Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rocky Ford, Colorado

One last pass awaited me thirty-five miles beyond Alamosa before I left the mountains and descended to the Plains--the gently graded 9,414 foot North La Veta Pass, 2,000 feet higher than Alamosa.  Sixteen miles beyond Alamosa I passed a turn to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument nestled up against the Sangre de Cristo Range.  During the winter they are one of Joel's skiing options, though his preference is Wolf Creek, which receives more snow than any other of Colorado's ski resorts.  I had visited the Dunes myself back in my youth when I attended summer camp in Buena Vista and could well remember sliding down them in the summer months.

If my legs weren't still recovering from all the energy they expended getting over Wolf Creek in the rain, I might have added one more pass to the six I had already climbed after the relatively undemanding La Veta and detoured seventy miles south to Trinidad over the more intimidating 9,941 foot Cucharas Pass on a secondary road to visit the southernmost Carnegie Library in Colorado, but I would have to save that for another time.  It was well that I didn't, as more inclement weather moved in the next day and it would have been a truly hard ride.

As it was, I shivered most of the next day on flatter terrain in a cold misty rain that had moved in during the night.  It was barely above freezing and wet when I broke camp behind a closed-down roadside cafe.  I dug out my tights and booties and wool cap for the first time and wore a neckerchief, bandito-style, pulled up over my nose.  Still it wasn't enough to keep my warm on the day's initial sixteen-mile gradual descent to Walsenburg.  Not could my wool gloves keep my hands warm.  I had to alternately put one behind my back out of the wind, balled up into a fist, to keep them semi-functional and unfrozen.

An hour in a cafe filled with bow-hunters in camouflage as I ate a stack of hot cakes barely warmed me up.  It was only when I resumed riding on terrain that had leveled off when I could begin exerting myself did I ward off the chill that had penetrated to my bones.  The temperature never got above fifty nor did the mist that hugged the landscape ever lift.  In one way I was fortunate, as I was engaged in a 63-mile stretch between towns from Walsenburg to Hawley.  If it had been hot I would have been worried about running out of water.  In these conditions my concern was staying warm during my rest breaks.

It was a challenge too finding a place to camp without have to hop over a barbed wire fence that lined most of the treeless terrain that had just barely enough vegetation for a scattered few cattle.  A was lucky to come upon a mini-stockyard for loading cattle after fifty miles as night closed in.  It didn't provide total privacy, but there was so little traffic only two or three pick-ups passed before total dark.

I awoke to a clear sky, though it was still cold enough for tights, though not a wool cap or booties.  I continued ten miles to the dot of Hawley.  I still had plenty of water left, so could continue on to Rocky Ford and its Carnegie, six miles to the north, before stopping for food or drink.

The first person I asked about the location of the library said it was just three blocks away and she was head there herself.  It was a new library, but the old Carnegie was in the same large park and was now a museum.  It was by far the much more majestic of the two buildings.

The new library was so understaffed and underused that a bell sounded whenever someone opened the door to the library, whether entering or exiting.  One also needed a key to use the rest room.  Still it provided a welcome oasis.

It is the last of the Carnegies I'll visit in Colorado.  There had been one in Lamar, sixty-five miles east on my route along the old Santa Fe Trail following the Arkansas River, but it had been torn down in 1975. It'll be further into Kansas before my next Carnegie.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Alamosa, Colorado

Dark, gloomy low clouds hovered in the valley beyond Pagosa Spring obscuring the road ahead to Wolf Creek Pass.  It was a gradual climb of not much more than one per cent for nearly fifteen miles before the road rose sharply eight miles from the summit.  The clouds began dripping a light drizzle shortly before the road became a steep ramp.  

Before long the drizzle had increased to a steady, then a hard, rain. It was cold and unpleasant, but I wasn't concerned that it would last long or amount to much, as this is a semi-arid region whose annual rainfall isn't much more than ten inches.  I'd suffered a similar rain two days before on the twin passes beyond Silverton that didn't last longer than half hour, though it included several minutes of hail.  

The road was three and four lanes wide and had an ample shoulder, so what traffic there was could pass me with enough distance to avoid spraying me with additional water.  The most significant spray came from the occasional sudden waterfalls spilling over the cliff sides to my right.   Snow plows were on the road to clear fallen rocks.  I was happy to stop and clear them myself to give my legs some respite and let my heart rate return to normal and to gain some good karma.

If it hadn't been raining I would have stopped every two miles or 500 feet gained to eat and rest and read a bit, but I had to keep moving to stay warm. My Goretex jacket was keeping my torso dry, but I was still quite chilled.  I paused to rest my legs after half an hour, but remained in motion, pushing my bike to ward off a deeper chill, trying to put as much weight on my arms as I could to rest my legs.  It was raining too hard to dare to shed my raincoat and put on my sweater.  

