Monday, June 28, 2004

Vlissingen, The Netherlands

Friends: I have come 250 miles across the southern border of the Netherlands starting in its southernmost extremity, a claw wedged between Germany and Belgium. I will go as far as land's end at Westkapelle out on the country's westernmost tentacle extending into the North Sea. The last ten miles to Vlissingen, where I will take a ferry across the bay, have been on or just below towering dikes holding back the sea.

As in Germany, the riding has been largely on bike paths. Thanks to the pancake flatness of the land, the paths could more closely follow the roadways, or at least not suddenly disappear or make outlandish loops due to the terrain as in Germany. That has made the riding somewhat more tolerable, but its still not my preference. For some it would be idyllic. Its been like a giant theme park for cyclists, with the paths connecting one Pleasantville after another of manicured lawns and tidy homes, interspersed with pastures of grazing cattle and goats and sheep and fields of corn and other grains and the occasional woodlands.

Unlike Germany, there have also been legions of cyclists of all ages out riding--moms and pops with children tagging along or on bike seats, teens and young adults and plenty of the graying set. The elderly may have been the best represented of all the demographics, usually in pairs and sometimes in groups. Dogs in baskets were a common site. I'd frequently see cyclists waving to friends. But for me, it's like having to ride on a sidewalk, as the paths often were. They are a lot less smooth than the roads and can get complicated at clover leafs and overpasses, and especially so when I had to pass through a city of any size.

The bike signs were generally excellent in getting me into a city, but not so good in getting me out. I had to rely on a lot of asking and dead reckoning and haphazard guessing and solar navigation, diluting the joy of being on the bike. The road signs weren't of much use, as they generally led to the autobahn. After a hundred miles of this I nearly turned back to the gritty reality of Belgium, but I couldn't resist going out to another land's end and continued on. I couldn't even average twelve miles per hour with all the impediments. I should have easily been doing fourteen miles per hour, which would have gotten me to a hundred miles for the day in seven hours, rather than eight. But it was still leg-soothing and generally carefree, mind-clearing cycling, so I couldn't complain.

It was all too protected, however. I imagine Dutch cyclists must be terrified to leave their playpen cycling for the open road of other countries. I wonder myself how I'm going to react to traffic roaring past my shoulder after three days of such sheltered cycling. I was hoping the traffic, car and bike, would thin out on this 50-mile long peninsula, but only barely, as it was as developed and populated as the rest of the country. As I drifted off to sleep in a pear orchard last night, halfway out the peninsula, I was subjected to the non-stop buzz of traffic from an
autobahn a mile or more away, going where, I couldn't imagine. I was hoping to come across small, rugged outpost towns as I did in Norway and Alaska and Iceland, but the only of my assumptions that held true was that I would be more vulnerable to the wind out here. The wind was strong enough that for the first time in these travels I saw cyclists on recumbents and also quite a few cyclists with aero handlebars enabling them to be more streamlined in battling the winds.

There were a handful of caravan parks below the dikes full of people on holiday. Many brought their bikes and were out pedaling. I'll be back in Belgium shortly after the ferry crossing. I will welcome its bike lanes, shoulders hugging the highways. The altimeter function on my cyclometer has had three days of rest, though not totally, as it did register the 30 foot climbs I had to make on overpasses crossing waterways and autobahns.

Later, George

Friday, June 25, 2004

Liege, Belgium

Friends: When I crossed into Belgium from Luxembourg I was hoping for a billboard or banner welcoming me to "The Home of Eddie Merckx, Greatest Cyclist of all Time," or perhaps a statue. But I had to wait 25 miles before I came upon a monument to "The Cannibal," one of the most voracious competitors in any sport, a man bent on winning every race he entered, not focusing on just a specific few as is now the custom.

The statue was outside the town of Stavelot at the summit of a very steep climb that is part of the annual spring classic bicycle race Liege-Bastonge-Liege. I didn't realize the race passed through the town, though I should have known that some significant Belgian race had to pass nearby where ever one might be in this not so large country. When I asked the woman behind the counter at Stavelot's tourist office if there might be any bicycling museums or memorials in the vicinity, not a totally unlikely question, as the Belgians are right up there with the Italians in their fervor for bicycle racing, she seemed delighted to respond to a question she's not ordinarily asked.

"Yes indeed," she said. "There's a statue of Eddie Merckx just out of town at the top of a hill
where he made one of his legendary breakaways to win the Liege-Bastogne-Liege race." She pulled out a small map of the town and showed me how to get there. I was well aware of L-B-L, as it is one of the one-day spring classics that has decades of tradition and was won by Tyler Hamilton a year ago. It was his greatest victory until he won a stage of last year's Tour de France. At the base of the hill was a small sign with Eddie Merckx on it and an arrow pointing up.
It didn't look like much of a hill at first, the road not wide enough to even have a line down its middle There was a slight hedge on both sides and a few scattered houses. More imposing was
a WWII vintage American armored vehicle across the street, dedicated to the Americans who died in the Battle of the Bulge fought nearby. The hill shot upward with L'Alpe d'Huez steepness and only got steeper, though there was no hint at how steep it would get or how high it would rise, eventually up into a forest. It gained 370 feet in six-tenths of a mile. That much altitude gain in a mile is a leg-breaker, about what Mont Ventoux averaged for 12 miles, so this was a genuine killer hill, most worthy of a monument.

At the summit was a large boulder with a life-size bronze sculpture of Merckx bursting out of it on his bike, eyes bulging in fury and hair flying. It identified him as "The greatest cyclist of the 20th century with 525 wins including three world championships, five Tours de France, five Giros d'Italia, five LBLs, and seven Milan-San Remos."

And now I'm in Liege, where a week from today all the present day Hercules of the Bike will gather for the start of the Tour de France. It will spend its first three days in Belgium. It is a big deal with banners welcoming The Tour and a museum exhibit profiling the 100 year history of the Tour. I've also scouted the 6.1 kilometer course the riders will race as an individual time trial next Saturday through the downtown of this old city of several hundred thousand. The Tourist Office had a glossy eight page brochure giving all the details. I would love to be here for the prologue, but I have a few other bicycling shrines to pay homage to down the road and will instead wait until several stages into the race before I officially connect with it.

I'm more excited than ever to witness this spectacle after seeing all the images of frenzied spectators along the road at the exhibit. As much attention was given to the spectators as to its participants and the lore of the Tour--the great rivalries and camaraderie, the crashes (including up close photos of two of the three rider deaths), protests, the agony and ecstasy of the racers, showing them eating and drinking and resting, and the pre-race caravan of advertisers. I may
well go back and give it another look before I leave town.

Even though the roads of Belgium are the worst I've encountered so far with stretches badly in need of repaving, its nice to be back in a country where there are cyclists in racing garb out on the road, some training and others just exercising and fantasizing. They are the first I've seen since leaving Switzerland a week ago. There's also much less traffic than in Germany and the only signs I've seen relating to bicycles are here in Liege on one-way streets that say
"Excepte" on them with a bicycle, meaning that bicyclists are welcome to ride the wrong way down a one-way street. And there have been no road signs with tanks on them. That was the lone photo I took while in Germany. I'm heading straight to NATO headquarters here in Brussels to let them know.

Luxembourg was pleasure cycling as well, though I had only 50 miles of it up its eastern flank. The roads were wide and at times had more than a whisper of a shoulder. There were grazing cows, and logging as well, so I had another nice night of forest camping. But for the first time in these travels I can vent about headwinds. About 20 miles before Trier, the last city I passed through in Germany and its oldest founded just before the time of Christ as the first human settlement north of the Alps, I could seen huge wind generators in the distance. One only sees
them where there is wind, and unfortunately I was headed west, the direction from which winds generally prevail. And those winds and generators continued through Luxembourg, though at least by then I was headed more northerly than westerly. It made for a tough final day in Germany with lots of climbing through the undulating terrain and into fierce headwinds. I've
been lucky to be spared them for so long. But it remains quite chilly, barely 60. I've even had to
resort to gloves on occasion and almost need tights.

I'll now take a short swing through Holland and then head back to Belgium and across the north of France where I will make my much anticipated rendezvous with the Tour de France.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Kaiserslautern, Germany

Friends: I was hoping I could dateline an email from the town of Frankenstein, ten miles back, but it was too small to have an Internet cafe. So I had to settle for Kairserslautern.

Its mid-day and so far I have yet to receive a tongue-lashing from an irate motorist today, almost a record. Motorists just don't blow their horn when they're upset with me, they tell me off as well. But I still had to suffer that sunken feeling I was about to receive an earful, when some woman leapt from her car at a red light and came racing towards me. I thought, "My God, what have I done now," but she was only retrieving something from her trunk.

Germany continues to alternate from bliss to agony. I had another exceptional night of camping in a forest, quiet save for the curious deer. Germany is most enlightened in preserving small pockets of nature, even in areas of agriculture. I was able to go deep enough into this forest that I made sure to point my bike towards the road, so I´d remember which way it was back to the road. I was able to camp well before dark, which doesn't come until ten p.m. It is cool enough that bugs aren't an issue, so I could sit outside my tent and eat dinner and read and luxuriate in the serenity of the woods, about as good as it gets.

Several hours before, it was about as bad as it gets, as I was slogging through another forest on a rapidly deteriorating dirt bike path that paralleled the Autobahn heading towards Frankfurt. It had been a bike path at one point, but I doubted it still was. Somehow I had made a wrong turn. This had become an exercise in orienting, not bike touring. But I was headed in the right direction and had dug myself in five or six miles already, so rather than retracing my way I continued on until the trail came to a sudden halt at a steep embankment. Overhead through
thick brush was a highway. I had to bushwhack my way up to find out if it was an autobahn or a road I could ride on. It was a mere two-lane highway, so I could resume riding without incurring wrath, or so it appeared, though at this point I wouldn't have cared if it was a ten-lane wide autobahn, I was going to take it. It was just a matter of clearing a way through the brush for my loaded bike.

This will be my last day in Germany. With all these complications and obstacles, it is no wonder I see hardly anyone biking, whether on the roads or taking advantage of the vast array of bike trails that connect, or try to connect, all the villages. The bike lobby must have had extreme clout here at some point to have laid down hundreds and hundreds of miles of bike paths, but the car interests have won out by restricting bike use of the highways wherever they can. The bike advocates should have pushed for wider shoulders on the roads for the bikes, as in the US,
rather than separate, detached lanes that are like abandoned railways, forlorn and unused. True cyclists don't want to have their options reduced to one. We want to run with the big dogs and not be shunted off with the scaredy-cats. Its a shame, as otherwise Germany would be a touring cyclist's utopia. My only other complaint is the lack of signs to a town's Tourist Office and Library, which France was so good about. The Tourist Offices here are always somewhere
near the zentrum, which there are signs for, and I eventually find it, but not with great ease, as in France.

Unlike France, there are free toilets in a town's center, often populated by a lingering Fassbinder character or two. Germany's big and bright yellow road signs giving directions are also vastly superior to those in France. It's much harder to get lost in Germany, as long as I can avoid the bike paths, than in France. Its rather unsettling, however, to see speed limit signs for military personnel. They range from 30 to 150 kilometers per hour. There are often two sets of speeds, one for regular vehicles and one for tanks. Only once before have I come across a road sign with a tank on it, passing through Fort Pendleton south of Los Angeles. It warned of tank crossings.

Later, George

Monday, June 21, 2004

Bruchsal, Germany

Friends: I've only had to make one illegal mad dash of four miles so far today in the 50 miles I've come, hoping the authorities wouldn't pounce on me for riding a stretch of road verboten to bicyclists. It was either that or backtrack a couple miles to access the bicycle path along the road through a nice downhill stretch of a gorge. Otherwise it has been a great day of cycling in Germany through rolling woodlands and lush green farmlands. I met a guy here in Bruchsal, as I was lunching in its plaza, who used to work for my messenger company, Cannonball, back in Chicago as a driver. He'd married an American, seven years ago, and goes back and forth between Chicago and here.

I'm still alternating between loving and hating Germany. Last night I declared, "Enough!," after a couple of frustrating hours trying to bike fifteen miles from one town to the next as I was repeatedly diverted from roadways to bike paths and back, turning the biking into more of a
scavenger hunt, trying to find the next index card- sized bike sign on a post telling me which way to go, through a maze of intersections and deadends. I enjoyed an occasional a jolt of delight and relief when I discovered a sign that told me I was heading in the right direction, but then had it swept away by the frustration of coming to an unsigned intersection. I just want to let my legs and mind spin without having to be on alert for directions.

This exploratory cycling does not provide me the escape from earthly concerns and constraints that makes me go off on my bike. If this is how the Germans like to tour, then I'm definitely not very German. I am very eager to meet touring Germans on future tours and ask how they put up with their bike paths. Maybe that's why I haven't encountered anyone else touring here and there are so many Germans around the world doing it. But I keep hoping I will figure all this out and I won't have to give up on Germany, as everything else about touring here is most exceptional--the friendly people, the great camping and the great eating. There are several chains of discount grocery stores, including Aldis, that have phenomenally cheap food. A kilo of potato salad is a 1.69 euros, about a tenth the cost in Italy or Switzerland. A pound of quality bread is half a euro. A liter of banana-cherry juice, a surprisingly tasty combination, goes for .45 Euros. I don't want to leave.

And the road-scavenging is the best I've encountered as well. It was very paltry through France
and Italy. About all it amounted to was snapped, worthless bungee cords. Here I've come up with an over-sized neckerchief, which I can use as a table cloth in my tent or towel. I found my second chocolate bar of the trip. The other was in Switzerland just emerging from a snow bank on one of the high passes. They were both well sealed and in tact. Every supermarket has at least half an aisle devoted to chocolate bars, so its no surprise to find them.

