Monday, July 16, 2018

Stage Nine

I had a doubleheader day of watching major sporting events on big screens in the out-of-doors.  Does it get better than that?  The first was The Tour’s cobble stage on a screen in a park in downtown Annecy along its spectacular high alpine lake.  It was followed by the World Cup championship game on a screen in a sports stadium a mile away.  It was almost too much for one day.

The soccer game started forty-five minutes after former Paris Roubaix winner German John Degenkolb of the American-registered TrekSegafredo team outsprinted the Belgians Greg Van Avermaet of the American-registered BMC team still wearing the  the Yellow Jersey and Yves Lampaert of the dominant Belgian Quick Step team.  They had shed themselves of the peloton ten miles from the finish.  Any of the three would have been a deserving winner of this exciting hard-fought stage that included fourteen miles of cobbles in fifteen sections. 

The riders passed through an arch entering and exiting each. Riders were regularly wiping out and crashing, but the only one to be knocked out of the race was Richie Porte, who suffered a broken collarbone just six miles into the stage well before the onslaught of cobbles..  That meant the leadership of his BMC team fell to Tejay Van Garderen, who was third overall going into the stage, but he destroyed his chances finishing 85th nearly six minutes back.  Both these potential contenders lived up to their reputations of sabatgoong themselves either with a crash or a bad stage.  Porte crashed out of last year’s Tour on the ninth stage as well, when many had picked him to win The Race, just as many had this year.  

Otherwise all the contenders survived the stage unscathed other than Rigoberto Uran of the American team Education First-Drapac powered by Cannondale, who lost 1:28 after entering the stage in sixth.  He falls to 22nd. His teammate Lawson Craddock persevered with his broken shoulder, which means he contributes another $100 to the velodrome in Houston named for him.  After a rest day it is the Alps for three days and the question will be answered of how seriously should Geraint Thomas of Sky be taken.  He is in second 43 seconds back, 59 seconds ahead of his team leader Froome, who moved up to eighth today.  Froome could easily make that up on the first stage and assume Yellow.  Thomas has hung at the top of the standings before in The Tour, but hasn’t been able to sustain it. Though Thomas may have secret aspirations of winning The Race, just as Froome did the year Wiggins won it and he finished second, Sky knows Froome is the man.

For the last hour of the stage there was a background cacaphony of cars driving past the screen tooting their horns and passengers sticking their heads out of windows shouting and waving flags.  No one seemed to mind as all watching the cycling had their heart in two places at once with the biggest sporting event involving France in years imminent.  I had been warned I should get to the stadium an hour ahead of time if I wanted to get in, but that  wasn’t an option for me.  Fans were still streaming towards it when I arrived fifteen minutes before the game began.  The seats were packed but there was still room to sit on the grassy field.

As I cycled out to the stadium I passed outdoor cafes with crowds gathered watching the pre-game festivities.  The sidewalks were thronged with people wearing goofy tricolor hats or wigs.  Many had red, white and blue stripes painted on their faces, or flags draped on their backs or wore some garment showing their support.  In the US the dominant garb would have been jerseys of one’s favorite player, past or present, but here they were a rarity.  A saw a couple of fans wearing the jersey of Zidane, the star of France’s last World Cup winner in 1998, and just a couple of the present star, 19-year old Mhappe, the next great of the sport.

One had to pass through security to enter the stadium, but it was very perfunctory.  I locked my loaded bike near a security guard and just brought in my handlebar bag with some food and a water bottle.  By far the most popular beverage of fans bringing a drink was Coca-Cola, many with a large bottle and a bunch of plastic cups.  After the game the field was littered with empty bottles of coke and little else, though I was able to finally scavenge a couple of flags with broken antennas meant for mounting on car windows..

The crowd was in a non-stop roar even before the game began.  I could hear it from several blocks away.  Music blared to keep everyone revved.  When La Marseillaise came up everyone stood and sang with gusto.  This wasn’t standing at attention during a national anthem and perfunctorily mouthing the words, but a genuinely fervored belting out of the lyrics as if to inspire themselves before going to war. The passion and commitment of these fans was off the charts.

When the game began the crowd grew silent as they gave the game their rapt attention.  A cheer rang out whenever France made a good play, though Croatia dominated the early action.  All hell broke loose when France scored the first goal with people leaping as high as they could and falling into cluster hugs and waving flags.

There wasn’t a peep when Croatia scored to tie the game.  France’s second goal on a penalty kick brought more bedlam, allowing France to go into halftime with a 2-1 lead, sparing the fans of too much concern.  France scored twice more to go ahead 4-1 the last by Mhappe, making him the youngest player to score in a final since Pele in 1958.  France’s goalie mishandled a pass nudging the ball into the net scoring for Croatia, a monumental blunder, giving Croatia a modicum of hope, but France held on for a glorious 4-2 triumph.  As the minutes wound down I thought the crowd would begin cheering, but they respectfully held their emotions until the game ended and then let loose with abandon.  No one wanted to leave as they cheered and jumped up and down and hugged and broke into La Marseillaise once again.  After an appropriate interlude “We Are the Champions” came over the speakers and the crowd all joined in at the top of their lungs with extra emphasis on “of the world.”  It was a great day for France that will be remembered by all.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Stage Eight

The stage started early today bowing once again to the World Cup and the inconsequential consolation game between England and Belgium for third place.  When I stopped in a bar in Belley fifty miles west of Lyons at 4:30 I was too late to see Groenwegen take the sprint, his second in a row, or even a replay or a commentary on the stage, as the soccer coverage was now on its television.  So I can’t offer an opinion on the tussle between Greipel and Gaviria in the sprint, who finished second and third, but were relegated to the back of the pack for their contact, moving Sagan up to second on the stage, the 31st second of his Tour career, compared to ten wins.  If even half those seconds had been firsts, he’d be a real threat to Merckx’s record of 34. The relegations were good news for Cavendish, moving him up to eighth, his best finish so far, but of no more consequence than the day’s soccer match.

The sprint is no longer the Gaviria-Sagan show.  The 23-year old Gaviria, riding in his first Tour, is on the wane, as Sagan finished ahead of him in the intermediate sprint for the first time.  Who The Tour’s dominant sprinter may be will be left to speculation until Friday, the next sprint stage into Valence, the day after Alpe d’Huez.  Gaviria, Sagan and Groenwegen all have two wins, but if one extends back to the final stage of last year’s Tour, Groenwegen is one up on them.  In the meantime we have on tap four stages that will greatly impact this year’s Race, the cobbles and then three days in the Alps.  Richie Porte justifiably stated after today’s stage, “The Tour starts tomorrow.”  

With fifteen stretches of cobbles there will be significant time gaps after the stage and possible carnage.  The debate will rage if cobbles belong in The Tour, as the feather-weight climbers will be at their mercy.  The Australian director Matt White said he was considering telling his climber, Adam Yates, to take no risks, as he would rather him lose three minutes than be knocked out of the race by injury.  After two “boring” flat stages everyone should be thrilled by the upcoming drama that has been at the forefront of Tour talk since the route was announced last October.  

Today’s stage was so mundane only one French rider was inspired for glory on this great French national holiday, known as July 14th to the French, and Bastille Day to the rest of the world.  The day’s two-man breakaway was comprised of Fabian Grielber of France and Mario Minnaard of the Netherlands.  It should have been five or six French riders all working hard so one of them could win for France on this day.  The break couldn’t stay away.  The highest placed French rider was Démare coming in fifth.

Lyon was bereft of traffic on this holiday when I slipped out early in the morning.  I had passed through Lyon on May Day, another major holiday, on my way to Cannes and had minimal traffic to contend with then too.  The most direct westerly road through the town center out of town towards the Saint Exupery airport was one-way towards the town center for several blocks.  With so little traffic I thought I would take it anyway.  I need not have been concerned as there were lanes on both sides of the road for cyclists.  After the airport, twelve miles out of the city, I was back out into pastoral countryside with the Alps looming in the distance.  I had just one ridge to climb before I reached a series of lakes that would culminate in the most picturesque of the lot, Annecy, 90 miles away, where The Tour would start its tenth stage on Tuesday heading into the high Alps. 

I felt lucky to come upon a Carrefour supermarket with morning hours this day.  It was mobbed.  Even though there were four cashiers on duty, it was a long ten minute wait.  But I was happy I wouldn’t have to dip into my diminishing peanut butter for lunch and not have to make due with couscous and apple sauce for dinner.

There were almost more cyclists out on the road than motorists.   As of July 1 the rural speed limit had dropped from 90 kilometers per hour to 80.  The rural folk weren’t happy with the reduction.  Whatever the speed may be, I’ve rarely felt threatened by speeders, just tail-gatetors and quick-accelerators.  The French floor it coming out of roundabouts and after making turns.  I always have to adjust my reflexes when I return to France. CRs can come out of nowhere.

Among my podcast listening today was the always insightful commentary of the French cycle journalist François Thomazeau on the Telegraph Cycling podcast.  He was reflecting on how The Tour de France has made famous obscure places in France.  No one outside of Brittany had ever heard of the Mur de Bretagne until it was visited by The Tour.  Now this steep straight-up climb is known to all.  No one would realize it’s fame coming upon it.  He said, “The day after The Tour it becomes nothing more than a road to nowhere.  It has nothing to distinguish it other than some painted names on the road, and maybe a little rubbish, though I hope not.”  Similarly the Pra de Loup ski resort in the Alps was totally unknown until the 1975 Tour when Thévenet defeated Merckx on the climb ending his reign as invincible Tour champ.  Now Pra de Loup has s strong association with the history of cycling.  It’s mention brings a flood of associations to any cycling fan who knows the sport.

Frequently I end up camping within range of fireworks on Bastille Day. I could hear them after dark at ten p.m. though I couldn’t see them through the forest that was my abode for the night.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Stage Seven

If I had to have a TV blackout day, this was the day to have it. It was The Tour’s longest stage of 143 miles and through flat terrain. It came between two stages where the peloton had extra motivation—the finish on the Mur de Bretagne and the Bastille Day Stage when every French rider would be super-motivated.  This was a stage that no one seemed to care about, so I was lucky to be in the middle of a ten-hour day on a series of three trains from Vannes to Lyon while the peloton delivered what all the commentators called the most boring stage of The Tour.  

It was so boring there wasn’t even a breakaway.  None of the French riders who usually comprise the break wanted to expend the energy they wished to unleash the next day.  The peloton’s pace was twenty minutes behind the slowest of the three speeds of the estimated schedule.  And the sprint saw a surprise winner, Dylan Groenwegen, though not a total surprise as he surprised everyone with his win on the Champs Élysées last year.  Gaviria and Sagan finished in his wake.  Cavendish had his first top ten finish right at ten, but Armstrong noticed he flinched in the sprint, something he would never have done in his prime.  Armstrong called him a “best bud,” but was sorry to say his time was past.

Armstrong was on fine form in his post-stage podcast, emboldened to speak more frankly than ever as he  regains his standing in the cycling community and has so many listening to him and feeding his ego.  In an earlier podcast he referred to a rider who years ago was stung by a wasp during The Tour.  His eye swelled up dramatically, so he couldn’t see out of it,  but the UCI wouldn’t let him have a cortisone shot to reduce the swelling so he could keep riding.  Armstrong’s co-host said, “Wasn’t that Jonathan Vaughters.”  Armstrong said it was, but he didn’t want to mention his name since he is far from a friend.  

In today’s podcast Armstrong was talking about Lawson Craddock, the American who is bravely riding with a fractured shoulder, and how he had told Armstrong he had ambitions of being a Tour champion in the future.  Armstrong said he was riding well this year but last year was a wasted year for him because he was on an ill-advised training schedule. And the person responsible for that Armstrong did not hesitate to name this time—Vaughters, calling him a “fucking bonehead.”

Armstrong’s show is partially responsible for Craddock raising over $60,000 so far to renovate his home velodrome in Houston.  Craddock announced that he would donate $100 for every stage he managed to finish in The Race after fracturing his shoulder. Hundreds have made a contribution.   The tally rose by $20,000 from the day before. It is turning into a huge windfall for the Houston cycling community and a great testament to those inspired by Craddock’s efforts.  Armstrong is certainly asserting his own love of racing and riding.  He said he wasn’t going to watch the World Cup Championship game Sunday, as he’d rather go for a bike ride.

While the peloton was relaxing on the road, I was having a relatively stress free day of relaxation on the train.  I was nervous about each of the trains I boarded hoping there’d be no issue with my bike.  I was told I didn’t need a reservation for my bike on the first two short legs, 30 minutes to Redon, where Tyler Farrah once beat Cavendish in a sprint, and 60 minutes to Nantes.  There were others with bikes, but not too many to fill up the slots where three or four bikes could nestle together.  I had to scamper to the right car the first time, where I was joined by three English guys traveling light as Ralph  does for just a three day credit-card outing.

I had an hour between trains in the large station at Nantes.  There were quite a few other cyclists, two of whom were on my train to Lyons.  Before we arranged our bikes they asked where I was getting off.  When I said Lyons, they asked which station in Lyons.  I didn’t realize the train made two stops there.  I was glad they told me as my ticket had me getting off at the first station.  I wanted to go to the second as that was where I had booked a hotel, the only one on for less than $50.  That seemed a bargain after a campground I had stopped at the night before with waterslides wanted $25.  I told them I was accustomed to paying no more than $10 at municipal campgrounds, so I’d just go camp in the forest and wait for a shower until my hotel in Lyons.  Even though it was eight p.m. the guy at the desk didn’t offer me a reduced rate.  I was most happy he hadn’t as I had a most quiet night in the nearby forest away from the raucous water sliders.

