Saturday, July 31, 2004

Meaux, France

Friends: I could feel my pulse quickening as I neared Montereau yesterday, departure city for the final stage of this year's Tour. It'd been five days since the peloton had graced its streets, but they were still tingling. Everywhere was evidence of how proud Montereau was to be the departure point for the final stage of this year's Tour. The round-about at the town entry had a floral display spelling out "Ville Etape Tour de France 2004." The town abounded with posters proclaiming the same.

Many of the shops still had Tour displays in their windows--cut-outs of the yellow and green and red jerseys, bikes or bike wheels, yellow ribbons, a red polka dot hat on a wig in a beauty salon. A photography store had a dozen 8 x 11s of Lance and Virenque and others in its window taken as they lingered in the race village. All the checkers at the Champion supermarket, sponsor of the King of the Mountains competition, wore red polka dot t-shirts. And painted on the road were the names of all the fan favorites.

This was just the second time in the 91 editions of The Tour that Montereau had been a host city, the other in 1977. The official Tour de France guide, with detailed route information and statistics galore, listed the number of appearances of each of the arrival and departure cities and when. The Tour organizers try to get as many cities in on the race as possible. Only four times this year did the Tour depart from a city it had arrived at, sometimes making the whole entourage transfer hundreds of miles after its usual five p.m. finish before it resumed at around noon the next day, putting quite a strain on followers such as me. The Tour transferred a couple of hundred miles to Montereau by high speed train from Besancon after the 19th stage time trial.

Of the 36 "Ville Etapes" seven were first-timers, including Chartres, surprisingly enough. Much as The Tour would have loved to have concluded or started a stage with its spectacular Cathedral as a backdrop, Chartres simply doesn't have a large enough central plaza to accommodate the thousands involved with the Tour and the tens of thousands drawn to it. This year's stage finished on the outskirts of Chartres, several miles from the town center and cathedral.

Besides the seven first-time cities, there were seven second-timers, meaning more than a third were virtual rookies. Seven of this year's host cities had hosted the Tour more than ten times, including Paris, which has been its final destination all 91 times, and 38 times a departure city. L'Alpe d'Huez ranked second among this year's participants with 23 finishes.

I'm presently 20 miles from the Charles De Gaulle airport scouting out bike access and a place to camp. Euro Disney is just ten miles away and Paris another twenty. I'm scheduled to fly back Wednesday morning. I'm still winding down.

Lance's picture is still plastered all over in the media. Paris Match had a two page photo of Lance's mom in a yellow dress sitting beside Sheryl in a green dress at the finish line of a stage. Robin Williams was alongside wearing a "Six" hat. They all sported the yellow Livestrong bracelets.

Later, George

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