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There’s more to the Tour de France than riding your bike, according to Michael Schär.
By Sadhbh O’Shea
For the Swiss man riding his 11th Grand Boucle for Ag2r-Citroën, the world’s biggest bike race is about putting a smile on people’s faces.
To see a smiling face on the side of the road makes it all worthwhile.
“It is much more than just pedaling. But to explain this, it’s really difficult. Although our sport has evolved in just the 11 years I have been participating I think the essence of it is still the same. The essence of the sport is to make people smile,” Schär told VeloNews.
“When you do a Tour stage, the people who stand on the side of the road, sometimes they wait six hours, sometimes they are camping for two days to wait until you arrive. And this little moment when the bunches coming, it’s maybe lasting 30 seconds, maybe one minute, maybe on the mountain longer, but it’s short for all the long waiting. So, there’s not too much to it.
“That’s what I what makes me happy is that I do a job that makes so many people have a moment of joy, this moment of joy. You can see it when you ride in the bunch, look at the people who take a moment out of the race. And you see they’re all smiling. They’re all happy. And that’s quite cool.”
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It’s not something he thought about when he made his Tour de France debut back in 2011 at the tender age of 24. Instead, it has something that he has grown to appreciate as he has grown older.
When you’re young, it’s easy to get caught up in doing what you need to do. However, time and experience have allowed Schär to appreciate the small things.
“At the beginning, you’re not really having time to do to take a little moment out of the whole bubble. But the years after years, you’ve seen it. You’ve got a bit of a distance to the whole sport and then you start appreciating different things. You think that’s a nice castle a nice bridge, you take your time to look around or inform yourself before a bit about the region. It is something I had to learn to see,” he said.
Fans have been returning to the roadsides at this year’s Tour de France after a 2020 edition where there were hardly any. However, it’s not quite like what it was before coronavirus crept into our lives.
One of Schär’s standout moments of his Tour de France career was when the race rocked up in Yorkshire in 2014.
“What happened there was almost too big for sport. That year in England, in Britain, in Yorkshire, and then in London, it was just insane,” Schär laughed. “So many people and we were in the middle of it. It was just almost too much. I came home or came to the hotel and just had to take my headphones. Try to relax a little bit because my ears were hurting. But then I realized, wow, something’s going on.”
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The magic of gifting bottles
As a domestique, Schär is not normally a rider that is used to hitting the headlines, but he did so earlier this year when he became the first victim of the UCI’s new ban on ditching bidons outside of designated zones.
The decision to disqualify Schär from the Tour of Flanders for throwing a bottle proved to be a controversial one and led many riders to recount their own memories of getting or giving a bottle. Schär also told his story on social media to an outpouring of support from fans and fellow riders.
In the end, the UCI loosened its restrictions on when and where riders can throw bottles to fans – keeping alive a part of cycling that Schär believes is integral to the sport.
“The bottles from us belong to the spectators, and it makes so many kids dreams and so many kids happy. That’s what hooked me to this sport, and I think a lot of people get hooked to it by the same,” Schär told VeloNews. “Even the Tour de France makes this a business model. The caravan is the essence of giving little gadgets to the spectators. I think that’s part of our sport. If we lose the connectivity to be close to the spectators, then we lose the last little thing we have.
“I honestly am quite proud of what happens because the rule has changed. I think I was the first and the last guy to be disqualified. With what I wrote about my story of my life, it was nice to see the reaction and now we’re allowed to throw the bottle in a more common-sense way.”
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Schär’s own bottle story came when he was one of those smiling fans on the side of the road. A small moment during a trip to the Jura mountains to watch the Tour de France with his family helped light the spark that led him to become a professional.
“I remember I was a kid, going with parents to the Jura to watch the Tour de France for first time and I was lucky to get one of those bottles,” he said. “It was a Casino bottle and it was a long, long time in my home. I was training every day with it and was proud of that bottle. I think it was one of the puzzles that made me become a cyclist.
“I also have a little girl in my village and once I gave her a bottle a few years ago, at the Tour de Suisse when we passed, and she was she still talks about this every day, years after and I mean, it’s just so cool. The small things mean the world.”
Appreciating the smaller things around the Tour de France — the real meaning of sharing bottles and other souvenirs — is something that came to Schär as he got older.
“The first time I go pro, I was so stressed and so worried about myself that I didn’t think about people maybe catch my bottle,” Schär said. “Since a couple of years, I realized the value of it. We have this power, we have this bottle. So, I always choose who I give it to. Sometimes, I ride a few kilometers, like 10 or 20, in the bunch with empty bottles to just find the right moment with the right family, the right kids, the right situation where it’s harmless to make somebody happy.”