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

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