Monday, July 12, 2004

Limoges, France

Friends: Today is the first of two rest days during the three weeks of this race for the peloton here in Limoges up on the Massif Central. That doesn't mean a day off the bike, just some reduced, non-forced miles. I too will put in some miles, trying to get a leg up on tomorrow's stage. For me, the best part of today's rest day is not having to try to find a bar with a television in the late afternoon, as has been one of my biggest challenges the past nine days.

Sunday is always the most difficult, what with most businesses shuttered up for the day. Since yesterday was Sunday, I made certain to be in a larger city by mid-afternoon, increasing my chances of finding a bar or eating establishment open. I zeroed in on Gueret, tomorrow's host city for the stage finish. The downtown was dead quiet other than a crew erecting stands in front of the city hall at the finish line. Not a store or restaurant was open. But I succeeded once again in stumbling upon a restaurant/bar on the outskirts of the city, near a lake and parkland, that was open and had all three of its TVs tuned to the Tour.

It doesn't matter much that I can't understand the commentary, as rarely is the volume turned up loud enough for anyone to hear. Unfortunately, the cable coverage is very deficient in graphics, so I have to pay close attention to the numbers on the riders to know who is in the breakaway and who is chasing and who has fallen behind. The action is uninterrupted other than by a couple of brief commercials at the top of each hour. It was reassuring to see Lance and the Posties survive another preliminary stage. After nine stages they are poised to get down to the serious business of taking over the race once the climbing stages begin.

I let the Tour go off on its own for the past three days. While it shot out to Brittany and the westernmost point of France, I swung south from Chartres to meet up with it here after it had a long transfer by plane last night. So far, I have managed to ride six of the first eight stages, plus the prologue. I'll accompany the peloton for the next three stages. When it dives into the Pyrenees, I'll swing over to the Alps, where I'll await its arrival on L'Alpe d'Huez next Wednesday.

My time apart gave me a chance to catch my breath and fully appreciate the magnitude of this event. Wherever the Tour goes, it takes over the roads and towns it passes through. The official race entourage of riders and support crews and officials and sponsors and press numbers in the thousands. And there are thousands more following the race in campers and cars and one or two like me, via bicycle. The race route is a frenzy of activity, lined with fans, many camped out the night before.

Each town along the route dresses itself up to welcome the Tour. Homes and business erect banners or bike art of some sort to celebrate the Tour's arrival. It can happen only once a generation in some places, so it is a most celebrated occasion. The route is lined with gendarmes at every intersection and is abuzz with gendarmes on motorcycles. It is a dramatic contrast to my usual touring experience of riding in peace and tranquility. I am part of the spectacle. I am cheered all day long. I welcomed the break from all the hubbub, and especially the stress of dealing with the gendarmes, never knowing when one would step out in front of me ordering me off my bike. But I have also greatly missed it. I am more than ready for more of the excitement.

The peloton and I have had rain to contend with four of the past five days. But the riding remains most exemplary. I continue to be taken aback by how rural France is and what little traffic mars its secondary roads. The countryside is laced by a labyrinth of bicycle friendly, county-type roads. France is truly about as good as it gets for the touring cyclist. Even a couple of days ago, through the Loire Valley and the heart of the Chateau Region from Chartres to Orleans and Chateauroux, I had the roads virtually to myself other than around the urban centers. It was my first rain-free day in a while and without blustery headwinds or flat tires, I was able to pile up 120 miles.

I was pushing it a bit, hoping to make it to Limoges by Sunday, rather than today, in time for a mass ride of some 8,000 riders on Wednesday's Tour route. It is an annual event sponsored by the French Velo Magazine. It is quite popular. It draws riders from all over the world eager for the opportunity of riding a Tour stage in its entirety with the route closed to traffic. The number of official spots available quickly sell out when the stage is announced each year months ahead of time, though that wouldn't have deterred me from riding along. Its similar to what I've been doing on my own, except I've been sharing the road with motorized traffic.

The stage chosen for the public ride is always one of the signature stages of the year's race. This year's stage was the longest (150 miles) and with considerable climbing. I had no illusions of being able to ride it in one day with my load, but I would have been happy to join all these serious/committed cyclists reveling in what would be a dream ride for many of them. Many of the riders treat it as an actual race, pushing as hard as they can to compare their time to the Tour riders. Every rider wears a computer chip to determine their exact time. Prizes are given to the top riders in a bunch of categories. I would have been able to draft all day long.

Unfortunately, I didn't arrive in Limoges in time. I fell 80 miles short, thanks to head winds and rain and more climbing than I anticipated and a three flat tire day, all on my front wheel. The flats were quite a bummer after only one flat the previous 4,000 miles of this trip. I also lost several hours trying to find a bike shop with a 27" tire, as they aren't very common. Neither of the small town bike stores before Chartres stocked the tire, nor did any of the three bike shops in Chartres, all saying it was a specialty item. All they carried were 26" and 28" and 700c tires.

Never have I had such difficulty in finding a 27" tire, not even in Laos, nor Chile, nor
India. I went a little out of my way to go to the bigger city of Orleans and was denied at the first two stores I tried. I was prepared to pitch my entire wheel and replace it with a 700c wheel and tire. At a third store in Orleans the shop owner initially shook his head, but then remembered that he might possibly have such a tire down in his basement. While he took a look, I besieged the Madonna of Ghisello, the cyclist's patron saint, to let him find one. I was afraid to look when I heard him climbing back up from the basement, but miracle of miracles, he emerged with a Michelin, made in France, of just what I needed.

Another of the great surprises and pleasures of cycling France is how cool it has been in the northern part of the country. I can buy a liter of juice and yogurt in bulk and potato salad and tabouli and quiche any time during the day and not have to gobble them down at the moment. I keep remembering the blistering hot time trial last year when Lance lost close to 15 pounds, but I haven't experienced a temperature in the 80's since I left Provence in the south over a month
ago. Its cool enough that I resisted camping at a summit last night, as I didn't want to start the day with a bone-chilling descent.

I am now back in terrain I traversed on my way to Cannes two months ago, though not on any of the same roads. Jesse and I passed through Orleans on our first day out of Paris, but going east to west, rather than north to south as I did this time. It was the second time I've crossed the Loire, the only undammed waterway left in Europe. I was hoping to see some of the teams out riding this morning as I biked into Limoges, but they must have been sleeping in after their late arrivals last night by plane.

Later, George

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