After another half hour of riding, gaining another two miles, reaching the half-way point of the eight-mile climb, the rain was still pelting down.  It wasn't the deluge I experienced a year ago when ten inches fell in an hour while I was climbing to Colorado Springs and was rescued by a rancher, but I still thought someone might stop and offer me a lift.  If they had, I would have just asked to sit in their vehicle long enough to put on my sweater and warm up a bit.  But no one stopped, even when I paused to put on my wool gloves and struggled to remove my cycling gloves.  I had to put my hands under my arm pits for a spell to regain feeling.

Another mile later, after nearly an hour-and-a-half of a steady hard rain, it relented enough for me to quickly take off my rain cost and don my sweater.  But my hands were so cold I couldn't pull the zipper back up on my raincoat.  I had to stand a couple minutes at over 10,000 feet with another 800 to climb hunched over with my hands under my arm pits again to regain enough feeling in my fingers to make them functional.  At least I didn't need my fingers for braking on the descent.  I could apply enough pressure with my palms to control my speed.  Still I wasn't looking forward to a descent on a road covered with a sheet of rushing water while being pelted by a cold rain.  I was prepared to seek refuge at the ski resort a mile below the summit.

But after nearly two hours, the rain finally quit a few minutes before I reached the summit.  I desperately needed the sun to warm up, but there was no sign of blue sky, just thick clouds.  I kept my speed under 20 miles per hour, about half of what it would have been had the road been dry.  It was a scenic descent of over ten miles following the creek the pass takes its name from through a narrow, thickly forested canyon.  I eventually regained the sun, but it didn't provide as much warmth as I needed.  I had to keep on my jacket and sweater and switch into dry gloves.  The descent continued all the way to South Fork, where Wolf Creek joins up with the Rio Grande River on the eastern side of the Continental Divide.

I passed the South Fork library built in 2008, which advertised itself as a Carnegie even though it wasn't funded by Carnegie but is a branch of the Carnegie in Monte Vista.

Monte Vista's library, thirty miles down the road, is a classic dignified Carnegie that has earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places, as have seven others in Colorado.

Its addition to the back has solar panels on its roof.  The four counties in this valley beyond the Continental Divide has the highest percentage of homes and businesses with solar panels in the country.

On the same property as the library is the town's tiny original library built in 1895, now serving as a museum.

Monte Vista is also a rare American town with a thriving two-screen Drive-In theater, the town's only option for big screen viewing as its downtown theater closed less than a year ago when it couldn't afford digital projectors.

If residents wish to see a movie on a big screen during the winter months they have to drive to Alamosa, seventeen miles away for its six-screen multiplex that took the place of the town's two old downtown theaters.  My friend Joel, a retired physician, who has been attending the Telluride Film Festival for more than twenty-five years, offered to rent one of the theaters to play something other than the Hollywood fare that the multiplex restricts itself to, but the owners didn't want the competiton, so the two theaters remain dormant.

Joel has solar panels on his house that date to the 1980s.  His house also has a dike in its backyard, holding back the Rio Grande, though its only a meandering trickle this time of the year.  It hasn't flooded since 1926.  A bigger concern is the proliferation of deer.  Nearly the first question Joel asked me when I arrived was if I had seen any deer in his residential neighborhood.  I had indeed, though I had at first thought they were statues.  Joel says he has deer in his backyard 365 days a year. We saw several groups meander through in the early evening.   In the distance is one of Colorado's fifty-three 14ers--Mount Blanca, the fifth highest at 14,357 feet.

Joel protects his tomatoes and bees and a few of his other crops with a high fence.

He supplements his garden with produce from two community gardens a couple miles from his house, one that he helped establish thirty years ago.  We took a nice meandering ride about this community of 9,000 people in the early evening.  Up to World War II it was fifty per cent Hispanic.  Now it is about eighty per cent white.  Like Durango it has a narrow-gauge railroad for tourists, though the scenery in the high desert valley doesn't compare to the mountainous terrain of the more famed Durango-Silverton line.  

We had a fine evening recounting the two weeks we spent together at Telluride.  Joel arrives a week after I do in time for the Mushroom Festival, then pitches in at the shipping department.  He has traveled the world, including a seven-month meander around Africa. The walls of his home are covered with art from his travels.  I learned that he is also an accomplished cook, preparing a delux pasta sauce with tomatoes from his garden.  My only regret was I couldn't linger, especially with the local college hosting a film festival the upcoming weekend.  And also that its Carnegie Library had been torn down fifty years ago.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Durango, Colorado

Rather than taking the easier, less strenuous route from Telluride to Durango around the back side of the San Juan mountains, as I did four years ago on my way to Alburquerque, this year I took the far more demanding route tackling the San Juans head on, subjecting my legs to four high mountain passes so I could visit the Carneige library in the old mining town of Silverton.

Never have I put so much effort into seeking out a Carnegie.  Nor have I been so uncertain as to whether my legs were up to the task after four weeks of minimal cycling while I looked after the shipping department for the Telluride Film Festival.  I got plenty of exercise hoisting and dispersing boxes, but I spent little time on my bike other than making short deliveries and commutes in this town of 1,500 that is just several blocks wide and barely extends a mile from end to end in its cosy box canyon.

As I made the arduous thirteen-mile climb from Ouray over the 11,000 foot Red Mountain Pass to Silverton my thought was transported to the Philippines where this past February I had made an even greater effort going one hundred miles out of my way over a rough mountain ridge on an unpaved road to visit the isolated beach town where the surfing scene in "Apocalpse Now" was shot.  I was most glad to have made the effort and knew I would feel the same once I reached Silverton.  

"Apocalypse Now" was on my mind as Telluride gave it a special tribute with it being its 35th anniversary.  Not only was Francis Ford Coppola on hand, but so were many of its principals--screenwriter John Milius, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, editor and sound designer Walter Murch, producer and casting director Fred Roos, and also Dennis Jakob, who Coppola brought in as a consultant to help on the editing and the script, particularly with whether Kurtz should live or die.  

Jakob was a classmate of Coppola's at UCLA's film school along with Jim Morrison.  At one point Coppola intended for Morrison to provide the entire soundtrack for the film, but instead only used  "This is the End" for its opening.  The classical music he settled on for the helicopter scene is so emblematic, that it has been adopted by helicopter pilots to announce their arrival in wars ever since.  Jakob said that when he joined the shoot in the Philippines, there were only two sane people on the set, one of whom was the cook.  He didn't like being there at all and said, "Don't ever go to the Philippines."    I was sitting three rows away from him in the Courthouse where he was in conversation with Errol Morris and Guy Maddin discussing the movie and could have offered a contrary opinion, but didn't care to interrupt the fascinating conversation.

The Opening Night Tribute to the film in the Opera House, hosted by director James Gray, who saw the film as a ten year old in Times Square inspiring him to become a film-maker, was one of the many highlights of the film featival always jam-packed with once-in-a-lifetime moments.  After one of the clips from the film, Gray commented to his wife in the audience that he was going to retire from film-making and become a substitute teacher, as he could never hope to match such artistry.

As I pedaled away climbing higher and higher amongst the rugged mountain peaks all around my mind also wandered to my summer in France and the added coincidence of paying a visit to Jim Morrison's grave in Paris with Janina.  It was almost as if I had had a subconscious premonition that "Apocalpse Now" and Morrison would feature prominently at Telluride this year. 

Nine of the fifty-plus films on the Telluride schedule had played at Cannes, all of which I had seen and were worthy enough to see again.  The Palm d'Or winner, the Turkish film "Winter Sleep," however did not make the cut, undermined somewhat by its three-hour running time.  But there were seven former Palm d'Or winners in attendance--Mike Leigh, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Volker Schlondorff, Francis Ford Coppola and the Dardennes brothers.  Adding to the "Apocalpsye Now" theme was that  Schlondorff's "The Tin Drum" shared the Palm d'Or with it in 1979.

Saturday's Noon Seminar in the park included all of them except the Dardennes, who are slightly hesitant to speak English.  It may have been the most august panel in Telluride history.  Also on the panel was Ethan Hawke, on hand with the documentary he had directed--"Seymour," featuring an elderly Manhattan piano maestro who had abandoned his career to teach.  When he introduced his film shortly after the seminar, he said he had just had the most incredible experience of his life being a part of that panel, a sentiment that those he in the audience sitting on the grass could echo.

It is no wonder that Telluride is considered the Crown Jewel of film festivals.  It will leave me plenty to think about as I pedal the 1,500 miles back to Chicago hopping from Carnegie to Carnegie.  Silverton's was not the first of these travels, as I stopped off at the one in Delta on my way to Telluride a month ago on my 128-mile ride from Grand Junction after taking the train from Chicago.  Grand Junction once had a Carnegie, but it is one of five of the thirty-five Carnegies built in Colorado that has been torn down.

Delta's Carnegie has been doubled in size with an addition to its backside, but its front retains all the nobility it had when it was constructed over a century ago.

Inside, mounted on a wall, was a newspaper clipping detailing its history.

Silverton boasted a much more modest, though no less distinguished, Carnegie with a magnifcent mountain backdrop.  It was a block off the town's main street, on a dirt road, as were all the town's streets other than its main street, which was lined with restaurants and outfitters and stores catering to tourists. Though Silverton is 9,300 feet and has the highest Harley Davidson shop in the world, its Carnegie is not the highest.  That honor goes to Leadville, at over 10,000 feet, one that I have yet to visit.  The library was closed, it being Sunday, but while I was there, two people came by to take advantage of its WIFI.  I was fortunate, as they could tell me the password--Colorado.

Beside the entry was a small plaque acknowledging Carnegie. 

It had been a ten-mile descent to Silverton from the summit of Red Mountain Pass, but continuing south to Durango I was immediately confronted by a seven-mile climb out of the town over the Molas Pass, just under 11,000 feet high.  After a four-mile descent the road climbed three-miles over Coal Bank Pass.  A storm had moved in and I was pelted by hail as I made the climb.  Blue sky ahead took some of the bite out of the storm, and it had fortunately passed by the time I could begin the long descent to Durango, thirty-five miles away.  I closed to within twelve miles of Durango before dark closed in and I found a clump of trees to camp in off the road.

The next morning I passed the narrow-gauge train packed with tourists that makes the run from Durango, at 6,300 feet, to Silverton.  It gave me a toot and many of the passengers waved and pointed their cameras at me.  As I entered Durango I asked a cyclist where I could get a hefty stack of hot cakes.  He recommended the downtown Durango Diner, just a couple blocks from its Carnegie Library, now home to a cluster of city offices, though it retains its Carnegie heritage with a rather bland entry tacked onto to the original building.

Its original walls are far more pleasing, though shrouded by trees.

The next Carnegie awaits me in Monte Vista, over one hundred miles away on the other side of the forbidding Wolf Creek Pass.  It is relatively flat going for sixty miles from Durango to Pagosa Springs, where the climb will begin.  It will give my legs some time to recover from the demanding three-pass day into and out of Silverton.  And after Monte Vista I will have the pleasure of a visit with Joel,  a long-time friend from the film festival who lives in Alamosa, another of the five towns in Colorado who tore down their Carnegie. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Stage Twenty-One

Early in the afternoon I realized the quiet road I was biking, along the fringe of the Massif Central, was only taking me through small villages, none large enough to have bars that would have a television for The Tour's final stage on the Champs Élysées.  I'd have to make a detour at some point to a larger town.

It was an early evening finish, around seven p.m., so at six p.m. I turned east to la Souterraine, six miles away.  I knew by the distant towering cathedral that it was large enough to have restaurants and bars.  None were open, though, on this Sunday evening in the center of the town.  I kept riding and hoping until I came to a kebab restaurant a few blocks further with a few occupied tables out front.  I ducked in and cheered at the sight of a television, and cheered again that it wasn't showing soccer, something that is not always easy to switch from.  It was only a music show and no one was watching.  

Thirty-two kilometers remained in The Race.  Richie Porte and two others were the token breakaway, twenty-three seconds ahead, no threat whatsoever.  They were easily gobbled up and the sprint trains began their torrid rush to the finish early in the final four mile lap that included the Arc de Triomphe and the ultimate of round-abouts. No bikes were dangling from it.

Kittel reminded everyone he was still in The Race, after being pretty much absent for more than two weeks, just barely overtaking Kristoff to win his third stage this year, in a much less dramatic fashion than last year when he propelled himself past Cavendish and Gripel, all three riding as if their hair was on fire.  Gripel again was a non-factor, finishing fourth.

The standings remained the same as after the time trial.  There was no shuffling of the Top Ten as a few years ago when Vinokourov attacked and moved up to sixth from seventh, overtaking the non-plussed Levi Leipheimer, caught off-guard by Vinokourov violating the gentleman's agreement that the final stage was ceremonial and just a final showcase for the sprinters.   Leipheirmer said he didn't care, seventh or sixth did not matter, only the podium slots.  But it was another example of the slippery and shady ways of Vinokourov.  

Being the front man for Nibali's Astana team does cast a shadow on his victory.  Vinokourov is notorious for doing whatever it takes to win, not unlike Lance.  He remains unrepentant over his two-year suspension for blood doping during The Tour in 2007. He was accused of paying off a breakaway companion to let him win Liege-Bastogne-Liege.  The story only came out when the rider who Vinokourov made the deal with leaked emails between the two of them when Vinokourov wouldn't send him the money he agreed to pay him.  Vinokourov has now so desperately wanted a Tour victory for Astana, he reportedly offered Nibali a million euro bonus for winning The Tour.  

Money does motivate.  Van Garderen said he was not disappointed withhold fifth place fifth even though he came into The Race with podium aspirations.  His teammates and team staff certainly had to be, as they would have shared in those winnings, as much as twenty-five thousand euros each if he had finished second.  One of Laurent Fignon's teammates admitted to wanting to wring Fignon's neck when Greg LeMond overcame a fifty second deficit on the final stage of the 1989 Tour knocking Fignon from first to second, costing him twenty-five thousand euros.  He had been excitedly to be able to buy his dream car, and then he couldn't.  

At least Van Garderen said he still wants to win The Tour, something he hopes to accomplish within the next ten years of his career. He did rebound significantly from last year when he was perhaps the year's biggest disappointment, falling considerably short of the promise he had shown the year before when he finished fifth and won the White Jersey.  A true competitor would have been saying that he was disappointed in not making the podium, or even winning The Race this year.  That would have been the fighting spirit of a Hinault or a Merckx.  

Neither he nor Talanksy have done much to capture the fancy of American race fans.  There were virtually none to be seen along The Tour route, unlike the Lance years when there were legions.  There was a three year dry spell, but when Lance made his comeback in 2009, they were back.  The Race experience is so sensational, attending shouldn't hinge on needing one's countryman to be contending, but that is the case.  The Australian contingent has dried up after hoards lined the race course when Evans was a factor.  The different flags flying along the course adds to the festivity.  There were a few Japanese the year there were two of their countrymen in The Race.  I didn't notice any Chinese flags this year to celebrate the first Chinese entrant ever.  He held on to the Lantern Rouge, though he did finish ahead of two others in the time trial.  Anyone who completes The Tour can be proud.  He must certainly feel so, though whether he will be celebrated in China, considering he finished last, is another question.

My usual fare for sitting and watching The Tour is the price of a menth a l'eau.  The kebab place served no such drink.  Instead, my item of purchase to sit and watch the television was some solid calories, if frites can be considered such, plus my choice of sauces--mayonnaise or ketchup.  The restaurant also had a self-serve cold water dispenser, the first I've encountered in France.  I drank glass after glass and felt lucky that none of the bars in the center of the city were open.  The food and drink and my final dose of The Tour kept me riding for two more hours until dark.  I felt as if I could have kept going all the way to Paris, two hundred miles further.  My minimal miles yesterday had rejuvenated my legs.  No worries about having the energy now to make my flight home.

Stage Twenty

My first order of business for the day was to find the Big Screen and determine where I wished to sit and watch it for the last couple of hours of the time trial that would be going on for nearly six hours.  It wasn't even noon, but the race course was mobbed and the first riders were on their way.

The caravan had already done its business and a good many people were wearing the yellow and the red polka hats that it distributes.  I had slept in, prizing a few extra hours of much needed sleep over the spectacle of grown men and children of all ages scrambling for the caravan goodies.

It was hard to tell where the shade would be in front of the Big Screen.  If there wasn't any to be found, I had the possibility of three smaller screens all between the 50 meter and the 150 meter signs to the finish, with the Big Screen at the 200 meter to go mark.  No grassy field to plop down in here, just concrete sidewalks and side streets.  At least I would have a quick getaway less than a block from the road I wanted north out of the city to Limoges.

With several hours of free time I went in search of a supermarket and then a place to do some charging.  The library was two blocks from the finish line, so was closed for the day.  Second choice was a cathedral.  That was easy enough to find, just a couple of blocks from the vast fenced-in complex catering to the media and sponsors and VIPs.  As I was circling around it, I noticed someone through the fence in a grey t-shirt and jeans holding a sheaf of papers who bore a resemblance to Christian.  Before I could get closer to see, his face lit up, recognizing me before I could confirm that was what he looked like in his new profession as an NBC commentator without his make-up.

"I was hoping I'd see you before The Tour ended," he said.

"Me too.  Usually we've had an encounter long before now.  I thought I might see you out on the course.  I heard you were riding some."

"That was early on.  I had to give it up.  You know how hard it is."

"Your credentials didn't help with the gendarmes?"

"Not much."

"Its a shame Van Garderen had that jour sans the first day in the Pyrenees.  If he'd been in contention for the podium today, that would have been good for your ratings."

"He can still do it.  I was talking to him this morning and told him in '08 I took four minutes out of someone who was ahead of me."

"Its not impossible.  Two years ago he caught his three-minute man, Basso, in the final time trial."

We talked a bit more about Talansky and Garmin's great win yesterday before Christian gestured to the giant fold-out truck behind him and said, "That's my office.  I've got to get back to work.  Good to see you."


When I returned to the Big Screen a few hours later I was able to find a patch of shade by slipping in between two bikes that were leaning against a railing.  The owner of one of them snapped at me for touching his bike.  He was an English dude with tattoos on his arms and a tight Lycra jersey accentuating his protruding belly.  He and his two friends were showing no consideration for others by placing their bikes where they did, blocking a ledge where people could sit.

