Wednesday, June 15, 2005

St.-Lary-Soulan (Ville Arrivée)

Friends: The third of the four weekends of The Tour will be "Ski Resort Weekend." Both Saturday and Sunday the stage will conclude after a climb to a ski resort, similar to L'Alpe d'Huez, but neither quite as long or steep. Saturday's stage from Agde on the Mediterraean to Ax-3 Domaines, with one beyond category climb, one category one, three category threes and one category four, will have the peloton panting, but it is a mere cream puff compared to what the riders must endure the next day.

It will be known as "Crucifixion Sunday." It will nail the peloton with four category one climbs, a category two, and then to the finish, a beyond category climb. The stage will start in Lezat-sur-Leze, about 25 miles south of Toulouse. Immediately out of town is a series of brutal hills. If hills were rated, they would all be beyond category or category ones. I was lucky to take a break at Pyrenean Pursuits in the middle of this stage. After doing three of the climbs yesterday, I was desperately looking for a post office to send home as much of my gear as I could. OLN will have to offer parental warnings about watching this stage on television. Part of it passes through what is known as "The Circle of Death." The route even swings into Spain for about 15 miles to take in an extra category one climb.

It will be a three-country Tour this year, with a day-and-a-half in Germany before the Alps. The Pyrenees may not be as picturesque as the Alps, but they are equally demanding, if not more so, with so many climbs clustered so close together. There are rugged snow-streaked peaks above the tree line that could be mistaken for the Alps, but they don't predominate here. With the Atlantic so close, the Pyrenees receive more rain, making these mountains much more lush and green. It is almost junglish. These could be the Andes of the Amazon, except they are not steamy hot. At least half of my miles each day are alongside rivers and streams and waterfalls and natural springs. It is no challenge to find a place to bath or to wash my Tupper Ware bowl and clothes or to fill my water bottles. There are much fewer RVs on these roads, as the German and Dutch tourists seem content with the Alps. But there are more cyclists. There are many towns like Massat where a cyclist can base himself for several days and have a multitude of passes to test himself on.

There are more cycling monuments in this region as well. Near the base of yesterday's Col du Portet is a monument to Fabio Casartelli, Lance's Italian teammate who crashed and died there in the '95 Tour, one of three riders who have died in the first century of The Tour. There have been other fatalities during The Tour, fans hit by vehicles and journalists on motorcycles trying to keep up with the racers on the descents. The Col du Portet is a category two from the east, but a category one from the West. There are two stretches with an impossibly steep grade of 17 per cent. Casartelli lost control on the steep descent and crashed. He died on the spot. The day's next stage was ridden at a ceremonial pace led by his eight teammates with his bike right behind atop the team car. The next day Lance won the stage, pointing skyward as he crossed the finish line. It was his second career Tour stage win, four years before he won his first yellow jersey.

In the central plaza of Lezat-sur-Leze there is a larger than life size painting of a local cyclist who won the gold medal at the 1948 Olympics in London. There is also a nearby street named after him. They were not on my list of bicycle memorial sites. I never know when I might stumble upon another. Each is a wonderful discovery, exalting me as much as a chateau or cathedral exalts the typical tourist. It is exhilarating to be in a country that honors and remembers those who have distinguished themselves on the bicycle.

Later, George

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