The roads of Germany also offered up some porno. Its usually a given that in Western countries, whether in the U.S. or New Zealand or Spain or Scandinavia, I'll notice discarded porn magazines along the road. There had been none, however, in France, Italy or Switzerland on this trip, though Italy offered a live version. There were several African women in pink hot pants standing along the road in a semi-rural area, and also a rather weathered white woman on the outskirts of Milan on the way to the campground offering her services.

I also found a pair of sports shorts along the road in Germany. They are climbing into the top five of things I find along the road. I found some in Iceland and on my trip out west last fall too. Money is up there as well. I've found a euro coin and a ten euro note so far on this trip. It doesn't compare to Brazil, where I came across literally piles of cheap alloy coins rendered worthless by hyper-inflation. The road continues to offer up rags when I need them to clean my chain, and hats, which I never stop for, and towels and socks, which generally fall into the rag category.

The scavenging makes me want to stay in Germany, and its cool weather too. The corn is barely knee high here. In southern France it was already chest high. The Cannonballer said they've had some 80 and 90 degree days, and today is the first official day of summer, so I'm enjoying the cool while its lasts. I just don't want to spend time lolly-gagging on its bike paths, where I feel as if I should be riding no-handed at about six miles per hour I want to be out on the road where the riding is for real.

Later, George

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Reutlingen, Germany

Friends: I'm 150 miles into Germany and I can't yet say whether it earns an A or an F for bicycle touring. It could almost be one or the other. Germany had my heart singing at first with the quality of its roads and its explicit explicit road signs. I was also thrilled by the supermarkets that abounded with ready-to-eat grub at the cheapest prices of the trip and the ease of camping in the Black Forest and the exceptional bicycling consciousness of its people. And some would say its phenomenal network of bike trails, with their own little signs encouraging everyone to get around on their bikes, are another strong positive.

But, unfortunately, when there are bike paths, many motorists expect bicyclists to use them and keep off their roads. I was receiving an inordinate number of horn blasts from passing motorists. I initially interpreted them as affirmations of friendliness. The Germans are the world's premier touring cyclists. I assumed they were delighted to see one in the act. I soon realized, however, when some of the horn toots were accompanied by shouts of "Get off the road," that the horn toots weren't as friendly as I thought they were. When I went through a mile-long tunnel I had seven or eight people slow to angrily tell me bicycles weren't allowed in the tunnel. When I inadvertently turned on to an autobahn, I immediately had someone pull over to scold me. I'm continually cringing that I may be doing something verboten and will be harangued for it. At least the policemen who ordered me off the autobahn after I'd been on it less than a mile were the friendliest and most considerate of those who have been upset with me. Nowhere that I have traveled have I encountered so many citizen-enforcers. Germans are quick to get upset if someone is not being obedient, and are not bashful it letting them now it.

The last 40 miles I've been riding a road, however, without an accompanying bike path, so I could stick to the road with minimal worry of upsetting anyone. My heart sank whenever I thought I saw a path or sidewalk alongside the road. I'm hoping that maybe the southwest corner of Germany through the Black Forest where I entered has an excess number of bike paths and now that I'm beyond it, I can ride on the road with the adults in peace.

I was at first enjoying Germany so much, I thought I'd prolong my stay here by riding 500 miles up to Denmark. Now I'm contemplating swinging back to France at the first opportunity. It is less than 50 miles to the west. The 80 miles I bicycled yesterday would have been only 60 if I had stuck to the regular highway. The trails are most pleasant, but they do not provide the most direct route from city to city. Their curbs and rough surface and lack signs at crucial intersections also slow me considerably. What signs there are can be confusing as they are frequently to small towns not on my map. I was repeatedly flummoxed. It wouldn't have been so bad if there had been other cyclists to help me find the way, but I pretty much had the cycle path to myself. The trails are great for grandmas and children, and those out for some leisurely exercise, but I doubt Jan Ullrich does much riding on them.

The first significant city I came to yesterday had quite a few bicyclists running Saturday morning errands. I've never seen so many parents pulling toddlers in covered buggies nor Ortlieb panniers, the Rolls Royce of panniers manufactured right here in Germany. As I meandered about trying to find the tourist office, a woman cyclist asked me if I needed directions. I was feeling very much at home. For years, wherever I have traveled in the world, whether in Bolivia or India or Morocco or France or Cuba, I've been taken for being German. And its happening here too. People approach me and start jabbering in German. When I apologize for not speaking their language, every one so far has been able to revert to English and maintain a most friendly and welcoming conversation.

I'm afraid I can't give much of a report on Austria, as I only took a 30 mile nip out of it crossing into it from Liechtenstein then exiting to Germany. I couldn't find anything bicycle-related, to maintain the theme of these travels, to draw me deeper in to the country. I thought maybe I would search out the home of the parents of Hans Weingartner, the Austrian directer of "The Edukators," which I liked so much at Cannes, as they mortgaged it to finance their son's movie. I knew it was somewhere around Vienna, but the first tourist office I came to said they couldn't find its whereabouts.

It was seven weeks ago today that I set out from Paris, some 3,000 miles, and six countries, if Monaco counts, ago. I have slightly more than six weeks to go before I return. Three of those weeks will be devoted to the Tour de France. This trip could make my top ten in terms of distance and time away, and possibly the top ten too in terms of significance and satisfaction if The Tour de France is all I expect it to be. So far though it's not in the category of some of my more epic trips--biking the length of South America, riding up the Alaskan Highway, crossing the Outback of Australia, biking to Kathmandu or even riding coast-to-coast across the U.S.

For years I've resisted bicycling Europe, other than Scandinavia and Iceland, thinking it too commonplace and conventional. My intuitions were not entirely wrong. For a journey to truly excite me, I need to have a distant destination as a goal, whether it be Kathmandu or Tierra del Fuego or the North Cape or Fairbanks or Perth or the circumference of Iceland. All I've been doing here is meandering around, inspired by one small-fry goal and then another. But this wasn't meant to be an epic bike trip. I came to experience Cannes and the Tour de France and to take the pulse of bicycling in various European countries, and that I've done. I will have fine memories of having witnessed three of the four grand bicycle races--the Tours of France, Italy and Switzerland, missing only the Spanish version, which isn't until September. And I am very happy to have visited many bicycling shrines from the Patron Saint of bicycling to all the mythical mountain passes. But as far as biking around Europe, it has been no big deal. It hasn't even excited me as much as bicycling around the American West, something I am looking forward to doing again this fall after the Telluride Film Festival.

Although the early part of this trip was slightly tainted by having to nurse along a neophyte, that has nothing to do with my minimal enthusiasm for these travels. I knew I'd have to make sacrifices when Jesse invited himself along on this trip, though one never knows how much of a burden and a liability a traveling companion can be. He's not the first to doggedly pursue me to introduce him to bicycle touring, nor the only one to selectively accept the advice he was so eager for, both in preparation for the trip and along the way.

