Rewind: Tour de France; Tour de Life

TDF

This past July, PuckBuddy Craig took a month off work to go chase a dream: working the Tour de France.

Craig’s been a cycling fan for some time, and each year, just as hockey tends to be winding down (we wanna see you go deep next year, Caps!), the cycling trifecta is gearing up. From May through September, PuckBuddys HQ is tuned to just about every bootleg Turkish TV signal we can find from Italy, France and Spain for the Triple Crown of cycling.

This year, he (somehow) talked the mucky-mucks at NBCSports to bring him along as part of the video production crew. From the edge of the North Sea at Zéland to peaks of Alp d’Huez, Craig took himself on an adventure. And thanks to this article, one of two published in the Sporting News he took the rest of us, too. It’s not about hockey, but it is about the triumph, the struggle, the humanity and the perseverance common to all athletic competition.

BORDEAUX, France — I got an email the other day letting me know that my JV football coach had passed away. The obit, sent by our QB, Jim Ryan, listed every team Vito Costanza coached, except ours, the Brighton Barons. A veteran of playing fields and WWII battlefields, Coach Costanza passed at 89 after battling lung cancer. Let that be a lesson to me.

Ryan sent the obit to about a dozen of us, former gridiron teammates and other jocks who played on a few of the Brighton teams during those halcyon days of the mid 1970s. We were the class and spirit of ’76; think “Dazed and Confused,” which to us, is a basically a documentary of our high school years. Emphasis on high.

It would be cliché, especially on a sports site, to say that Coach Costanza molded us boys into men, even an awkward gay one like me, but it’s the truth. Some of my most vivid and enduring memories of my high school years came from playing football and best of all, it gave me a set of lifetime brothers. Of the several coaches we had, Vito (and his assistant, Mark Hoyt) stood head and shoulders above the rest. He could motivate, scintillate and agitate. During one pre-game pep talk on what team pride meant, he worked the front of the room and chalkboard like a master, spelling out its elements:

Perseverance
Respect
Intensity
Determination
Enthusiasm

He riffed for 20 minutes, hitting each point; it was half homily, half St. Crispen’s Day speech. He had a big close and wrapped it like a true showman. Reaching his crescendo and with a dramatic swipe of his arm, he erased all but the:

P
R
I
D
E

I was left dumbstruck. And inspired.

In November of 1975, the final whistle in our last varsity game pretty much ended my sporting life. Sports was absent for decades to me; I had other things going on in my life. I got back into sports tangentially when I took a job in the press box at Pimlico Race Course for two runnings of the Preakness (winners were Real Quiet and Charasmatic), and another step closer when my partner Doug and I launched our hockey blog, PuckBuddys, the destination “For Boys Who Like Boys Who Like Hockey.”

Hockey came into my life in 2009, when finally I figured out how to watch it, courtesy of the CSN Washington announce team of Joe Benninati and Craig Laughlin. A few years ago another sport crept up on me, one even more niche (and French speaking) than hockey: pro cycling. And again, it was two other broadcasters that taught me how to watch and appreciate a sport, NBC’s legendary announce team of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen.

Craig roadside at le Tour

Craig roadside at le Tour

During the Lance years, I’d occasionally watch the Tour de France but without serious interest. A few years ago I started watching the Tour more closely and by 2012 I was hooked. I’ve watched a lot of TV in my years but there is a no event more spectacular or mesmerizing than the Tour. NBC would own me every night for three weeks in July, where I’d sit and watch, hypnotized by the stunning images and backdrops of the broadcast, awed by the athleticism. I was dazed by the beauty and splendor of the sport, confused by its complexity and layers.

Slowly I learned the strategy, vocabulary and history of cycling. Few of the spring or fall races on the racing calendar air domestically, so I had to lean on pirate TV feeds, often Belgian broadcasts pumped through Turkish servers, to keep up. You can imagine the pop-ups you get on sites and paths like that. And here we are in July and I’m dazed and confused again, because of Le Tour.

I’m in France this July, swept up into the world’s largest traveling sideshow, spending my one-month sabbatical working with NBC Sports’ Tour production team, assisting a producer on behind the scenes and fan perspective packages for air and dot com.

I landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport on June 30 and met an operations master (a fixer) at the Hertz counter to grab our car for the month. It was a cool rig, a Skoda. I loved that car but we’re in a Ford minivan now because of a slight mishap. And let us never speak of the Skoda sport wagon again.

At the airport, I met up with my colleague, a producer, doing his first Tour as well, and we made our way to the TDF Grand Depart town of Utrecht, Netherlands, where we would get our our road legs and prep for the journey ahead. In the past two weeks, we’ve seen savage North Sea weather batter the Stage 2 finish line at Zeeland, spend an amazing day on the ancient cobblestone sectors in Famars for Stage 4, and for Stage 7, a beautiful day watching the peloton fly by from the terrace of a grand château in Ambiers de Valles.

