It’s the Tour. It’s a bike race. It’s awesome: An Interview With Frankie Andreu
If you’re a cycling fan and you’ve lived in an underground bunker for the last twenty years, then perhaps you have no idea who Frankie Andreu is. Otherwise, to those who follow professional cycling, he’s a man who needs (almost) no introduction.
Sure, he was involved in that infamous SCA court case, but don’t let that distract you from the thing that’s truly worth talking about: his laundry list of cycling accomplishments. After coming up the ranks as a Junior National Track Cycling Champion, he cut his road-racing teeth as a sprinter with major-player American teams like Wheaties-Schwinn and 7 Eleven, before moving on to his role as a super-domestique for big international teams like Motorola, Cofidis, and U.S. Postal Service. He’s ridden everything from one-day Classics to all of the Grand Tours, several times over. And if that isn’t enough, he’s also an Olympian.
Frankie is no stranger to the Tour de France – having competed in and finished it nine times, he now continues his role in the Tour on the media side. We pulled Frankie away from his duties as a reporter for Bicycling Magazine to ask a few questions about the Tour de France and what it means for him to still be participating in one of the biggest stage races around.
How have you seen the Tour change over the years?
It’s gotten bigger. It’s almost getting too big for itself. The space that’s needed in the small towns, the roads. You know, even the riders, the technology, they’re going faster and faster, and so they have to be careful what routes they put the riders on. Also with the cities and villages now, they put all the roundabouts in and the medians, and a lot of times they have to remove them, they literally have to take those out so that the riders can have a cleaner path coming in. So those are some of the biggest changes. The parking, and everything, the logistics – it’s just gotten so massive that it’s difficult getting to the start, it’s difficult getting to the finish, it’s difficult getting out.
For you, what makes the Tour so special?
It’s the Tour. It’s a bike race. It’s awesome. Because it’s the Tour de France, it’s just exciting. Watching the guys and what’s happening in the race. I know how much everybody is dying to try and win a stage, or to try and get the yellow jersey. And how much it means if you can get that. And the stories that are there from every individual trying to accomplish those goals. What’s so fascinating is that you watch a day like today, even a flat day or a day in the mountains, and you have 180 guys. For each one of those individuals, there’s 180 different stories of how they got through that day, or what happened, or the close call, and there’s always that stuff that goes on. And it’s fun hearing about those things, it’s exciting to watch the race. I mean, I get excited. A big field sprint day, and my palms get all sweaty, and it’s like, Oh god here they come, here they come. I get charged up.
Was it special in a different way for you as an athlete?
It was special in a very different way, because of the pressure. There’s so much pressure and it’s so nerve-wracking, intense, and stressful. Very stressful. The entire time in the race, trying to avoid the crashes and being in the front and staying out of the wind and all that stuff that goes into trying to do well. At the same time it’s the biggest race in the world, all the attention in the world is here, and if you can just get that one good result, it will make a whole difference in your career. In that way, as a rider in the Tour, that’s what makes the Tour stand out from everything else.
How does it feel to still be working the Tour, but now on the media side?
I mean, I’m lucky to be at the Tour. That’s how I feel. It’s like, I’m at the Tour de France, people would die to come here. I love coming here and watching the race because it’s exciting. And the media side is different. When you’re a racer, you’re in a bubble, you have no idea of all the stuff that’s going on around you. Like, the whole time I raced I never even knew there was a media compound. Never saw it. I had no idea. The first time I went in the media compound I was flabbergasted, all these trucks and the cables and the wires. It was amazing that as a rider everything is taken care of, all you do is you pack your bag, get in the bus and you go. Whereas now, on the media side, there’s so much you have to take care of and control and it’s chaotic and it’s frantic and you’re trying to get the guys, and they don’t want to talk to you and all that stuff. In a way, there are so many more, different challenges on the media side.
Do you ever run into any of your old racing buddies here who are working in media or as team directors? What’s that like to still have colleagues here?
I enjoy running into colleagues, I mean, I run into ex-teammates, but I also like running into ex-professionals that were in the peloton when I was racing. A good amount are with the Tour organization, some are in media, some are doing TV commentating, and a lot of them are team directors. They’re all over the place. And that’s a lot of fun, seeing them and saying hi and seeing what they’re doing now. Because a lot of us have been retired now for 10, 12, 15 years. I like to find out how many kids they have. I’m like, Wow you have a normal life outside of cycling? So do I! Wow, what are the odds of that? We don’t just ride bikes our whole lives.
Being a former rider, how easy is it now to be a journalist? To be the one trying to get the interview when riders are exhausted at the end of the stage?
In the beginning it was more awkward for me, approaching them at the finish and doing all that. By now, I’m way over that. I’ll attack anybody and get in the scrum. It’s actually part of the fun – getting in the scrum and battling for the interview. Because it’s a process, it’s almost like a challenge, and it’s fun. I think, just from my experience, from directing and from racing and all that, I think it helps when trying to figure out questions to ask and reading into the racing: why things are happening or why things shouldn’t happen and what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. I can maybe read a little bit more into the race than somebody who maybe wasn’t part of the Tour or racing in the Tour. So in that aspect I think that part helps me. But just because I rode the Tour, I don’t get any special access or anything better when I’m trying to get in to interview anybody. It’s the same scrum for everyone.
When you were a rider how did you like those post-race interviews?
I didn’t get bugged very much, it wasn’t a problem for me. Lance would get hounded, and George and whatever. I’d get it once in awhile. And for sure, sometimes I’d blow people off. I know I did, and I just didn’t feel like talking or whatever. And so now, I get blown off all the time, and I totally understand it, so I’m like, No problem, I understand that. Because I’ve been there. But I would stop and talk and it would be short. But like I said, it’s nothing compared to some of these guys, where every single day there’s 10-15 guys all trying to get a piece of them. And I have to give them credit. They have a lot of patience.
What’s your greatest Tour memory?
Not one. I think nine. Because coming in on the final day, and coming down the Champs-Élysées, there’s nothing like it. I mean, it’s like you made it, you made it through the three weeks, and it’s so hard to get there and you finally see the Eiffel Tower and you’re racing up and down with the Arc d’Triumph and you get tingles and shivers up and down your back and it’s special. There were days were I was suffering like mad and just willing myself not to quit because I wanted to experience that feeling and so to get through this thing is special for anybody who can make it.
What’s your worst Tour moment?
There’s a couple bad moments. One of them for sure was when Fabio Casartelli, which was my teammate, he crashed and died in the race. That was a big struggle and awful for everybody. I can also remember a lot of days of suffering. There was a stage in 2000, going to Briançon and it was a 250 kilometer stage and 140 kilometers of it was through a valley. I had to ride all through the valley and I had ride tempo up the first climb as hard as I could and there was a headwind. And by the top I blew, which was normal, but then I got dropped, got dropped, almost got dropped by the grupetto and I was spent. I mean, completely dead at the top of that climb and I still had 100K to go with two more mountain passes. I got done and I just, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t walk, I just laid in bed. I couldn’t take a shower, I was spent for awhile. Yeah, I remember that very well. Don’t want to go back there.
What’s your favorite thing about covering the Tour now?
Right now I enjoy doing Tour Talk with James. I like doing that little talk show thing that we do where we talk about the race, make fun of stuff, make light of it, just kind of very casual. I enjoy doing that a lot. It’s a lot of fun. And then doing the interviews is good, too, because it’s interesting just getting the riders’ ideas of what’s going on.
What’s the toughest part of the media job, physically?
The long days. I’m not physically tired, but you know, eight in the morning until sometimes we’re not getting dinner until ten o’clock at night. That’s just a long day, no matter what. That’s the main thing, the long days, otherwise the other stuff I can handle it, no problem.
Compared to when you were racing, what’s different? Is it harder, faster?
Good question. No. I don’t think it’s harder or faster. It’s all relative. Same thing with suffering. The guys in the first group are going as hard as they can and they’re suffering and the guys in the last group are going as hard as they can and they’re suffering. It’s just two different levels of being a climber, or a flatlander or whatever. The fight for position, the battling, the crashing, all of that stuff is the same. So I don’t think there is much difference in that racing part of it.