approached Puy Mary, the mountain’s peak carved into a conical shape by millennia of glacial movement. The road rose at unexpectedly steep gradients and INEOS faded from the front. Bernal, too, dropped off the leaders. Not long after, he was out of the Tour, a back injury causing him to wince with pain. Roglic rode like a metronome toward the treeless summit, leaving behind all of his competitors, except for his young compatriat, Pogacar.

My dad’s mouth got dry easily, and as Steve prepared to leave, my dad struggled to form words. Steve was at the door when my dad called out, waving his arm. His brother came to his side, and my dad leaned over to embrace him. “I love you,” his brother said.

On stage 18 of the Tour, a Thursday morning, I awoke to a text from my brother. My dad had begun emitting a low growl from deep within his belly, and my brother had googled it. “He’s making the death rattle,” he said. It was my birthday. I was 41 years old.

My dad wanted to die in the home he’d built after moving to Austin. During construction, he called it “my last box.” The home’s tall windows looked out on an acre of Texas Hill Country, where owls nested in live oaks visible from the back porch and foxes trotted through tall grass. In that final week of the Tour, my brother and my mom and I were exhausted. We’d traded shifts, waking in the middle of the night to help my dad shuffle to the toilet. He’d long stopped eating, but in death the body begins to eat itself, and so he still produced waste. A friendly hospice nurse sat him down for a talk. “Don, real men wear diapers,” she said. But as long as he could manage, he wanted to sit on the throne. My mom took an old baby monitor and put it in the guest bedroom so my brother and I could hear him wake in the night and come to assist.

Once a hospice nurse explained to me how death is every bit as beautiful as birth—you’re bearing witness to life leaving the world, so many years after entering it. In experiencing both, I found that with birth, the work begins. In death, it ends. The morphine and the psychotropic drugs bring comfort, they take away the pain and the fear. But they also take away the person long before they actually die.

We took turns sitting beside my dad and holding his hand. On the TV in the living room, the Tour raced across La Roche-surForon, a dusty gravel road that harkened back to a far earlier era in the sport. Richie Porte, a perennial Tour favorite who every year inevitably suffers a mechanical failure or a crash, punctured his front tire, as if on cue. But this time, the Trek team car was right there and got him a new bike. Porte raced back up to Roglic, securing his podium position. Ahead of the yellow-jersey group, two riders from the INEOS Grenadiers led the stage. After Bernal dropped out, the team switched its focus to hunting stage wins, and now Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz crossed the line together, as if they’d both won. Even from the living area outside his bedroom, I could hear my dad heaving. His breaths became more and more pronounced, and then, gradually, they stopped. My brother went out into the kitchen and used his T-shirt to wipe the tears from his eyes. I poured myself a drink, and one for my dad, too. We ordered fancy salads and French fries for my birthday dinner. Then someone from the morgue came and took my dad away.

Don at the 2009 Tour de France
Don at the 2009 Tour de France (Courtesy Ian Dille)
Juan Manuel Gárate, in Rabobank orange, at the 2009 Tour de France
Juan Manuel Gárate, in Rabobank orange, at the 2009 Tour de France (Courtesy Ian Dille)

Two days later was Saturday, the second-to-last stage, an individual time trial ending with a six-kilometer climb up La Planche des Belles Filles. During the previous week of the Tour, Roglic and his powerful team had flattened the Alps and smothered their rivals. Heading into the time trial, Roglic held a seemingly sturdy 57-second lead on Pogacar.

My brother and I got to my mom’s house in time to watch the two men approach the undulating slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles. Pogacar, rocket shaped aboard his time-trial bike, had already taken 33 seconds back on Roglic before hitting the base of the climb. As Pogacar marched up the mountain, Roglic wrestled his bike, riding out of the saddle with his hands in the drops, trying to leverage energy from empty legs. His helmet had slipped back and to the side of his sweaty head, making him look off-balance.

Approaching the finish line, Pogacar surged ahead of Roglic by nearly two minutes. The cameras zoomed in on Roglic’s teammates, Tom Dumoulin and Wout van Aert, who’d finished their time trials and sat in first and third, respectively, on the leaderboard. They looked lost, like they didn’t know whether to cry or smash something. They couldn’t help Roglic from where they stood. Pogacar sprinted to the finish and won the Tour de France.

My colleagues called it the most thrilling finale to a Tour de France in decades, but I felt sick. Roglic sat slumped on the pavement, trying to catch his breath, dumbfounded by his loss.

In the weeks and months that followed the Tour, I was numb. I went back to work. I rode my bike so much and so hard that I ended up injuring my groin. I made a Spotify playlist titled Sad Country Songs, and listened to it on repeat.

Then, one day, cleaning out my dad’s office, my mom found a spiral-bound notebook filled with her journal entries from a trip they’d taken to France not long after my dad retired. They’d stayed in a house in Provence and timed their visit to intersect with the second-to-last stage of the 2009 Tour. That day the race finished atop Mount Ventoux, famous for its barren summit, sheathed in white rock, and whipped by the wind.

My parents staked out a prime viewing spot in a small town at the base of the climb. My mom found a nice place to sit on a stone wall in brilliant sunshine, so close to the road that she worried she might get splattered by sweat from the racers. My dad went exploring with his Nikon camera, a passion he’d picked up in retirement. He bought a yellow Tour de France musette bag filled with souvenirs and traded an old cycling magazine to a French family in return for one of the Tour’s waymark arrows, popular keepsakes after the race passes by.

The stage’s breakaway came through, already split into two large groups, and then the peloton, so fast that it was just an impression of grunting and spinning gears, flashing eyes. Afterward my parents retreated to their Provincial cottage to watch the stage finish on TV. Spaniard Juan Manuel Gárate would achieve a career-defining victory on Ventoux’s summit.

My dad looked through the pictures he’d taken and kept just the handful he liked. Then he told my mom he wished he would have gotten just one more shot, a photo of the peloton from behind, riding away and out of sight.