Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Cambrai, France

Friends: I began my game of tag with the Tour de France yesterday on its second stage, when it swung briefly into France from Belgium. I hadn't intended on making my first rendezvous with Lance and company until the fourth stage team time trial starting here in Cambrai, when Lance could well assume the maillot jaune, but as I gave the maps of France and The Tour route a closer look while in Rouen, I noticed if I hightailed it, I could squeeze in an early and extra look at The Race. I just had to ride 160 miles in a day and a half, not an unreasonable amount.

I began to have second thoughts about these plans though, when it began to sprinkle just as I was about to leave the municipal campground outside Rouen early Sunday morning. For the previous few days there had been brief morning rains, usually from about 6:45 until 7:45. As I sat under cover by the campground office, waiting this one out, I was joined by another retired Englishman bicycling around France, staying at the campground.

He was even more of an eccentric than the one I met in Liege. He was riding a Giant cross bike with rear panniers and pulling two trailers--a Bob and a Bike Friday. He had enough gear for a troop of Boy Scouts. He didn't want to be without any of his comforts. One trailer was piled high with his bedding and a full-fledged pillow and a folding chair. He was happy to tell me about every item he had and how important it was to him. As the rain continued, I felt more and more tempted to remain audience to David's pontifications. I hadn't had a rest day since Cannes, nor a single day since I began these travels over two months ago entirely off my bike, so staying put made sense.

As with the people at the tourist office, David, was unaware of the Anquetil Monument. After hearing my enthusiastic description, he was eager to go give it a look himself. I was very glad to have made the effort to track it down rather than lingering in Belgium awaiting The Tour start, even though it meant biking a couple of hundred extra miles. Anquetil was known for his grace and elegance, as his monument epitomised. It filled a small grassy patch on the outskirts of the quiet town of Quincampois, a suburb of Rouen.

There were no signs to the monument, so I had to ask the way after circling around the town center for a few minutes hoping to find it. The centerpiece was a six-foot high slab of marble cut in the shape of France. It was etched with the image of Anquetil flying along on his bike straight ahead, as if he were trying to burst out of the slab. He is so well known there was no need to identify the figure other than by an illegible signature in the lower right hand corner of the map. In front of it was a ten-foot concrete slab in the shape of a jersey painted yellow. Surrounding it were five flag poles, each with a flag of a bike, one for each of his Tour triumphs. An eternal flame would not have been out of place.

As David and I chatted, the rain remained a light sprinkle, urging me to take the day off. But with a bike all loaded up and ready to roll, even though I had plenty of reason to ignore it, I couldn't, so off I went into the rain, happy to have a race of a sort of my own, trying to reach the town of Avesnes-sur-Helpe by 3:04 the next day when the peloton was due to roll through, though I knew I needed to be there at least an hour earlier if I wished to partake of the caravan of race sponsors tossing goodies to the crowds.

I was extra inspired to link up with The Tour after Lance's dominating performance in the opening prologue, gaining a staggering 15 seconds on Ullrich and Hamilton and even more on Mayo and Heras, his chief rivals. A year ago he sputtered in the prologue, even finishing behind one of his teammates. He promised he wouldn't let that happen again, and he was good on his word. I didn't have to look hard to find a bar in Rouen with a television showing The Tour. The first one I tried had the race on. Even though it was only I and the bar tender watching, it was a near religious experience to finally be in France watching The Tour with a French commentary after so many years of following the race in the U.S.

The rain continued for four hours after I bade farewell to David. It was hard not to question my decision to ride. It was cold and I was barely staying warm as the rain seeped through my Gore Tex jacket. I was tempted to stop and camp when I passed through a forest that called out to be camped, but I pressed on, hoping to reach a town where I could find a bar with a television. But it was Sunday and virtually nothing is open on Sundays in France, not even bars. At 3:15 I passed through a town with a bar-cafe without a TV, only video games. Shortly before five, about when the day's stage was to conclude, I came upon a much bigger town, but not one of its dozen or so bars was open, just a falafel place with no TV.

Back on the highway on the outskirts of the town I came upon one last bar with several cars parked out in front. It was a gathering of a few friends and wasn't officially open. They were sitting around watching some soap opera on the television, but they took mercy on me and switched to the race just as the slow-motion replay of the finishing sprint was being shown. Lance was in the bunch, all that I needed to know. He relinquished the yellow jersey due to time bonuses, but that was okay. It was good to know hadn't suffered a fall or that a breakaway had gained a hunk of time on him. All was well. I could continue riding with no concerns. I pushed on until I had ridden a little over 100 miles for the day at nine p.m., putting me within 60 miles of where I would intersect with the peloton the next day.

I was back on the road early the next morning. As I neared the race route I passed a string of frolicsome fans who greeted me with an occasional "Allez" and "Bravo." I only saw one other on his bike however. David, the Englishman, told me an American cyclist wearing a U.S. Postal Service baseball camp had left the campground the day I arrived, and also planned to follow The Tour. I was hoping to meet him. I arrived at Aves a little after one, more than two hours before the peloton was due. There were already people along both sides of the road, and not in handfuls, but in throngs. The first of the police motorcycles and official vehicles started passing at 1:30, clearing the way. I expected to see a steady flow of cyclists riding the course, but there were none at all.

Shortly before two the parade of sponsors driving an assortment of floats and clown cars and dune buggies brought everyone along the road to attention. Each of the 40 or so sponsors were represented by several vehicles. They drove at more than a parade pace, since they had to stay ahead of the racers who would be averaging 25 mph or so. Some merely blared load music and had aerobic instructor types gyrating and waving, but most tossed trinkets--key chains, magnets, candy, hats, brochures, coupons, cheese, inflatable tubes that people could bang together to cheer the racers and other oddities that I could do without, though I couldn't help but join in the scramble for each item, as if it were a foul ball at a baseball game. Sometimes the vehicles slowed to dispense their product, but those maintaining the 25 mile per hour speed, had to be careful not to fling their product directly at the bystanders, but to direct them towards their feet. I quickly discovered the giveaways came with such a speed that they often penetrated the barrier of fans along the road. The best strategy was to stand back and grab whatever went through the crowd.

The only thing that I really would have liked, besides the food, was a red polka dot cycling hat, emblem of the climber's jersey. I had my hand on one, but just a moment after some 40-year old guy had put his hand on it. The guy was a fiend, snarfing up everything for his 15-year old son, who stoically stood beside him, holding a plastic bag for his dad to deposit everything he nabbed. This went on for 45 minutes . It was quite a frenzied spectacle. People really cared about getting as many souvenirs as they could. Most of the sponsors were French companies I had never heard of. The only ones I recognized were Euro Disney, Nestles, the movie "Batman 2," and the watch company and former team sponsor Festina.

There was a 20-minute interlude between the caravan of sponsors and the arrival of the racers. We knew their arrival was imminent when a flock of helicopters crept up on us and were finally overhead. A six-man breakaway preceded the main pack by three minutes and twenty-five seconds. They all passed in a blur. I didn't recognize anyone in the breakaway and could barely identify their team jerseys. I had to rely on the logo-plastered team car of each following closely behind to know which of the twenty-one teams in the race were represented in the break. Not surprisingly, there were none from the U.S. Postal team. Each of Lance's eight teammates would be back with him, looking after his needs. After the 182 racers in the main body passed, it was a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam of team cars with bikes on their roofs and press cars and cars with sponsors and officials and VIPs and medics. The final vehicle in the entourage was a van with a broom and the words "Fin de Course" on it. The broom wagon was there to scoop up any racer who was suffering too much to continue.

The moment the van with the broom passed, the crowds instantly dispersed. I hopped on my bike and continued down the course for six miles, then turned off towards a town large enough where I might be able find a bar with a television to watch the rest of the race. My overloaded bike offered an odd sight after the rush of sleek racing bikes attracting a few cheers and wisecracks about how far behind I was. It was no difficulty finding a bar with a television, and though it was near the race route, no one else had filtered in to watch the final hour of the race.

Tomorrow I will ride the forty miles of the team time trial route before the racers and await their arrival in Arras. The race will resume the next day in a town 30 miles away. I will head directly there after the time trial concludes around five. It will be a 125-mile stage to Chartres, southwest of Paris. I will try to ride as much of that stage as I can before the caravan catches up to me, and then continue on to Chartres and its cathedral. And now I'm off to a TV to see how Lance is handling the cobblestones leading into Roubaix.

Later, George

No comments: