Saturday, July 9, 2005

Tours deux

Friends: My search for tires and used books in English took Florence and I much longer than we anticipated as we ranged from one end of the sprawling city of Tours to the other. We didn't get back to Florence's apartment until after seven p.m., well after the day's Tour coverage ended. I was enjoying my time cycling with fellow messenger Florence, as we had so often in Chicago, soaking up the full flavor of this old historic city and its distasteful sprawl of all too many chain-store franchises, that I wasn't fretting too much at having missed the day's race. I knew the evening's extended wrap-up show awaited us as well as plenty of highlights on the many news shows.

I felt a bit of disappointment, though, as we watched the highlights, that I'd missed the day's action live. The Tour ventured into Germany after 80 miles. It was a rare and major event for the people in the area. The locals reacted with appropriate fervor. The route was more thickly thronged with wildly-partying fans than usual. I would have liked to have witnessed every mile of their uber-excitement as the peloton passed rather than just the highlights. There were wacky sites galore. Fans on bikes sped along with the peloton for a brief spell on the bicycle path that paralleled the race route. The peloton passed a phalanx of yellow-clad fans furiously pedaling bikes on rollers atop a long trailer. There were many other glimpses of celebratory madness a few notches higher than usual.

Watching it reminded me how exhilarating it is to be amongst the fanatics. I was sorry not to have been there absorbing it all first hand and contributing to it. But if I had continued following The Tour across France, I would have had to make future sacrifices that I didn't care to make. I would have been in deep trouble after Sunday's stage when the race entourage makes a couple hundred mile transfer by plane down to the Alps. That would have been it for me, unless I were prepared to forsake my bike and resort to train or bus. I may just have to do that next year so I'll be able to ride as many miles as possible of each day's route. Right now I prefer to be a purist, staying true to my bike, even though it means many of my miles are spent bicycling non-race route miles, those gaps between the stage finish in one town and the start in a town further down the road and occasional shortcuts in the middle of a stage.

The best miles are those on the Tour route packed with fans and through towns dressed up to celebrate the race with all manner of bike art and signs. Riding a stage several weeks before the peloton passes is far from the same experience. I want to be there when it matters, when it is the focus of immeasurable attention and radiates with untold energy and excitement and joy and anticipation of the thousands who line the road. The aura is as real and refreshing as a cold drink on a hot day. Pedaling the bike in such an atmosphere is as joyous and effortless as I have experienced.

Although I will have ridden more than half of the 21 stages just before or after the racers and at least portions of all the other stages, I know I am missing a lot right now while the peloton heads to Germany and then even more as it takes on the Alps. Even though I have strong memories of riding portions of the Alp stages a month ago, it would be much different being their on race day. It will be a week before I rejoin it all in the Pyrenees. But I am still thrilled to be here in France as its going on, taking in hours and hours of the daily live coverage. As I'm pedaling the 300 miles down to the Pyrenees, while the peloton is battling it out in the Alps, I can have the satisfaction of knowing that the roads I am riding have been part of The Tour in years past.

One of the reasons The Tour has ventured into Germany is that there are two German-sponsored teams in this year's Tour--Gerolsteiner, one of whose lead riders is the American Levi Leipheimer, and T-Mobile with Lance rivals Ullrich and Vinokurov. They may be German teams, but T-Mobile only has four Germans on its nine-man roster and Gerolsteiner, a mineral-water company, has five. Of the 21 teams in The Tour, only one is entirely comprised of the same nationality--the French Bouygues Telecom team of Thomas Voeckler, last year's yellow jersey wearer, who remains a fan favorite and is frequently featured on television for that experience, even though he's not even among the top 100 racers in the race.

Most of the teams are an international smorgasbord. There are two teams that have seven different nationalities on their nine-man rosters--CSC from Denmark and Phonak of Switzerland. Lance's Discovery team is one of three teams with six different nationalities. It has only one American on it besides Lance, his chief lieutenant George Hincapie, who is the only member of the team to have ridden with Lance in all of his Tour wins . There are 28 countries represented. Colombia and Venezuela are the only countries from the Americas besides the U.S. There hasn't been a Canadian or a Mexican for several years.

As nationalistic as the French are, going bonkers over any Frenchman who even slightly distinguishes himself, and highlighting the name of each of the 30 or so French riders in the race in the standings listed in the newspaper, there is no national anthem during the departure or arrival ceremonies. There are no shortage of flags along the race route. Many fans identify themselves with their national flag. Some are very similar. I have learned to distinguish between the The French and Dutch, which are both red, white and blue striped, and the German and Belgian, both red, black and golden striped. The rare site of an American flag gives me a charge. I wouldn't mind letting those along the route know that it is an American on a touring bike laden with pannier that is riding past them, though I would prefer to do it in a more subtle manner than with a flag. The only feature on my bike and amongst my gear that might distinguish me as an American are the three yellow wristbands around my seat post, as much to recognize Crissy as Lance.

Later, George

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