Into the Tunnel of Noise

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You can always tell when the Tour de France nears the German border. The number of fans lining the roads, and the amount of noise they generate, increases with every kilometer. Once you actually cross the border, it’s complete pandemonium at the roadside. Fortunately, the German fans were treated to a great sprint finish in Karlsruhe this afternoon, and more exciting racing is on tap for tomorrow.

In the United States, the media focuses primarily on the successes and failures of the American riders in the Tour de France, and though T-Mobile’s Jan Ullrich is often mentioned as Lance’s primary rival, he is rarely presented as the sporting hero he is in his home country.

There are rabidly enthusiastic Jan Ullrich fans in Germany. He’s an Olympic champion, a World Champion, and the only German to ever win the Tour de France. There were fans stacked four and six deep on the sides of the roads and overpasses to watch their hero and his T-Mobile team perform this afternoon. Just like athletes in other sports, the home court advantage has a real impact for cyclists too. Ullrich, his T-Mobile team, and the Gerolsteiner team, will all be inspired to perform at their best while the Tour de Francede France traverses the France-/Germany border this weekend.

Lance Armstrong cannot take comfort in any sort of home court advantage at the Tour de France, but the legions of American fans that have made the hop across the Atlantic over the past few years has done a lot to even out the representation on the sidelines. Back in 1999, there were very few American flags, and even fewer American citizens, anywhere along the route. Now, the American presence is noticeable, sometimes even overwhelming.

In the coming days, the Tour de France will climb into the Alps, where fans from all over the world crowd onto the narrow mountain roads to cheer, and occasionally boo, the riders as they stream by. Sometimes, the crowds get so thick it’s difficult to see the road ahead, and yet, collisions between riders and spectators are relatively rare.

The trick to plowing through the crowd is to keep your eyes focused on the back of another vehicle ahead of you… any vehicle. For the leaders, this often means staring at the back wheel of a police or press motorcycle. If you’re behind another rider, it’s best to stare “through” them, which means looking slightly over their shoulders or under their legs so you’re focused more on what’s ahead of them than on the back of their jersey. In any case, you want to be looking, and riding, towards a spot about ten to10-15 feet ahead of your front wheel.

Taking your eyes off the vehicle in front of you to look at the fan at your elbow or the painted sign under your wheels causes problems because you can become disoriented very quickly. You’re surrounded by so much noise, color, and motion (and pedaling as hard as you can), that everything next to your head is a blur. The only things you can see clearly are objects traveling up the climb at the same speed you are. It’s affectionately known as the “tunnel of noise,”, and it takes some getting used to.

The other trick is to stick to your line. People step out into the road to take pictures, wave flags, scream, and get a better look at the action. In a way, it turns into a continuous game of “CChicken” that you have to win 100 percent% of the time. No one wants to take a rider down, and the best way for the riders to avoid collisions is to eliminate all confusion about who’s going to move. As a rider, you don’t move off your line or even hint that you might. You just go straight forward.

The free access fans have to the playing field is part of what makes cycling unique. You can run right alongside your heroes, so close you can hear them breathing and smell their sweat. Lance understands the tunnel of noise. He knows it’s full of people who admire him and people who despise him, and he gathers strength from the shouts from both sides. Starting tomorrow, there will be plenty of shouts to encourage him to ride harder and faster to the tops of mountain passes.