Its never nice though, when ignored advice ends up putting not only the seeker, but myself as well, in peril. Its not as if a pair of touring cyclists are on the side of a mountain connected by the same rope and wholly dependent on one another, but in some respects they are. When a partner fails to bring along more than a tattered pair of gloves, despite my strong warning of frigid temperatures in the Alps and the need for wool gloves to keep one's hands warm whether wet or dry, and then is thrust into a near survival situation with hands virtually frozen and miles to descend, it is no small matter.

Our generational difference was more of a chasm than a gap. I know rip and torn clothes are the cool thing these days, literally and figuratively, but on a bike adventure, such garb is totally idiotic. Both pairs of shorts Jesse brought had huge rips across their backsides. Not only was it unsightly, but it was dangerous. He could easily have caught them on his seat when he was rising to stand on his pedals in the mountains and lost his balance. Nor did they keep him warm, a crucial factor on those days in the mountains when we rode in temperatures near freezing. The touring cyclist has countless lessons to be learned. I am happy to provide them. Its unfortunate when they have to be learned the hard way or by near disaster.

Later, George

Friday, June 18, 2004

Sarganz, Switzerland

Friends: Greetings from Switzerland, where the trains quietly purr and the cow bells clatter like cymbals in an orchestra and mountains of great grandeur are everywhere and the clergy and military are out and about in uniform and the Internet isn't so easy to find or affordable and the euro is not the official currency.

My first night in Switzerland I camped less than 30 feet from some train tracks on a cliff in a mighty gorge. I was fully prepared to be blasted awake at any moment by a passing train, and hoped the shock of its roar wouldn't catapult me over the cliff's edge. But there wasn't a single train all night, and in the morning the two trains that passed barely ruffled the leaves. The next night, however, when I was camped behind a woodpile, I was jarred awake at six a.m. by a passing herd of cows. Their bells made more noise than a roaring freight train.

Among the host of reasons that Switzerland beckoned was as escape from the summer heat of France. It has been delightfully cool. Snow still dapples the mountains. It is downright cold when the clouds come and even colder if they unleash any rain. I had to unbury my gloves and sweater, even on an extended climb to up over 8,000 feet, the highest I've been in these travels, when I was hit by a rain.

It's taken me three days to bike the length of Switzerland, sticking to the south away from the big cities. My route has taken me through a series of ski towns. None compared to the last ski town I passed through in France before crossing into Switzerland--Chamonix. It may be the ultimate ski town. A sign on its outskirts announced it was a sister city to Aspen. The sign was hardly necessary, as, like Aspen, it was overwhelmed, if not strangled, by a glut of boutiques and restaurants and glitz catering to the ski and jet set. All about roamed those who exemplify the creed, " You can't be too rich or too thin or too tan." There was the usual ski town mix of tourists and young outdoor adventurers. Over it all loomed that behemoth, glacier-laden Mount Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe.

From Chamonix it was less than 20 miles to Switzerland, where I encountered my first border control of this trip. The guard wanted to know my nationality and if I had a passport, though he didn't care to see it. The border was in a saddle between mountains. After a several mile climb from the border, I was rewarded with a fabulous ten-mile descent into a vast valley that went on for nearly 50 miles, first with vineyards climbing the mountain sides and then pastures, as the valley gained a bit of elevation. It was a tranquil, paradisaical valley of vast vistas. Each town I passed through was marked by a sense of order and cleanliness and affluence--their streets were wide, the houses were well-maintained and had yards, the buses were modern and the cars bigger, newer and "nicer."

My pleasure was somewhat deflated when the first Internet outlet I tried wanted nine euros for an hour, double of the most I had previously paid. The prices in the grocery stores were also outlandish--four euros for a loaf of bread. But then I discovered that the Swiss have not given into the euro. They cling to their franc, dropping prices a bit, but things are still more expensive than France or Italy. I'm just across the border now from Liechtenstein, awaiting the passing of the Tour de Suiss bicycle race. I sat atop a mountain yesterday with hundreds of others awaiting the peloton. It was preceded by an entourage of advertisers dispensing a variety of products-- cheese and chocolate and pens and water bottles and even a backpack. An older Swiss couple in an RV befriended me and made sure I got some of everything and they also shared food from their own larder. Lance's chief rival, Jan Ullrich of Germany, was leading the race. It was his final tune-up for the Tour de France, just two weeks away. And now for me, it's on to Austria and Germany.

Later, George

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Privas, France

Friends: Of the many miles I have ridden these past two-and-a-half months none were finer than the 35 I rode 'til dark last night fueled by the delight of having seen Lance squash his competition in the Pyrenees, essentially letting them all know they are competing for second place. Eight stages remain, but they are almost ceremonial, as on every important occasion so far, he has shown his dominance and there is no hint of him not being able to maintain it. His strength and will are second to none. One look at the intensity that scalded his face as he romped to today's finish line, would buckle the backbone of anyone who thought he might be vulnerable.

I saw the last hour of the mountain top finish in a bar I had stopped at two months ago on my way to Cannes. It was so frigid back then, I ordered a hot chocolate. This time I wanted as much ice as I could with my orange juice. Someone has finally turned on the heat, as the temperature has risen to the 90s. But I don't mind. I'm able to douse my head and shirt at the many cold water springs in the small towns along the way and keep my water bottles full. I'm thankful for every cold sip, as its not so easy to force down warm water. I rely on that more to refresh myself than air-conditioning, as its not so common. I am fully made aware of how hot it is when I walk into a supermarket and subconsciously expect to be bathed by the cool of air-conditioning, but instead am smothered by warm, stuffy, stagnant air. If I want cool air, I have to go to the frozen foods section.

I didn't mind a light sprinkle in the least when I resumed my riding at five after the conclusion of the day's stage. I didn't bother to dig out my rain jacket, but allowed myself to enjoy the shower, and luxuriated in the joy of being able to put in four more hours on my bike after watching Lance's conquest. This experience has been so wonderful I am already looking forward
to next year and what parts of France the route will pass through. Its been a fabulous introduction to the country. I now know that Lance isn't just being diplomatic when he says one of reasons he loves riding this race so much is for the countryside it passes through.

Time and again I marvel at how nice it is to be riding on such traffic-free roads with such fine scenery. Out of Mendes the road wound up and down through a gorge with a dam formed lake. I hadn't a worry in the world after finding the local version of WD-40 earlier in the day, resolving a chain suck problem that had plagued me for a couple of days. My Phil Wood Tenacious Oil couldn't penetrate the recesses of my rear derailleur and unclog whatever was causing it to fling forward, sucked by the chain, when I paused to coast. Nor do I have any worries about running out of water, even if I have a long stretch between springs, after scoring an additional three water bottles from the Tour on the last stage.

Besides the climbs and the finish line and the intermediate sprints on each day's stage, one of the prime places to watch the action is at the feed zone, something I hadn't done yet. The riders slow a bit to receive bags full of food and drink. As they approach the feed zone, they toss aside their water bottles, and beyond the feed zone, they often discard food that they don't need. I was hoping to fill a pannier with enough energy bars and gel packs to last a week. I'd never witnessed a feed zone. I didn't realize that the team personnel handing out the food was spread out for over a half a mile. I didn't arrive at the feed zone in time to thoroughly scout it out, and when I tried, I was thwarted by another of those authority-crazed gendarmes, who wanted me to stay put. As I was being hassled, one of the team soigneurs of Brioches La Boulangere, Voeckler's team, came over and offered me two bottles full of a cold, flavorful energy drink. He had none for the gendarme.

