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

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