"You could move your bikes over there with those others so people could sit here," I said.  

"I've been here for hours.  This is our spot," was his nasty response.  

That he preferred to stand for hours in his cycling shoes when he could be sitting said all one needed to know about his sense.  It was a somewhat welcome hot, sunny day and shade was at a premium.  People sought it wherever they could find it.

Many were wilting from their long day at The Tour.

But they were still persevering until the end when the French trio of rides vying for the podium would be among the last five riders to leave the starting gate thirty-four miles away.

The riders passed one by one at intervals of a minute or two or three depending on how well they were doing with the fans cheering and  pounding the boards lining the course.

It took the riders a little over an hour to complete the course.  There would be fifteen or so on the course at any given time, each preceded by a gendarme on a motorcycle and followed by a cameraman on a motorcycle and a team car.  The action on the screen was continually switching from rider to rider, while trying to show each rider leave the starting gate and cross the finish line.  When the Time Trial World Champion Tony Martin of Germany, and favorite to win the stage, was on the course, he was on the screen for nearly his entire ride, allowing the fans to get the full flavor of the course.  It was packed the whole way with cheering fans.  

The vast majority of riders had nothing at stake, nor had more than a glimmer of a chance of a high placing.  Their only concern was riding hard enough to make the time cut.  I was hoping they didn't have to suffer too much pushing themselves and could enjoy their Saturday ride through the beautiful rolling and wooded countryside and small towns, and appreciate how well it had been decorated by  everyone along the route and also have their hearts warmed by the thousands of people who had come out to cheer them.

Other than Martin's ride about an hour before the six main contenders took to the course there really wasn't much at stake.   The only reason to be paying the screen any attention was simply to glory in the beauty and grandeur of this event so deeply ingrained in French culture.  It was a joy to gaze upon the thousands of people on the screen and all around me each playing their part.

For fifteen minutes from 4:12 to 4:27 when the six main contenders (Van  Garderen, Bardot, Valverde, Peraud, Pinot and Nibali) took to the course in three minute intervals, the screen focused primarily on each rider as he entered the starting ramp with a look of intensity on his face and was given the countdown before being released.  Each began with grim determination.  Much was at stake for all of them, though Nibali with a seven minute lead shouldered the least amount of pressure.  He just needed not to embarrass himself with a half-hearted effort unworthy of a champion, or lose concentration and take a spill.  There were four significant climbs on the course, each followed by high-speed descents that could spell disaster if one's attention wavered.

Nibali fully honored the Yellow Jersey, or skin suit that clung to his body.  He only had the fourth fastest time, beaten by three time trial specialists, including Martin, who won the stage, but he had the best time of the six main contenders.  Second best time of the contenders was turned in by Van Garderen, good enough to move from sixth to fifth overall by just two seconds, thanks in part to a flat tire by Bardot, who began the day two minutes and eleven seconds ahead of Van Garderen.  The second and third place riders also swapped positions, but they were both French, who rode better than Valverde, who had the worst time of the six, but remained in fourth.  

It would have been a different race of Moviestar had brought back their young Colombian climbing sensation, Quintana, who finished second last year, preferring to give their Spanish veteran Valverde a chance and not put Quintana under pressure with heavy expectations, which he did not have last year.  But he proved by winning the Giro this year, he can handle pressure.  Wait 'til next year.  It will be a doozy if Froome, Contador, Nibali and Quintana are in top form. 

There was no superhighway near Perigueux heading north, so the entire Tour entourage had to take the two-lane highway that was my route for sixty miles to Limoges, where it could pick up the Autoroute for the final three hundred miles to Paris for the next day's stage.  It gave me a continual jolt of pleasure to be part of this mass migration, though I wouldn't complete it until Wednesday, while everyone else would be done by midnight.  We were quite a grand parade of Tour-decaled trucks, vans and cars.  People along the way sat out in lawn chairs to watch us go by, some waving and eliciting horn toots.

As I climbed a hill a car slowed alongside me and I heard a voice I recognized ask if I'd like some water.  It was Christian sitting in the back seat of a car with Bob Roll at the wheel and two others filling the car, leaving no room for me.  It was seven p.m., ninety minutes after the stage had been completed.  They had done a quick wrap to be on their way already, but they had a long drive ahead of them.

"You're not flying up with the riders?" I asked in surprise.

"No, we get to make the drive.  Do you need anything?"

"You don't happen to have a spare water bottle.  Look at this.  Its got a crack in it rubbing against the water bottle cage."

"All I have is this," he said, showing me a large plastic Vittel bottle.  "Come by the house when you get back.  I'll fix you up."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Stage Nineteen

It was the wettest day so far of a very wet Tour, but it was still a most glorious day.  Though it was overcast and threatening from the start, I began my day in great spirits knowing I was only forty miles from the finish and could ride at an unstressed pace, unconcerned about having the course slammed shut on me.  The first of many downpours hit just after I'd been cycling an hour and had stopped at a supermarket for my day's food.  I could wait it out as I had a second breakfast.

By the time I resumed riding the final twenty-five miles of the course, the roadside was filling with locals already lining the road despite the rain and the peloton not due for over six hours.  But that is the French tradition, devoting one's day to the Tour and making it family outing.  One of the many sounds I associate with The Tour is the pounding of stakes, as people erect awnings and other shelters, usually to provide shade from the sun, but today, it was for protection from the rain.  Besides setting up their encampments and picnic sites, many people were putting the final touches on their Tour decorations.

They is always in extra abundance in the final miles when people know they are assured air time.  A  town hall just off the course adorned itself with huge swaths of yellow to honor the passing of the peloton.

The course marker crew must have been under quota when they reached a roundabout in the closing miles of the stage.

Just as I reached Bergerac and the finish I was hit by another deluge.  I took shelter at a bakery after already being thoroughly soaked.  This onslaught included pebble-sized hail.  As I dripped water I also dissipated body heat and felt quite chilled.  When it finally subsided to a mere drizzle I finished off the stage, which ended at a large sporting complex on the outskirts of the city.  Then I headed to the city center.  From my May reconnaissance I knew that's where I could find the library.  It was 12:30, so no doubt closed for lunch, but nearby was the city's large cathedral right where the next day's time trial would start.  The library was just two blocks from it.  I confirmed it was open today, but not until two.  

It was still raining.  I had noticed a crowd of people taking shelter at the entry to the cathedral, so I joined them and went inside where others were not only keeping dry, but also warming up.  Usually the cathedrals offer cool on hot day, but today that cool was actually warmer than how cold it had become outside.  A janitor was circulating around the cathedral mopping up water that was dripping from its high roof.  He did not object to my plugging in my iPad and checking on the start of the stage 130 miles away.  It was dry there, but they knew they were headed into rain.

There was a lull in the rain when I headed to the library.  It was too early to return to the finish line and the Big Screen, so I spent an hour  drying and warming up some more and glancing at the local newspaper Tour coverage, all speculating on the next day's time trial starting right there in Bergerac--a rare Ville Arriveé and Ville Départ. The rain was still holding off at three when I joined a tide of people walking and biking to the course over a mile away.

A few scattered drops began falling, but that discouraged no one.  Umbrellas were up as people looked up at the Big Screen and lined the race course. 

It was a pleasure just to wander around and be amongst the throngs who wouldn't let a little rain deny them their Tour de France ritual.

Not only did they bring chairs and umbrellas, but also canines.

And some identified their nationality with their flag, most notably the Norwegians, though they hardly needed do to so as their Nordic features were so distinguishing. 

Before long the few drops turned into a bunch and many retreated under a large open-sided complex.  It was quite a ways from the Big Screen, but it is so huge, we could could keep up with the action, other than reading the small print telling us how many kilometers to the finish and the time the breakaway had on the peloton.

And that's where I saw Garmin steal a stage from the sprinters with a brilliantly executed plan of placing one of their two Dutch riders, Tom-Jelte Slagter, in the day's five-man breakaway group and then breaking away from them and then having his Lithuanian teammate Ramunas Navardauskas, a time trial specialist,  bridge up to him on the stage's lone categorized climb eight miles from the finish and then launch himself alone for the rest of the way, holding off the peloton by seven seconds, aided by some blocking by his teammates and a crash caused by Sagan with less than two miles to the finish.  

Since I was in no rush to get to the next stage start, since it was just a mile away, or plagued by the usual necessity of being in a rush to get started on the next day's stage, since it was a mere thirty-four mile time trial, I could linger.  I headed over to the team buses.  There was a crush of reporters at the Garmin bus interviewing riders, though not the winner as he had podium duties first.  The Belgian Johan Van Summeren had a cluster of microphones in his face.

His American teammate Alex Howes was beaming into the cameras.

I could have popped a question myself.  Riders were still streaming in behind us after their long day in the rain looking quite done in.  One rider was asked how tired he felt on a scale of one to ten.  He said "twelve."  I can related, but it is still a fabulous joy to be doing this.  I'd had a good five hour break in the middle of the day and felt fully energized to knock off the time trial course before dark.  I knew it was exactly thirty-four miles.  There is no neutralized zone of an indeterminate number of miles tacked on to the stage.  The riders 

The course was a hive of activity, with all the Tour followers in their camping vans seeking a spot along the course for the night.  There were a handful of large open fields for parking along with the stretches wide enough for parking right along the road.  Three small town cemeteries were on the route.  Decorations and banners lined the course.  

