Monday, July 18, 2005

Tarbes, France

Friends: Like Lance and his Discovery mates, I had a fine weekend in the Pyrenees meeting all my objectives and preserving some energy for the not so easy week ahead. Sunday miraculously cooled off, so the riders were pouring most of the water in their water bottles down their throats rather than over their heads as they were doing on Saturday.

It was hot even in the shade at Saturday's finish line at altitude. I started the five-mile climb at 9:30 that morning before the road sides were too mobbed, but there were still a goodly number of the rowdy, orange-clad Basque fans of the Euskatel team. For a while I trailed a guy on a mountain bike with a Basque flag on a pole lashed to his rack that brought out cheers as he passed.

My loaded bike and I received a few responses I'd never heard before from the Spanish fans--an "oh-la-la" and a "mama-mia"--along with the usual "bravos" and "bon courages" from the still predominantly French crowd. There are more Americans mixed in with the mobs now that the Tour is in the thick of the glamor stages. Americans too are impressed and happy to see someone in the touring mode taking on the race course. Some speak to me in French with their very recognizable American accents, some knowing enough to acknowledge me with "bravo" and "bon courage," but I also am told "Monsieur, c'est bon" and other such variations. Occasionally an American will be so aghast at seeing my overloaded bike he'll spontaneously blurt a remark in English such as "that's a haul," either to me or to whoever he may be with, loud enough for me to heard. I heard my first "Yeah baby" on this climb.

Climbing in the Pyrenees was also different from the Alps as there quite a few children on bikes making the climb. French cycling is in great decline, while the Spaniards are becoming a dominant force and here was the reason staring all the French in the face. And these kids, many of them in the ten-year age category, were strong. At the summit I encountered a three-year old Spanish boy who had been pedaling on a bike attached to his father's bike. He wore a helmet and even had his own mini-water bottle. He was utterly exhausted, with his head drooping on his handlebars, but he was receiving star treatment amongst the crowd where I had settled to watch the finish. A lady next to me asked him how old he was. He was too drained to speak, but held up three of his tiny fingers. That photo could be the star of my next slide show. Upon reaching the summit at 10:30, about six hours before the racers would begin arriving, I located the large screen and found a place in the shade. There was a nearby source of water and a couple sets of port-a-potties. I was all set.

A group of Americans wearing Burlington, Vermont cycling jerseys settled in near me. I struck up a conversation with one who happened to me their lone non-Vermonter, a guy from the suburbs of Chicago who works for one of the largest law firms in the city and is a client of my messenger company. He was a partner who split his time between Chicago and Manhattan, trying to get in a 90-minute bike ride before work in both cities. He'd been coming to France for The Tour nearly every year since his first seven years ago. His week in France was costing him twice what my three months was costing me, but he had no complaints.

He was just one of a dozen or so Americans I spoke with on Saturday and Sunday, some as I was biking along and others as I was sitting around, who were all absolutely thrilled to be here, boggled at the magnitude of The Tour, particularly in contrast to what little attention cycling, as a fringe sport, receives in the U.S. No event, sporting or otherwise, in America, or anywhere, remotely compares to it. It is impossible to appreciate its singularity without experiencing it.

Lance is winning and dominating this Tour in a manner different from his previous six wins--without a single stage victory so far except for the team time trial. He's come within a whisker of victory on two stages, however, and will be a heavy favorite to win the remaining time trial Saturday before the promenade into Paris the next day to conclude the race. But being in yellow on the Champs is all that matters. It was exciting enough to see him fend off all the attacks from his chief challengers when the going got steep on Saturday and Sunday, that it wasn't necessary to see him cross the finish line first to be awed by his strength.

Saturday I watched it all just a couple hundred feet from the finish line on the giant screen amongst a mob of thousands, while Sunday I watched it in the comfort of a hotel's lounge with a German and his wife who spoke no English, or didn't want to admit to and have to answer for Ullrich's inability to match Lance. I reached the hotel about an hour after watching the peloton pass just before they embarked on the third of the day's six climbs. I had biked over the day's first two climbs before reaching the day's feed zone where I paused for a couple of hours awaiting the caravan and the peloton.

I had to bike 50 miles the night before after Saturday's finish, to put myself within ten miles of Sunday's course. It was mostly downhill starting with a great descent down from the ski resort summit finish at Aix-les-Thermes with hundreds of other cyclists, including many of The Tour riders returning to their team bus at the bottom of the mountain. There was only one road up. If the riders had waited to come down in a team vehicle it could be a couple of hours before the road was cleared of all the descending fans, most of whom were on foot.

Although many of the fans wear team jerseys, there is no chance that they could be mistaken as anything but fans. The actual pros would be immediately recognizable even if they weren't still adorned with numbers on their bikes and their jerseys. They are slight and scrawny, without an ounce of body fat, and their smooth and effortless pedaling, riding very very fast through the obstacle course of thousands clearly distinguish themselves as highly skilled professionals. Most of the racers put on a jacket for the descent despite temperatures near 90, so they would cool off too dramatically. There was no way I could keep up with them, though many tried. After the five-mile descent I was part of a bumper-to-bumper migration of fans and Tour personnel headed to the next stage for 45 miles until just before dark.

I was on my bike by 7:30 the next morning. The first summit was 30 miles away and the next one ten miles after that. I was determined to get over both before the road was closed. Even though it was much cooler than the day before, my shirt and shorts were soaked, dripping perspiration by the time I reached the second summit and plunged down to the feed zone. Unfortunately it was in a village, so the road was lined with fans for a couple of miles making my chances of nabbing a discarded water bottle or excess energy bar very limited.

I stationed myself by one of the Discovery team soigneurs handing off the musette bags of food, so I was able to snap a photo of the man in yellow just inches from me as he grabbed his. I could have had a photo too of the ecstatic guy who recovered his water bottle. A better photo would have been of the overweight brute who looked as if he could have played middle-linebacker for the Bears who knocked over a 70-year old woman in pursuit of a trinket from the caravan. He maniacally chased after everything tossed by the caravan as if it were a fumble at the goal line. His pudgy ten-year old son let out a whimper whenever he or his dad failed to get whatever they were after. In the U.S. they would have qualified as white trash. The Americans along the race route might be loud and a tad obnoxious in their own way, but none are as crazed as the French can be in going after the souvenirs. There are many of his type. I am very careful to stay as far away from them as I can, preferably on the opposite side of the road. They are truly dangerous.

After the peloton passed I went in search of a TV in the small town of the feed zone, but the couple of bars were already packed and overflowing. It was 15 miles to the next town, and it being a Sunday I wasn't sure if the town would be big enough to have a bar that would be open. I was disappointed to miss the climb the peloton was embarking upon as it was in Spain. There would be legions of wild and demonstrative fans. But with three climbs following it before the finish, nothing too dramatic would happen. I was very concerned about finding a place to watch the rest of the race. When I came upon a hotel after 45 minutes I could only hope it had a communal television. As I dismounted my bike by the entryway, an employee came out to greet me. He knew exactly what had drawn me to his establishment. Even before I could ask if there was a television, he informed me that there was.

I was happy to see George Hincapie's victory interview. He bravely attempted French, but when he didn't know the word for "help", as he said that was his purpose, "to help Lance", and inserted the English word, the interviewer said,"That's OK, you can speak English if you want," both he and I were happy. I feared Hincapie would be fluent, as he has a French wife, a former podium girl, and has been riding the Tour for ten years. He was bubbling with ecstasy having unexpectedly won the Tour's toughest stage.

He is the first Lance teammate to win a stage since Lance's first Tour victory in 1999, as his teammates all stick with him and don't expend any energy on any venture for their own glory, as all their efforts are reserved for Lance. Hincapie was only covering a breakaway in the service of Lance, a breakaway that was never caught. Hincapie was the only one in the break who didn't have to work, so he had enough energy saved at the end for the win. Hincapie was almost embarrassed as he crossed the finish line, it was so unexpected.

A teammate of the Italian great Coppi once won a stage in the mountains back in the '50s in a similar fashion. He was in tears of sorrow at having upstaged his team leader. But no one could be happier than Lance at Hincapie having won this stage. Hincapie recounted how he has known Lance since he was 14 years old. He said, "I owe Lance everything." That's not true, as Hincapie is a great rider, having won the American pro championship and finishing second at Paris-Roubaix this year. Hincapie also effused how much he likes France. He said, "I have a French wife and a French child. France is my second home. I love you guys."

When the broadcast ended at six, I was back on my bike for another three hours headed to Pau 80 miles away, but in no great rush, as the next day was a rest day for the peloton.

Later, George

No comments: