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

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