Friday, July 16, 2004

Mende, France

Friends: Riding the Bastille Day stage of the Tour de France ought to be high on every bicyclist's list of the one hundred things he should do before he dies, along with biking coast-to-coast across the U.S., riding RAGBRAI, biking up L'Alpe d'Huez and Mont Ventoux, participating in San Fancisco's Critical Mass, riding the Ring Road around Iceland, working as a bicycle messenger, riding New York City's Five Borough Ride, riding the Cape Argus in Cape Town, biking to the Nordcapp in Norway, attending the Little 500 Bike Race in Bloomington, Indiana, biking the World's Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia.

Every day of The Tour is like a national holiday for the region it passes through, but on Bastille Day, France's greatest national holiday, The Tour is the focal point of the entire country. France is a country of picnickers. Having a picnic along The Tour route is almost a national duty. On Bastille Day, when everyone has the day off and the urge to be out picnicking is at its strongest, anyone within an hour's driving distance of The Tour route can hardly resist it. The route is lined even deeper and thicker with fans and picnickers than usual. The sense of festivity is at peak crescendo. The excitement and electricity is off the charts. Ride the route on a loaded touring bike, and you'll be bravoed all the way. Everyone is in a buoyant mood and is a friend to all they encounter. I haven't been showered with so much attention since biking through rural India. It is truly an ultimate bicycling experience.

This year's Bastille Day stage was a doozy and will go down in Tour lore as one of the great French triumphs. French hero Richard Virenque won it by six minutes. He rode at the front of the field for over 125 miles of the 150 mile stage, part of the time as part of a two-man breakaway with Axel Merkx, then off on his own, a truly Herculean feat. He gobbled up a ton of King of the Mountain points, a classification he has won several times in previous years. He held center stage for some five hours on the television broadcast seen by millions.

Despite serving a year's suspension several years ago for using banned substances, Virenque remains the most popular French rider in the peloton. His good looks make him the favorite of all the casual female racing fans in France. No other name appears more often written on the road and on banners unfurled along the route. It is a big, big deal to the French that one of their own win the Bastille Day stage. Every French rider in the race feels duty bound that one of their own win on this day, whether someone on their team or another. "L'Equipe," the superlative daily national French sports newspaper, listed the 23 French riders who have won the Bastille Day stage in the 101 years of the race, and asked who will join the fraternity this year.

Besides being the longest stage of this year's race, it also had the most rated climbs, nine of them. The next most is seven on two upcoming stages, and after that five. It was also the first stage this year with a category-one and a category-two climb. There are five classifications, one through four and then a "beyond category" rating that applies to climbs such as Ventoux and L'Alpe d'Huez that are so brutal it would be impossible to give them a rating.

The category-one on this route would have been "beyond category" if it had been longer, as its final three miles were a 15% grade, much steeper than Ventoux or L'Alpe d'Huez. But since the climb was only five miles long, it didn't quite merit a "beyond category" rating. Even Lance commented that the steepness of the climb caught him by surprise, as this was a stage he didn't feel necessary to scout.

I was standing on the pedals, giving it my all, for those three final miles of the category-one climb. The cheering and, at times, astonished, throngs along the road didn't make me ride any harder, but they did keep me going. I would have certainly paused for a breather, if I'd had the mountain to myself. It wasn't the clamorous tunnel of noise the peloton would ride through, but it was still loud and non-stop, and genuine. All it takes is one bunch of fans to start the cheering. It perks up those beyond them. They feel compelled to join in like American fans doing the wave. I receive occasional polite applause on the flats from people who appreciate a touring cyclist riding the course. On this climb, they responded out of respect.

When I reached the start of the climb at ten a.m., about five hours before the peloton was due, the route was already packed shoulder-to-shoulder with humanity, but swarms of fans were still pouring in. The road side was crammed, but there was plenty of room on the slopes above, overlooking the road. A crowd of 40,000 at Wrigley Field would be just a thimble-full in comparison. The road was so steep and narrow, cars and motor homes were prohibited. Everyone had to walk or bike up. About 99% were walking. Many of the few with bikes were also walking.
The climbs attract the biggest crowds. Every inch of the road is lined two and three deep, with many more fans perched on the inclines above the road. The riders pass at a speed half or less than what they can maintain on the flats and they aren't bunched together, allowing the spectators more than a brief glimpse of the racers as they go by. There is no denying their strain and suffering riding maxed out trying to keep up or force the pace. This category-one climb was without a doubt the premium place to be on this stage, but it was too early in the day for me to stop. I always need to push on as far as I can, usually until I'm ordered off my bike. I knocked off two more climbs until I was stopped on the final climb, a category-two, less than a mile from its summit and less than 25 miles from the finish line.

