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

No comments: