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

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