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

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