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

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