In each of my three trains I was able to sit in the car where my bike was parked so I had access to my food and extra garments.  Unlike Amtrak, the air-conditioning was very moderate and I didn’t need my vest or sweater.  There were electric outlets at each seat, but no WIFI, just at the stations.  I had no problem finding the right platform as there were English speaking attendants floating around at every station.  When I began speaking in French, rather than being misunderstood, each asked if I spoke English and then fluently gave me directions.  Only twice before in my fifteen years of following The Tour have I resorted to a train.  This experience made it seem most easy and pleasant.  It bodes well for my train trip from Pau to Paris in two weeks.

The hotel worked out just fine too.  It was right by the station and the clerk was standing in the doorway, as if he was expecting me, asking if I had a reservation, not that the old four-story hotel was filled, just that he knew a George Christensen had booked a room and it was dark and after 10:30 and he hadn’t showed up yet.  There was no hidden charge other than a one euro city tax.  Breakfast wasn’t included, though I thought it was. 

I had to leave my bike downstairs, but it was in a safe and secluded enough spot I could leave my tent and sleeping bag on it.  And best of all it had strong enough WiFi to give Janina a call.  She was ecstatic that my old roommate Debbie will be able to catsit for six weeks while we’re in Traverse City and then Telluride after I return.  It is especially pleasing as Janina just inherited her daughter’s three cats bringing her menagerie to five.  Annia dropped them off a week ago in the midst of making the move from Beirut to Manhattan, where she doesn’t have room for her cats just yet. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Stage Six

No region of France supports The Tour with greater fervor than Brittany, not only with fans flocking to the roadsides, but with fans expressing their devotion with all manner of artful creations celebrating The Tour.  With The Tour visiting the northwest corner of the country only every third or fourth year, when it does visit the fans don’t hold back.  

The town of Carhaix-Plouguer  displayed four bonafide sculptures, that might have been borrowed from the Louvre, of the four great cyclists of Brittany, Tour winners all—Hinault, Bobet, Robic and Petit-Breton—in all of their glory, each at full throttle, as if on the attack leaving everyone behind. I had to wait more than fifteen minutes to get a photo as there was a non-stop procession of people flocking to give them a close look and not wanting to leave.  I didn’t catch anyone genuflecting,  but if I had waited much longer I’m sure I would have seen that and more.

Further down the day’s stage was an equally mesmerizing sculpture featuring the flag of Brittany, which takes precedence over the French flag here.

A bakery had several magnificently decorated bikes, one fully honoring France with red, white and blue, the tricolor, in prominence, even on the various loaves of bread in the display.

On and on it went all the way to the stage finish in Mur de Bretagne up its renowned Mur (wall) a couple miles outside of the town.  I arrived at noon and it was already thronged with devotees throbbing with anticipation. I couldn’t take advantage of its library as a giant stage had been set up in front of it for an evening of music after the conclusion of the stage.  I very much would have liked to have melted into the crowd, as I could have absorbed enough energy to get me through the rest of The Tour, but I had a train to catch the next morning in Vannes, fifty miles away, so couldn’t linger.  

My first ten miles heading south out of town not a single car came up from behind me, as all traffic, and there was plenty of it, was headed to the Mur.  I hoped the city twenty-five miles away where I hoped to find a bar to watch the Stage wasn’t evacuated.  It was very quiet, but I did find a bar that I had all to myself.  I could sit back and enjoy that always deeply satisfying experience of reliving the miles and miles of divine French countryside I had just ridden.

In the corner of the TV screen a number counted down the number of kilometers to the finish.  I was especially alert when it hit the number where I had camped the night before and could capture a glimpse of my private little pasture.  A while later the breakaway passed the tourist office where I had stopped at 8:45 to take advantage of its WIFI to download the previous day’s Tour podcasts, which now includes a Breakfast with Boswell, a conversation between the American Katusha rider Ian Boswell and a friend who is following The Tour.  A few miles later the peloton passed a lake where one of the Tour sponsor, which sells fishing equipment, had set up a bunch of tents and was providing fishing rods for fans.  They were all wearing the purple t-shirt the sponsor was giving away.  I stopped to get one, but they were all out.  

Next came a steep climb through a forest that I was happy to see slowed the riders a bit, though not as much as me.  There were no attacks or  accelerations.  All was proceeding as all the other stages had to this point with the small breakaway of  riders of no consequence or threat to stay away, up the road, while the true contenders for the stage bided their time until the end.  

No one elected to launch an attack on the first climb up the Mur, waiting for the final assault after a six-mile loop, an innovation the The Tour organizers added this year hoping it might spark some action, but all it allowed was the riders to make a full reconnaissance of the savagely steep mile-long climb, that most of them knew anyway from previous races.  

The second time up the climb, Richie Porte made an attempt to surge away, as he can easily do in his home Tour Down Under, but not against this competition.  Dan Martin zoomed past him, opened a gap, and then strained to keep it, glancing back occasionally with only Pierre Latour showing any chance of catching him.  The steepness of the climb had everyone struggling.  Martin held off Latour to win by a second.  Valverde, showing his high finishes in all the sprint stages, even though he’s not a sprinter, is an indication he’s a genuine threat for the podium, finished third, two seconds further back leading in a pack of fourteen all getting the same time, though Valverde earns a time bonus,  as do the other two top finishers.  

In that bunch of fourteen were the heavy-hitters Porte, Yates, Quintana, Thomas, Nibali, and Landau.  Froome came in five seconds after that group, not overly worrying, as he’s stronger at the long sustained climbs, but still a slight barometer on his condition compared to his rivals.  Van Garderen slipped in two seconds before Froome and Uran three seconds after.  The big losers among the contenders were Bardet, 31 seconds back, and Dumoulin, 53, both victims of flat tires before the final climb.  

Van Avermaet held on to the Yellow Jersey, which he should be able to keep through the next two benign sprint stages and possibly through Sunday’s cobble stage.  The cobbles will most definitely shake up the standings, but then the Alps even more so on the three stages to follow, Tuesday through Thursday.  I’ll miss the next three stages as I spend all day taking a succession of three trains across the country arriving in Lyon on the eve of Bastille Day.  I’ll spend the great national holiday biking to Annecy on the fringe of the Alps, where I’ll watch the cobbles and the World Cup Sunday, a day before the peloton arrives.  I could camp at one of the many campgrounds around Lake Annecy and probably have several firework displays to watch.  

And the nickname of the day is ZaZa.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Stage Five

I set my alarm clock for the first time since Cannes, and it’s a good thing I did, as I was still in a deep sleep when it went off at seven.  I had been up to midnight eating and eating.  I seemed to have packed in enough calories to replenish my stores after my nine hours of riding time to cover one hundred miles the day before, as I felt no more hunger than usual when I awoke.  And my legs felt fine too, just a little heavy, but I knew that they’d be rejuvenated after a few miles.  I can well understand why the racers will spend a few minutes on the rollers before a stage start to loosen up the legs, unless they have a long neutralized zone to start a stage, as they did today—over six miles.

I had a perfectly adequate campsite in a suburban park, but if I’d had a little more light to ride by last night I would have had a fine pasture to camp in right at the stage start marked by two course markers one on top of the other.  There was a large colony of camping cars along the pasture, but I could have gone deep into the field and had plenty of solitude.

The day’s most original rendering of a bike came early.  An ice cream parlor advertised itself with a bike that had an ice cream cone as part of its construction.

Warren Barguil, who won two stages and the polka dot Jersey last year lives in the vicinity.  A stable cheered him on simply using his first name, but not his nickname (Wa-Wa), with a polka horse.

The day’s double syllable expression was Cou-Cou, an informal version of bonjour only used with someone who is a close friend.

I had my second dose of the caravan at 11:30, early enough into the stage that all the purveyors of stuff were still full of zest and energy.  Once again I chose to station myself in a town at the intersection with the road I would be venturing off on after the caravan passed heading due north to the next day’s stage while the peloton headed west to the day’s finish in Quimper on the Atlantic.  Before the caravan arrived I had been bequeathed a polka dot hat when I stopped for provisions at the local Carrefour supermarket, sponsor of the mountains competition.  All the employees in the store from the butcher to the cashiers were wearing the hats.  The road was packed two deep on both sides of the road all through the town so I knew I’d just be enjoying everyone’s enthusiasm and not collecting much.  I did manage a madeleine, a shopping bag and a refrigerator magnet.  The magnet was from a new sponsor—a chain of senior residences.

After the caravan passed I had five hours to bike forty miles up to Carhaix-Plouguer to find a bar to watch the end of the stage and join  the next day’s stage forty miles from its finish in Mur de Bretagne. A head wind and hilly terrain was limiting my average speed to under ten miles per hour.  I distracted myself from the effort I was having to expend by catching up on the several podcasts I try to keep up with covering The Tour.  Two give a daily report—the Telegraph podcast of three journalists at The Tour, two English and one French, and Lance Armstrong’s podcast.  

Armstrong launched his last year and his five million downloads during The Tour, 250,000 per stage, earned him several sponsors this year.  He has enough of a following that one can pay to watch him watching The Tour, which more than a thousand are already doing.  He is quite diligent in keeping up with what is going on and has a close relationship with at least three of the five Americans in The Race.  He regularly texts Van Garderen, who is second overall, and Craddock, who thanks to his fractured shoulder, has a comfortable twelve-minute lead on the Lanterne Rouge, last place.  Craddock is a fellow Texan who Lance has ridden thousands of miles with.  Armstrong has ridden many miles with Van Garderen, as well, from their Aspen base, sometimes even motorpacing him, a genuine act of friendship. The purpose of his podcast was to prove that he’s not the pariah many regard him and is still well integrated with society.

Armstrong was the only source I follow who mentioned Sagan fell off the pace in the team time trial due to dehydration as he and several of his teammates lost their special aero-bottles for the time trial that don’t fit so well into their holders when several of the riders hit a bump just as they set out and their bottles flew out.  Armstrong said that aero water bottles are sheer idiocy as  no one has invented an adequate holder for them.  Some speculated that Sagan’s falling off was a sign of lack of fitness.  That is hardly the case, as in the two stages since the time trial he has finished first and second.

The Velonews and Cyclingnews also have podcasts from The Tour every few days.  And the Warren brothers try to supplement their year-round weekly podcast on all matters cycling with some extra commentary during The Tour with the ambition of some day going daily just like Armstrong and the Telegraph team.  I was finally catching up with their post-team presentation podcast today and did a double take when I heard myself being quoted.  Skippy will be pleased to learn that Randy acknowledged him as well, remembering it was Skippy who connected me with Christian Van Velde when his Garmin team was heading out of Monaco before the Grand Départ there on a training ride with Skippy and we were all stopped at a red light.

I was on schedule to make it into Carhaix-Plouguer a little after five but a final long climb set me back and then an extra mile to the town center set me back some more.  Yesterday’s stage didn’t finish until nearly six, so I wasn’t concerned.  When I stopped at the first bar I came too I could hear the announcers of The Race excitedly describing the action.  Still I was in no rush, taking the time to dig out the cable and plug for charging my iPad from a pannier. When I entered I saw the Yellow Jersey in the sprint to the finish line.  My first reaction was this must have been a highlight from a previous race, but then I recognized Sagan in the Green Jersey coming on strong.  

I had actually arrived within moments of the finish of the stage.  It was another spectacular win for Sagan, his second this year.  Gaviria wasn’t a party to this sprint as he had run out of gas due to an incline at the end. He had gained a point in the Green Jersey Competition on Sagan in the intermediate sprint, but collecting none in the final sprint put him 33 points behind, after closing to within three.  The Yellow Jersey faded with Colbrelli taking second and Gilbert third.  Valverde was fourth, indicating he is on strong form and will be a strong competitor to win tomorrow’s most telling finish yet up the steep, steep Mur de Bretagne, known as the Alpe d’Huez of Brittany.  This will be a finish for the climbers, even though it’s just a little over a mile.  The peloton will be climbing it twice within ten miles.  It will easily be the most exciting racing of The Tour so far.  As always it gets better and better.

Stage Four

After riding the final forty miles of today’s stage, including its lone category-four climb, I had no time to stick around for the caravan or the peloton as it was fifty miles to the start of the next day’s stage.  I needed to ride those fifty miles and then some before dark if I wished to keep to a pace that would allow me to reach the Stage Six finish on the Mur de Bretagne before the peloton.

I had camped in a forest just outside of Redon, three miles before the climb.  During the night I was awakened by a car that stopped right by me.  I heard two doors open.  I figured they had stopped for a pipi rustique and hoped they didn’t slip into the forest near me.  I couldn’t hear anything more.  The pull-off wasn’t wide enough for a Tour follower to set up to camp there, so I couldn’t imagine what they were doing.  After a couple of minutes, I heard the doors open again and off they went.  In the morning I discovered what they had been up to.  They had sprayed a message on the road, regarding some local political issue, another of the many features of The Tour.

All know they have a chance for millions to see their message or bizarre outfit or work of art.  The Froome denouncements have dried up, but not the celebrations of the French soccer team, who will being playing Belgium this night in the semi-finals of the World Cup.

The World Cup has  probably been good business for the outfit that trolls the route selling mini-cellophane French flags for a euro.  Their hustle is a real scourge upon the relaxed and joyous roadside atmosphere. These scamsters are a genuine nuisance and menace as they descend upon the decent folk having a good time in The Tour bubble away from the grasp and grind of the real world.  I recognized the chief henchmen in charge of the operation at the wheel of their dumpy car, but he had replaced the highly aggressive thugs who used to do his dirty work with a couple of portly, grandfatherly types.  They don’t go charging up to people as the others did, who could be a real terror. They looked as if they were fresh out of the clink and might slit your throat if you didn’t fork over what they wanted.  The guy driving has even slowed a bit, making me less wary of being sideswiped.

Though French flags of all sizes are more dominant this year than in the past, the greatest collection of flags were those of an Aussie fan.

Skippy would have been most pleased with the large banner wrapped around a water tower at the summit of the day’s climb promoting his cause.

I was glad I had saved the climb for the morning as I needed fresh legs to handle a short stretch of over ten per cent.  It averaged 7.8 for a half mile.  It would have been good to have gotten a little further down the road that night, cutting into the mileage I needed to do the next day, but I knew the climb could be packed with campers.  I had to stop a little earlier than I wanted to watch the end of the day’s stage, as the next town beyond Auray where I stopped wasn’t soon enough to have seen it. I sacrificed over an hour watching the peloton chase down the two French and two Belgian riders in the day’s break, perhaps debating the evening’s match between their countries, when I needed to only see ten minutes of it before the climatic sprint.  

But the rest was good for the legs with more than four hours of riding ahead of me, and the sprint was superlative with Greipel, Gaviria and Sagan riding furiously all finishing within inches of each other.  Gaviria claimed his second win and Sagan another second, just enough to retain the Green Jersey.  Gaviria is more restrained than his Colombian fans, celebrating with just a casual shake of clenched fist.  He’s just 23 and could be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.  He could be a threat to Cavendish’s thirty Tour wins, second to Merckx’s thirty-four.  Cavendish had hopes of closing in on Merckx this year, but so far he’s been a bust with no finish higher than twentieth, which he managed today.  He thought he was in good position today, with his team leading the chase in the final kilometers, but he claimed he got boxed in.  His team director says, “Don’t worry.  He’s a great champion and will eventually find himself.”

I thought I only had twenty-five miles to Lorient, but I encountered a detour that added another six miles around an estuary.  I had hoped to duck into a bar for some of the night’s soccer game, but I had no time to spare what with Lorient a large sprawling port city that I wanted to get in and out of in the late evening when there would be minimal traffic. It would be a real luxury to avoid the morning rush hour, especially over a couple of bridges. Thanks to my scouting I knew the start of the Stage was in the town center and not at an outlying sports center.  If I hadn’t known I would have been tempted to stop and camp on the outskirts of Lorient.  After eight o’clock when the game began I had the roads all to myself.  When I entered Lorient after nine the streets were dead other than for motorcycle pizza delivery guys. 

As I neared the center where the peloton would be setting out from the next day and barriers appeared I could hear cheering.  A little further and I saw a giant screen with the French players celebrating and beneath it a huge throng of locals, many with the stripes of the French flag painted on their faces, jumping up and down with glee.  France had upset Belgium 1-0 and would be playing in the Championship game Sunday!!!  The stage where the riders would sign in and be introduced the next day was already set up.  A dozen 18-wheelers with more structures to erect blocked the road in front of it.  I circled around looking for the course markers that would guide me out of the city.  It was 9:45 with maybe 45 minutes more light.  I knew I could pitch my tent anywhere along the route at this point where I might find some patch of grass.  I was happy I had pushed on and not too concerned about a less than ideal campsite.

After a mile I came upon the first Tour camping car parked along the road by a small park with a public toilet.  I was glad to fill my water bottles,  but wanted to get a little further down the road with hopes of finding a little less urban campsite.  I’d had a struggle navigating out of the city a month ago, but now in the hands of the course markers I had a carefree ride through the port area and urban sprawl.  I continued a couple more miles until I came to a forested suburban park. Although there were still plenty of soccer revelers still out I saw none in the park, and it had grown dark enough that I could be somewhat secluded.  I took advantage of a picnic table to start my dinner of couscous and cassoulet and revel in my own Great Day on the Bike.

I’d have to be up early as the road would be closed down by ten.  I just needed to get twenty miles down the road where I would stop for the caravan’s passing and then head north forty miles to connect with the next day’s route.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Stage Three

As much as I delight in pyramids of bikes and craftily arranged bike wheels and the countless variations on reimagining the bike and all the other decorations along The Tour route, none gladdens my heart more than those black-arrow-on-day-glow yellow course markers.  They are the true reminder that I’m riding The Tour de France. I may see one every few minutes, but their power to please never wanes. They are pure joy. All is well in my world as they guide me for miles and miles.  They are especially welcome when I return to them after an unmarked transfer from one stage to another.  

So it was this afternoon in La Baule, Ville Départ for Stage Four, after over eighty miles of riding off course, including the mile climb to the summit of the huge bridge over the Loire.  I made the climb early in the morning this time, unlike a month ago, so the winds hadn't picked up too much, but it was still a nerve-wracking effort holding steady in the narrow bike lane with all the vehicles speeding past unable to fulfill Skippy’s demand of a meter-and-a-half clearance.  I felt a duty to all cyclists to remain steady, as a bike fatality on the bridge could make it off-limits for all cyclists.  They’d have to go miles out of their way to Nantes for another bridge across the mighty river.  

