Friday, July 9, 2004

Chartes, France

Friends: Keeping up with The Tour is no easy task, especially when its raining and the wind is in your face and the gendarmes very very sternly evict you from the course, but that does not diminish in the least the thrill of being a part of this. Despite the obstacles, I've managed to ride the last two stages in their entirety, though I arrived in Chartres this afternoon nearly 24 hours after the peloton.

I was joined for 85 miles of the Amiens-Chartres stage by a 46-year old former national caliber racer from Cincinnati who I had unknowingly seen compete in a five stage race in Chicago in 1980 that included a 19-year old Greg LeMond (who beat all the established pros in a criterium around the Art Institute) and Eric Heiden, fresh from his domination of the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. Murray never became a name, though many he raced against did, several even going on to win stages of the Tour de France. He spent one summer racing in France on a team that included Tour commentator Paul Sherwen, but hadn't been back in two decades. He too was fulfilling a dream having a grand time following The Tour on his bike. We're both very surprised that there are so few of us doing it.

Murray, unfortunately, was pulling a Bob trailer, preventing me from benefiting from his considerable draft. Murray was big and strong. I had to push myself to keep up, except on the climbs, as he struggled a tad, complaining of being 40 pounds overweight, though it didn't really show. He is still a serious enough rider to keep his legs shaved and wear a heart monitor. When it reached 140 on the climbs, he'd slacken his effort. He was riding a several thousand dollar Trek similar to Lance's. He couldn't bring himself to desecrate it with racks and panniers. This was his first touring experience and he was still adapting to it. As a racer, he was accustomed to days of four and five hours on his bike, not the seven to ten hours that touring requires, or at least long-distance touring, trying to do 100 miles and more a day.

We met at 7:30 yesterday morning on the outskirts of Amiens. We had unknowingly camped less than a mile from one another off in the bush on the outskirts of town. Murray was just exiting a bakery when he saw me pass. The site of his trailer caught my eye as well and I thought, at last, here's a touring cyclist following the race like I'd been hoping to meet. I just hoped he spoke English.

We had both just set out on the day's course about five hours before the racers would make their start. The route is amazingly well marked with neon yellow signs with a black arrow pointed up or to the left or the right lashed to posts along the road and at all the intersections. Those signs are a prized souvenir. Most of those following the race in campers have one in their rear window, almost like official verification that they are following the race.

When I first saw the arrows along the route, I wondered who took them down and if I might be able to grab one before they did. Then I began seeing them in cars and RVs. At first I thought they might be contraband, but when I started seeing lots of them, I realized that they are indeed available for the taking once the racers have passed and they are no longer necessary. Neither Murray nor I had nabbed one yet, and were hoping that today might be the day.

There weren't very many people out along this 125-mile stage this early, unlike the day before when by 8:30 fans had already taken up a position sitting in lawn chairs on the 40-mile stretch of the team time trial. The shorter stage had people encamped the entire way. One couldn't go far along the road without seeing racers names written on the road. Some of the writing was so tightly written that I, going at 15 mph, about half of what the racers would be doing, couldn't read it all. Every few miles some joker had written "Vive EPO," the banned drug that is reputed to be popular among the racers. The banner of the day was a large bed sheet draped over a road sign about four miles from the finish saying "Lance and Sheryl = (a heart)." I felt assured that Postal would win the stage after seeing that. They did, putting Lance back in yellow.

And Sheryl is here. Murray shared a pizza with her and her parents during the time trial. He said he talked with them for half an hour before he realized who she was. She was eating with Jim Ochowiecz, the former director of the Motorola team before it became the U.S.Postal team. Murray knew Jim from his racing days. Jim invited Murray to join them when Murray happened into the restaurant for lunch. Jim had only casually introduced Murray to Sheryl and her parents. He said they were very easy-going and unpretentious. It was only after he looked closer at the official credentials dangling from her neck that he realized who she was.

I hung out at the finish line of the time trial and watched the action live and on a giant TV screen the size of a billboard. I was also in position to witness the podium ceremony. All nine riders of the Postal team crowded together and celebrated their domineering victory. Then Lance returned alone to receive the coveted yellow jersey. I could go home satisfied after all that. But the next day was even more exhilarating, riding with Murray past the throngs lining the course. It was nice to have a companion to share all the cheers with. Since there is virtually no one else riding the course, either with or without gear, we gave the spectators an opportunity to practice their applause. Murray had found a bouquet of flowers and placed it atop his trailer. He almost looked like the Grand Marshall of the race.

We only managed to do 50 miles of the course, thanks to a strong headwind, before we were semi-forcibly ordered off our bikes after having ignored a couple of other premature warnings. We had made it to the highest point of the day's stage, so it wasn't a bad place to be marooned for a couple of hours until the caravan and the race had passed. Rain was threatening and, in fact, started shortly after we stopped. We had already set up my tent just as a place to retreat to from the wind. But I first spent an hour working on my bike, replacing a broken spoke I didn't realize I had and rear brake pads and rear tire, whose tread had finally worn through after 4,000 miles.

I put more effort into grabbing what souvenirs I wanted from the caravan, knowing now the order of the sponsors and what they were giving and what I would like. I managed to get a polka dot hat and also a Credit Lyonaisse mini-lion, but it was a battle. When I knew a sponsor with something I wanted was next up, I was on heightened alert. In the battle for the giveaways, a 70-year old guy actually slugged a 40-year old guy whose arm was in a sling. He deserved it, as he was quite aggressive and belligerent. He was such a menace, I nearly went and grabbed the gendarme who had ordered Murry and I off the course to intervene.

It drizzled for most of our imposed two-hour hiatus, but no one retreated to their cars or gave up their spot against the rails. It was the same the day before at the time trial. Racers passed for nearly three hours, but still I didn't notice anyone capitulate to the nasty weather. Murray and I resumed riding at 2:45. There was virtually no evidence whatsoever that just shortly before the road had been lined by thousands of fans. Everyone quickly disappears and takes along with them everything they brought. I was hoping for some good scavenging. I was lucky to spot a discarded Cofidis water bottle and a power bar, but otherwise zilch.

There were professional, or at least determined, scavengers, known as gleaners in France, walking along, scanning the rows of the two-foot high fields of wheat for items that might have been tossed by the caravan or the racers or left behind by the fans. This was rural
France with vast rolling terrain of various grains and corn and beets. Murray thought he was back home in Ohio. And once again I was astounded by the lack of traffic, and at how quickly The Tour roadway is transformed from a hive of great activity to a virtual dead zone. There was minimal litter, just the occasional orange plastic waste bag the organizers dangle from posts along the way, and of course, those neon yellow course markers. Murray and I were able to harvest four of them, two a piece, another highlight of the day.

We biked for two hours and then stopped and watched the last 45 minutes of the stage on a TV in a bar/restaurant packed with fans. A couple of Aussie fans wearing Australia flag shirts were part of the crowd. They danced an exuberant jig when their countryman, Stuart O'Grady, won the stage, chanting"Stuey, Stuey!." We stocked up at a grocery store, then continued riding for a couple more hours. I left Murray at a hotel and biked another ten miles until ten p.m., camping once again as always. We had hoped to meet up today, but failed to connect. But we'll definitely meet up again thanks to the Internet.

Tons more to tell, but not the time.

Later, George

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