Friday, June 10, 2005

Aix-les-Thermes, France

Friends: Aix-les-Thermes is considered the arrival city for the 14th stage of the Tour that started in Agde. But just as the Agde stage doesn't actually start in Agde, but rather at a port five miles away, nor does the stage actually finish in Aix-les-Thermes, but rather five miles away after a steep category one climb to the ski resort of Aix-3-Domaines. The riders will be recovering from the beyond category Pailheres climb, a real doozy, just twelve miles before they begin their final climb of the day. The day's stage also includes several category three and four climbs as the peloton hits the Pyrenees. It will be a most exciting and, possibly, decisive stage.

The Tour starts three weeks from tomorrow and then will arrive in Aix-les-Thermes two weeks later. There were still patches of snow the last couple of miles before the 6,060 foot Pailheres summit, a demanding ten-mile climb with an average grade of 8.5 per cent, slightly less than the 8.9 per cent of L'Alpe d'Huez. The road passes a couple of small ski resorts, but much of it is little more than one-lane wide. There were some rough patches that will no doubt be resurfaced in the next month.

Freshly laid asphalt, like laying out a red carpet for cycling's royalty, is the lone headache of scouting out he Tour route. At least it's indication that I'm on The Tour route. The roads are generally in fine shape, so there's not a great deal of it. The sticky, tarry, still-curing asphalt adheres to my tires and picks up loose gravel and fragments, any of which could give me a flat. Luckily, I've had but one in 1,600 miles.

My lone puncture came yesterday, thanks to a thorn. I had no problem finding it still stuck in my tire, but it was no easy task extricating it. My pliers crushed it and wouldn't pull it out. I needed a knife and tiny screw-driver to perform the operation. The flat came at not an inopportune time--just after I'd downed a seventy-five cent, 850-gram can of ravioli for lunch. Fixing the flat allowed me a little extra digestion time. Right alongside was a stream deep enough for a swim that I might not otherwise have taken advantage of.

Its good to be back in the cool of the mountains and the abundance of running water. I know any town I pass through will have a spigot in their town center spouting fresh cool water. It is often so delicious, locals come by to fill bottles of it. In Aix-les-Thermes when I stopped at such an outpouring of water, I was shocked that it was scalding hot. There is always a warning of "eau non potable" if its not drinkable, but not here. I knew that Aix-les-Thermes was known for thermal waters that are said to have curative powers, but I didn't expect to see them running free about town. Rather than filling my water bottles, I did my laundry, though it was a bit treacherous wringing out the hot water.

Andorra beckons less than twenty miles away. It is a long climb to reach it on a road that I will have to double back on, as the lone road through this tiny country continues on into Spain and doesn't swing back towards France until way beyond to where I'm headed.

Later, George

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