Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Bourg d'Osians

Friends: Bourg d'Osians, the small town at the foot of the most legendary climb in cycling to L'Alpe d'Huez, looks like a refugee camp. Tents are pitched everywhere on any scrap of unoccupied turf. The roadsides are jammed with parked recreational vehicles. Thousands and thousands of fans are milling about, though it would be very hard to mistake any of them for being a refugee. Most are clad in bright cycling jerseys and tight black racing shorts and wear a deep tan from hours spent on the bike. Some are scrawny enough to be a refugee, but their faces are too aglow and their demeanors too ecstatic for any of them to be a refugee. There is a strong buzz of anticipation and excitement. All present have been looking forward to this occasion for months and are thrilled to be on hand for this Woodstock of an event. I doubt any of them would rather be anywhere else than here.

There were 900,000 here last year and by all indicators it will be well over a million this year. A paltry few are staying in legitimate campgrounds and at the handful of hotels. The vast majority are squatters, camping along the town's streets and the highway in and out of town and on any patch of vacant land available from church lawns to construction sites, and all with the blessing of the town. Anything goes when it comes to supporting THE Tour.

Thanks to the Englishwoman I met on Bastille Day, I sought out a meadow at the start of the climb that she said she would be camped at. She and her husband had arrived several days before and were able to claim a prime spot for their camper right along The Race route. Though it was already wall-to-wall campers, I was able to squeeze my tent into a bare spot on the fringe of the meadow. The Englishwoman had recommended this spot not only for its location, but also because it included a port-a-potty and a spigot of water. I'm sandwiched between a 66-year old Italian and a Dutch father-and-son. The Dutch pair have been following the Tour from the start and immediately recognized me as the lone touring cyclist they have seen along the way. They had been eager to find out where I was from and how much of The Tour I had seen.

Even if I hadn't known about this plum of a spot, there are many others I could have found space in even if I had put off my arrival until the day of The Race. But then I would have missed out on the non-stop parade and swirl of cyclists on the road through town and in its central district and on up to L'Alpe d'Huez. Its bikes everywhere, parked and being ridden. I stocked up on food and euros before arrival fearful of shortages, but somehow the lone major supermarket in town is keeping its shelves stocked, although it was a half hour wait in the checkout line this morning.
Like all things connected to this race, the town is well prepared and accommodates all.

Tomorrow's time trial is only ten miles long. It begins back in the village. The first two miles are flat before the climb starts. I don't know how everyone will find space along the course, or where I'll end up watching it, but no one will be disappointed, as simply being a part of this gathering is an experience of a lifetime for many. This is the glamor stage of The Tour and has attracted the most international audience by far of any stage. The Postal Service jersey is the dominant garb, and not only by Americans. I am in a microscopic minority, not wearing some team jersey nor riding a high-end racing bike. Most of the jerseys are club jerseys--French, German, Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Italian and even a few American. There are a few Dutch on three-speeds and a few mountain bikes and even a handful of other touring cyclists, but otherwise it's nothing but two-wheeled hot-rods whose wheels alone cost more than my bike. The town is forest of tanned, well-muscled legs.

I was perfectly content to spend all day today hanging out, watching the spectacle, until the race coverage began on television at three p.m. My legs finally had a day of rest, except for having to stand for two hours in a bar crammed with fans. It was another thrilling stage with a fair amount of climbing. Virenque took off on a breakaway with a Dutch rider solidifying his hold on the King of the Mountains competition. Ullrich made a move with two others to separate himself from Lance. The move was premature, so Lance let him expend some energy off on his own. For a while it gave us four groups to follow--the Virenqe group, the Ullrich group, the Lance group, and the main peloton, which contained Voeckler in the yellow jersey. Each was accompanied by a cameraman on a motorcycle. The three lead groups eventually came together, while the yellow jersey group fell further and further behind and Voeckler's reign in yellow was history. The lead group was whittled down in the last couple of miles to Lance, the Italian Basso, Ullrich and his German teammate Kloden, and the American Leipheimer, former teammate of Lance, who is now the lead rider for Rabobank, the lone Dutch team in the race.

It was a tense sprint. The Germans in the bar were wildly cheering as their two countrymen were in the lead, but then it was Basso and Lance and then Lance alone delivering an emphatic double-armed celebratory thrust with an even greater burst of emotion than he usually expresses as he took the stage. Then I and all the Lance supporters could drown out the Germans. It was another fine moment that made all the effort I've put into this well worth it.

Later, George

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