I was beginning to think that I might possibly make it over the final climb and have a chance to fly in to the finish line in St. Flour before the racers. I was debating whether I wanted to stop and join the partying throngs before the summit or get to the finish line where I could watch the proceedings on the giant TV. I was still trying to decide what to do when shortly before the one kilometer to the summit sign a gendarme stepped out in front of me with arms crossed, even though it was two hours and fifteen minutes until the peloton was due. Usually the road isn't closed until two hours ahead of time. This was one of those gendarmes eager to exert his authority. He stopped several more after me who had yet to be ordered off their bikes by gendarmes further back.  The arbitrariness of it can be infuriating. But 15 minutes after I was stopped, there were no more bicyclists.

I joined a couple of Americans carrying a minimal amount of gear on their bikes, who had been halted ten minutes earlier. They made for great viewing companions. They were part of a tour group that had seen the previous three stages and had three more to go. They were genuine enthusiasts. The guy was wearing a vintage 7-Eleven jersey, the first American team to participate in the Tour. They were from Missouri.

"We don't live far from where Sheryl Crowe grew up," they said. They were having the time of their lives following The Tour, but they fretted the whole time we were together about getting back to their tour bus at the base of the climb before it was due to transport them to their hotel. It was the first time I hadn't been near snatch-happy fans grabbing for everything tossed from the caravan as if its offerings were gold nuggets. When something fell nearer one of us than the other, we actually deferred to the other, the first time I'd experienced such politeness. If one of us picked up something we didn't want or had gotten previously, we offered it to the other. One thing neither of us had need of was a small packet of Grand Mere coffee beans.

In the promenade of vehicles that precede the racers a few broadcast the radio commentary loud enough for the fans to hear. Since its only in French it's largely incomprehensible to me, but I could pick out "Virenque" and "dix minutes." When the helicopters started approaching we knew he was near. Since we were close to the summit, one of the TV helicopters hovered close overhead, drawing the waves of everyone lining the course. Virenque pedaled smoothly past us with his escort of motorcycles and team car carrying spare bike. His eyes were focused dead ahead and his expression remained inert and unresponsive to the continuous wave of cheers.

I feel obligated to nod my head or force a smile or raise a finger or two off my handlebars to acknowledge the applause I receive, but that would have been wasted energy for him and not something he could do in the heat of battle for hours and hours. About five minutes later, former breakaway companion Axel Merckx, son of the great, came by and then a minute later a group of about forty led by Floyd Landis with Lance on his wheel. Thomas Voeckler, the young French rider wearing the Yellow Jersey, dangled just off the back of this group, doing his all to hang on. A string of snot and perspiration drooled off his tortured face. Without the power of the Yellow Jersey on his back, he wouldn't have had the strength or desire to still be up there with the leaders. Those couple of seconds seeing the riders pass within a few feet were more dramatic and memorable than watching two hours of their theatrics on the big screen at the finish line. My delayed run-in to the finish also allowed me to harvest two more course markers and a green water bottle from the Bianchi team.

All the podium ceremonies were completed by the time I arrived, but I was able to learn that Merckx was caught by the peloton, but not Virenque, and though it was somewhat of a bunch sprint for second, a final steep climb just before the finish was too much for Hamilton and Heras. They lost seven seconds to Lance and Ullrich and Mayo. Virenque made himself a contender by moving three minutes ahead of Lance. He's finished on the podium twice, third in 1996 and 2nd in 1997. He isn't one of the better time trialists and has an occasional off day, so he isn't considered much of a threat to Lance, especially since he's usually content to win the climber's polka jersey. Even so, he has now become a factor.

My Bastille Day was further highlighted by riding several miles with an English woman who competed in the Tour de Feminine, a short-lived woman's version of the Tour de France attempted back in the early 1980s. She loved riding The Tour so much, she's returned every year since with her husband to follow it in a camper. She was a long distance specialist. For eleven years she held the woman's record for riding the length of Great Britain. She covered the 800 miles from Land's End along the English Channel to John O'Groats in Scotland in just over two days. I hope to see her again at L'Alpe d'Huez. She and her husband were heading there directly after the Bastille Day stage, arriving six days ahead of time. She said its necessary to arrive that early to get a choice parking place near the start. She said the field nearby will fill with tents. I'm headed there now myself. Its 300 miles away. If lucky, I'll arrive a couple days ahead of time.

Later, George

No comments: