Friday, July 29, 2005

Bar-le-Duc, France

Friends: Thanks to a bicycle enthusiast who didn't know when to stop when it came to collecting anything and everything related to the bicycle, the small town of Cormatin, about 75 miles north of Lyon, is home to the Musée de Vélo. It contains an overwhelming array of over 2,000 bike relics neatly arranged in a two-story stone barn of a building, whose rafters on both floors offer extra hanging space for all the relics, many of which no other museum would dream of displaying.

There were cigar bands featuring famous racers, wine bottles, LPs and 45s of bike music and racer narrations of races, bicycle racing board games claiming they could be played by anyone from 7 to 70, coke cans with racers on them, bicycle-inscribed lighters and ash trays and pens and key chains and cookie jars and cups and stamps. You name it. There were even a couple of small revolvers dating to 1900, manufactured in the bike and arms town St. Etienne, that were specifically designed for the weight-conscious cyclist. There were piles of scrapbooks of newspaper articles and photos and post cards and team cards that will be a goldmine to future historians.

And, of course, there were dozens of bikes from every epoch since its birth in 1817. There were no video presentations in this private museum, but better yet, the man responsible for this conglomeration was gladly circulating among the rooms demonstrating the use of some of the older and odder bikes and enthusiastically describing what made each unique. He was delighted to be able to share his treasures.

There were more people at this museum than the previous four I've been to in the past two months. Cormatin isn't much more than a village and isn't on the way to anywhere, but it has a chateau that attracts tourists. The bike museum, however, seemed to be a genuine attraction of its own for the French with children, some of whom must have been holidaying in the area, as they came by bike.

Maybe Tour afterglow was responsible for some seeking it out. As I think back on my Tour experience, what stands out more than anything is the devotion of the French to this bicycling event, what an ingrained part of their culture it is and a ritual for them to go witness and pay their respect to. The French may not ride their bikes a whole lot, but, as a socially conscious people. they recognize the value of the bike and applaud those who do bike. I've encountered no other French touring cyclists and just a few Germans and Aussies, but the French acknowledge it is a noble and worthy activity that they ought to be doing, but since they don't have the motivation, they are happy to see someone else adhering to the faith.

I didn't fully realize how committed the French are to seeking out The Tour when it comes near them last year, but this year with the start in France rather than in Belgium, and being part of a gathering of thousands the evening before the race started in front of the city hall of Challans watching the introduction of each of the 189 riders on the big screen that would be erected at all 21 finish lines, I could feel all around me the honor and respect given the riders and The Tour. And that same honor and glee was reflected on nearly every rider's face as he was introduced with great hyperbole by the official revered voice of The Tour, Daniel Mangeas, a fixture of The Tour since 1976. He was at every start and finish line, spouting names and stats like an auctioneer for a couple hours straight, barely pausing to draw a breath. At the Grand Depart after each team of nine riders biked onto the stage before a packed auditorium and was introduced, they rode out through an arcade of flashing lights to make a loop around the town, including past us, cheered all the way. Whose grins were broader, theirs or ours, was hard to say. It started the whirlwind to come with a giant exclamation point.

And it was more of the same for the three weeks ahead. Only by riding the stages past all the people can one fully appreciate its widespread appeal. One can be at a start or finish line with a stadium's worth of people or on a steep climb where a whole World Series worth of fans can be gathered, but they only represent a small percentage of the tens and hundreds of thousands who line the road for up to 150 miles each day, and not for just a few minutes but making an all day affair of it. One can't help but be swept up by the devotion of the millions who are part of The Tour.

Later, George

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Dijon, France

Friends: After two days of Internet wasteland I detoured slightly out of my way to Dijon, to take advantage of an Internet cafe I used last year. I doubt I'll have enough time to give a full report on my past three days, which included a couple more bicycle museums, as well as my final day of The Tour, but here goes.

I started my final day of The Tour, Sunday, biking the previous day's time trial course. I camped alongside it the night before, joined by a German couple, one of whom was wearing a Lance bracelet. There was a continual string of mostly individual cyclists out riding the course along with me and also a few people walking it, scavenging. Even though it had been lined by thousands the day before, it was remarkably litter-free, thanks to the bulging official Tour de France plastic litter-bags hanging on wooden stakes driven into the ground every hundred feet or so.

St. Etienne was at one time the foremost city of bike manufacturers in France. Mercier and Stronglight, among others, still maintain factories there. The local Art and Industry Museum is primarily devoted to the four industries that at one time defined St. Etienne--bikes, optics, ribbons and arms manufacture. The museum resides in a stately four-story chateau on a hill overlooking the center of the city. In such a setting, the bike had to be taken seriously.

The bulk of the floor devoted to the bike included the usual array of bikes dating from 1817 to the present. They were arranged by a curator who knew how to pay tribute to each. Although the museum claimed to have the largest collection of bikes of any museum in France, there was not the sense of clutter that most bike museums have with bikes tightly crammed and wedged trying to fill every inch of a museum's space. In one of the rooms devoted to the early-day bikes was a video of cyclists in the attire of the period merrily pedaling along on country roads on the very bikes in that room. Even these neanderthals, some weighing as much as 60 pounds, seemed to float effortlessly along with a grace and elegance that was as pleasing to watch as the Tour de France riders. The video included flocks of cyclists on penny-farthings and a stray cyclist or two on the original pedal-less Draisine bikes propelled like a scooter with the rider pushing off the ground with his feet as he sat on the wooden seat between the two wheels.

A video in another room was devoted to bicycle touring. It paid tribute to Paul de, known as Velocio. He was a great apostle of touring and long distance cycling. He lived in St. Etienne until his death in 1930 at the age of 77 when he was electrocuted by a street car while pushing his bike. He was a bike manufacturer and inventor and publisher, founding a bike magazine in the 1880s that survived until the 1970s. He is such a revered figure that St. Etienne celebrates him every June 5 with Velocio Day. There is a ride that day to the Col de Republique, a ten-mile climb from the city that gains 2,500 feet. There is a bust of him at the summit.

I learned most of this over lunch on a bench outside the museum from one of the museum's curators. She interrupted her lunch to go back to the museum for a computer printout of his biography for me. As she headed back to the museum, she paused to admonish, "Don't eat my cookie," recognizing a ravenous cyclist when she saw one. Included in the several sheets she returned with was his Seven Commandments of Cycle Touring. Among them were "eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty," and "avoid meat, wine and tobacco," dictums well ahead of their time.

Although the Col de Republique was south of the city and I was headed north, it was a climb I had to make. The most difficult part of the climb was deciding whether to camp in the luxurious forest surrounding it that night, as I arrived there at 7:30, or make the descent back to the city and escape the metropolis before Monday's traffic. I probably should have camped in the forest in the presence of Velocio and given my legs some rest, but I chose to push on and bike to dark one last time.

Between the climb to Velocio and the museum visit, I had the final miles of The Tour to watch. The sports bar I found in downtown St. Etienne was about half-filled as the peloton reached the Champs Elysees for its eight laps from the Arc de Triomph to the Place de la Concord. And the bar continued filling, paying further tribute to this bicycle-town, as the peloton settled down to business with assorted attacks after the first ceremonial lap with Lance and his Discovery mates shoulder-to-shoulder riding past the multitudes.

The peloton at first looked puny and almost insignificant and out-of-place on that most grand and celebrated of boulevards, wide enough for a space shuttle to land. When the Arc de Triomph towered in all its majesty in the background, it threatened to steal all the glory from the many other magnificent sites and spectacular scenery that the peloton had passed in the previous three weeks. But within a lap or two the peloton regained its prominence and all nobility belonged to it. It brought the joy and cheer of the millions it had passed along the road, whose lives it had touched, people throughout France and those who had come from all over Europe and the world to see it and who would forever remember that moment when they connected with The Tour. The Tour added to their stature and they added to The Tour's stature.

For awhile it looked like another American, Chris Horner riding for a Spanish team, might pull off a surprise victory, but it was Vinokurov who surprised all the salivating sprinters by bolting from the field after it had overtaken Horner, managing to hold off everyone else for his second victory of The Tour. He's a fan favorite. Fans paint his name on the roads as often as any of the riders. With the nickname of "Vino" the French would have to love him. His daring, aggressive style is much lauded, as few riders are capable of it. He suffered mightily in his final, all-out effort, as it took several moments for the agony on his face to be replaced by the ecstasy of his win as he rolled past the finish line.

We in the bar didn't get to see all of his celebration or Lance's final coronation, as the TV was quickly switched to a soccer game without any protest from the now full bar. My close-up table was immediately grabbed when I vacated it. There may have been a couple of cycling fans present, but now that I looked, the majority of the crowd was wearing green jerseys or green scarfs of the local team. Local sports does reign supreme.

Later, George

Sunday, July 24, 2005

St. Etienne, France

Friends: Within a minute or two of leaning my loaded-up bike against a fence near the time trial finish line here in St. an Englishman in his 50s mosied over to give it a look. I immediately mosied over to him, not out of concern for my bike, but figuring he could well be a kindred spirit. Indeed he was.

He was not only a fellow touring cyclist, but also a fellow devotee of The Tour. He was celebrating the 30th anniversary of attending The Tour, though his Tour credentials go back even further, to 1967, having attended the funeral of Tommy Simpson, the first English cyclist to wear the yellow jersey and former world champion, who died near the summit of Mont Ventoux in The Tour that year.

My new friend, Ken, was a veritable fountain of Tour lore, recounting the exploits of the few English riders who've ridden it and many specific dramatic stages from over the years. He'll be talking about today's events in the years to come as well--Lance's victory and Rasmussen's disaster. Ken has never been able to devote a full three weeks to The Tour as I've been lucky enough to have done the past two years, as he's a gardener, and the grass keeps growing while he's away, but he's managed a dose of at least a week or two nearly every year since his first, when Bernard Thevenet, presently a TV commentator covering The Tour, stopped Merckx in his bid for a sixth win in 1975.

It was eleven when I staked out my viewing spot, shortly after the caravan had passed. I had hoped to arrive sooner, in time for one last batch of caravan booty, but it wasn't easy finding the race course. It was on the outskirts of the old industrial city of St. Etienne, 35 miles southwest of Lyons. There were no signs, nor streams of fans, indicating the way to the course. The start and finish of the 44-mile time trial course were just a few blocks apart. The first of the 155 riders remaining in the race was setting out just as I arrived. We had to wait about an hour and 15 minutes for the string of riders to begin passing us at about one minute intervals. Much to our chagrin, we had to wait much longer for the screen to begin showing the riders in action, though the times of the early riders were all inconsequential. They were all hours behind the leaders.

It was only the last dozen or so whose times were of much interest or impact, so it wasn't the end of the world that the screen only flashed The Tour logo at us for three hours. No fan, however, can get enough of seeing riders riding all-out on that monster screen atop a semi-truck, but at least I had Ken's non-stop patter to distract me from our deprivation.

Ken and I were of a like mind on most matters, except for the occasional cloud that passed in front of the sun. I was happy for any break from its intense rays here on the fringe of the Massif Central, but not Ken. He knew when he returned to work on Tuesday in the north of England, it would most likely be to rain, or at least heavy clouds, so he craved as much sun as he could soak up now while he had a chance. He was like the Italians, even some in the peloton, who are inclined to roll up their short sleeves to their shoulder to get as much skin tanned as they can.

Ken gushed with enthusiasm, but unlike all too many of the Americans I've been within earshot of here, who want all to think they are an authority on the race, or whatever topic is at hand, Ken was a genuine, unpretentious sort who only wanted to revel and didn't turn a deaf ear to the comments of others. He was a devoted fan who was happy to have found another, and so was I.

He had no English cyclists to cheer, but he remained loyal to the Commonwealth and the former colony that had three riders in the top ten, rooting for all the Aussies and the Americans and the American team. We were both a bit surprised when the screen flashed Lance frolicking with his son and twin daughters an hour before he was due in the starting gate, as he sat on his bike warming up. This was the final major effort he would ever have to give on his bike. He had a two-and-a-half minute lead on Basso, but Basso had won the final time trial of the Giro and couldn't be taken too lightly. But we underestimated Lance's ability to turn on his focus and push those pedals. He was a demon from the start of his run. It almost looked like the camera was speeded up, he was pedaling with such fury and roaring past the crowds along the route so fast.

Still, Basso was seven seconds faster than Lance one-third of the way through the course. It wasn't a matter of much concern, as Basso looked as if he had overextended himself, and he had, faltering considerably, eventually finishing fourth. But Rasmussen was the one who faltered, or plunged, most dramatically, having one of the worst rides in history, crashing twice, needing to change bikes three times with mechanical difficulties and braking almost to a complete stop at one point when he went in to a turn too fast. He was trying to hold off Ullrich over two minutes behind to retain his third-place, podium spot.

The TV screen kept a stop watch on the rapidly descending seconds of Rasmussen's lead. Not only did Basso, who started three minutes after him, catch him, so did Lance, who started six minutes later. When Lance passed Rasmussen, it may have been the most dangerous moment of The Tour for him. Rasmussen appeared to be so cursed, and was having such a disastrous ride, he could have imploded again and taken Lance down with him. Rasmussen did retain the polka-dot jersey for best climber. If he had been told before the race started that he would win it, he would have been thrilled. But his expectations increased, leaving him wanting more. No one could have predicted that he might end up on the podium, but he had it within his grasp. For one of the rare times ever, the pre-race favorites, and the unquestioned top three riders, will finish one-two-three--Lance, Basso, Ullrich. No surprises this year, unlike last when Kloden and Basso finished on the podium with Lance.

For the first time since The Tour commenced three weeks ago, I didn't have to leap on my bike and start riding once the stage was over. I could watch all the post-race ceremonies and could linger amongst the departing fans and mosey over to the team buses. The biggest crowd was around the Discovery bus. Lance's kids were aboard staring out the front window, the only untinted one on the bus. But no Lance, as he was whisked away by via other means, and without his children.

All around us, crews of dozens of workers were dismantling all the structures that comprise The Tour Village for the press and sponsors and guests and riders. There are dozens of huge semi-trucks that carry the equipment from city to city. As I've made my evening transit from a finish city to the next day's start city, they pass me in long convoys mixed in with the hundreds of other vehicles that comprise The Tour entourage. It is enough of a spectacle, especially with all the decorated and odd caravan vehicles, that people sit in lawn chairs along the road as the sun sets watching the parade. Although they are whizzing by me for miles and miles, I don't mind in the least. I must be a familiar site to them, but fortunately they don't have the compulsion to give a friendly toot as they pass. Occasionally, a zealous fan will poke their head and arms out a window and acknowledge me. It happens often enough that it is no longer startling. Being a part of that parade is one of the countless fond memories I will have of this experience.

I will spend today, Sunday, the final day of The Tour, in St. Etienne to visit a museum that has the largest collection of bicycles in all of France and to watch the conclusion of The Tour. Tomorrow I will head towards a bicycling museum that the French postal worker I met at the cycling chapel told me about. Then its on to Paris and environs, where three other bicycling memorial sites, including the starting point of the first Tour in 1903, await me. I have nine days
before I fly home.

Later, George

Friday, July 22, 2005

Le Puy, France

Friends: I had another classic Tour de France experience yesterday, watching the final 45 minutes of the day's stage with a couple of French families along the race route on their small black-and-white TV resting on the trunk of their car.

I had been on the alert for a TV among the lingering fans for better than half an hour once I resumed riding after the last of the peloton passed me at the summit of the six-mile category two climb 35 miles from the day's finish in Mende. I knew I couldn't make it to a town with a bar and TV before the finish, which was preceded by another category two climb, where Lance was sure to be attacked. I didn't want to miss any of that action.

I passed lots of RV's parked along the race route with people inside watching their TVS. I kept hoping to find one with a TV poking out a window and a gathering outside watching it that I could join. No such luck, but, instead, I had the better luck in coming upon the setting I did--three generations of a dozen French fans sitting on lawn chairs and on the ground peering up at their fuzzy little TV, whose antenna one of the men had to keep adjusting. I had to leap to my feet for a closer look when the graphics came up to see who was in the break and how far ahead they were. When the breakaway group passed me on the road I couldn't identify any of the riders. Only the team cars with spare bikes and food and drink following the group of eleven let me know which teams were represented. No Discovery rider this day.

When I came upon this TV I straddled my bike and watched for a few moments until I was sure I was welcome. Then I parked my bike and dug out a couple of items I'd nabbed from the caravan that day to offer--a bag of coffee beans and a neckerchief. I gave them to the most senior member of the clan and then plopped down on the grass. A couple minutes later, the youngest of them, a ten-year old boy came over clutching the neckerchief to say thank you in French and English. It was the only English I heard while with them.

I sat and drank from my water bottle, which I was lucky enough to have filled a few miles back, as it was a hot and strenuous day, and I had drunk three-and-a-half of my four water bottles by the time the peloton passed me. I also had an energy bar I had found alongside the road discarded by one of the riders. One of the women offered me some peaches and plums, as juicy and tasty as I've ever had. One of the men dug out a thawing two-liter bottle of water with a giant ice cube still a long way from thawing in the middle. I filled my water bottled and gulped and gulped, not knowing cold water could taste so good. I was wary of overdoing it, but I was much more dehydrated than I thought, as my body kept craving more and more.

It was my third straight hard and long day of over 100 miles, through the heat and the rolling countryside with much more climbing than I anticipated, trying to keep up with The Tour. I had come 80 miles by 2:30, when I was forced to stop by a gendarme. I was only as far as I was thanks to a German school teacher who was fluent in French and knew how to charm the gendarmes. We continued on an hour after the first gendarme tried to stop us. Each time we were allowed to continue, saying we wanted to try to reach the summit of an upcoming climb and promising to stop once the caravan came along. Each time the gendarme agreed to let us keep going, it felt as if we'd gain passage through another secret door that would lead to a treasure.

Originally I had hoped I could get at least through the sizable town of Millau before having to stop, as I feared it could be complicated to find my way through the mini-metropolis after the race had passed and the crowds were gone and the course markers all scavenged. But we were making such good time, we well beyond Millau when we had to stop. As we kept pushing on and on, not stopping to eat or rest, by the time we began the long climb in the heat of the day, I wasn't at my strongest. I actually had to stop a couple of times in the shade when I began to feel faint. But every kilometer, every 100 meters, I gained was crucial. A couple of times we had to walk our bikes until we were out of site of the gendarme who pounced on us. Most of them spoke English, unlike last year. Evidently there are so many Americans now at the race, they make an effort to have English-speaking gendarmes out there.

My marathon three days began Tuesday at two p.m, when I started on the race route from Pau to Revel after seeing the start of that day's stage in Mourenx 15 miles away. I biked until after ten p.m., past dark, with the assistance of a full moon, knocking off 80 of the stage's 150 miles. And then next day, I was able to finish off the 70 miles to the finish line by two p.m., faster than I expected thanks to the hoards of American cyclists with tour groups riding the course. Most of them shot past me in pace lines, but I was able to latch on to an occasional group. And then I had the good fortune of being joined by an Australian guy and his girl friend. They were riding the identical Trek 520 green touring bike I was riding, and were similarly bedecked with Ortlieb panniers. They had been following The Tour since the team time trial in Blois, though they had been making use of the trains to keep up. They noticed me Saturday in Aix-les-Thermes, the only other touring cyclist they'd seen.

It was the second day in a row I had met an Australian cyclist who could brief me on the ease of taking one's bike on the French trains, or at least the slow trains. The first was an older guy whose email address is oldcyclist. He wasn't following The Tour, but just happened to be in Mourenx the day The Tour was there. It was his first taste of The Tour. I met him when I saw him taking a picture of my bike, while I was off taking pictures myself. He'd been hopping all over France by train. He said one can just show up at a station with one's bike and they'll take the bike as is, no box or bag required, and even with panniers still on, and for no extra charge. That was great news, and could be the solution to seeing all, or most, of The Tour next time.

Right now, I'm pretty exhausted, having biked nearly 400 miles in the last 72 hours. But that is my final big surge. I will see today's finish here in Le Puy in three hours and then set out for St. Etienne, 70 miles away, for tomorrow's time trial. I'll get at least half-way there tonight before dark. And that will be The Tour for me, other than watching the finish in Paris on TV the next day. Paris is 250 miles away. The riders will take the high-speed train Saturday night to within 100 miles of Paris, and then commence their promenade to the final sprint around the Champs Elysees. Lance can toast the cameras with champagne as he rides along, as is the tradition.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Mourenx, France

Friends: France's daily sports newspaper, L'Equipe, had things in perspective yesterday--eight of its 18 pages were devoted to The Tour and half a page to Woods winning the British Open. Being able to read the extensive coverage L'Equipe gives The Tour is another reason that France is the only place to be in the month of July for anyone who wants to fully appreciate the Tour de France. It is virtually ad free and has full fold-out pages with dazzling photographs, all in color, loads of commentary and stats galore. It costs about a dollar, but is always money well spent.

Each issue this year has some cycling great recollecting their first memories of Lance. His streak of soon to be seven straight wins establishes him as the greatest Tour rider ever. There was considerable doubt before this year's Tour whether Lance would be motivated to win it again, since it would be his last race and his early results during the year weren't the best. The director of The Tour, Jean-Marie LeBlanc, who is only the third person to hold the position and has held it since 1988, was certain he would be. He said, "Armstrong est un veritable American, un competiteur."

I'm presently in Mourenx, today's departure city, about 15 miles from Pau. I will watch the start of the race and then head back to Pau, where the race ends and tomorrow's stage starts. When I get to Pau I will keep riding, trying to get as far into tomorrow's 150 mile stage as I can. I hope to be in front of a TV by the time the peloton reaches today's beyond category climb at about its half-way point, before the relatively flat return to Pau that shouldn't dramatically effect the standings.

Although Sunday was a super day for the Americans Hincapie and Armstrong, it wasn't so great for the Americans Landis and Leipheimer, both still in the top ten, but they faltered in their bid to inch towards one of those top three podium spots. Ullrich barely made a dent in Rasmussen's three minute lead on him for the third spot. If Hincapie hadn't been saving his energy on some previous stages, he could well be in the top ten as well. Despite the difficulty of Sunday's stage, only two riders dropped out, and, thanks to the cool, everyone made the time cut. The last two riders, 46 minutes after Hincapie, came in within one minute of being disqualified, and they celebrated as they crossed the line.

Among my Tour highlights so far is having my picture taken with The Devil, the German uber-fan, the Ronnie Woo-Woo of cycling, who dresses up as The Devil, complete with horns and pitchfork, and is there along the road for every stage of The Tour, and many other races as well, waving his pitchfork and jumping up and down as the peloton passes. He's quite adept at getting on TV and in the newspapers and cycling magazines. I only stopped for the photo op because the Australia I happened to be cycling with at the time recognized him ahead and slammed on his brakes, asking if he could have his picture taken with him. He started a chain-reaction, as suddenly everyone in the vicinity had the courage to have their picture taken with him as well. It is a picture I've wanted and will treasure almost as much as a photo with Lance. He is a celebrity fan I've been aware of for years. His devotion and crazed antics have always given me a jolt of excitement.

I snapped a few photos of him in action at the opening time trial, when I found myself stationed along the course in his vicinity. Unfortunately, he only speaks German, so I couldn't find out how long he's been doing this and why. Maybe his website will have that information. I nearly took his picture last year when I encountered him at the Tour de Suisse hours before the peloton was due, painting a series of his trademark pitchforks on the road to warn the riders and TV cameras that The Devil is nigh. I kept waiting for him to appear in the German documentary on The Tour that I saw in Cannes called "Hell on Wheels." He could have well inspired the title of the movie, but shockingly, he wasn't to be seen, a most grievous omission. He merits a documentary of his own.

Mourenx is in competition for a podium spot among Ville Etapes for the best and most bike art. There are literally hundreds of bikes, each painted a single bright color, scattered all over town. The town hall has about 15 decorated bikes on its roof and a 1973 car from that year's Tour that was one of the official vehicles with three bikes mounted on its back. There are also huge banners hanging on some of the multi-story apartment complexes along The Tour route celebrating great cycling events in Mourenx's past--1999, the last time it was a Ville Etape, one of Eddie Merckx being honored for a stage victory here in 1969, and others of the peloton passing through. There is also a mini-replica of the four cols (passes) today's stage will cross. The tourist office has an exposition of bike related stamps from all over the world including Mongolia and Cuba. There was a special edition of French stamps one year honoring The Heroes of The Tour."

I am very happy to have detoured over here to Mourenx. I could have skipped this stage and started immediately on tomorrow's stage, the longest of The Tour. It was very tempting yesterday, especially since there was a strong tail wind. Instead, I'll have a couple of hard, hard days ahead of me to keep up with the peloton. I will barely have time to stop to eat. I'll have to do as much eating as I can as I pedal along, just as the racers do.

Later, George

Monday, July 18, 2005

Tarbes, France

Friends: Like Lance and his Discovery mates, I had a fine weekend in the Pyrenees meeting all my objectives and preserving some energy for the not so easy week ahead. Sunday miraculously cooled off, so the riders were pouring most of the water in their water bottles down their throats rather than over their heads as they were doing on Saturday.

It was hot even in the shade at Saturday's finish line at altitude. I started the five-mile climb at 9:30 that morning before the road sides were too mobbed, but there were still a goodly number of the rowdy, orange-clad Basque fans of the Euskatel team. For a while I trailed a guy on a mountain bike with a Basque flag on a pole lashed to his rack that brought out cheers as he passed.

My loaded bike and I received a few responses I'd never heard before from the Spanish fans--an "oh-la-la" and a "mama-mia"--along with the usual "bravos" and "bon courages" from the still predominantly French crowd. There are more Americans mixed in with the mobs now that the Tour is in the thick of the glamor stages. Americans too are impressed and happy to see someone in the touring mode taking on the race course. Some speak to me in French with their very recognizable American accents, some knowing enough to acknowledge me with "bravo" and "bon courage," but I also am told "Monsieur, c'est bon" and other such variations. Occasionally an American will be so aghast at seeing my overloaded bike he'll spontaneously blurt a remark in English such as "that's a haul," either to me or to whoever he may be with, loud enough for me to heard. I heard my first "Yeah baby" on this climb.

Climbing in the Pyrenees was also different from the Alps as there quite a few children on bikes making the climb. French cycling is in great decline, while the Spaniards are becoming a dominant force and here was the reason staring all the French in the face. And these kids, many of them in the ten-year age category, were strong. At the summit I encountered a three-year old Spanish boy who had been pedaling on a bike attached to his father's bike. He wore a helmet and even had his own mini-water bottle. He was utterly exhausted, with his head drooping on his handlebars, but he was receiving star treatment amongst the crowd where I had settled to watch the finish. A lady next to me asked him how old he was. He was too drained to speak, but held up three of his tiny fingers. That photo could be the star of my next slide show. Upon reaching the summit at 10:30, about six hours before the racers would begin arriving, I located the large screen and found a place in the shade. There was a nearby source of water and a couple sets of port-a-potties. I was all set.

A group of Americans wearing Burlington, Vermont cycling jerseys settled in near me. I struck up a conversation with one who happened to me their lone non-Vermonter, a guy from the suburbs of Chicago who works for one of the largest law firms in the city and is a client of my messenger company. He was a partner who split his time between Chicago and Manhattan, trying to get in a 90-minute bike ride before work in both cities. He'd been coming to France for The Tour nearly every year since his first seven years ago. His week in France was costing him twice what my three months was costing me, but he had no complaints.

He was just one of a dozen or so Americans I spoke with on Saturday and Sunday, some as I was biking along and others as I was sitting around, who were all absolutely thrilled to be here, boggled at the magnitude of The Tour, particularly in contrast to what little attention cycling, as a fringe sport, receives in the U.S. No event, sporting or otherwise, in America, or anywhere, remotely compares to it. It is impossible to appreciate its singularity without experiencing it.

Lance is winning and dominating this Tour in a manner different from his previous six wins--without a single stage victory so far except for the team time trial. He's come within a whisker of victory on two stages, however, and will be a heavy favorite to win the remaining time trial Saturday before the promenade into Paris the next day to conclude the race. But being in yellow on the Champs is all that matters. It was exciting enough to see him fend off all the attacks from his chief challengers when the going got steep on Saturday and Sunday, that it wasn't necessary to see him cross the finish line first to be awed by his strength.

Saturday I watched it all just a couple hundred feet from the finish line on the giant screen amongst a mob of thousands, while Sunday I watched it in the comfort of a hotel's lounge with a German and his wife who spoke no English, or didn't want to admit to and have to answer for Ullrich's inability to match Lance. I reached the hotel about an hour after watching the peloton pass just before they embarked on the third of the day's six climbs. I had biked over the day's first two climbs before reaching the day's feed zone where I paused for a couple of hours awaiting the caravan and the peloton.

I had to bike 50 miles the night before after Saturday's finish, to put myself within ten miles of Sunday's course. It was mostly downhill starting with a great descent down from the ski resort summit finish at Aix-les-Thermes with hundreds of other cyclists, including many of The Tour riders returning to their team bus at the bottom of the mountain. There was only one road up. If the riders had waited to come down in a team vehicle it could be a couple of hours before the road was cleared of all the descending fans, most of whom were on foot.

Although many of the fans wear team jerseys, there is no chance that they could be mistaken as anything but fans. The actual pros would be immediately recognizable even if they weren't still adorned with numbers on their bikes and their jerseys. They are slight and scrawny, without an ounce of body fat, and their smooth and effortless pedaling, riding very very fast through the obstacle course of thousands clearly distinguish themselves as highly skilled professionals. Most of the racers put on a jacket for the descent despite temperatures near 90, so they would cool off too dramatically. There was no way I could keep up with them, though many tried. After the five-mile descent I was part of a bumper-to-bumper migration of fans and Tour personnel headed to the next stage for 45 miles until just before dark.

I was on my bike by 7:30 the next morning. The first summit was 30 miles away and the next one ten miles after that. I was determined to get over both before the road was closed. Even though it was much cooler than the day before, my shirt and shorts were soaked, dripping perspiration by the time I reached the second summit and plunged down to the feed zone. Unfortunately it was in a village, so the road was lined with fans for a couple of miles making my chances of nabbing a discarded water bottle or excess energy bar very limited.

I stationed myself by one of the Discovery team soigneurs handing off the musette bags of food, so I was able to snap a photo of the man in yellow just inches from me as he grabbed his. I could have had a photo too of the ecstatic guy who recovered his water bottle. A better photo would have been of the overweight brute who looked as if he could have played middle-linebacker for the Bears who knocked over a 70-year old woman in pursuit of a trinket from the caravan. He maniacally chased after everything tossed by the caravan as if it were a fumble at the goal line. His pudgy ten-year old son let out a whimper whenever he or his dad failed to get whatever they were after. In the U.S. they would have qualified as white trash. The Americans along the race route might be loud and a tad obnoxious in their own way, but none are as crazed as the French can be in going after the souvenirs. There are many of his type. I am very careful to stay as far away from them as I can, preferably on the opposite side of the road. They are truly dangerous.

After the peloton passed I went in search of a TV in the small town of the feed zone, but the couple of bars were already packed and overflowing. It was 15 miles to the next town, and it being a Sunday I wasn't sure if the town would be big enough to have a bar that would be open. I was disappointed to miss the climb the peloton was embarking upon as it was in Spain. There would be legions of wild and demonstrative fans. But with three climbs following it before the finish, nothing too dramatic would happen. I was very concerned about finding a place to watch the rest of the race. When I came upon a hotel after 45 minutes I could only hope it had a communal television. As I dismounted my bike by the entryway, an employee came out to greet me. He knew exactly what had drawn me to his establishment. Even before I could ask if there was a television, he informed me that there was.

I was happy to see George Hincapie's victory interview. He bravely attempted French, but when he didn't know the word for "help", as he said that was his purpose, "to help Lance", and inserted the English word, the interviewer said,"That's OK, you can speak English if you want," both he and I were happy. I feared Hincapie would be fluent, as he has a French wife, a former podium girl, and has been riding the Tour for ten years. He was bubbling with ecstasy having unexpectedly won the Tour's toughest stage.

He is the first Lance teammate to win a stage since Lance's first Tour victory in 1999, as his teammates all stick with him and don't expend any energy on any venture for their own glory, as all their efforts are reserved for Lance. Hincapie was only covering a breakaway in the service of Lance, a breakaway that was never caught. Hincapie was the only one in the break who didn't have to work, so he had enough energy saved at the end for the win. Hincapie was almost embarrassed as he crossed the finish line, it was so unexpected.

A teammate of the Italian great Coppi once won a stage in the mountains back in the '50s in a similar fashion. He was in tears of sorrow at having upstaged his team leader. But no one could be happier than Lance at Hincapie having won this stage. Hincapie recounted how he has known Lance since he was 14 years old. He said, "I owe Lance everything." That's not true, as Hincapie is a great rider, having won the American pro championship and finishing second at Paris-Roubaix this year. Hincapie also effused how much he likes France. He said, "I have a French wife and a French child. France is my second home. I love you guys."

When the broadcast ended at six, I was back on my bike for another three hours headed to Pau 80 miles away, but in no great rush, as the next day was a rest day for the peloton.

Later, George

Friday, July 15, 2005

Foix, France

Friends: I thought I might have some fireworks to watch from my tent in the distance last night, but evidently I was too far from any town's Bastille Day celebration, as there were none to be seen or heard, unlike one July 4th I spent in my tent in rural Wisconsin and had fireworks dazzling me in every corner of the horizon.

I did spend a couple of hours watching the set-up of the Toulouse fireworks along the Garonne river, while I waited for the sun to descend a bit closer to the horizon and the sweltering temps to cool before leaving the big city. Not too many people were out strolling the riverside park, mostly Algerian and African immigrants, generally only seen in the larger cities. It wasn't until 7:30, after spending the better part of the day in France's fourth largest city, population 700,000, that I made my departure and felt the happy anticipation of returning to the tranquility of the countryside and whatever campsite awaited me.

There was a little extra happiness in the Bastille Day celebrations, as a little-known French rider, David Moncoutié of Cofidis, won the day's stage. He is now a national hero. The daily sports paper "L'Equipe" listed the two dozen French riders, about one every four years, who have won on Bastille Day. It was almost a challenge to the 30 French riders in the field to join their ranks. The TV announcers were so thrilled they signed off their telecast with the words "Vive la France." As Moncoutié held on to his slim one minute breakaway lead, holding off a chasing pack of six or seven that he had once been a part of, the announcers kept exulting "Extraordinaire!, Extraordinaire!"

Even though Moncoutié had won a stage last year, he was so overcome by emotion he didn't know how to react. He kept looking over his shoulder after passing under the one kilometer to go arcade to see if it was true and shaking his head. He was hesitant to take his hands off his handlebars to raise his arms in triumph and to give full exposure to his sponsor, Cofidis, on the front of his jersey. After raising his arms he dropped his hands to his stomach to see if it was still there and then raised his arms half-way with clenched fists. It was an original and genuine expression of delight and disbelief. He had won, he had won. He had accomplished something he had committed himself wholeheartedly to, both mentally and physically, giving a supreme effort, realizing an almost unimaginable goal that he had been single-mindedly devoted to for hours. There is nothing phony about the raw emotion expressed by not only the victors, but the vanquished, at the conclusion of a race. It is a sudden explosion of relief and joy. It is not unusual for a rider to collapse in tears of utter desolation or tears of extreme exhilaration after pushing themselves to their limits.

The Spaniard Valverde, who just nipped Lance at the finish line three days ago for perhaps the greatest moment of his life, suffered one of the worst moments today when he had to drop out of the race with an ailing knee. Cameramen were hovering around him like vultures at the back of the peloton waiting for him to abandon, and they stayed in his face as he sat in his team car, head bowed, helmet and sunglasses still on, and hand to his face trying to hide the tears.

Close to 40 riders have bowed out, including Lance's Spanish teammate Noval who took a "chute" yesterday and suffered a concussion. He wanted to continue, but the race commissaires wouldn't allow it. Its the first time in several years that Lance has lost a teammate, a truly remarkable statistic. Not even a third of the teams at just the half-way point still have their full complement of riders. Christian Vande Velde of the Chicago suburb Lemont was the last Lance teammate to drop out of the race in 2001, also due to an injury sustained in a fall. Vande Velde rode for Roberto Heras last year, but isn't among the Americans in the field this year.

We've had two, almost three, holding-pattern days while the main players have been bracing for the weekend's foray into the Pyrenees, where the race will be decided. If it stays hot,Crucifixion Sunday, with its four category one, one category two, and end-of-the-day Beyond Category climbs could eliminate half of the field if the time limit rules are strictly enforced.

Tomorrow I'll be back to watching the race live after a week of television in mostly hot, un-airconditioned, fly-infested bars where I sweat more than I drink. I will be at the finish line at the ski resort above Aix-les-Thermes--a five-mile category one climb where Lance will hope to repeat Tuesday's dramatics riding away from everybody to extend his lead. I hope I can find some shade and that there will be people passing out water at the finish line as was done on day two at Les Essarts. I couldn't tell if those dispensing the water were official Tour personnel or local, but the sealed bags of water they distributed were most welcome. It hasn't happened at any other finish line, so it may have been a local program. The Tour may not fully approve, as it took business away from those selling semi-cool, one-pint bottles of the official Tour Nestle water for two euros on the other side of the barriers.

I have a tough week ahead, as after the Pyrenees comes the longest stage of The Tour, 150 miles from Pau to Revel with a 50-mile hop tacked on to it to get to the next day's start line in Albi. I'll need a good tail wind that day to keep up and to make it to St. Etienne to meet a friend from Australia I met in Laos three years ago, so we can bike the Saturday time trial course together before the race finishes the next day in Paris.

Today I began retracing roads I biked a month ago. Its been nice knowing what large supermarkets await me and where I'll find the local fontaine as well as the route out of some of the larger towns. I was able to take a swim in the same cove down the same path to a river where I took a bath last month. And I know exactly what awaits me in Aix-les-Thermes and the 60 miles I'll have to ride immediately after the race to reconnect with the next day's route.

Later, George

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Toulouse, France

Friends: It was a quiet, pleasant 40-mile ride into Toulouse this morning. I feared there would be traffic flocking to the countryside on this Bastille Day, but it seemed everyone was sleeping in. I arrived shortly before a petit-Casino supermarket was preparing to close at 12:30, enabling me to eat something other than peanut butter sandwiches and ravioli today. There are plenty of cafes open and even a couple of Internet cafes, so I definitely made the right choice to come here.

As I approached Toulouse I passed acres and acres of bright yellow sunflowers turned towards me. They made me think of Florence and how she might react. Would she recoil at these flowers staring at her, as she initially did at the crowds along The Tour route? She felt very self-conscious about at all the attention they heaped upon her, staring and cheering and making wisecracks, as we biked the time trial course from Tours to Blois. She said she wanted "crawl into a hole and hide." But before long she grew accustomed to all the attention and realized the comments were all playful fun and that she was heightening the experience for everyone along the route. She began to enjoy it and rather than focusing her gaze straight ahead, peered about, taking a gander at all the people and could even smile, rather than cringe.

Rookie bicycle messengers are similarly hyper-conscious of all the pedestrians watching them in action. Some are deluded enough to treat them as spectators and put on a few showboating moves for their benefit. One soon learns to pay the peds no attention and to simply focus on the job at hand. It's hard though to ignore the Tour de France crowds. They are as much a part of the event as the countryside the race passes through and the race itself. The crowds are a full cross-section of French society of all ages and all professions. They are relaxed and in fine form, out picnicking with friends and family and having a grand time. They are quite a contrast to the American sports crowds I have been a part of at football and baseball and basketball and hockey games, full of all too many rowdy louts intent on imbibing as much as they can and making a spectacle of themselves. The French may have some wine amongst their beverages and unleash a wisecrack or two, but they are much more tame and orderly than their American counterparts.

For many, watching The Tour is an all-day event and an annual ritual. Many arrive hours, if not the night, before the peloton is due to pass, to claim a choice spot along the road. Their array of picnic arrangements is a show unto itself. Some erect long banquet-style tables with white table cloths and candelabras and an array of wine glasses. Some picnickers simply sprawl on a blanket. Some play cards or board games or toss boules. Some sit reading books or newspapers or cycling magazines. I take particular delight in spotting someone holding up "L'Equipe" with its usual dramatic headline on display. The French seem born to picnic. It is their word for it, "pique-nique," that we have adopted for our own. They'll seize any opportunity to pique-nique. It doesn't have to be a holiday or a weekend. The French don't even have a word for weekend. They've usurped ours, calling Saturday/Sunday "le weekend."

It has turned hot enough again, after a pleasant two-week cool spell, for me to dig into the powdered Gatorade supply I've been carrying for 4,000 miles, to make the 90 degree water in my water bottles more appealing to my stomach. I've also been dousing my head and soaking my shirt whenever I come upon a town's water spigot. If I can't spot a town's toilet or water spigot, I'll ask anyone I might see "Ou est la fontaine?" In heat such as this, I don't care to wait until the next town hoping it will be more evident.

A 60-year old French cyclist was filling his bottle at one this morning, making it easy to spot. He was a rare local who addressed me in English, asking where I was from. When I told him I was from the U.S. he said with a bit of a sneer,"I suppose you're a Lance Armstrong fan."

"I am, but I like all things related to the bicycle."

Then, as if to test me, he asked,"Have you heard of LeMond?"

At first I was startled by this question, thinking he was referring to the French national newspaper, but then realized he was only being French, and exhibiting a strong streak of arrogance and lack of respect, figuring I was someone who didn't know cycling beyond Armstrong and was so new to the sport I wouldn't know of the American who won the Tour three times in the late '80s and could well have won it five or more times had he not suffered a hunting accident after the year of his first victory. How could I not know Greg LeMond?

I took no offense to the question, just an inner satisfaction that I was about to shatter his regard of Americans as ignorant savages. "Greg LeMond!," I retorted. "He won it three times, the same as Bobet. His win over Fignon in 1989 by eight seconds was one of the most exciting sporting thrills in my life."

"You know Bobet?" he exclaimed. "He was my hero when I was growing up. He was the greatest rider in the first 50 years of The Tour. But then along came Anquetil and Merckx and now he's forgotten."

"I went to Bobet's home town up in Brittany to visit his museum, but it was closed the day I was there."

"I've always wanted to do that, but never have."

"Have you seen his plaque on the col d'Izoard."


"Its fantastique, on a jutting rock near the summit right beside a plaque to Coppi. The view is spectacular. You'd love it."

Rather than an ignorant America, I hoped he wasn't now regarding me as the arrogant, know-it-all version of the species. But it was clear he recognized the enthusiasm in my tone, earning me his respect as a fellow devotee of the sport that was his passion. We talked cycling like a couple of fanatic American sports fans talking baseball as I downed one bottle of cool, fresh water and started on another. If I'd thought to ask, he no doubt would have let me come home with him to watch the day's action.

Before he was on his way he said, "When I was younger, I used to hope Americans would discover The Tour, but now that they have, they are taking it over. Three of the top ten in the standings right now are American and after this year, between LeMond and Armstrong, Americans will have won The Tour ten of the past twenty years. Now I'm almost sorry they have."

Later, George

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Albi, France

Friends: I have discovered a formula for euphoria--start my day with 50 to 70 miles on the bike, stop and watch the final two or three hours of The Tour, bike another 30 or 40 miles until dusk and camp somewhere off the road. Those last hours of the day, when the wind is settling and the temperatures cooling and the traffic nil and my thought reveling in another fine day of bike riding and bike watching are sheer and utter bliss. My legs pump with effortlessly glee and my spirit soars at how wonderful life can be.

I'm well into another heaping dose of the Big E, having ridden 70 miles today through the incomparably glorious French countryside to the sizable city of Albi where I've just watched Lance and his teammates put on another clinic in managing the Tour de France. They allowed Vinokurov to salvage some pride after his "jour de merde" yesterday, letting him escape and win today's stage. But he's still over five minutes down and not even in the Top Ten. His escape companion Botero moved up a few places and the French hope Moreau slipped into third ahead of Basso by claiming the eight second bonus for winning the sprint for third. Otherwise the standings remain the same and nothing happened to alter Lance's grip on the race.

The peloton had come 60 miles after starting its day at 12:20 when I settled in front of a TV at 2:45 this afternoon after an eight a.m. start. They were just starting their climb up the category one Col du Télégraphe, the second of the day's three climbs. The other two were Beyond Category. But since today's finish wasn't at a mountaintop, like yesterdays, we did not have the High Drama of Lance putting extreme hurt into everyone and shedding them one by one. Instead, he had his team just ride a hard steady pace all the way to the finish in Briançon, 25 miles, all down hill, from the summit of the Galibier. Only about 25 of the 174 riders left in the race were able to keep up. There was still a sizable group just summitting the Galibier after Lance and company had finished the race, 40 minutes after they had crossed the summit. It was a cold descent. Many of the riders stuffed newspapers under their jerseys after crossing the summit. One of Lance's teammates, whose work was already done and was in no hurry, actually stopped for his newspaper stuffing.

There should be no more Lance heroics for the next two days, as the stages have no significant climbing. But this weekend, when the peloton enters the Pyrenees, all hell could break loose, especially Sunday when there are six big climbs. Both Saturday and Sunday the race will conclude at the summit of a ski resort. The Spanish fans will be going berserk cheering on yesterday's winner Valverde. Their former hero, Mayo, is well out of it after another miserable day today. The cameras still find him important enough to focus on despite losing 21 minutes yesterday and gobs more today.

Tomorrow is Bastille Day. I'll be sorry not to be riding the course, as last year it had more people massed along it than any other stage, as everyone within miles flocks to the race on this great French holiday. This year I will be hoping to find an open bar or restaurant with a TV. If the stage were of much importance I would consider a hotel room with a TV. Instead, I will head to the large city of Toulouse, about 50 miles away, where I am certain to find something open.

Today's only disappointment was not seeing the Desgrange Memorial a kilometer below the summit after the racers had begun their descent. The racers flew past it so fast, at over 50 mph, it would have been just a blur, but still, the helicopters are always zooming in on hill-top castles and chateaus and letting their cameras linger on them. Vinokurov began his descent about 40 seconds before Botero, but Botero, a Colombian who can fly down the mountains, was able to catch him in no time. They then united forces for the remaining miles to the finish. Vinokurov
easily won the sprint.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Gourdon, France

Friends: I had no one to cheer with today watching Lance put to rest any doubts as to his supremacy over his chief rivals in the first truly significant stage of this year's race, a mountain top finish on the tenth stage of this 21 stage race.

I had a TV all to myself for two hours in a restaurant/bar in the town of Gourdon, famous for its foi gras. I thought I'd be watching it in St. Cyprien, 25 miles earlier, but the friend of a friend who had invited me to visit and stay over broke her arm two days ago and rushed back to the U.S. It was several hours before the race coverage began on television, so rather than lingering in St. Cyprien, I just paused long enough for lunch of Champion deli fare. Enough tourists frequent this quiet, picturesque town in the Dordogne Valley that the supermarket had signs in English, as well as French, announcing it would be open Thursday morning, Bastille Day. It also had peanut butter, something that isn't always easy to find. I had run out a few days ago. It will be nice to have it in reserve. I may need it Thursday, when most stores will be closed.

I was eager to find a television early today. I wanted to see more than just the last few minutes of the race, as the peloton would be racing over two big passes in the Alps. I was a bit nervous when I came to a big back-up of traffic, more than a mile long. I was able to bike pass as no traffic was coming from the opposite direction. A serious accident had blocked the road. I was lucky that a gendarme more benevolent than some of those minding The Tour route let me go by the carnage, rather than waiting for it to be cleared, as every one else had to. I back-tracked five miles to this larger town of Gourdon, not taking any chances in trying to find a bar with a television in the smaller towns dotting a more direct route to my next destination--Albi, the departure city for Stage 18.

There was a TV in the first establishment I tried and they gladly put The Tour on for me. If the Internet were as common as bakeries, I could have been checking on the race every half hour as I bicycled along. But I hadn't missed anything of significance in the race's first three hours. Lance's Discovery team had the race well under control. There were several inconsequential riders up the road who would be gobbled up well before the finish. In the meantime, it was business as usual, a string of Disco riders, with Lance safely tucked in their draft, leading the pack, forcing the pace, shedding riders off the back.

By the time the lead group arrived at the final climatic Coucheval climb of 13 miles with an average grade of 6.3 per cent, punctuated by stretches of nine and ten per cent, many of those trying to keep up were already showing the strain. It was good to see Lance's stern expression, a nice contrast to his all too relaxed and easy-going expression up 'til now. He'd actually been turning and grinning and goofing for the motorcycle cameramen who patrol the race. Such behavior is unheard of until the final ceremonial stage into Paris. Rarely does anyone acknowledge the cameras that ride right alongside the racers. It is simply not done. All stick to the protocol of staring straight ahead while millions around the world watch. Lance normally has too, but not this year.

One of the cameraman was at the back of the race showing a string of dropped riders, all with contorted faces and all wishing he would go on to the next casualty. Chief among them were the Spaniards Iban Mayo and Roberto Heras, pretenders to the jersey who dropped out of the race last year in humiliation and weren't doing any better this year. By the time the lead group was down to 25 riders and all but two of Lance's teammates had fulfilled their duties and dropped off, Vinokurov drifted to the back of the lead group and then fell off, the first major casualty among the chief players. There would have been wild cheers if my restaurant had been packed with Lance fans. A little later Vino's teammate Ullrich began to struggle and was off, even greater news for Lance. With five miles to go Ivan Basso, the Italian who finished third last year could no longer keep up. It was down to four in the lead--Lance, the Dane Michael Rasmussen and the Spanish teammates Alejandro Valverde and Francisco Mancebo. It couldn't have been more exciting, nor could things have been going better for Lance.

The army of motorcycle cameramen deployed on the course had more stories to follow than there was air time. Lance and Ullrich and the French rider Moreau each had a cameraman tailing them. Moreau entered the stage in second place overall, as he had been in Sunday's breakaway that moved him dramatically up the standings. But he was a no real threat. Another cameraman followed Jens Voigt in the yellow jersey, severely struggling, now over 12 minutes behind and long dead. They ignored Vinokurov and Basso. Lance parried with the final three but was unable to drop them until the final sprint and was just nipped at the line by Tour rookie Valverde. A win would have been nice for Lance, as it would have given him a 20 second bonus. Instead he had to settle for an extra 12 seconds for the second place finisher.

The biggest surprise of the day, besides Vinokurov not having it, was Sunday's winner and long breakaway rider, Rasmussen, who was in the polka dot jersey of best climber, had stuck with Lance all the way to the finish. He moves up to second place in the standings, 38 seconds behind Lance, while everyone else is over two minutes behind. He's not a very good time trialist, but he is proving he has the stamina to be a serious threat in the mountains. If he had prevailed today and had taken first place and Lance had finished fourth in the group, Rasmussen could well be in yellow with the time bonuses. So the race isn't quite over yet, but Lance certainly put his stamp of dominance on it once again. Ullrich lost two minutes and fourteen seconds, Basso one minute and two seconds, Vinokurov five minutes and eighteen seconds. Tomorrow is another crucial stage with a climb over the Galibier, that monster I biked over a month ago that has the memorial of Henry Desgrange. I can't wait.

Later, George

Monday, July 11, 2005

Oradour-sur-Glane, France

Friends: A year ago when The Tour passed through Limoges on the fringe of the Massif Central I didn't have time to visit the memorial site of a nearby small French village that had been wiped out by the Nazis towards the end of WWII. I'm continually having to bypass interesting attractions to keep up with The Tour, but I make a note of them, knowing they await me if I'm in their vicinity again. I was able to stop off and see what is called the Martyr Village of Oradour-sur-Glane as I headed south from Tours towards the Pyrenees to rejoin reconnect with The Tour in a couple of days.

The sign requesting silence outside the village is hardly necessary, as one is put into a somber mood by the exhibits preceding the entry to this fenced town. They vividly recount the events of June 10, 1944 when a German battalion of 200 soldiers massacred 642 civilians, including 193 children. It was four days after D-Day. A couple of SS officers had recently been ambushed in the vicinity, and this was part of the German response.

The town is now a memorial site, left pretty much as it was after the soldiers burned and looted it. The stone walls of many buildings along the town's kilometer long main street and down its side streets remain standing, but without a roof. The church, where the majority of the women and children were herded and put to death, is surprisingly intact. Rusted hulks of cars are scattered here and there. Rusted power lines dangle from posts. A subterranean exhibit just before the cemetery contains a collection of artifacts recovered form the town--glasses, money, scissors, thimbles, toys and children's bicycles. It is as disquieting as the My Lai exhibit in Vietnam where 567 civilians were massacred. When I visited My Lai three years ago I was the morning's lone visitor. Oradour-sur-Glane was thick with visitors, many of whom were children in groups.

Entry is free, though there is six euro charge to attend the accompanying museum. Along with a twelve minute movie, there was testimony from the six survivors. One was a woman who survived the ordeal in the church. The museum traces the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. It said, "Bringing German society into line took place through terror, intimidation and seduction." It also portrayed what France was like during the occupation. Their national motto of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" was replaced by "Work, Family, Motherland."

Although the Oradour massacre was brought up repeatedly during the Nuremberg trials, it wasn't until 1953 that 21 of those responsible were brought to trial, seven Germans and 14 French from the Alsace region bordering Germany. Two were sentenced to death. The French were all given amnesty, which caused a national furor.

The village has been rebuilt next to its predecessor. The President of France laid the
foundation stone for the new village exactly three years after the massacre in 1947. The museum book store was full of books on all aspects of this incident, some in English, German and Dutch.

I arrived at the Martyr Village just after it closed last night, two hours after watching Lance relinquish the yellow jersey on the telly in a bar in the town of Bellac. The day before, Saturday, I watched eight hours of Tour coverage with Florence and Rachid. There was an extended post-Tour "Velo-Club" with a genuine sit-down Lance interview, much more than the few hurried comments he gives immediately after the race. Those interviews are a quick succession of stock answers in French even I can understand. His responses in this interview, however, were in English and were reflective and insightful. They were somewhat drowned out by the louder French translation on top of them. His only French was an initial comment to the interviewer that it had been a "jour de merde" (shitty day), as not a single one of his teammates had been able to stick with him and the final bunch of 35 on the day's final long, steep climb. Lance said that was the first time that had happened to him in his many Tours and it was a matter of great concern. Lance was repeatedly under attack by the T-Mobile team and had to counter each attack himself without any teammates.

He didn't say it, but he may be missing his veteran, highly-respected, Russian teammate Ekimov more than ever. He was unable to start this year's Tour due to an injury. Lance has always raved about his professionalism and what an inspiration he is to everyone on the team. He would have made sure everyone was ready each day. Lance referred to the day's events as a "catastrophe." One of his worries is that it will give his rivals confidence and inspiration. Lance could squash all their hopes at any time with a bold stroke. Until then, he will keep everyone's interest and hopes alive. The doubts as to his strength and that of his team only add interest to the race. Lance is the focal point of interest. The headline in one of today's papers wasn't about Jens Voight taking over the yellow jersey, but "Armstrong is not in Yellow."

Later, George

Saturday, July 9, 2005

Tours deux

Friends: My search for tires and used books in English took Florence and I much longer than we anticipated as we ranged from one end of the sprawling city of Tours to the other. We didn't get back to Florence's apartment until after seven p.m., well after the day's Tour coverage ended. I was enjoying my time cycling with fellow messenger Florence, as we had so often in Chicago, soaking up the full flavor of this old historic city and its distasteful sprawl of all too many chain-store franchises, that I wasn't fretting too much at having missed the day's race. I knew the evening's extended wrap-up show awaited us as well as plenty of highlights on the many news shows.

I felt a bit of disappointment, though, as we watched the highlights, that I'd missed the day's action live. The Tour ventured into Germany after 80 miles. It was a rare and major event for the people in the area. The locals reacted with appropriate fervor. The route was more thickly thronged with wildly-partying fans than usual. I would have liked to have witnessed every mile of their uber-excitement as the peloton passed rather than just the highlights. There were wacky sites galore. Fans on bikes sped along with the peloton for a brief spell on the bicycle path that paralleled the race route. The peloton passed a phalanx of yellow-clad fans furiously pedaling bikes on rollers atop a long trailer. There were many other glimpses of celebratory madness a few notches higher than usual.