Getting to Ambiers was a bit of an ordeal, like a lot of driving on the Tour. We left our hotel in Lisieux, about 15 clicks north of the start line town of Livarot, hoping to drive the Tour course and find a nice town to watch it from and interview some fans. Our first attempt to get on the closed route was met with a road barrier and a gendarme who was proficient in neither English nor negotiating. We looped around a few kilometers for another access point, deep in the countryside between two tiny towns. We rode a few miles down a route that went from bad pavement to gravel to dirt cowpath. Yes, Google maps has dirt cowpaths covered in rural France.

We were home free until we came across a farmer’s closed gate. One more try and one more loop found us at a crossroads just north of Vimotiers. We drove as far as we could and came upon a cement truck blocking the road. We thought we were toast. Lucky for us, this checkpoint was manned (womaned) by a cheerful lady gendarme. Her broken English and our nonexistent French somehow meshed and she made a call on her cell. Moments later, the truck driver arrived and he parted the Red Sea for us to pass. Paydirt, 180 kilometers of open road, closed to those vehicles without the special blue Tour stickers, laid before us.

Like always, we were on deadline but it was an oddly serene and surreal drive. Keeping the speedometer nailed to 60 kph (speeding on the Tour route will get your press tags confiscated), we winded our way along the countryside from town to town. Although the peloton was still hours behind us, fans were already lining the route, too many to count. Young and old, RVs, tents, picnic tables and grills; the Tour is the world’s largest tailgate party. And everyone waves. We wave back. And my wheelman likes honking, too.

Craig's trusty bike taking a break in Paris

Craig’s trusty bike taking a break in Paris

We rolled down route D33 and into Ambiers and saw that it had everything, hills, a river running through it and thousands of spectators lining the centuries old streets. We stashed the car at the top of a hill and made our way into town, taking in the vibe with every step. We met and then spent the day with five cool British guys on holiday in France, did some interviews with them, went for a swim in the La Moyanne River then grabbed a couple beers after the circus left town. My turn behind the wheel and I drove nearly three hours to Ploermel, arriving at our hotel just before 10 p.m., dusk in these parts of France at this time of the year. Another day, another stage done.

Because of the Tour, I’m now an expert in evacuating hotel rooms in five minutes since we pull up stakes nearly every morning and move on, but at Ploermel, we had the luxury of three nights in one hotel, the longest in any one spot since Utrecht. It made for a restful spot ahead of the rest day. Rest days on the Tour are nearly as big as laundry days. Riders say the Tour is a journey of personal discovery. Last week, I discovered I was running out of socks. We bagged up our dirty gear in Le Havre after Stage 6 and hope to get most of it back by Stage 11. We’ll have one more rest and laundry day between now and the Stage 21 finale around the Champs Élysées. No sleep (make that very little sleep, I’m averaging around six hours a night) till Paris.

There are no days of the week on the Tour, only the blur of stages. Monday was Stage 9 (a team time trial, Vannes to Plumelec), and yesterday iwas the first of our rest/transfer day to the Pyrénées. We rested by spending nearly seven hours in the Family Truckster barreling south through Bordeaux on our way to Pau, our first stop in what should be a grueling week, certainly for the riders, and undoubtedly for the rest of us, as we traverse the first set of mountain stages. I’m the wheelman for much of this trip, looking like a soccer mom behind the wheel of this seven passenger sled. This week will prep me for next week in the Alps.

I could go on. I won’t. Too much work to do, too many miles ahead and too many mountains to climb, not to mention banking sleep when I can, every hour is precious. I’ll have plenty of Tour memories after I go back to my relatively mundane and risk-free life doing public relations in DC, memories that will hopefully last as long as those from my Baron football years.

Last week, these two disparate sporting disciplines, football and cycling, intersected. While I was wandering around Amiens during Stage 5, I got the news about Vito, circulated to our online quilting bee of longtime pals and teammates who nearly 40 years after that final whistle and with thousands of miles of miles between us, remain as tight as ever. Once a team always a team.

I was taking a break on a park bench across from the monster, gothic cathedral there, just a kilometer from the finish line. A block or two away from me was the typical Tour madness, fans, vendors, the loud publicity caravan, but on the cathedral grounds it was quiet and peaceful.

I was due back in the sprawling broadcast compound, the Zone Technique, and although I was in the shadow of one of the world’s greatest cathedrals, this Jewish guy had no plans to peek inside. But after reading Vito’s obit and seeing that he was a Catholic, I went inside, lit a candle for him and in a whisper, offered my dear departed and beloved coach a prayer. Then it was back to work; I couldn’t stop, Vito wouldn’t have let me dog it.

Vive le Tour. Vive les Barons.

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About Craig

Proudly serving gay hockey fans and players since 2010
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