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

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Auxerre, France

Friends: Yesterday afternoon's half-hour concert/service/prayers of the monks and nuns in the Vezaley cathedral was so exceptional, I lingered all afternoon at this hilltop village of 500 residents, so I could have a second hour-and-a-half dose of their gentle, almost mournful, singing at six p.m. It wasn't exactly a performance, as the nine nuns and seven monks of the Fraternite Monestique de Jerusalem face the altar and keep their backs to those in attendance during their daily singing-of-their-prayers ritual.

The earlier service was only briefly interrupted by readings from the Bible, while the evening service was a full-fledged Mass with communion and incense and organ interludes and the white-robed clerics going out into the audience giving everyone a two-handed greeting. It was a most moving and soothing experience attended by about 100 others in a nearly 1,000 year old cathedral. The singing and the spectacular location of this cathedral aren't its only attraction. People also come to pay homage to the remains, or relics, of St. Mary of Magdalene. They reside in the crypt below the altar and are available for viewing. They were brought here in 1036 from Provence. Mary fled to France from the Middle East after witnessing Jesus' resurrection, fearing reprisals against his supporters. Her remains were initially interred in Provence, but were later moved here as a safer place for them. This cathedral has been a significant pilgrimage site ever since.

I took advantage of the amenities and spaciousness of the Dijon campgrounds the day before to tend to an assortment of neglected chores--laundry, hacking back the facial hair, patching tubes, and sifting through my panniers. It had been weeks since I had thoroughly investigated my four panniers. I was shocked at the quantity of Tour trinkets and memorabilia I'd accumulated--key chains, magnets, hats, noise-makers, pens and miscellaneous doodads, along with an array of water bottles and newspapers and brochures, almost enough to fill a pannier of their own.

I shouldn't have been too surprised, as each of the nine times I was at roadside when the caravan of 39 sponsors, most of whom had multiple vehicles, passed by dispensing booty, I came away with a small hoard of swag, even when I wasn't trying. A lot I could consume on the spot (packets of cheese and crackers, biscuits, candy, water, mini-sausages) and some I gave to people nearby, but most got stuffed into a pannier or backpack or handlebar bag. The majority were small items that didn't seem to amount to much, but over time, added up to a significant molehill. I ought to have been tossing some of them myself to the crowds as I preceded the caravan.

Instead, I'll offer a sample to anyone who can correctly identify the country where each of these incidents took place. #1 More often than not, it seemed as if the line I was in at the supermarket checkout counter in this country was delayed by someone needing a price check on an item, but no one, not the cashier, not the person responsible, not those in line behind, nor I in my non-messenger mode, ever expressed an iota of impatience. #2 The one and only time a cashier asked to look in my backpack to make sure I hadn't pilfered something. #3 Occasionally I'd be asked to check my pack at a supermarket, but only once was I asked to remove my helmet and check it as well. I didn't always leave it on my bike, especially when I hadn't had a shower in a couple of days, not wishing to inflict my matted hair on the public. #4 One other time besides in France I had to buy a new tire. The shop owner refused to let me leave my old tire, saying he had to pay for garbage removal and he didn't want any that wasn't his. #5 Which country had the cheapest peanut butter, which incidentally had an emblem on its label stating "USA Quality."

And a bonus question. Name the beloved French rider who competed in the Tour 14 times (only three riders competed in more) and achieved the podium eight times without ever finishing first, managing three seconds and five thirds. A street was named in his honor this year on the Tour route in his home town of St. Leonard, departure city for the stage before Bastille Day on the Massif Central. I was halted by the ceremony, as a mob of people blocked the road out of town at six p.m., as the unveiling took place. The 70-year old Pou Pou, as he is affectionately known, was in attendance, along with TV crews and journalists and camera-toting fans. Hanging from the building alongside the road sign plaque with his name on it was an old bike of his and his Gans Mercier jersey. It was a noteworthy event to be on hand for the birth of a bicycling pilgrimage site. Getting a glimpse of one of the sports' luminaries was another of the highlights of this trip. The following day his name was among those written on the pavement of the race route.

As a reminder, the countries I've passed through are France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Monaco. You have a week to reply and anyone is eligible. Good luck.

Now its on to Montereau, final departure city of this year's Tour, to see what remnants remain of its Tour participation.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Dijon, France

Friends: Another of those things that makes France such a wonderful place to cycle tour is that there are official road signs to campgrounds, and not only out in the country, but in urban areas as well. It made finding the campgrounds here in Dijon, just 1.2 miles from the city center, but still within the city limits, a snap to find. Without those signs it wouldn't have been easy. Its the first I've paid to camp in weeks, but I needed a real shower, rather than river and lake bathing, plus it was a bargain at less than five dollars.

I thought I was going to have to spend an extra day here anyway, when the lone tour of the Mustard Museum was already "complet" when I arrived yesterday afternoon. One must purchase a ticket for it at the Tourist Office. I paid the three euros for the next day's three o'clock tour, but went over to the museum anyway to see if there might be a no show and I could slip in on it. It wasn't easy finding the museum, as I didn't realize it was part of the Amora factory. I figured it out with some help just moments before the tour was to start. The guide was benevolent and let me join. There were about 25 of us, about 2/3s of whom were French. Still, the guide alternated between French and English. When the tour started, I was hoping for an actual factory tour, but we didn't get to see any of the manufacturing process. Instead we were led through a maze of several hallways of photos and exhibits just like a museum, though it is only open to the public this one time each day.

We were given some mustard seeds to chew at the start of the tour and advised to save a few to plant in our gardens. About 95% of the seeds are imported from Canada, as France doesn't have the vast prairies necessary for their cultivation. Dijon mustard is a style that was pioneered here in Dijon and is used by manufacturers all over the world. This Amora factory also produces ketchup and mayonnaise and other dressings, though the exhibits were strictly devoted to mustard. We were encouraged to try to include some in our daily diet as it helps digestion. Its also full of vitamin C and was used by sailors to combat scurvy. If you're wounded on a picnic, mustard works as an anti-septic as well.

Thanks to the kindly tour guide I can be on my way to Vazeley, a medieval city on a hill and another World Heritage site, first thing in the morning. It is 60 miles away. Among its attractions are monks and nuns who present their daily prayers three times a day to the public in song.

Yesterday was another superlative day on the bike through rural France and today should be no different. Its just 70 degrees and partly sunny and calm. But best of all, the traffic remains nearly non-existent off on the departmental roads. The tranquility is utter bliss. I'm simultaneously reveling in the moment and in moments from tours past and also reveling in tours to come. I'm totally enraptured. I can thank the transcendent powers of the bike, but also the pleasantness of France. I would unhesitatingly recommend cycling France to anyone who can hold their balance on the bike, but with one reservation--be prepared for a fair amount of climbing. If one's not conditioned to it, the rolling terrain can become demanding and demoralizing. Only in the Loire Valley and parts of Provence was it flat for any length of time. I enjoy climbing, so France is all positive.

Unfortunately, it's not entirely so for Lance. The French don't want to fully embrace him. The
French press goes overboard lauding the French riders, while showing restraint for his exploits. All the acclaim and coverage heaped upon Voeckler during his week-and-a-half in yellow was laughable. He was in yellow thanks to a fluke, but the press seized upon him as if he was the next Armstrong. Actually, they were just pleased to have the opportunity to ignore Lance. Voeckler showed his true status in the two time trials in the last five days of the race when he finished 88th of 155 riders still in the race at L'Alpe d'Huez and then 85th of 147 three days later. He couldn't even hold on to the white jersey for the best young rider. But for ten days no one received more press than he did. He and Virenque, the other French rider standing out in the field, were the two big stories day after day, not Lance making history. It was worse than America's nationalistic Olympic coverage. The day after L'Alpe d'Huez "L'Equipe" quoted 34
of the 35 French riders still in the race on what the experience was like. The only one not quoted was Moreau, one of the stronger French riders who didn't have such a good day and didn't want to talk.

Later, George

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Besancon, France

Friends: I didn't initially plan on biking to Besancon, site of yesterday's time trial, as it was 60 miles beyond the previous day's stage finish and not on my way back to Paris, 250 miles away, but after learning it was the birthplace of the Lumiere Brothers, fathers of cinema, that was reason enough to alter my route. It's nice to be under no pressure to be anywhere for the first time in weeks. My only deadline is to make it to Paris in ten days for my flight home. I can
once again dig out my long forsaken, 1,100 page, Lonely Planet guidebook to France and let it dictate my meanderings for a change.

Its been two months and two days since I concluded my gluttony of 60 films in 12 days at Cannes. I haven't seen a movie since, which puts me right on my yearly average of about 20 per month. Fahrenheit 911 has opened in France, but I'll hold off seeing it until I return to Chicago. Its Sunday, so the Lumiere Brother's home in the city center here, right across the street from
Victor Hugo's home, wasn't open. That meant I could go straight to a sports bar with a big screen to watch the Tour's promenade into Paris and its multiple concluding circuits of the Champs Elysees.

I was happy to have one last chance to ride a Tour route while it was still fresh from all the previous day's energy. As soon as I picked it up, I could feel the charge right to my bones. It happens every time, whether I'm preceding the riders or following them. The yellow arrow markers were long gone, so I didn't have that thrill of letting them guide my way, but the
official plastic orange garbage bags still lined the course, bulging with refuse, waiting to be picked up. There was little stray litter between them, as everyone conscientiously picks up after themselves. There were a few people out walking the course, as I always see, hoping to find something. And surprisingly, despite the thousands that had lined the course, there is still stray stuff to be found. I picked up some cheese and crackers and a racing cap and a can of soup. I kept my eyes peeled for the newspaper "L'Equipe," but saw none. There was plenty of writing still on the road and an occasional banner left posted and also decorated bikes in the small towns the route passed through.

The possibility of more bike art was another of the attractions that drew me to Besancon. The
previous arrival city had a fantastic cluster of paper-mache bodies on bikes ranging from Charlie Chaplin to insects and animals and bare-breasted women. There were mobs of people still attracted to them in the town center. That could be Chicago's next summer art project--give 300 artists a bike with a mannequin and let them go wild. As this exhibit showed, the possibilities are infinite and so is the interest in it.

I took a 15-mile detour on my way to Besancon this morning to see one of France's 27 UNESCO World Heritage sites--the utopian industrial city Saline Royale. Like all the other of these sites I've seen here (the Roman Theater in Orange, the Chartres Cathedral, the walled city of Avignon) it was most exemplary and worthy of special recognition. The UNESCO sites invariably offer something truly unique, inspiring a sense of awe and appreciation and wonder. They inspire hope and confidence in the ability of humans to create things of nobility that can lift the spirit and soothe the soul. This was the first such site I'd gone out of my way to see. If I'd had a map of all of them, I would have made a genuine effort to see as many of them as I could. Seeking them out would make for a great bike tour in the future.

Saline Royale was built in the late 1800s to harvest salt. It lasted just over 100 years. The
industrial complex was laid out in a manner that treated the workers with respect, somewhat influenced by the philosopher Rousseau. The ten or so large stone buildings, laid out in a semi-circle with vast lawns around them, are now devoted to championing humanistic urban development. One of the huge buildings had a special exhibit devoted to Danish architect and designer Verner Panton that was also most exhilarating.

Its now on to Dijon and its Mustard Museum, 60 miles away, and a ride through champagne country. I will eventually make my ride into Paris following the route the peloton took today. That will mean that I will have ridden at least some segment of 16 of the 20 stages of this year's Tour, much more than I anticipated. I was able to witness nine of them. I will now be able to answer in the affirmative that question I'm asked by those not so versed in cycling, "Have you ever ridden the Tour de France?" Until now I've responded by asking them, "Have you ever played in Wimbledon?", if they're a tennis player, or "Have you ever played in the Masters?", if they're a golfer. They always seem disappointed that I, with all my biking, have never ridden in the Tour to France.

Cheers to Lance and his exceptional efforts. I hope his intimations of this being his last Tour are
just frustrations with the French for letting that book alleging his drug use to be published here. Even though it was written by an English journalist, it has only been released in French. Lance tried to get it stopped. Lance used to live in France but moved to Spain, in retaliation to a lingering investigation into his team's alleged drug use. He definitely can't retire, obligated as he is to his new sponsor and teammates. If he elects to race in the Tour of Italy or the Tour of Spain instead, both three week grand tours just a cut below the Tour de France, he would bring them great attention and luster. But fear not that this is his last race. He is still too good and relishes it
too much to bow out just yet. And that's good news for all of us who appreciate superlative performance.

Later, George

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

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Bourg d'Osians

Friends: Bourg d'Osians, the small town at the foot of the most legendary climb in cycling to L'Alpe d'Huez, looks like a refugee camp. Tents are pitched everywhere on any scrap of unoccupied turf. The roadsides are jammed with parked recreational vehicles. Thousands and thousands of fans are milling about, though it would be very hard to mistake any of them for being a refugee. Most are clad in bright cycling jerseys and tight black racing shorts and wear a deep tan from hours spent on the bike. Some are scrawny enough to be a refugee, but their faces are too aglow and their demeanors too ecstatic for any of them to be a refugee. There is a strong buzz of anticipation and excitement. All present have been looking forward to this occasion for months and are thrilled to be on hand for this Woodstock of an event. I doubt any of them would rather be anywhere else than here.

There were 900,000 here last year and by all indicators it will be well over a million this year. A paltry few are staying in legitimate campgrounds and at the handful of hotels. The vast majority are squatters, camping along the town's streets and the highway in and out of town and on any patch of vacant land available from church lawns to construction sites, and all with the blessing of the town. Anything goes when it comes to supporting THE Tour.

Thanks to the Englishwoman I met on Bastille Day, I sought out a meadow at the start of the climb that she said she would be camped at. She and her husband had arrived several days before and were able to claim a prime spot for their camper right along The Race route. Though it was already wall-to-wall campers, I was able to squeeze my tent into a bare spot on the fringe of the meadow. The Englishwoman had recommended this spot not only for its location, but also because it included a port-a-potty and a spigot of water. I'm sandwiched between a 66-year old Italian and a Dutch father-and-son. The Dutch pair have been following the Tour from the start and immediately recognized me as the lone touring cyclist they have seen along the way. They had been eager to find out where I was from and how much of The Tour I had seen.

Even if I hadn't known about this plum of a spot, there are many others I could have found space in even if I had put off my arrival until the day of The Race. But then I would have missed out on the non-stop parade and swirl of cyclists on the road through town and in its central district and on up to L'Alpe d'Huez. Its bikes everywhere, parked and being ridden. I stocked up on food and euros before arrival fearful of shortages, but somehow the lone major supermarket in town is keeping its shelves stocked, although it was a half hour wait in the checkout line this morning.
Like all things connected to this race, the town is well prepared and accommodates all.

Tomorrow's time trial is only ten miles long. It begins back in the village. The first two miles are flat before the climb starts. I don't know how everyone will find space along the course, or where I'll end up watching it, but no one will be disappointed, as simply being a part of this gathering is an experience of a lifetime for many. This is the glamor stage of The Tour and has attracted the most international audience by far of any stage. The Postal Service jersey is the dominant garb, and not only by Americans. I am in a microscopic minority, not wearing some team jersey nor riding a high-end racing bike. Most of the jerseys are club jerseys--French, German, Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Italian and even a few American. There are a few Dutch on three-speeds and a few mountain bikes and even a handful of other touring cyclists, but otherwise it's nothing but two-wheeled hot-rods whose wheels alone cost more than my bike. The town is forest of tanned, well-muscled legs.

I was perfectly content to spend all day today hanging out, watching the spectacle, until the race coverage began on television at three p.m. My legs finally had a day of rest, except for having to stand for two hours in a bar crammed with fans. It was another thrilling stage with a fair amount of climbing. Virenque took off on a breakaway with a Dutch rider solidifying his hold on the King of the Mountains competition. Ullrich made a move with two others to separate himself from Lance. The move was premature, so Lance let him expend some energy off on his own. For a while it gave us four groups to follow--the Virenqe group, the Ullrich group, the Lance group, and the main peloton, which contained Voeckler in the yellow jersey. Each was accompanied by a cameraman on a motorcycle. The three lead groups eventually came together, while the yellow jersey group fell further and further behind and Voeckler's reign in yellow was history. The lead group was whittled down in the last couple of miles to Lance, the Italian Basso, Ullrich and his German teammate Kloden, and the American Leipheimer, former teammate of Lance, who is now the lead rider for Rabobank, the lone Dutch team in the race.

It was a tense sprint. The Germans in the bar were wildly cheering as their two countrymen were in the lead, but then it was Basso and Lance and then Lance alone delivering an emphatic double-armed celebratory thrust with an even greater burst of emotion than he usually expresses as he took the stage. Then I and all the Lance supporters could drown out the Germans. It was another fine moment that made all the effort I've put into this well worth it.

Later, George

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Villard-de-Lans

Friends: I spent today riding Tuesday's route through the lesser Alps from Valreas to the ski town of Villard-de-Lans, while the peloton had an easy day of it on the flats to Nimes after two demanding days in the Pyrenees. Tomorrow will be a rest day for the both of us. I will spend it biking to L'Alp d'Huez, about forty miles away. I'll be two days early for Wednesday's time trial, enough time I hope to find some space within ten miles of the climb for my tent.

It was no worries for the first time on a Sunday of finding a bar with TV, as I ended up in Villard-de-Lans, a hopping resort town with a plaza full of packed outdoor cafes and an Internet cafe open until two a.m. and side streets swarming with tourists, many of whom are here for The Tour. I arrived at 4:15 after quite a bit of climbing, two hours after TV coverage began and 45 minutes before the predicted finish of the stage. I ended up in a head-craning corner of a bar beneath the TV. It didn't matter much, as there was a breakaway group of ten non-contenders twelve minutes ahead of the lolling-along peloton. There would be no dramatics on this day. I could have been on my way if I chose, but there was a copy of the daily sports paper "L'Equipe" laying around with its usual eight pages devoted to The Tour. It is always well worth perusing. Its a good thing my French is limited, otherwise I would want to buy it every day and devour its every morsel. I still spend a buck on it every several days to absorb whatever I can. Today's issue featured pictures of a dejected Tyler Hamilton abandoning the race and an ecstatic Voeckler just clinging to the yellow jersey. His courageous efforts have made him a national hero.

Lance's victory was almost incidental news. Just as my every campsite is intensely memorable and personal, a minor oasis I feel blessed to happen upon, so too has every bar I've watched the Tour at, whether in the back kitchen with four Scottish cyclists or in a proper restaurant packed with partiers gathered for the event. Yesterday, I was able to share the precious event with a pair of 30-year old Americans, one from LA and the other from Denver, who were following the Tour on motorcycles. They had started in Amsterdam, as that was cheapest place to rent motorcycles for a month. If they went over 2,500 miles they would have to pay extra, so they skipped the same five stages I did--the two out to Brittany and the two in the Pyrenees, as well as today's stage. They too were wild-camping, finding a spot to pitch their tent along each day's route the night before. It doesn't fully qualify as wild, unpermitted camping, as each day's route becomes a quasi-sanctioned campground the night preceding The Race, jammed with RVs and tenters. After the peloton passes, they rush to a bar with TV, just as I do, to see the finish. They were having a grand time, but were disappointed to have foraged only one route marker so far.

Villard-de-Lans is the least Tour decorated town of all the stage start and finish towns I have visted. Most towns go ga-ga over being part of the Tour, plastering themselves with yellow bunting and ribbons and decorated bikes. Every shop window has a Tour or bicycle theme. There was still a cluster of bikes painted white and decorated with flowers at the town entry, and others scattered about town, but there aren't the banners and jerseys and such I've seen elsewhere, nor do many of the stores have bikes or yellow in their windows celebrating the Tour. In some towns, it almost seemed as if an edict had come down demanding that every business and residence do something related to the event. All the bike frenzy adds to the euphoria of the event. I want to linger outside every store and glory in its display and then go buy something from them. Rarely have I had adequate time in a town to see more than a fraction of all it has to offer. I knew I was going to be in no rush here and was really looking forward to a prolonged revel.

Besides the start and finish towns, just about every town The Tour passes through goes overboard stationing and dangling brightly decorated bikes everywhere and putting up banners honoring the Tour, almost as if they are in competition with one another or to insure the organizers will include them again in the near future. Common citizens get in on the act as well, painting yellow and green and red polka dot jerseys on their sheep, or piling bales of hay in a bike formation, or stuffing straw into Lycra and mounting a human figure on a bike and on and on. Many are similar to one another, but there is often something of stunning originality. Each day's stage includes enough bike art to fill a wing of the Louvre. He who loves the bike couldn't be more exhilarated. Even if one could care less about racing, if he cares about the bike, he'd be exhilarated to be a part of this.

Later, George

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Cambrai, France

Friends: I began my game of tag with the Tour de France yesterday on its second stage, when it swung briefly into France from Belgium. I hadn't intended on making my first rendezvous with Lance and company until the fourth stage team time trial starting here in Cambrai, when Lance could well assume the maillot jaune, but as I gave the maps of France and The Tour route a closer look while in Rouen, I noticed if I hightailed it, I could squeeze in an early and extra look at The Race. I just had to ride 160 miles in a day and a half, not an unreasonable amount.

I began to have second thoughts about these plans though, when it began to sprinkle just as I was about to leave the municipal campground outside Rouen early Sunday morning. For the previous few days there had been brief morning rains, usually from about 6:45 until 7:45. As I sat under cover by the campground office, waiting this one out, I was joined by another retired Englishman bicycling around France, staying at the campground.

He was even more of an eccentric than the one I met in Liege. He was riding a Giant cross bike with rear panniers and pulling two trailers--a Bob and a Bike Friday. He had enough gear for a troop of Boy Scouts. He didn't want to be without any of his comforts. One trailer was piled high with his bedding and a full-fledged pillow and a folding chair. He was happy to tell me about every item he had and how important it was to him. As the rain continued, I felt more and more tempted to remain audience to David's pontifications. I hadn't had a rest day since Cannes, nor a single day since I began these travels over two months ago entirely off my bike, so staying put made sense.

As with the people at the tourist office, David, was unaware of the Anquetil Monument. After hearing my enthusiastic description, he was eager to go give it a look himself. I was very glad to have made the effort to track it down rather than lingering in Belgium awaiting The Tour start, even though it meant biking a couple of hundred extra miles. Anquetil was known for his grace and elegance, as his monument epitomised. It filled a small grassy patch on the outskirts of the quiet town of Quincampois, a suburb of Rouen.

There were no signs to the monument, so I had to ask the way after circling around the town center for a few minutes hoping to find it. The centerpiece was a six-foot high slab of marble cut in the shape of France. It was etched with the image of Anquetil flying along on his bike straight ahead, as if he were trying to burst out of the slab. He is so well known there was no need to identify the figure other than by an illegible signature in the lower right hand corner of the map. In front of it was a ten-foot concrete slab in the shape of a jersey painted yellow. Surrounding it were five flag poles, each with a flag of a bike, one for each of his Tour triumphs. An eternal flame would not have been out of place.

As David and I chatted, the rain remained a light sprinkle, urging me to take the day off. But with a bike all loaded up and ready to roll, even though I had plenty of reason to ignore it, I couldn't, so off I went into the rain, happy to have a race of a sort of my own, trying to reach the town of Avesnes-sur-Helpe by 3:04 the next day when the peloton was due to roll through, though I knew I needed to be there at least an hour earlier if I wished to partake of the caravan of race sponsors tossing goodies to the crowds.

I was extra inspired to link up with The Tour after Lance's dominating performance in the opening prologue, gaining a staggering 15 seconds on Ullrich and Hamilton and even more on Mayo and Heras, his chief rivals. A year ago he sputtered in the prologue, even finishing behind one of his teammates. He promised he wouldn't let that happen again, and he was good on his word. I didn't have to look hard to find a bar in Rouen with a television showing The Tour. The first one I tried had the race on. Even though it was only I and the bar tender watching, it was a near religious experience to finally be in France watching The Tour with a French commentary after so many years of following the race in the U.S.

The rain continued for four hours after I bade farewell to David. It was hard not to question my decision to ride. It was cold and I was barely staying warm as the rain seeped through my Gore Tex jacket. I was tempted to stop and camp when I passed through a forest that called out to be camped, but I pressed on, hoping to reach a town where I could find a bar with a television. But it was Sunday and virtually nothing is open on Sundays in France, not even bars. At 3:15 I passed through a town with a bar-cafe without a TV, only video games. Shortly before five, about when the day's stage was to conclude, I came upon a much bigger town, but not one of its dozen or so bars was open, just a falafel place with no TV.

Back on the highway on the outskirts of the town I came upon one last bar with several cars parked out in front. It was a gathering of a few friends and wasn't officially open. They were sitting around watching some soap opera on the television, but they took mercy on me and switched to the race just as the slow-motion replay of the finishing sprint was being shown. Lance was in the bunch, all that I needed to know. He relinquished the yellow jersey due to time bonuses, but that was okay. It was good to know hadn't suffered a fall or that a breakaway had gained a hunk of time on him. All was well. I could continue riding with no concerns. I pushed on until I had ridden a little over 100 miles for the day at nine p.m., putting me within 60 miles of where I would intersect with the peloton the next day.

I was back on the road early the next morning. As I neared the race route I passed a string of frolicsome fans who greeted me with an occasional "Allez" and "Bravo." I only saw one other on his bike however. David, the Englishman, told me an American cyclist wearing a U.S. Postal Service baseball camp had left the campground the day I arrived, and also planned to follow The Tour. I was hoping to meet him. I arrived at Aves a little after one, more than two hours before the peloton was due. There were already people along both sides of the road, and not in handfuls, but in throngs. The first of the police motorcycles and official vehicles started passing at 1:30, clearing the way. I expected to see a steady flow of cyclists riding the course, but there were none at all.

Shortly before two the parade of sponsors driving an assortment of floats and clown cars and dune buggies brought everyone along the road to attention. Each of the 40 or so sponsors were represented by several vehicles. They drove at more than a parade pace, since they had to stay ahead of the racers who would be averaging 25 mph or so. Some merely blared load music and had aerobic instructor types gyrating and waving, but most tossed trinkets--key chains, magnets, candy, hats, brochures, coupons, cheese, inflatable tubes that people could bang together to cheer the racers and other oddities that I could do without, though I couldn't help but join in the scramble for each item, as if it were a foul ball at a baseball game. Sometimes the vehicles slowed to dispense their product, but those maintaining the 25 mile per hour speed, had to be careful not to fling their product directly at the bystanders, but to direct them towards their feet. I quickly discovered the giveaways came with such a speed that they often penetrated the barrier of fans along the road. The best strategy was to stand back and grab whatever went through the crowd.

The only thing that I really would have liked, besides the food, was a red polka dot cycling hat, emblem of the climber's jersey. I had my hand on one, but just a moment after some 40-year old guy had put his hand on it. The guy was a fiend, snarfing up everything for his 15-year old son, who stoically stood beside him, holding a plastic bag for his dad to deposit everything he nabbed. This went on for 45 minutes . It was quite a frenzied spectacle. People really cared about getting as many souvenirs as they could. Most of the sponsors were French companies I had never heard of. The only ones I recognized were Euro Disney, Nestles, the movie "Batman 2," and the watch company and former team sponsor Festina.

There was a 20-minute interlude between the caravan of sponsors and the arrival of the racers. We knew their arrival was imminent when a flock of helicopters crept up on us and were finally overhead. A six-man breakaway preceded the main pack by three minutes and twenty-five seconds. They all passed in a blur. I didn't recognize anyone in the breakaway and could barely identify their team jerseys. I had to rely on the logo-plastered team car of each following closely behind to know which of the twenty-one teams in the race were represented in the break. Not surprisingly, there were none from the U.S. Postal team. Each of Lance's eight teammates would be back with him, looking after his needs. After the 182 racers in the main body passed, it was a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam of team cars with bikes on their roofs and press cars and cars with sponsors and officials and VIPs and medics. The final vehicle in the entourage was a van with a broom and the words "Fin de Course" on it. The broom wagon was there to scoop up any racer who was suffering too much to continue.

The moment the van with the broom passed, the crowds instantly dispersed. I hopped on my bike and continued down the course for six miles, then turned off towards a town large enough where I might be able find a bar with a television to watch the rest of the race. My overloaded bike offered an odd sight after the rush of sleek racing bikes attracting a few cheers and wisecracks about how far behind I was. It was no difficulty finding a bar with a television, and though it was near the race route, no one else had filtered in to watch the final hour of the race.

Tomorrow I will ride the forty miles of the team time trial route before the racers and await their arrival in Arras. The race will resume the next day in a town 30 miles away. I will head directly there after the time trial concludes around five. It will be a 125-mile stage to Chartres, southwest of Paris. I will try to ride as much of that stage as I can before the caravan catches up to me, and then continue on to Chartres and its cathedral. And now I'm off to a TV to see how Lance is handling the cobblestones leading into Roubaix.

Later, George

Saturday, July 3, 2004

Rouen, France



Friends: Back in France, where I was promptly warmed by the civility and cordiality of the French, even those behind the wheel. Rare it is to encounter a driver impatient to get around me on the narrow roads when there is other traffic present. They almost seem to enjoy pausing and trailing me for a few moments, even when they don't need to, to share in my experience, as if to say they'd much prefer to be on a bike than confined in an automobile. One doesn't frequently come upon a touring cyclist, evidently making my appearance all the more appealing.


When I stopped at the velodrome in Roubaix, just across the border from Belgium, I was an instant minor celebrity among those biking and hanging out at the adjoining clubhouse. There were several dozen serious cyclists whirling around the track, some on the wheel of a motorbike. There were too many for me to take a whirl around the track myself. Instead, I had a fine picnic dinner watching the cyclists getting their miles in. The walls of the clubhouse were jammed with dozens of photos of those who had competed in the Paris-Roubaix Race, known as "The Hell of the North." The road is rough and hellish with over twenty segments of cobbles, but it earned its nickname for how destroyed the countryside was after WWI.

The Tour de France will be passing nearby in several days, which had everyone excited. There were billboards advertising its arrival, featuring Lance and his teammates in team time trial formation. I've come a couple hundred miles across the north of the country, first passing by quite a few cemeteries from WWI, some devoted to a specific country and others to the Allied forces in general. There was a Portuguese cemetery just a quarter mile from an Indian cemetery. If I cared to be fastidious about seeing as many as I desired, I could have followed many signs that pointed to cemeteries off the route I was following. They were all meticulously maintained, with grounds that could have passed as putting greens. Some had registry books for comments. The Indian cemetery was recently visited by a group of Nepalese.


I headed up to the English Channel, drawn by the allure of coastal riding. If I'd known how ferocious the winds were going to be, funneling through the channel from the North Atlantic directly in my face, I might have chosen a different route. They had me in my small chain ring for hours, head bent, struggling to do nine miles per hour. They had me thinking I was back in Iceland. It wasn't as cold as Iceland, but the temperature was just in the 60s and cooling off enough at night that I could see my breath. Its July, and I was expecting to swelter, so this is a bonus. There were limestone cliffs, sister to Dover across the channel, and beaches of gravel. No sand could withstand the winds. I followed the coast to Diepp, just east of all the D-Day, or J-Jour, as the French call it, beaches, and then headed forty miles south to Rouen.

The Seine passes through Rouen. For centuries it was the last place one could cross it by bridge before it emptied into the English Channel. This is where the English burned Joan of Arc at the stake, but that's not what drew me, rather the birthplace of Jacques Anquetil, first five-time winner of the Tour de France. I came in search of a memorial in his honor. The Tourist Office, however, didn't know anything about it other than it might be in the village where he grew up about ten miles away.

Before I go in search of it though, I must find a pub with a television showing the Tour, as today it finally begins. No one at the tourist office could recommend a sports bar in this town of 40,000. I was assured that any bar ought to have it on. At last, I'm about to find out what it's like to be in France during the three weeks of the Tour de France. One woman at the tourist office said she hoped a Frenchman would win the race, but she couldn't name any, as there isn't a single one among the favorites or even among the top 25 contenders. Its been nearly two decades since a Frenchman has won the Tour--Bernard Hinault in 1985.


Its nice to see the Yahoo front page is featuring The Tour, enabling one to get Tour coverage with an instant click rather than having to go to sports. With England so close I've been listening to the BBC on my radio--not a peep, however, on the Tour, just Wimbledon and soccer. Maybe that will change now that it's starting.


Later, George

Thursday, July 1, 2004

Oudenaarde, Belgium

Friends: Belgium continues to offer up one bicycling homage site after another. In Roselare there was the National Cyclist Museum, equally divided between tracing the history of the bicycle and celebrating those who have raced with an emphasis on the Belgians. There were several rooms of penny farthings and other historic bikes.

There have been enough exceptional Belgian racers that every few months the museum devotes a special exhibit to one of them. On hand helping to administer the museum and greeting visitors was 52-year old living-legend Freddie Maertens, a contemporary of Eddie Merckx. Maertens was crown prince to his kingship. He won the world road-racing championship twice, one less than Merckx. He holds the record for most stage wins in a single year at the Tour de France with eight. He also holds the record for number of wins in a year with over 50.

Just the Saturday before his home town a few miles north of Roselare honored him with the placement of his bust in the town's square. I had read about it at cyclingnews.com. He was taken aback that an American knew about his latest accolade. We talked about many of the roads that I have recently cycled and that he had raced upon. I asked him which was his most feared climb, Mont Ventoux or L'Alp d'Huez or another. He was a sprinter, who just endured the climbs. He said he hated them all. How he fared on each depended on how he felt that day. We had such a amiable conversation I thought he was going to invite me to camp in his backyard, but unfortunately it was 50 miles out of my way. I would have liked to have seen his bust, but I was headed to the Museum of the Tour of Flanders in the opposite direction.

Earlier in the day I had swung by Ghent, a working-class city of 200,000 similar to Liege, but without all the hills. It too was steeped in bike lore. I expected to find something bike-related worthy of genuflection, but all I encountered was a retired English couple a month into a tour on a tandem recumbent. I was circling around the main plaza when someone hollered at me in impeccable English, "Where are you from." The bike again. If I were backpacking or pulling a suitcase on a leash or being led by a dog, no one would have paid me any mind. Ian and his wife had just arrived in Ghent by freighter from Scandinavian and were still recovering from the voyage. Ian was fuming that they were part of a cargo of auto parts. "The damn auto industry runs the world," this English Jim Redd ranted. "If I'd known our cargo, I would've waited for another freighter, but here we are. Isn't this a great city? Where are you headed?" Unfortunately not the direction of this character, nor could I entice him to join me on my museum route.

The Museum of the Tour de Flanders in Oudenaarde was another full-fledged, well laid-out museum in spacious and substantial quarters and in the town center for easy access to all. The Tour of Flanders is one of the premier one-day spring classics. It dates to 1913 and though it was halted by WWI, it didn't let WWII deter it, unlike the Tour de France. It is famous, like Paris-Roubaix, for its stretches of cobblestones, some on gradients of up to 20 per cent. The museum promised a virtual reality immersion into what it was like to ride the 150 miles of the Tour de Flanders past screaming crowds and up steep, cobbled inclines.

First off was a 17-minute film in an auditorium with a three-paneled screen that fully captured the festive spirit of the fans and the heroics of the riders. There were at least 25 video monitors throughout the museum showing the riders and the fans at fever pitch over the decades. There were countless close views of the racers gives extreme efforts of such intensity it appeared as if their lives depended on it. Some were trying to stay away, others to keep up or catch up. Most thrilling was the burst of extreme jubilation of the winner. It was all most stirring.

One could mount a bike for a simulated ride up any of the race's sixteen climbs in front of a screen. A clock on the screen timed one's effort. A second clock showed the time of any legend one cared to ride against. The pedaling resistance increased as the slope steepened. There was an echo chamber of a room with the sound of fans going berserk cheering on the racers as they passed. The fans give almost as much effort as the racers. Charts showed the amount of energy riders expended and calories they needed to consume--about 6,700 compared to the basic metabolism of 1,800 and the 10,000 of a mountain stage of the Tour de France. The gift shop contained dozens of books on bike racing, including a couple of biographies of Freddie Maertens.

Now its off to Roubaix, just across the border into France, and its velodrome, the finish to the
grand-daddy of all the one-day races, Paris-Roubaix. It was first held in 1896, preceding the Tour de France by seven years. But before I leave Belgium, I will stock up on waffles. They are so popular, they can be found in several sections of the Belgian supermarkets. Some are among the pastries, while the gourmet ones with various stuffings are under refrigeration, and then there are those that can be found among the produce. One can't leave the supermarket without a pack or two. They may be best warm out of a toaster, but I am happy to eat them cold, smeared with honey.


Later, George