I struggled to find my way out of La Baule when I scouted out the route last month without the course markers, so it was doubly sweet to be fully guided this time through the center of this resort town on the Atlantic, then a mile along its wide beach and past the casino before turning inland.   I was a full 24 hours ahead of the peloton.  Only a handful of Tour followers had skipped the day’s team time trial in Cholet and jumped ahead as I had to station themselves along the route.   Small towns had crews out sweeping the road and dropping off barriers and bails of hay and making other preparations for their great day in the spotlight. 

A few people in the town of Marlais were putting the finishing touches on their elaborate welcome to The Tour.

Along with spelling out their town’s name in bikes the field around it was inhabited by a legion of painted bikes and wheel creatures.

I could leisurely pedal enjoying a fine day on the lightly traveled secondary roads The Tour specializes in as I was in no rush other than to find a bar around  4:30 to watch the final hour of the day’s team time trial.  If I had checked to see what order the teams would be riding going off every five minutes in reverse order of their standing in The Race, I might have stopped sooner as the two strongest time trialing teams, BMC and Sky, were near the bottom of the standings thanks to the crash on Stage One and would be among the first on the road. They had already made their sub-forty minute rides around the twenty-two mike course and had the best times, BMC four seconds better than Sky.  Quick Step, the second to last team to hit the course, made it a little nervous for the BMC team, who all had to sit tightly packed still wearing their uniforms in an enclosure with the camera on them as the team-in-waiting for the stage win.  

When Quick Step crossed the line seven seconds slower than BMC they all rose to their feet and hugged one another.  The camera stayed on Belgian Greg Van Avermaet as he was the highest placed of their riders and would be in Yellow the next day.  His American teammate Tejay Van Garderen was tied with him on time, but had finished behind him in the bunches on the first two stages.  He is now second overall and Sky’s Geraint Thomas third, three seconds back.  Van Avermaet could hold on to the coveted Jersey for the next six stages through the cobbles of Roubaix before relinquishing it in the Alps.  Maybe it will help BMC land the new sponsor it needs to continue as a team.  It’s team leader, Richie Porte, has already announced he will abandon ship after the season to Trek, not confident the team will remain afloat.  

Thomas would have loved to have been in Yellow if Sky had just been four seconds faster, but his team is no doubt happy they didn’t gain the Jersey and have to expend energy defending it through the demanding next six stages in Brittany and across the north of France.  The top five teams for the day all finished within twelve seconds of one another, with Sun Web finishing fifth, anchored by time trial world champion Tom Dumoulin, who finished second to Froome at the Giro and is among the contenders here.  The Movistar trio of Valverde, Landa and Quintana lost 54 seconds, Nibali one minute and six seconds and Bardet one minutes and fifteen seconds, not as disastrous as it could have been for any of them. The other overall contender, Adam Yates, only lost nine seconds, as his Mitchell-Scott team had a strong showing with a fourth place finish.  

Uran on Education First fared decently too, losing only 35 seconds, as the former Garmin team, which once won the time trial at The Tour, finished sixth.  Uran is well positioned in tenth overall, hoping to improve on his surprise second place last year.  Education First was on the course early too so I missed Lawson Craddock trying to hang on with his fractured shoulder.  He did commendably well, even taking some turns at the front before fading away with six miles to go.

Sagan made no effort to defend the Yellow Jersey he was wearing, actually dropping off his team pace line two-thirds of the way around the course, likely saving energy for the stages to come.. The team’s time is taken after the fourth rider crosses.  Several of the teams were reduced to four riders with the other four dropping back unable to keep up or after a huge effort.  Even with four it is a beautiful site watching the riders work together and trying to remain as aerodynamic as possible.  

There was no drinking from water bottles to be seen.  The heat has diminished a tad, at least for me going north into Brittany.  Still I’m soaking my shirt and dousing my head whenever the opportunity offers itself.  I was glad to have a fifth water bottle last night as I drained my other four.  I was glad also to have picked up a pack of powdered sports drink with sodium and electrolytes as I needed it last night when I shifted in my tent and began cramping.  I was trying to finish off my mint syrup before starting in on the sports drink.  Now I know enough to alternate it with the menthe á l’eau.  It was rainy my entire time in Brittany two weeks ago, it’s customary weather.  A visitor to the region once asked a boy if it always rained there.  He said, “I don’t know.  I’m only eight years old.”