I had hoped to station myself near the Postal Service team, but I was stuck at the beginning of the feed zone and they were nowhere within site. When the riders arrived, I wasn't prepared for the seriousness of the handful of scavengers around me chasing down the flurry of flying water bottles like maniacs. One 40-year old guy with a couple of pre-teen sons must have grabbed at 20 bottles. I only came up with one and it was from a team that I already had--T-Mobile. I didn't even notice if it had been discarded by Jan, though I suppose I could say it was. After the race entourage passed and I could resume riding I kept my eyes peeled for unwanted food. Thee wasn't much a chance of finding any as there was a small battalion of fans waking along scanning the roadside for whatever they could find. Some were clutching the cloth team bags the riders were handed full of food and then discarded. They were all walking at a brisk pace, periodically pouncing on some item or another. My the time I had pedaled past them all, there was nothing to be found. I'll know better next time to station myself towards the end of the feed zone.

Later, George

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Grenoble, France

Friends: I've been at the finish line several times in the past two weeks for stages of two of Europe's premier bicycle stage races--the Giro and the Dauphine-Libere in Italy and France. This morning I was among the mobs taking in all the pageantry and rituals of the start of the seventh stage of the Dauphine-Libere in Grenoble. It was in the heart of the city with a big enough plaza for the teams and their buses. Right across the street was the hotel where the U.S. Postal team was staying. There was a huge crowd gathered at its entrance.

And guess who they were all waiting to see, many with his latest book and pen in hand. Lance wasn't the only one people wanted autographs from, but no one else came close to attracting the attention he did when he finally emerged half an hour before the start of the race and 45 minutes after the first of his teammates came out. He signed autographs for a couple of minutes, but then mounted his bike and was led through the crowd by a body guard. He, as all of the 90 or so riders left in the race, had to go to a podium to sign in and be introduced. Nearby were the buses and vans of the dozen teams competing in the race. Fans were clustered around all of them. Many of the riders were hanging out, giving autographs and letting fans have their picture taken with them. It was a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere and the fans were respectful and orderly. Englishman David Millar, world time trial champion, let someone wrap an arm around him and drape an English flag over their shoulders for a photo. Richard Virenque, multi*ple mountain climbing champion of the Tour de France and a great French favorite, causally talked to a couple of gendarmes as he straddled his bike.

Just as on Mont Ventoux, there were young women passing out souvenir hats of some of the sponsors. I declined, but did accept a newspaper magazine insert devoted to the race. I was leaning against my bike, absorbing all the hubbub, eating a self-concocted mix of tabouli and potato salad and baked beans in my trusty Tupperware bowl. As so often happens while I'm eating in public, several passersby gave me a smile and a,"Bon Appetite," another of the great charms of France. It matters not what I am eating or where, even ravioli out of a can while plopped on the sidewalk, people are happy to accord me such a greeting. The French recognize the pleasure of eating and can't resist acknowledging it. If conjugal relations weren't ordinarily conducted in private, I'm sure the French would have an equally warm and encouraging expression to offer those so engaged.

I arrived in Grenoble early yesterday afternoon in ample time for the conclusion of the sixth stage of the Dauphine-Libere right where the peloton set out from today. I had a mostly downhill 50-mile ride into the valley of this former Olympic site--the 1968 Winter version. The Isere River winds through the town. It is surrounded by jutting peaks, some still snow-streaked. I got a fairly early start. I had camped in a small town dump. I wanted an early escape before anyone came a-dumping. If it were bear country, camping in such a place would have been daring , if not foolhardy, embracing too much Camus' observation, "What gives value to travel is fear." I'm not sure how much I concur with those words. Overcoming hellish conditions can be satisfying and exhilarating and may make for good stories, but it is equally exhilarating to bike in heavenly bliss, thinking all the time that there is nothing I'd rather be doing.

I do enjoy camping in unlikely places, and the dump qualified. It was by no means a desperation campsite. I stumbled upon it by accident, turning off on an unmarked, lightly used side road not knowing that it came to a deadend less than a quarter of a mile at a small town's dump. If there had been a sign indicating town dump, I wouldn't have turned down the road. But since I was there and it was a dump of simply dry goods with no odor and nothing to attract animals, except maybe the two-legged, I stayed put. There was evidence of target-practice, a rare sight in France. I would have preferred not to have noticed that, but still it gave me no more concern than when I camped at the top of a runaway truck ramp last fall in northern Californian. Unlike this accidental campsite, I knew full well where I was headed when I labored up the steep, steep incline of the runaway truck ramp. I've never seen a runaway truck lane used. This one was headed to a forest. I was able to pitch my tent off to the side of its summit where the grass had been matted by sleeping elk. It was a sensational camp site on a knoll looking out over the forest. This dump wasn't quite scenic but its amenities. It was quiet and I didn't have to pack out my garbage.

A giant screen on the back of a semi-trailer truck, parked near the finish line of yesterday's stage, carried the televised feed of the day's race. Several hundred of us stood and watched the last two hours of the race. One cameraman on a motorcycle was with the Dane Michael Rasmussen, who was off on a lone breakaway eight minutes ahead of the main pack. There were a couple of cameramen in the thick of them. Another was a minute back with Tyler Hamilton, who had crashed on a descent and was riding hard to catch back up to the pack. A cameraman in a helicopter overhead provided an overview. It was mesmerizing to watch these men pedaling with all their might so eloquently. There was no commentary, just occasional written tidbits of information. Hamilton did catch up, preserving his second place overall, and Rasmussen held on to win by eight minutes.

There was no such screen at the summit of Ventoux, though looking down the mountain at the slowly approaching cyclists, I had my own mental screen of the action. I was constantly reminded of the recent animated bicycle racing feature, "The Triplettes of Belleville," and how well it captured the essence of the single-minded efforts these cyclists put forth. There must be something primordial in bicycle-racing for it to so naturally and easily consume the attention of so many of us. It afflicts one and all, even non-cyclists. Jesse's Dad, who hadn't been on a bicycle in years, started watching the Tour de France coverage on OLN last year, taping hours of its coverage for Jesse. It inspired him to buy a bike and start riding. He plans to come over to France this summer with his bike. Florence's husband Rachid, also a non-cyclist, started watching the race this year when he and Florence moved back to France. He became a devotee of the race, watching several hours or it every day for the three weeks of the race.

And now, after I sign off, it's over to the finish line of today's stage to watch the last hour-and-a- half on the big screen until the racers cross the finish line. Then I'll be on my way to Switzerland, 100 miles away. I hope to cross paths with the week-long Tour of Switzerland, which started yesterday. It is Jan Ullrich's final tune-up for The Tour, now less than three weeks away. After the Ventoux time trial one journalist observed, "Forty days until L'Alpe d'Huez." He's not the only one counting down the days, some in high anticipation and some in fear.

Later, George

Friday, June 11, 2004

Laragne-Monteglin, France

Friends: Mont Ventoux, that solitary hulk of a mountain 100 miles west of the Alps over in Provence, is a monster. I paid it full homage, not only spending all day yesterday at its 6,232 foot summit watching Lance and company do battle, but bicycled up two of the three roads to its summit and biked down the third. My first trip up was a reconnaissance mission two days before the time trial to scout out camping spots and the availability of water and also just to see if it draws as many cyclists as L'Alpe d`Huez. I knew there would be hoards for the race, making race day an unfair comparison.

There was a steady stream of cyclists Tuesday, but considerably less than at L'Alpe d`Huez. It could have been the difference between a week day and a weekend, but it might also have to do with how much more demanding The Ventoux is. At 13 miles, it is five miles longer and climbs nearly 4,000 feet compared to the 2,700 feet of L'Alpe d`Huez. L'Alpe d`Huez is notorious for
its initial super steep two miles. Ventoux starts out merely steep, but it doesn't relent as L'Alpe d`Huez does, maintaining a 7.1 per cent grade. The continual trail of discarded energy gels along Ventoux attested to its severity. There were none on L'Alpe d`Huez. One can fully fuel up in Bourg d'Osians at the base of L'Alpe d'Huez and can complete the climb in around an hour. The nearest town to the start of the Ventoux climb is several miles away and its added length means that it could take a couple hours to complete the climb, somewhat necessitating some supplementary fuel along the way to keep going.

When I first noticed the discarded tubes of energy gels, I paused to pick each up, partially as an excuse to rest my legs, but also as a study of a sort to to see the many different kinds and nationalities. There were tubes from Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Croatia and the US. A couple miles after they first started appearing I had to stop picking them up there were so many. It was like harvesting Marlboro packs in a bar district on a Sunday morning. They were everywhere. It would take all day to reach the summit if I stopped for each one. If there were a value to them, as with the Marlboros, I would have been rich.

One passes through vineyards and various orchards on the approach to the climb and then enters a nice cool forest. About four miles from the summit the landscape suddenly turns lunar.
There`s a restaurant and a ski lift and a most welcome water pump at that point. I was slowed a bit on Tuesday, as there was a road crew putting down new asphalt. A mile from the summit is a memorial to the English cyclist Tommy Simpson, former Olympic gold medalist, who died at that very spot in 1967 during the Tour de France. He had taken too many supplements to assist his climb and overtaxed himself on a sweltering hot day. And thus were drug controls implemented, as much to save the athletes from overdoing it, as to level out the competition. His memorial was adorned with water bottles filled with dirt to keep them from blowing away and packs of gel and club stickers and a chain. Someone had also left a photo of Pantani, another fallen cyclist, though he didn't die from overdoing the drugs in competition, but rather recreationally.

I climbed a longer, much more gentle and easier route the next day when I returned. I was surprised to see trees being harvested along the way on The Ventoux. Its not the first logging I`ve encountered in France, as about 25% of the country is forested, but it is something I didn't anticipate. I camped seven miles from the summit and had another surprise as I slept--deer nuzzling around my tent. This road linked up with the race route and the road I'd previously climbed at the point the forest ended just before the ski station. When I arrived there at 8:30 that morning it was already lined with RV`s and spectators. The French love the opportunity to
picnic. There are picnic tables along the roads everywhere. And a bicycle time trial is an excellent excuse to have a picnic, as racers are sent out at one or two minute intervals and will be going by for several hours, rather than in one bunch in a few seconds on an ordinary race stage. Even though it was early, many of those gathered were already setting up their spreads. They'd be there all day, long enough for breakfast, lunch and dinner if they chose.

The first of the day's competitors set out at 12:30. It would take them about an hour to make the climb. I took up a spot at the finish line. From 1:30 until a little after 4:30 I could follow the progress of each rider from a bend mile away, each escorted by a gendarme on a motorcycle and a team car carrying a spare bike, as they passed through the throngs lining the road. I took an occasional break, following some of the racers over to their team van or car to change clothes and start eating. It is true they wear no underwear beneath their shorts. And I can also report that Lance's Russian teammate Ekimov has a large swirling tattoo on his back.

The riders set out in the reverse order of their standing in the race. The last three sent off were Iban Mayo of Spain, Lance and Tyler Hamilton, a former teammate of Lance's, as they ranked one through three after the first five stages of the race. It was quite a shock to see Tyler, who had started two minutes after Lance, nearly catch him. Tyler had a phenomenal race, breaking the record for the climb set by fellow American Jonathon Vaughters a few years ago. But his record didn't stand for long, in fact only one minute and 35 seconds, when Mayo crossed the line.

Lance disappeared after the race, but I was able to find Tyler at his team van and joined the
seven or eight journalists interviewing him, all in English. He said he is not at peak form yet and is happy where is it at. Lance could be a little nervous, though when it comes to a mano-a-mano battle in the mountains, his ferocity is still to be feared. Lance brought down Mayo at last year's Tour de France when he fell after catching his handlebar on a fan's bag on a climb. At the time Lance was forcing the pace and trying to break away. When Lance recovered and rejoined the other leaders who had waited up for him, he accelerated again and this time left all behind, including Mayo, who had earlier won the L'Alpe d'Huez stage of the race and looked as if he might be the strongest climber in the race. Now a year later, Mayo looks like he is even more of a threat. Lance didn't look at all happy crossing the finish line. He later said that Ventoux remains the most difficult climb of all those in France.

I wasn't the only American along the race course. I stood alongside several who had draped an American flag over the fence shortly before the finish line. When they started talking about attending a Christmas party at John Maddin`s house with Al Davis, I moved away. It was nearly impossible to find a spot of shade on the upper reaches of the mountain. We were all getting baked but good. I put on my long pants for the first time since Cannes to protect them from the sun. There were two and three thousand dollar bikes scattered everywhere. Many people parked their cars at various pull-offs and then biked the rest of the way up. There were a few of the gritty, wiry Italian tifosi here, but it was mostly a casual middle class crowd, happy to be taking this Thursday off and to be outdoors on a mountain. Their delight and enthusiasm was genuine.

And there was Jesse, last seen nearly a week ago at L'Alpe d`Huez. We lost touch again on a climb shortly afterwards. It was a relief to see he was still alive, which was no guarantee considering the number of close calls he's had besides the one time he was actually hit. The
Madonna de Ghisallo is working overtime looking after him. He risked riding with a broken front rack for weeks. That was truly living dangerously, as if it had broken and caught in his front wheel he could have been catapulted head over heels. It could have been catastrophic. If I had known about it when we were at Cannes, I would have given having it repaired priority over all else, even seeing Godard. It wasn't until a day after crossing back into France over the horrific San Bernardo Pass that it finally gave way and he was forced to replace it. Now he's off to Germany to meet his girl friend, while I head to Switzerland and the cool of the mountains.

It's in the 80s. I`m guzzling liquids and availing myself of every spring along the road and fontaine in the towns, soaking my head and my shirt. One of the delights of France is the free-flowing ice-cold fontaines in the center of many towns, especially the smaller ones. Jesse was quite adept at finding them, as he was equipped with only two water bottles and of the smaller sort and regularly running out. One often hears them before spotting them. Occasionally there is a warning that the water is not to be drunk. I`m happy for any water to pour over me
these days.

I spent the two days before the Ventoux time trial playing the tourist in Provence, where
tourists are in great abundance. The locals have concocted all sorts of things for them to see and
do. There were Roman ruins and medieval villages perched on rocky promontories and homages to Van Gogh and the oldest synagogue in France and a village of residences made from stacked flat stones and the town of Roussillon where everything was built from a distinctive local reddish stone. I went out of my way to pass through the town of Apt in tribute to Samual Abt the New
York Time's long-time cycling correspondent. Peter Mayle, author of the runaway best-seller "A Year in Provence," lives near by. Some of these sites I could rhapsodize over and some I can't. The most striking site was the 2,000 year old 9,000 seat Roman theatre in Orange. The Romans built dozens of them throughout their empire, but only three in the world are still in tact. The others are in Syria and Turkey. A ten-story high wall the length of a football field towered behind the stage. A bust of Caesar peered out toward the seats from an alcove about half-way up. No less than Thomas Jefferson went out of his way to pay the amphitheatre a visit. When I was there in the late afternoon a group of woman dancers accompanied by music were rehearsing. The acoustics were remarkable.

Later, George

Monday, June 7, 2004

Orange, France

Friends: L'Alpe d'Huez is such a popular pilgrimage site for cyclists, some enterprising photographer hangs out at the second bend below the summit snapping photos of every passing cyclist for them to purchase. He hands them a card with a number on it and the address of his shop at the summit. He was plenty busy this past Saturday, as there was a non-stop procession of cyclists making the climb, and Jesse and I were among them.

This most hallowed of climbs gains a startling 2,700 feet in less than eight miles up to a sprawling ski village at 6,000 feet. We'd both tackled longer and higher climbs in the past few days, but none of such sudden and sustained steepness and spectacular beauty. It was a brute, but a stunningly beautiful brute, with sensational views of the snow- streaked, chiseled peaks all around, and also back down the valley to the small town of Bourg d'Oisans, where the climb starts.

Part of the climb's fame is due to its 21 sharp bends, each with a sign counting down the number of bends to go and giving the altitude and also a winner of the L'Alpe d'Huez stage of The Tour de France from over the years. It was first introduced to The Tour in 1952 and was won by the Italian great Coppi. It was so demanding that it was not brought back until 1976. Despite its popularity, it is not included every year. It was the first mountain-top finish in The Tour's history, an addition that has dramatically enlivened The Tour ever since. Seeing the names of its winners (Hinault, Hampsten, Pantani, Bugno, Kuiper) at each bend in the road, is a sharp reminder of the frenzied battles that have been fought right there, heightening the majesty of the climb and injecting some needed juice into the legs. No signs were needed to remind any of us that on July 21 the cycling world's attention will be focused on this climb. For the first time ever the L'Alpe d'Huez stage will be a time trial. It could well decide if Lance will become the first to win The Tour six times.

Craig from Chicago, who we visited on this trip, would love the climb, as he would have an endless supply of cyclists to chase down. His tongue would be hanging to his knees if he gave in to all the chasing he could have. Neither Jesse nor I were doing any chasing, as we were the only ones with loaded bikes. I was able to latch on to a trio of Dutch cyclists for a spell before I decided it best to resist my own chasing impulse. It was early in the climb and I feared that if maintained their pace, I could well bonk before reaching the summit.

I humbly dropped off and for the rest of the climb let the non-stop parade of cyclists on their sleek and unencumbered bikes go by without accelerating, giving them just a mere "Bonjour." I was reciprocated with a "Bonjour" from most and quite a few "Bon Courages," as well. Not everyone knew the expression, as there were quite a few nationalities out there, including a strong contingent of Dutch cyclists glaringly decked out in orange or a Rabobank jersey, and, of course, plenty of Germans. There was one group of Germans large enough that their tour leader painted exhortations to them on the road, just as fans do for their favorites. There were still faint

"Lances" and "Jans" painted on the road, left from The Tour's last visit. The Germans even had family members cheering them along the road.

It was largely a male thing. I saw only three women among the several hundred cyclists. And it was mostly cyclists not serious enough to shave their legs. There were a few on mountain bikes and even one fellow rollerblading with ski poles. Most plodded along without pausing, though I did pass a couple of portly sorts on my descent who were walking their bikes. We all had to descend the road we had climbed, as the road ends at a ski resort. There are some dirt jeep paths that lead elsewhere, but not appropriate for the road bikes that most of us were on.

The climb passed through a couple of small towns with churches that rang their bells on the quarter hour. Near the top was a vast meadow full of cows, many with bells of their own. The sprawling ski town at the top was mostly shuttered up, just as at Val d'Isere. I can't report on my time, as I stopped for pictures and also to scout out potential camp and viewing sites when I will be back here in July along with several hundred thousand fans from all over Europe and the world. There aren't a great many wide spots in the road, so I don't know if there will be space for all of us. There are some truly choice vantage points enabling one to look down and see a couple miles of the course and several of the switchbacks, that could well be claimed days ahead of time.

For six days after returning to France via the dreaded Col de San Bernardo, I've had at least one category one or beyond category climb. Jesse and I didn't meet up again until L'Alpe d'Huez and then got separated again. He's been learning the final great lesson of bike touring, "He who travels alone, travels best." Now it's on to Mont Ventoux for Thursday's time trial in the week-long Dauphine-Libere race, Lance's final tune up for the Tour. Tyler Hamilton and Iban Mayo, who finished fourth and fifth last year, will also be on hand. Ventoux ranks right up there with L'Alpe d'Huez in difficulty and mystique. It will be packed with fans.

I am down out of the Alps, and for the first time in a week I have had a day where I have climbed less than 4,000 feet. Mont Ventoux stands alone, a towering presence that commands so much respect it is often referred to as simply "The Ventoux." When we passed by on our way to Cannes a month ago its top was still snow covered and its three roads to the summit closed. Its summit is just a bit higher than L'Alpe d'Huez, but the climb will be much longer and without such spine-tingling views. Down out of the Alps, summer has arrived, my first 80 degree day. The heat will compound the challenge of the climb. For now I have two days to explore various Roman ruins in the area and give my legs some rest. I also need to decide where to next. I will follow this race to Grenoble, where it ends on Sunday. Then it will be three weeks until what brought me over here in the first place commences. The cycling in France has been so agreeable, I could just spend the time further exploring this country. There is much much more to be seen. But Switzerland and Austria and Germany beckon as well. I'm already plotting a possible circuit, that could include the week-long Tour of Switzerland, another tune-up race for The Tour.

Later, George

Thursday, June 3, 2004

Bourg St. Maurice, France

Friends: I called upon my emergency wool cap for the first time two days ago when we climbed the recently reopened 7,000 foot Col de San Bernardo over the Alps back to France in a driving rain storm. The last two miles of this infamous climb were lined with snow banks twice my
height. The rain was softening the snow banks causing them to calve like glaciers, their calvings turning into piles of treacherous slush on the road. The most huge of them blocked two-thirds of the road. One never knew when another might come crashing down. It was brutal.

Even before the long 15-mile, 3,000 foot climb had ended, I had to stop and put on extra layers of clothes to stay warm despite the extreme effort it took to keep climbing. Usually I'm shedding clothes on such a strenuous ascent, but these were extraordinary circumstances. I didn't even bother to put my helmet back on for the bitterly cold descent, as I needed to preserve all the body heat I could with the hood of my jacket pulled tight over my wool hat. We could have avoided this climb if bicycles had only been allowed through the seven-mile long tunnel a few miles away, and might have risked making a run for it if we had known how horrendous these conditions were going to be.

After about 13 miles of descending, with dark closing in, I stopped to camp, leaving one of my water bottles along the road for Jesse to spot. I had no idea how far behind he might be. I was shivering and rushed to put on dry clothes and wrap myself in my sleeping bag. I was above the road in a forest, and as I ate, kept my eye out for Jesse. Unfortunately, he missed the water bottle and my whistle. I suffered an even worse misfortune the next day when I failed to notice a sign warning that the road ahead, over a 9,000 foot pass, was closed, or not open yet. So I got to climb up to the renowned ski resort of Val d'Isere, twelve miles and 2,500 feet higher up the road, and then fly back down. I didn't realize my mistake until after I'd passed through Val d'Isere and some carpenters working on a house shouted the bad news at me. I should have been suspicious that there had been so little traffic coming down the road. I'm under no pressure to be anywhere, so it was no tragedy, other than an unnecessary expenditure of a huge amount of energy.

I camped at 6,000 feet last night, just above the snow line. The pass beyond Val d'Isere will open June 15, the usual opening date, too, for the Road to the Sun in Montana's Glacier National Park. Now its on to L'Alpe d'Huez. I saw a hard-riding cyclist in a U.S. Postal Service uniform fly past in this town, but I didn't recognize him or have a chance to verify he was riding a team issue bike. He could well have been a legitimate Postie, and not just someone wearing their colors, as the team will be competing in the week-long Dauphine-Libere race starting nearby this weekend. I hope to see the time trial stage on Mont Ventoux, about 300 miles from here, a week from today.

Later, George

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Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Aosta, Italy

Friends: I set out before Jesse this morning for my first solitary cycling in the 1,300 miles we have biked together, other than on the long climbs. The road ahead didn't seem to require both our navigational skills, as it led directly to a town where we could meet up, though one never knows what puzzlements the Italian road sign-makers might inflict upon us. The evening before, when we turned on to SS26, we were greeted by a sign that announced "Aosta 45 Kilometers." Eight kilometers later a sign said, "Aosta 53 Kilometers." We're all too accustomed to such inconsistency, so all we could do was laugh. And all the way to Aosta the signs continued to be equally erratic. Even Jesse the film-student, who thrives on movies that are woefully deficient in clarity, is frustrated by attempting to solve the unrelenting senselessness of the Italian road signs.

We agreed to meet up at the tourist office, or the nearest Internet outlet to it, in Aosta. How far that might be we could only guess. A sign along the road where we had camped put the latest estimate at 47 kilometers. It had been both our best and worst camping spot in Italy, and the hardest to find, other than the campground in Milan. Usually we can find a place to disappear to for the evening within a mile or two after we decide to call it a day, but in this thickly settled valley, it took us 45 minutes to find a secluded nook for our tents. We were starting to get desperate when we noticed just ahead the road was about to begin its climb out of the valley we had been riding in. But just at that point, the road rose on some risers above the ground and below it was a clump of trees that offered some shelter. It was much too near the road for a quiet night of sleeping, but the campsite offered the bonus of being beside an ancient Roman road dating to the first century BC. The centuries and variety of traffic that had trod its cobble stones provided much to ponder, much as camping along the Pony Express trail has.

After about an hour-and-a-half of cycling this morning a car pulled over in front of me and an older guy hopped out and waved me down. That happened to me regularly in India by people who would say, "Welcome to India," and then invite me to their home. Here, my first reaction was, "Oh my God, has Jesse had another disaster?" Thankfully, the man just wanted to ask me about bicycle touring. He was 63 and had long wanted to do as I was doing. He hoped to tour around Europe next summer. His English wasn't the best, but I was able to tell him about camping and finding roads to cycle and the essentials to bring. He was interested in what it was costing me and how much all my equipment cost, as he didn't even have panniers.

He also wanted to know how old I was, a question I can vividly remember first hearing in Colombia, when I was cycling the length of South America in 1989 back when I was 38 and clearly no longer a spring chicken. People are always heartened to know that one doesn't need to be young to tour, that they needn't give up their longings of doing such a thing just because age is gaining on them. After several minutes this guy shook my hand and said, "Complementi," the closest thing the Italians have to "Bon Courage." I was hoping we'd be greeted by some unique exhortation like the Australian "Good on ya mate,"or the Mexican and Latin American send-off, "Que le viaje bien," but all we hear is "ciao" from the passing cyclists. One shop owner bid us farewell by saying, "Piano," a bicycle insider term meaning, "Take it easy." When Italians decide to have an easy training day they'll say,"We're going to ride piano today."

In many ways Italy is the ultimate place to bicycle despite the erratic road signs, the difficulty of wild-camping, the congested roads, and the paltry variety of easy to prepare supermarket food. Cycling is deeply venerated. It is deeply satisfying, if not uplifting, to be in a land where to be on a bicycle is to be in an exalted position. A cyclist is not regarded as a novelty or a curiosity, nor taken for granted. To be on a bicycle is something commendable. If this were Japan, the bicyclist would continually be bowed to. When an Italian sees a cyclist, it immediately brightens their day. When I'm on or with my bicycle, I'm granted immediate respect. The bicycle is like a badge I've been given, proclaiming that I am a person to be honored. Never before have I been treated with such universal warmth. I was accorded similar, if not greater, regard in Columbia by its corps of cyclists, though not by everyone, as here in Italy.

Even though there is much more traffic than in France, the traffic has given me no frights, as the drivers are so accustomed to cyclists and are likely a cyclist them self, they know enough to give cyclists room despite the narrowness of the roads. The road builders are so stingy with their spread of asphalt, they rarely even provide a shoulder of more than inches. Another of the amenities of Italian cycling is the abundant opportunity of drafting with so many cyclists on the roads. We had a pace line with an English touring cyclist the other day for about an hour. He'd been on the road for ten days. We were the first touring cyclists he had seen. Three minutes after meeting us, he said it was the longest conversation he'd had in English since he left England. Like us, he is always taken for being German. When the guy I talked to along the road earlier today learned I was American, his head actually jerked backwards in surprise, like an audible gasp.

Later, George

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