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

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