Monday, July 17, 2006

L'Alpe d'Huez

Friends: Yesterday was another momentous Tour day for me, as the Devil, the German uber-fan who has become almost as synonymous with The Tour as the Yellow Jersey, officially sanctified me with an "allez-allez" and his trademark little hop and wave of the pitchfork as I neared the summit of the five-and-a-half mile category two Col de Perty about three hours ahead of the peloton (French for platoon, as the pack of riders is known).

It is an honor I do not take lightly. I have passed him several times each of these past three
years and not once had me acknowledged me, even though fans about him would react to me, a rare, if not lone, touring cyclist riding the course, with shouts of "allez" and "bravo" and "bon courage" and "quelle courage" and "uh-la-la" and "Armstrong" and "la premiere." I figured he just reserved his antics for the true Kings of the Road. I did stop and speak to him last year and had my photo taken with him, hoping our mutual devotion to the Tour could lead to a friendship, but was disappointed to discover he only speaks German. An "allez" and a wave several times a year will still be bond enough.

I was reveling even before my anointment, as the day's route emphasized more than ever The Tour's greatest allure--the beautiful French countryside. The day's route wound through fields of lavender, orange groves, apple orchards and vineyards in semi-mountainous terrain as The Tour closes in on the mighty and majestic Alps. And as always The Tour route only briefly intruded on a main highway, sticking predominantly to quiet, narrow country byways through small, centuries-old villages. It would have been the ultimate in cycling even if there wasn't the great communal gathering along the road of those paying tribute to all The Tour represents.

It was a Sunday, so the crowds were at their max. There was a steady flow of cyclists riding the
course, the most yet I've encountered this year, though hardly any Americans in contrast to the past two years--the Lance effect. I kept up with a couple of fifty-year old Frenchmen for awhile, who were riding their annual stage, one a local and the other visiting from about 100 miles away. On the five-and-a-half mile climb I was just able to tag along with another French couple, a husband and wife in their thirties, though we didn't converse.

The husband wasn't happy at all to be tailed by a guy on a loaded bike and periodically increased the pace, but too much for his wife. He'd turn and give her a dirty look, upset she was lagging behind, finally settling on a gap of fifty feet ahead of us hoping the wall-to-wall people along the road wouldn't associate him with us. It was bumper-to-bumper cars and campers the whole climb that had been there for hours, each with a table full of picnickers awaiting the peloton. It all contributes to making the Tour de France a spectacle and a sporting event unlike any other. Tail-gating American-style only remotely compares.

The only dampener was the damned overly officious gendarmes who were all too eager to wave me off the course. I know enough now to simply dismount at their command and continue on walking until I'm beyond their sight and resume my ride, but it is still a major time-consuming aggravation. The first flic stopped me at 1:07 after my descent from the climb, even though the
peloton wasn't due to arrive there until 3:30. After passing a few others who let me be, another stopped me at 1:30. I continued unmolested for another half hour, thanks in part to the heat which had the gendarmes cowering in the shade, not wishing to step out to flag me down.

Once again I ended up in an isolated spot along the road when the caravan arrived, ideal for gathering booty. And then I scored big after the peloton passed in the water bottle department, finding seven discards, though two had been squashed. I was going to try to resist gathering water bottles this year as I have so many. These were the first I had come upon and I couldn't help myself, barely finding room in my panniers for these treasured souvenirs.

Bourg d'Osians, the small town at the base of L'Alpe d'Huez, is already thronged with people a day before the peloton arrives. I would be truly amazed and boggled by the huge numbers gathered here, if I hadn't been here two years ago, when there were considerably more people overwhelming this small town. That was the year of the first ever Tour time trial on L'Alpe d'Huez. It came near the end of the race when Lance was going for a record sixth Tour title. For months that stage was all that racing fans were talking about. Everyone knew that would be the decisive stage of the race. There wasn't a fan of bicycle racing in the world who didn't want to be there. That holds true whenever The Tour visits L'Alpe d'Huez. Tomorrow is no exception. Landis has a chance to prove himself King. I am thrilled that I will be at the summit awaiting his coronation.

Later, George

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