Watching it reminded me how exhilarating it is to be amongst the fanatics. I was sorry not to have been there absorbing it all first hand and contributing to it. But if I had continued following The Tour across France, I would have had to make future sacrifices that I didn't care to make. I would have been in deep trouble after Sunday's stage when the race entourage makes a couple hundred mile transfer by plane down to the Alps. That would have been it for me, unless I were prepared to forsake my bike and resort to train or bus. I may just have to do that next year so I'll be able to ride as many miles as possible of each day's route. Right now I prefer to be a purist, staying true to my bike, even though it means many of my miles are spent bicycling non-race route miles, those gaps between the stage finish in one town and the start in a town further down the road and occasional shortcuts in the middle of a stage.

The best miles are those on the Tour route packed with fans and through towns dressed up to celebrate the race with all manner of bike art and signs. Riding a stage several weeks before the peloton passes is far from the same experience. I want to be there when it matters, when it is the focus of immeasurable attention and radiates with untold energy and excitement and joy and anticipation of the thousands who line the road. The aura is as real and refreshing as a cold drink on a hot day. Pedaling the bike in such an atmosphere is as joyous and effortless as I have experienced.

Although I will have ridden more than half of the 21 stages just before or after the racers and at least portions of all the other stages, I know I am missing a lot right now while the peloton heads to Germany and then even more as it takes on the Alps. Even though I have strong memories of riding portions of the Alp stages a month ago, it would be much different being their on race day. It will be a week before I rejoin it all in the Pyrenees. But I am still thrilled to be here in France as its going on, taking in hours and hours of the daily live coverage. As I'm pedaling the 300 miles down to the Pyrenees, while the peloton is battling it out in the Alps, I can have the satisfaction of knowing that the roads I am riding have been part of The Tour in years past.

One of the reasons The Tour has ventured into Germany is that there are two German-sponsored teams in this year's Tour--Gerolsteiner, one of whose lead riders is the American Levi Leipheimer, and T-Mobile with Lance rivals Ullrich and Vinokurov. They may be German teams, but T-Mobile only has four Germans on its nine-man roster and Gerolsteiner, a mineral-water company, has five. Of the 21 teams in The Tour, only one is entirely comprised of the same nationality--the French Bouygues Telecom team of Thomas Voeckler, last year's yellow jersey wearer, who remains a fan favorite and is frequently featured on television for that experience, even though he's not even among the top 100 racers in the race.

Most of the teams are an international smorgasbord. There are two teams that have seven different nationalities on their nine-man rosters--CSC from Denmark and Phonak of Switzerland. Lance's Discovery team is one of three teams with six different nationalities. It has only one American on it besides Lance, his chief lieutenant George Hincapie, who is the only member of the team to have ridden with Lance in all of his Tour wins . There are 28 countries represented. Colombia and Venezuela are the only countries from the Americas besides the U.S. There hasn't been a Canadian or a Mexican for several years.

As nationalistic as the French are, going bonkers over any Frenchman who even slightly distinguishes himself, and highlighting the name of each of the 30 or so French riders in the race in the standings listed in the newspaper, there is no national anthem during the departure or arrival ceremonies. There are no shortage of flags along the race route. Many fans identify themselves with their national flag. Some are very similar. I have learned to distinguish between the The French and Dutch, which are both red, white and blue striped, and the German and Belgian, both red, black and golden striped. The rare site of an American flag gives me a charge. I wouldn't mind letting those along the route know that it is an American on a touring bike laden with pannier that is riding past them, though I would prefer to do it in a more subtle manner than with a flag. The only feature on my bike and amongst my gear that might distinguish me as an American are the three yellow wristbands around my seat post, as much to recognize Crissy as Lance.

Later, George

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Tours, France

Friends: For the first time in the two years that I have followed The Tour I was on hand for a stage start yesterday in Chambord. Usually, I've started riding the course first thing in the morning, if not the night before, well before the peloton sets off sometime around noon, plus or minus an hour, depending on the length of the stage. Since I wouldn't be following this day's stage on its route to Germany, but would be doubling back to Tours to rejoin Florence and Rachid, I was in no rush and could luxuriate in all the pageantry and hoopla of a stage depart.

I couldn't have picked a more magnificent setting, as the departure point was on the grounds of one of the more striking of France's many chateaus. It was built in the early 1500s by King Francoise 1 as a hunting retreat. It was no modest lodge, but as grandiose as any chateau around, topped off by a spectacular cluster of spires and minarets. Leonardo da Vinci, who lived the last three years of his life in the region, contributed to some of its interior design. The chateau provided a breathtaking backdrop to the yellow stage that all the racers mount and sign in on and take a bow to the crowd. For better than an hour each of the 180 racers trickled to the stage, in no particular order, fulfilling this obligation. Each was acknowledged by Daniel Mangeas, the official announcer of The Tour. He'd rattle off a quick list of their credentials--victories, nationality and significant accomplishments.

When I arrived at ten, three hours before the race start, the grounds were already mobbed. As always, I was completely awed by their numbers and wanted to immediately start taking pictures, but knew enough to wait, as this wasn't anything yet. For those who weren't interested in staking out a prime viewing spot in front of the stage or at the start line, there was a vast field where the many sponsors were gathered offering entertainment and goodies. Many of the crowd chose to seek out the team buses a distance away to catch a glimpse of the racers.

The Tour is a showcase of the many splendors of France. This chateau and its grounds are among its most sensational. It has to be difficult for The Tour organizers to let more than a couple of years pass without including it in The Tour.

My only disappointment for the day was that Lance declined to wear the yellow jersey he was awarded yesterday when the Discovery team just edged out the CSC team to win the team time trial. Lance didn't feel he rightfully earned the jersey, since Dave Zabriskie, who had been wearing it since winning the first stage, crashed shortly before the finish line. If he hadn't taken the fall, he wouldn't have lost the jersey. It is a Tour tradition to wait a day before donning it in such circumstances, something that has happened a couple of times. Each is an intrinsic part of Tour lore. I was disappointed not to see Lance in yellow, as it would have positively identified him in my photos when he appeared on stage, and when he pedaled past me to assume his spot at the head of the peloton. Tour director Jean-Marie LeBlanc ordered Lance to put it on once the race started, halting the entire peloton. Since Lance was the present guardian of the jersey, it was his obligation to wear it. He owed it to the thousands of fans along the route who wanted a glimpse of it. It is one of the few jerseys that can be identified as the peloton flashes past in one big blur. I only wish Leblanc had been more forthright and ordered him to wear it from the moment he left his team bus.

After the race began, I biked 40 of the 50 miles back to Tours before stopping to watch the last 20 miles of the stage on a television in a bar. I was surprised to see Lance in yellow, as it was only later I learned about Leblanc's edict. Lance said there was no debate, as Leblanc told him if he didn't put on the jersey he wouldn't be allowed to start the next day.

After riding the length of the first four stages of The Tour and then witnessing yesterday's start, I am going through Tour withdrawal today, though I was able to watch all four hours of the TV coverage with Florence and Rachid in their apartment, another first for me. It was a memorable and worthwhile experience, since they could translate all the commentary. It wasn't entirely necessary during the race, but made a huge difference during the hour-long post-race show. I usually watch no more than the highlights at the start of the show, as I can only guess at what is being said by the panel of journalists and riders and team officials. The show is held before a live audience in a temporary studio at each stage finish.

They had a most dramatic day to discuss. Just three blocks to the finish in Nancy, Christophe Mengin of the Francaise des Jeux team, who had just barely been holding off a fast-charging pack crashed in a rain-slick corner. It was a horrible tragedy, as Mengin lived in the area and was near the end of his career. Winning this stage would have been a monumental victory for him, maybe the highlight of his career. Everyone watching had to be rooting for him, especially the French as it is so rare for a French rider to win a stage these days. A local guy winning the stage was the story line for the day. Local riders always have the extra incentive of wanting to win a stage when it finishes in their home town. Rarely though are they strong enough or do the circumstances allow it.

The producers of the broadcast knew that there was a possibility it could happen this day. They placed a camera and microphone in the car of his directeur sportif, Marc Madiot, a very animated fellow, to watch the race from his perspective and with his commentary. It was like having a camera and microphone on a baseball manager in the dugout during a game. It offered an extraordinary insight into the day's events. Each rider has an earphone so his director can communicate with him. Madiot, a former two-time winner of the Paris-Roubaix classic, was screaming and urging him on with as much energy as he was expending on his bike.

The drama had been building all day. Mengin had been in a five-man breakaway that formed early in the race. Ten miles from the finish on a short climb he went off on his own. All was going according to plan. He was having the ride of his life, pushing himself as hard as he could. It appeared as if he could actually pull this off. It would have been the greatest moment of his life to win this stage. He had been pointing towards it ever since The Tour route had been announced last October. For months he had been visualizing victory on this stage, and he was about to realize the dream. The pack had closed to within eight seconds of him as he neared that final turn, but it looked as if he was going to hold them off. All he had to do was make it through that turn, as it would slightly slow down the pack. Madiot was exhorting him with more and more vigor the nearer he got to the finish. He had invested almost as much energy and emotion as his rider into this stage. He was exulting, "You can do it, you can do it, you are going to do it." Victory seemed certain, so when he crashed, neither could have been more devastated. Madiot shouted in horrid despair at the top of his lungs, "Merde, we are damned." In the post-race interviews, both coach and rider were in tears, totally wiped out and crestfallen. It was another stirring chapter in the high drama of The Tour.

Later, George

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Blois, France

Friends: Florence, Rachid and I were easily the oddest set of cyclists riding yesterday's fourth stage, 42-mile team trial course, along the wide, yet languid, Loire River and past the scenic countryside of chateaus and forests and fields of sunflowers and corn and wheat and vineyards and patches of small garden plots lined all the way on both sides with thousands of fans.

It was 9:30 when we set out from Tours, where Florence and Rachid have lived the past two years since moving back to France from Chicago, at 9:30.  We had a five hour head start before the first team was scheduled to take on the course to Blois. Unlike just about every other cyclist giving the course a ride, who were Lycra-clad in some sort of team or club or vanity jersey with accompanying cycle shorts, we three were garbed in every-day attire. Nor were we astride a gleaming, glamor, showroom-quality bike.

Rachid was mounted upon his father-in-law's department store cross-bike. He was decked out in black t-shirt, black pants and a black baseball hat turned backwards. On his back was a red backpack. The ever-smiling Florence was smoothly pedaling a light-weight racing bike. Flung across her back was the well-worn Timbuktu messenger bag that served her during the seven years of her courier days in Chicago, resting just below her waist-long braided pony-tail. I was merrily rolling along on my fully-panniered touring bike and was wearing my usual short-sleeved polyester-cotton shirt that dries in moments after soaking.

We attracted more shouts and cheers from the throngs lining the roads than I'm accustomed to except in the mountains on this cool and sunny Monday. My French companions gave me a running translation on all the comments. Some chided Florence and Rachid for having a porter carrying their gear. Someone chided me for having hair too long. Someone else referred to me as some famous French singer, which Florence agreed that I do bear a resemblance to.

On a long, but gradual, climb of a mile or so, where the crowds were the thickest, shoulder-to-shoulder and two or three deep, and the rowdiest, several people shouted "Jeannie Longo" upon seeing Florence, in reference to France's and the world's most distingusihed female racer of all time. Not many women are among those riding each day's course, so people reacted with glee at the site of Florence, feting her as warmly as they fete my loaded bike each day. It was very, very nice to have others to share the attention with and to smile over at with a shake of the head at the incredulity of it. It truly has to be experienced to believed. I was thrilled to have comrades who could later confirm that I wasn't imagining the magnitude of the crowds and the joy they express and how heartily they respond to out-of-the-ordinary cyclists such us.

Florence is not an attention-seeker and didn't quite know how to respond to all the accord being showered upon her. She said if she'd known it would be like this, she isn't sure she would have wanted to ride the course, but she was very glad that she had. Rachid, on the other hand, who'd never biked so far, was happy for the applause to inspire him to keep going. The climbs were a struggle, as he hadn't quite figured out how to shift. He and Florence took turns riding each others bikes, as Florence's bike took considerably less effort to pedal than the bike Rachid was borrowing. He didn't feel fully comfortable on either of them, but he never lost his smile or his delight.

At on point, when we took a break and joined the mobs along the road for a bite to eat, one of the tour merchandise vans, known as "Le Tour Boutique," stopped in front of us hoping to make a sale to anyone in the vicinity. The driver caught Florence's eye and commented, "This is better than paradise, isn't it." He certainly nailed it.

It is no less boggling or thrilling to be part of The Tour experience than it was last year. Every day tens of thousands flock to the road hours before the racers pass. The majority set up a picnic of some sort, some with just a card-table and others as elaborate as a banquet with candelabras and array of wine glasses. It is an incomparable joy to know they have all been drawn by something bicycle-related. For hours I get to ride past them all. No less thrilling are the small towns that all deck themselves out with a bicycle theme to honor the arrival of The Tour. One town honored a local who raced in the 1959 Tour mounting his bike with his race number along the road. Such an accomplishment as merely riding in the race is not forgotten.

Florence, Rachid and I were evicted from the course just three miles before we reached Blois, as the caravan of sponsors that sets out an hour before the racers was closing in on us. We walked our bikes along the course behind the crowds until we got out of range of the overly-eager gendarme who'd pounced on us, and then resumed riding, knocking off another mile before we were evicted again. We had at least reached the outskirts of Blois and could bicycle the rest of the way to the finish line on side streets.

But first we paused to enjoy the frenzy of the sponsors driving by and the deluge of souvenirs they shower upon the crowds. There are 38 sponsors, including the South Australian Tourist Agency, represented by two land-rovers, each with a kangaroo mounted on a bike atop their roofs. They were tossing mini-kangaroo road-crossing signs to the crowd and blasting Aboriginal music. Over 200 vehicles comprise the parade of sponsors. It stretches for twelve miles and takes about 40 minutes to pass. Over the three weeks of The Tour, they toss out eleven million souvenirs. Between the three of us, we nabbed almost one of everything--hats, pens, candy, bracelets and other trinkets. Some bear the official Tour emblem, but not all.

And then, of course, there is the race. I've been lucky on two of the four stages to have made it to the finish line before the racers, where I could watch all the action on a 30-foot high screen atop the semi-truck that transports it. When the racers finally arrive, I can glance over and watch the blur of them zip past at close to 40 miles per hour. It was an agonizing five minutes and two seconds after Lance's team crossed the finish line, waiting to see if the CSC team, which had set out after them and was the last to arrive, would better their time. The yellow jersey was at stake along with the pride of who had the strongest team. It couldn't have been closer.

Not too far away was the inflated shell-shaped stage where the day's winners are honored. I was able to zip over and join Florence and Rachid, who had taken up a choice spot earlier, to see Lance given the yellow jersey.

Later, George

Friday, July 1, 2005

Challans 3

Friends: I performed a second reconnaissance of tomorrow's opening time trial course this morning, nine days after my first. There were already dozens of RV's stationed along the route, and the course markers were up, the identical black arrow on day-glow yellow background as last year. I was hoping for a new design to add to my collection, but being the same will make them less desirable to all the scavengers of Tour memorabilia that follow The Race, and maybe make it easier for me to snag a few more for friends.

I was able to bike over to the island of Noirmoutier on the Gois, as it was low tide. With a fierce head wind and patches of sand and seaweed on the not entirely dry roadway, the narrow, partially cobbled road was more than a little treacherous. This has to be one of the most perilous stretches the Tour de France peloton has ridden in its 102-year history. It has only happened a few times, and this year will not be one of them.

I was relieved there wasn't much traffic. I was happy, though, to see an occasional car parked off the road and people foraging for mussels and oysters, as it gave me assurance that if I should fall and injure myself, rescue could be had before the tide submerged the road. There were three towers that one could climb if caught by the tide and signs warning "Drowning Zone." It took four years from 1935-1939 to construct the two-and-a-half mile road, what with only two intervals of three hours each day when the tide was out. The lone bridge to the island, which will be used by the racers tomorrow, wasn't built until 1971.

I passed the CSC nine-man team out on their bikes as I biked back to Challans. Someone on the Credit Agricole team flew past me at 40 mph drafting a truck with a team car right behind him. Challans is aswarm with Tour personnel, easily identified by the credentials around their necks, as if it were a film festival. I biked past Tour Director Jean-Marie Leblanc, who, if he lasts long enough, could have a memorial erected to him, as have two of his predecessors. He is a popular guy. He couldn't walk more than a few feet without being stopped by someone who wanted to shake his hand and have a few words.

Challans is filling with hundreds of RVs of the many fans who will follow The Tour for all or part of its three-week 2,000 mile journey around France. And there are hundreds of official vehicles buzzing about town that will be accompanying the tour--team cars, sponsor cars, media cars, official Tour cars--all brightly plastered with whoever they are representing or promoting. This is a production in a class by itself, three weeks long, passing through hundreds of towns and utterly devouring those lucky several dozen Ville Etapes, the stage cities that have the privilege of sending off the racers or being their finish line.

It was nice to have an afternoon to be able to leisurely wander the streets of Challans and take in all the shop displays celebrating the Tour with bikes and wheels and red polka dots and yellow. The town square was filled with tents of sponsors dispensing free samples of products from the region, including cheeses, meats and breads. There are porta-potties scattered about, and with pink toilet paper, the color of the Giro, Italy's version of the Tour. I passed a Francois Truffaut High School and streets bearing the names of Camus and Cocteau and Rousseau and Chagall and Renoir and Cezanne and other luminaries of the arts, as is common throughout France.

The official presentation of all 189 riders, nine per the 21 teams, will start at seven tonight. It will be broadcast on national television and projected on a large screen in front of the city hall. I already have my campsite picked out six miles out of town in a drier field than I camped in last night. I will be in no rush to get to the island tomorrow morning, as the first rider will not leave the starting gate until 3:40. For the next three hours, riders will leave every minute to individually contest the 12-mile course. Lance will be the last rider out of the starting gate. The parade of 40 or so Tour sponsors, each tossing trinkets to the crowds, will precede the start by an hour.

I will watch about an hour of the racers going by and then start riding the next day's 114-mile stage until I come to a town with a bar and TV to watch the end of the race. Then I'll continue riding another couple of hours until dark, following the yellow course markers, and camp somewhere on the route. I'll be back at it early the next morning trying to get as far along the course as I can before the gendarmes order me off the road. I will have an enforced rest of a couple hours until the peloton passes. Time will be tight. Who knows when I'll next be able to report on it. I'm lucky I don't have Johann Bruyneel, Lance's director sportif, supervising me, as he doesn't allow Lance the distraction of email during the Tour.

Later, George