Thursday, May 26, 2005

Briancon, France

Friends: Banners on all the light posts along the main thoroughfares in Briancon proudly proclaim, "The Tour is coming, The Tour is coming." It will arrive on July 13 and depart the next day, Bastille Day, a stage that attracts the largest throngs of the Tour. This city of 11,000, nestled in the high Alps, is a frequent Ville Etape (Stage City), as it is the only town large enough in this isolated sector of France capable of hosting the thousands who comprise the Tour entourage. Briancon lies at the foot of one of the Tour's legendary climbs, the Col d'Izoard, and is less than 25 miles from the summit of another, the Col de Galibier, favorite of Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange. The Galibier is one of the highest and has perhaps the most spectacular views. Desgrange put it in a category by itself. He said all other climbs were "gnat's piss by comparison."

I crossed the Izoard this morning, biking past patches of snow along the road. I had learned my lesson from last year to verify ahead of time what passes are open and which aren't. The Galibier, which is 800 feet high at 8675 feet, has yet to open. I'm hoping that will change after I return from Italy and the Giro d'Italia in a few days. It has been bright and sunny the past few days with the day time temps in the '80s. The snows gotta be melting fast over there. I plan on making an attempt on it whether or not its open to motorized traffic.

When not a vehicle passed me the first 45 minutes as I climbed the Izoard today, I was worried my information was wrong about it being open, but it was just too early for anyone else to be out. I had another sensational campsite in a pine forest the night before just past a ski town. The night before that I pitched my tent beside a fast rushing stream that drowned out all other noise. I had passed swarms of marmots coming over the Col de Coyelle late that afternoon. I was concerned they might come nipping around my campsite, but evidently they prefer higher elevations, as I saw no evidence of them at my encampment. I still marvel at the ease and the quality of the wild, or "savage", as the French call it, camping here.

The Izoard is such a popular climb for cyclists, there is a bicycle lane on the climb up from Briancon, though not up the side I climbed. It doesn't matter much this time of the year as I haven't encountered more than three or four cars an hour the past three days since leaving the coast. I see about twice as many motorcycles, usually in pairs, but sometimes in packs of five or six. And there is an occasional lone cyclist, though none carrying gear as I am. I met a German cyclist who loves this area so much, he returns to it year after year. He had set up a base in a campgrounds at a town large enough to have a supermarket and was spending three weeks there, as a training camp, riding the many passes. When I mentioned I had just come from Cannes his immediate response was, "Did you see the Jarmush film?" He said the local papers had been full of news from Cannes. The other big story was a vote this Sunday on whether France wanted to accept some EU measure. He said Germans didn't get to vote on it, their politicians decided for them. He said Germany, too, holds all their elections on Sundays and was surprised that we vote on Tuesdays in America.

There is a museum devoted to the Tour de France at the summit of the Izoard, but unfortunately it was too early in the season for it to be open. But I was at least treated to a pair of plaques, about a mile below the summit up the side I climbed, honoring two of the great cyclists from the '50s--the Italian champion of champions Fausto Coppi and French three-time winner of the Tour Louison Bobet. They were mounted on a majestic thrust of rock opposite the cliff side of the road.

I'm just getting my conditioning back after two weeks of watching movies. The next couple of days will be semi-recovery days of less than 25 miles each. Its just eight miles to Italy and then a few miles more to the ski town of Sestriere, where I'll spend the day awaiting the Italian peloton on the climactic mountain stage of the Giro, the day before the three-week race concludes in Milan. Two light days ought to leave me fresh and primed for my climb of the Galibier. Then I'll double back to Briancon and ride the 110-mile Bastille Day Briancon to Digne stage. The Briancon tourist office had all the details of the route. I'll continue following the Tour route across the bottom of France until I reach Montpellier, a Ville Etape, then head 50 miles north to visit friends Craig and Onni from Chicago, who spend six months each year in a small village in the mountains. With luck we may get to see Lance on Mont Ventoux, about 100 miles from them, in the Daphine-Libere week-long race, his final tune-up before the Tour. As always, lots to look forward to.

Later, George

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