Saturday, July 8, 2006

La Loupe, France

Friends: For the first time in three years and nearly 50 stages I missed seeing a stage finish as it happened, either in person or on television. I've had quite a few close calls, including a couple of days ago, when I only saw the final three miles, or six minutes of the stage.

Good luck has always been with me, so I wasn't too concerned as the 5:15 finish was closing in on me and I was madly pounding the pedals with hands actually on the drops for the first time in 4,000 miles, racing to get to the next town, but more out of fear of the black clouds that were swallowing me up and what torrents they might contain, as I had a good half hour in hand before the race would finish.

I made it to the town before the heavens opened and found a bar right in the town center. There were five people sitting at the bar and a blank TV high in a corner. But the bartender had the bad news that it wasn't working and that there were no other bars in the town. I rode around a bit hoping to find something, but without success. There wasn't even an Internet outlet to be found, where I could have received the news as it occurred.

When the rain began furiously pelting, I retreated to a covered bus stop. Right beside it was a telephone that I planned to use to call Yvon, knowing he'd be watching the race, with one of the free telephone cards I grabbed at a stage finish last year from France Telecom. The anticipation of that call gave me almost as much pleasure as to be watching it. Yvon excitedly recounted the sprint finish won by the Spaniard Oscar Friere, beating out Boonen. He said I could count on him any time to be at home watching the last two hours of the race if I needed any updates.

I arrived in Beauvais, start of stage five, 21 hours after the peloton had departed, as it turned out to be an 80-mile ride from Saint Quentin, where the previous stage had finish. I had the option of visiting Beauvais or the city of Compiegne, which is the only city in this Departement to have a bicycle museum. It is also the start city for the Paris-Roubais race. It is a city that I have wanted to visit, but I decided to save it for another time and to see how Beauvais dressed itself up for the Tour. It was the right choice.

Beauvais must have a strong cult of arch-devotees to the Tour as The Tour has passed through it 23 times. Its Hotel de Ville, City Hall, a five-story chateau of a building, served as the starting line for the race and was festooned with bikes and bunting from top to bottom, almost as if it were a Christophe installation. And inside several rooms were devoted to The Tour. Down a long hallway hung maps of each of the race routes since 1903. There were bikes and jerseys and knickknacks and magazines and lots of books, including a biography of LeMond written by "New York Times" reporter Samuel Abt translated into French.

Beauvais, like Saint Quentin, had a monstrous Gothic cathedral that would be a UNESCO World Heritage site if it weren't only slightly upstaged by those of Chartres and Notre Dame and Bordeaux. Both were extra spectacular, as they were so unexpected. I followed the Tour route for about twenty miles out of Beauvais until I needed to turn south down to Tours, where I hope to arrive in time to watch the World Cup final Sunday night with Florence and Rachid,
who I have visited the past two years.

There was a category four climb just out of Beauvais. Near its summit I was lucky to find one of the free daily 18-page race newspapers distributed by the caravan each day. It is mostly filled with stories on the sponsors, but there are a couple of daily features I look forward to, one an interview with one of the racers, usually French, and another interview with some prominent local. The racer is asked the same series of questions--how many kilometers he rides a year, what languages he speaks, whether he prefers to end his meal with cheese or dessert, his greatest moment on the bike, his greatest fear, which color he dislikes the most. They also ask if he found a lamp with a genie that could grant one wish what would he want. Most have said happiness.

Axel Merckx said a cure for cancer. A French domestique had nothing greater to wish for than a mere stage win. It was shocking, but most telling, that he wouldn't ask to win the whole race. A mere stage win was monumental enough for him.

Later, George

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