Several summers ago, as my family lay stretched out by a stone pool in Tuscany, lulled by the sun into a state of near sleep, my mother turned to me and asked: "Where do you think Bruce is?" My stepfather had wandered off a few minutes earlier, muttering something about watching "the tour" on TV. She found him seated on a stationary bike in an otherwise empty fitness room at our hotel. He was pedaling away, barefoot, his neck craned at an unnatural angle, eyes glued to the wall-mounted television. Bruce had found his Tour.
And he's not alone. Close to a billion viewers worldwide follow the Tour de France on television, second only to the World Cup and the Olympics in the sweep of its international popularity. But in the United States, until relatively recently, it was more of an obscure sport with something of a cult following.
Elizabeth Lefavour, an amateur rider with New England's Dansko Wheelworks cycling team, says that Tour racers may have moved into the same mythical realm as the Mt. Everest climbers: we've heard of them, but rarely do we see them in action.
As American cyclists have become more competitive, however, and the race more widely covered, the Tour's US fan base has soared. For the truly devoted, its power to captivate is unrivaled.
Jesse Taylor works nights, leaving his days free to ride bikes in Escondido, Calif., and for three weeks in July, to watch the Tour every time it's broadcast on the Outdoor Life Network. That means this former professional cyclist watches the Tour three times a day.
Bicycling enthusiasts say they don't necessarily ride better as the Tour unfolds. Nor do they all imagine themselves to be Lance Armstrong or Tyler Hamilton, the two Americans who stole headlines this year and with whom much of the country is on a first-name basis. But the extraordinary ability of athletes who cover more than 2,100 miles in 20 days makes for powerful motivation.
"People find it inspirational," says bike shop owner John Allis. "Cycling is something everybody has done since they were a kid. And more and more, it's something adults are doing, not only recreationally, but to commute to work. You go through your own trials and tribulations - both recreationally and commuting in traffic - so you can relate to what these guys are going through."
Mr. Allis may be able to relate better than most. But the former Olympian, who was one of the first Americans to race bicycles in Europe, has touched on something.
Followers of the Tour de France are riveted by the daily feats of athleticism: 8,600-foot climbs, speeds of 30 mph. Yet unlike football or baseball, or practically every other sport, virtually anyone who has been on a bike can understand, even relate to, what they see. A toddler tooling around on a trike could follow the race.
As the Tour wove its way through the back roads of France, cycling fans congregated in local bike shops across the US. Some stopped in on bike business, others just to chat, or catch the Tour on TV.
On a recent Saturday in Santa Barbara, Calif., Bicycle Bob's was the gathering place of choice.
"Today we've been working on selling more road bikes than I can ever remember," says the store's manager, Kenneth Acklin. How much of that has to do with the Tour, he can't say for certain. But surely it was more than coincidence that on this day Armstrong's lead - and his goal to claim a fifth consecutive win - seemed to be in jeopardy as German rider Jan Ullrich gnawed at his heels. The Tour proved to be one of the tightest races in a decade, with days where mere seconds separated the top competitors.
Maybe some of the mental toughness these professionals bring daily to the three-week race rubs off on amateur viewers. Though their climbs may not be as punishing, their speeds not so breakneck, all cyclists who push the limits can identify with racers in the Tour.
Some enthusiasts say they try to adopt the mettle that enabled Armstrong to endure dehydration and collisions and allowed Hamilton to ride with a broken collarbone. Others try to mimic Armstrong's form and lightning pedal stroke.
Ms. Lefavour thinks it may be difficult for noncyclists to comprehend the athleticism and devotion of a rider in training. "They must think, 'Oh, those people...they're so weird to go to that extent,'" she says. "Because you can really see the level of fitness in [top cyclists] when they're truly at the peak performing level."
When we were well into the second week of our Italian vacation, it had begun to feel as though it was organized largely around the Tour de France. We made strategic pit stops at cafes with television sets. Fortunately, my mother knew when I locked myself in a restroom somewhere along the Riviera, because Bruce hardly noticed. Armstrong must have been attacking in the Pyrenees at that point and my stepfather was enraptured.
Nothing compares with the sheer delight Bruce, a cyclist himself, gets from watching the "Super Bowl of cycling." It is such an unusual confluence of team and individual efforts where ferocity is tempered by a code of conduct unheard of in other sports - on par, perhaps, with the gentleman's game of golf.
Rivals wait for each other through flat tires and nasty spills, unwilling to glean a win from an unfair advantage.
"I think it's chivalry," says Mr. Taylor. "There's that camaraderie of the group - of the peloton. I can't think of another sport where the team members all sacrifice themselves for the good of the team or the good of one man."
While most US sports are about winning, Taylor says the Tour is driven by something else.
"It's about competing. Just to ride the Tour is a wonderful accomplishment. To finish the Tour is a tremendous accomplishment. Even if you finish dead last, you've finished. You rode your bike with the best bike riders in the world for a whole month around a country. And that's just really a tremendous accomplishment."
Mr. Allis offers one word to describe the scope of the event: epic. What other contest lasts the better part of a month and traverses an entire country?
My family's three-week Italian excursion ended with an unplanned stop to watch the cyclists circle the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
This year, the Tour de France's hundredth, my mother and stepfather watched Lance Armstrong take his victory lap Sunday from the comfort of their own home. And chances are, Taylor caught the historic moment at least three times on television. Such is the allure of the Tour.