Nearly every home had a tribute to The Tour.

It was like passing through one of those neighborhoods at Christmas-time where everyone one goes overboard lavishing their homes with lights and decorations.

I reached the finish in the center of Perigueux at nine p.m.  A huge crew was already at work with detailed plans in hand of setting up the vast finishing complex.  Then I headed out on Rue Victor Hugo to the outskirts of the city where I found a place to camp in a wooded sea beside a golf course.  For the first time in weeks I could sleep in.  Tomorrow I would spend all day in one place, though once the stage ended I would immediately begin riding back to Paris.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Stage Eighteen

Today I had a double dose of yellow riding the first ninety miles of tomorrow's one hundred and thirty mile Stage Nineteen--more sunflowers and the just mounted course markers.  I was briefly ahead of the crew that has the privilege of putting them in place, but they zoomed by me during my first break of the day, marking the way for me and making the rest of my day an extra joy.

The first forty-five miles were on undulating, narrow, unlined roads with climbs that could go on for a couple of miles that had me wondering, "How much more of this can I take."  If these savage hills had come at the end of the stage, Sagan would have had his team pounding on the front to shed the sprinters.  But coming at the start, it will just make it easier for a determined handful of riders to shed the peloton and be the breakaway of the day that the sprinters' teams will reel in, unless they've been done in by their three days in the Pyrenees.

I didn't even go into the Pyrenees and I'm close to being done in by all the hills of the past week.  I was actually nodding off as I was watching today's finish on television.  Today was the first day in a week that I've had an average speed over eleven miles per hour thanks to the last half of my day being on flat terrain.  The headwinds and all the climbing the past week have held by average speed under ten miles per hour nearly every day.  They've been taxing and draining.  I've felt like those in the peloton who've been saying if they could only survive the Pyrenees, they'd make it to Paris.  I just needed to have a good mileage day today, then I could have two relatively easy, recovery days before my final 350-mile push to Paris after Saturday's time trial.

Last year there were two groups riding the course a day ahead of the peloton--Czechs on kick-bikes and a group of French riders sponsored by one of the  teams, both with support vehicles so they didn't need to carry any gear.  I have yet to encounter or hear of anyone doing it this year.  Today would have been the day I would have seen any who might be doing it, but I didn't. There were a few camping vans with course markers in their windows already encamped along the route, skipping the final stage in the Pyrenees.  Otherwise it was a quiet, tranquil day on the usual minor secondary roads of The Tour  route passing through small villages, not even taking the main road around one ancient walled town, but barging right through its arched entry, subjecting the peloton to a couple of brief patches of cobbles.

The peloton will also pass by a wonderfully painted tower.  It might have been done by the same artist who painted a baby on a cooling tower at a nuclear plant along the Rhone.  If I were writing a book on Discovering France, I would devote a chapter to the circumstances of this tower being painted.  As with all the round-about art, it is another example of the French beautifying their environment putting something along the road to please the eye and the soul whether it be flowers or art of some sort.

And it being The Tour route, there were the usual decorated bikes and homages to The Bike and The Tour. 

And the usual homage to Raymond Poulidor as well.

I had no problem finding a bar with a television today.  I could actually hear the broadcast of The Race half a block from a bar so its patrons sitting out front could hear what was going on.  If they were French, they were thrilled with the day's result.  Valverde finally faded and the French riders Pinot and Peraud finished just enough ahead of him to take over the bottom two steps of the podium. If they can hold off Valverde in Saturday's time trial, it will be the first podium photograph since 1985 that will be worthy of hanging in French homes.  The three of them are all within fifteen seconds of one another, so it will be a tense day.  

And if Van Garderen hadn't lost over three minutes on the first stage in the Pyrenees, he would have been right there with them.  He looked strong  and was riding smoothly today, as if at any moment he would power away from the French riders clinging to him, but they held firm.  They won't have that luxury though in Saturday's time trial.  It will be every man for himself.  For the first time in years there are French riders who can stick with the leaders on the climbs.  Its a remarkable sight.  The French riders are no longer battling to be the top French rider in The Race, but actually contesting for a significant finish higher than a mere Top Ten.  There are no post-stage excuses to French television why the leading French riders couldn't keep up, but rather congratulations for doing so well.

Its fortunate there is such an exciting duel for second and third as there has been no suspense over the top spot.  Nibali further displayed his dominance just casually riding away from the small group of contenders six miles from the finish at the top of Hautacam after first jumping on the wheel of Horner who decided to be aggressive jumping away from the Yellow Jersey group.  It took Nibali just a couple of minutes to blow by the lead rider, and easily win his fourth stage and extend his lead to seven minutes.