Monday, July 24, 2006

Auxere, France

Friends: Of the seven of us huddled in the patch of shade provided by the canopy of a food stand 200 meters from the finish line of Saturday's time trial, two were American and five French. The other American was Rod, a 45-year old from the Bay area who was attending The Tour for the seventh straight year via car and bicycle.

His modus operendi was to drive to within 25 miles of each day's finish line and then bike the rest of the way, arriving in time to watch the final three hours of the stage on the giant screen. It was a miracle we hadn't encountered each other before all these years, but now we'll be on the alert for each other. He stays in hotels that he has made reservations at before leaving for France, but is still doing it pretty much on the cheap.

Rod is a passionate and knowledgeable fan, and didn't need to broadcast it to all around. He was able to fill me in on lots of background details I had missed. He promotes races back in the US and also teaches a spin class at a health club. One of his clients is Landis' brother-in-law. He fully expects that his club will soon have a Floyd-signed Phonak jersey hanging in its entry.

Only the last four or five riders of the day's 35-mile time trial were of consequence, but Rod and I were glued to the screen for all three hours of its coverage, intently following the times of the earlier riders of significance (Ekimov, Zabriskie, Millar, Hincapie, Honchak), riders who weren't competing for a place in the overall standings, but were a threat to place well in the time trial. The riders set out one minute apart until the final ten, who were separated by three minutes. Landis, starting out third from the last, was so assured of catching the two riders ahead of him, though one can never underestimate the motivating power of being clad in the yellow jersey, there was little suspense. Still, we cheered each second gained flashed on the screen until he had overcome his 30-second deficit and taken over the race lead.

We had a dog at our feet panting in the sweltering 90-degree heat. Rod spent a euro on an
eight-ounce bottle of water and periodically gave him a handful. "I have a dog back home," he explained. "I miss him more than my girl friend, but don't tell her that."

Rod's first Tour was the year after Lance's first victory. He was among the first wave of Americans that Lance drew to the race. Rod said this year was there were fewer Americans by far attending than race of the seven he had seen. He said one tour operator told him he had only six clients this year, compared to 60 last year.

Of all the dramatics he has witnessed, his most spine-tingling moments came this year watching Floyd's audacious 80-mile solo effort through the Alps. Not even "L'Equipe" could find a feat in the 103-year history of the Tour to compare. Rod was already at the giant screen when the Phonak team took charge of that stage, riding hard at the front, a favorite Lance tactic, before Floyd launched his premeditated attack at the foot of a category-one climb. I, unfortunately, missed the moment, not getting to a bar until there were two hours left in the stage and he had a four minute and increasing lead.

I watched yesterday's final ceremonial stage into Paris in a bar with a retired English couple who had been coming to France the past twenty years to watch the Tour. They were at a sharp corner of the time trial and witnessed four crashes, including Moreau, one of the two French riders to finish in the top ten. The couple pulled out their digital camera and showed me their photos of Moreau crashing into a barrier and catapulting head over heels.

A bike museum south of Paris awaits me and with luck I'll have the time to search out the commemorated starting point of the first Tour in 1903 on the outskirts of Paris. I'm heading north, but the heat is not letting up. Its been one scorcher after another. I'm taking full advantage of the cool of the late evening.

Two nights ago I suffered one of the moments I dread most, a flat just as it was getting dark before I had found a place to camp. It came in a city, so after replacing the tube I had to head out into the dark beyond the city limits to sniff out a camp site. There is so little traffic on these French roads, especially in the evening, that it wasn't as perilous as it might have been. It didn't take even five minutes to find a vacant field perfectly suitable for the night.

Later, George

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