Saturday, July 24, 2004

Lons-le-Saunier, France

Friends: Lance the Great hardly needs any training advice, especially after trouncing the field at L'Alpe d'Huez and dominating this year's Tour from start to finish on his way to becoming its first six-time winner, but if he wants to be even stronger in his bid for seven next year, he ought to add training on a loaded touring bike to his regimen. When he returns to his feather-light racing bike, he would positively float up the climbs, as I did on L'Alpe d'Huez the morning of the race, when I was able to leave all my gear at my campsite and ride up virtually weightless and gravity-free.

It was quite a contrast to my earlier ride there a month-and-a-half ago. I didn't even need my lowest gear or have to accelerate my heart rate, as I glided up the mountain's 7.9% average grade, not even deterred by its brief ten per cent sections. It helped mightily, too, that there was an unbridled amount of upward energy and momentum generated by a huge mass of humanity, mostly on foot, being drawn up this mountain road of 21 switchbacks for the day's time trial, in
what has become an annual migration of unrivaled proportions, in numbers and spirit.

It began at least by six a.m., as that's when I was awoken by the rhythmic sirens of the gendarmes trying to clear the way for their passage. When I joined in at seven a.m., the road was already clogged with foot traffic. Those of us on bikes had to slip through what narrow crevices we could find and ride wheel-to-wheel before the crevice closed, at least for the first mile or so until the throngs began to thin a bit. There was a great sense of festivity in the air. There wasn't a soul among us who wasn't buoyed by the thrill of being there and hadn't been anticipating this day for weeks or months or years. My every cell was beaming with great cheer from the contagion of this atmosphere of delight. My legs spun as effortlessly as if my bike was chain-free. This was my greatest climb ever. I didn't want it to end. I resisted chasing after those who passed me, so I could prolong it and savor its every moment at my leisurely, strain-free pace.

The road was lined top-to-bottom all the way, seven hours before the first competitor would be off, but there was loads of space to fill in, along the road and on the mountain-sides. Many people had set up camp along the road, some days before. Some still lay asleep in their sleeping bags on the pavement, not even bothering with tents. Some were bathing in their underwear in the many springs that gush from the cliff walls along the road. There were cans and bottles, mostly of beer, chilling in the gutter where the cold spring water flowed. There were occasional bursts of music, from American rock to German drinking songs, blasting out of boom boxes. It was nice to ride anonymously on my unladen bike and not have to acknowledge any applause or accolades. I was still an anomaly, however, astride a bike with racks and fenders and wearing sandals, but fortunately that didn't prompt any more than a second or prolonged look from the masses along the road.

The Postal Service jerseys were more prominent than ever, and those wearing them all seemed to be riding a little faster than anyone else. The spirit of Lance was palpable. We all knew he would romp and stomp today. One of the many exhortations to him on the road was, "Lance, rip their balls off." There was already a thick crowd encamped in front of the giant screen that would be carrying the cable feed of the proceedings, 250 meters from the finish line, just
before the final bend in the course, but I was able to find some space behind one of the dozen or so pup tents that fans had slept in the night before. It provided a sliver of shade from the intense sun. It was nine a.m. when I settled in, nearly eight hours before Lance would be the last of the 160 riders out of the starting gate ten miles away.

There were no Americans in the vicinity to talk to or eavesdrop upon, mostly Germans, some of whom booed when Lance was shown on the screen. There were Americans in abundance, however, some blatantly obvious carrying, or draped in, a Stars and Stripes, and others equally obvious talking loud and cocky. There were still patches of snow streaking the mountains. A chair lift was in operation and there were people walking around with skis headed for some distant glaciers.

For the vast majority this was the first stage of the Tour they had seen this year. I met an English guy who had taken the train from London to Grenoble and then biked the 30 miles to L'Alpe d'Huez. I met another English guy who had come by motorcycle. There was a Czech who had bicycled from Karlovy Vary to cheer the two Czechs in the race, one a Postie. I talked to an American businessman from Salt Lake City who had flown in to Paris and rented a car and camped in town. It was a momentous day for all of us, especially those in the Lance camp who could go crazy when we saw him pass Basso on the big screen, who had started two minutes before he had, the ultimate humiliation.

I was lucky to have my bike when the proceedings concluded and the mass evacuation began. Those on the lower part of the mountain began dispersing as soon as Lance passed, so the most difficult part of getting down the mountain was fighting through the initial mobs. There were gendarmes standing every 50 feet on the center line all the way down the mountain ordering us cyclists to slow down or occasionally to dismount and walk, which we would do for a minute or
two, and then remount. There was no motorized traffic to contend with until after I reached my campsite, took down my tent, loaded up my bike and hit the road at seven. Then it was bumper-to-bumper traffic at a crawl for five miles out of town until I turned off on the road to the first mountain pass, the Col de Glandon, that the peloton would ride over on the next day's stage. I had ridden over this Category One pass the month before, though from the opposite direction. It was twelve miles to the summit. I was five miles short when it was too dark to keep riding. I camped with three German cyclists who had biked over from Germany just for these two stages.
In the next two days I encountered countless American cyclists with tour groups who had come to ride a bit of these mountain stages and watch the riders pass. They were all in a state of ecstasy. Some even knew a little bit about racing. A guy from Maine recognized acclaimed English photographer Graham Watson, who has had many books published of his cycling photographs, stationed at the same bend of the road we were at waiting for the riders to pass, and asked him to sign his yellow "6-Shooter" t-shirt. I have, at last, finished my pursuit of The Tour, and feel a bit of the same relief that all of Lance's teammates feel at having successfully done their job. They can celebrate, but they can also rest. I've had to ride long and hard to keep up with it, but have been amply rewarded. To be more efficient, I would almost need to scout out the course ahead of time as Lance does, to learn the best short cuts when necessary to save time. It would also be worthwhile to know ahead of time the best escape routes from the larger cities that host The Tour. I lost quite a bit of time trying to find my way out of some cities when the route wasn't clearly marked.

On the two stages after L'Alpe d'Huez I was halted at the start of a category two climb two-and-a-half hours before the peloton was due, a bit premature. I really wanted to be at the summit of those climbs, for the viewing and also to be further down the road. Both times it stymied me in my efforts to get as far as I wanted before dark. I have been riding at a much harder than touring pace, racing to get as far down the road as possible before it was closed. I had to try to be in position to see each day's conclusion on television and find a town big enough to have an Internet outlet.

Yesterday I was lucky to see the end of the race on a big screen under a tent set up in a small town along the road, the first time I had come upon such a thing. I had passed through two small ski towns that had bars, but neither had a television. It wasn't a crucial finish, as there had been a breakaway group of six almost ten minutes ahead of the Postal Service led peloton, but still I didn't want to miss anything. While sitting under the tent I was joined by an Australian couple I had passed who were in bumper-to-bumper traffic coming down the mountain. They were living in Geneva, about 50 miles away, and after seeing the L'Alpe d'Huez stage on TV were inspired to go see a stage live. It is infectious. It will be hard not to be a part of it again.

Later, George

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