Saturday, July 15, 2006

Montelimar, France

Friends: Today I've at last caught up to The Tour after more than a week's separation, just as it makes its approach to the Alps. While the peloton was going about its business in the Pyrenees, climbing, climbing and climbing, I was doing the same in the Massif Central. My climbs weren't as high or as prolonged, but there were enough ups and downs that it added up to plenty of vertical feet and expenditure of energy.

With the temperatures in the high 80s every climb left me drenched in sweat. My black shorts don't show the dirt, but every seam line was thoroughly saturated with layer upon layer of the white of salt. Unlike the high mountains, there were no natural springs along the road to douse myself, and the Massif Central is so underpopulated, towns with their communal spigots are not as frequent as elsewhere.

Thanks to Yvon, I learned that cemeteries are a dependable source of water, as just about every cemetery has a faucet just inside its gate so visitors can water and clean the graves of their loved ones. It has made finding water much easier. The walled cemeteries also provide enough privacy to allow me to do a little washing as well as rehydrating. I've even taken to picnicking
inside the cemetery walls, happy to have a source of fresh cool water an arm's length away. I have yet to encounter a wagged finger. Once as I was eating, someone visiting wished me a 'bon appetite.'

Even through the Massif Central I was able to make it to a bar or restaurant with a TV in time for each day's finish. Just as the peloton nearly every day catches the day's breakaway despite however much time it is ahead, so have I found a place with a TV to watch the race finish even when it looks well nigh impossible. At times I'm hammering as frantically and ferociously as the peloton as it chases the breakaway in my own chase to a TV, but it feels good to ride with such vigor and purpose, especially with so much at stake and such a delightful reward if I make it.

On the first day the peloton invaded the Pyrenees I began looking for a TV at 2:15, three hours before the finish, wanting to see the first major climb of The Tour, a Beyond Category. I was denied at seven or eight places through a large, but much depressed town. Nearly half its
restaurants and bars were closed and boarded up. Those that were open were unable to afford cable. The only place with a television was the PMU bar, a horse betting bar that only shows horse races on its televisions despite being a major sponsor of the Tour. It was a giant PMU green cardboard hand, that are passed out by the caravan, that gashed the Norwegian Horshod in the final sprint early in the race while he was in yellow, nearly knocking him out of the race.

I had given up on finding a TV in time to watch that first climb when I came upon a restaurant on the outskirts of the town with a chalkboard on the sidewalk advertising its lunch special. I ducked in, more to get out of the sun than in hopes of finding a TV, but, lo and behold, it had one in its dining room and the proprietor was willing to turn it on and serve me a sandwich. However, after giving me my food, she pointed at her watch and indicated 3:15 as the time when she had to leave. That still gave me time to watch the two-man breakaway, nine minutes ahead of the peloton, crest the climb, and also watch the T-Mobile-led pack make it over as well. Landis was sitting comfortably in and not making a move yet. That wouldn't come until the next day, on the Tour's toughest day with five category one and beyond category climbs, culminating with a summit finish. And that day, July 13, 2006 will go down as another great day in American cycling, the day Floyd Landis seized the yellow jersey and became a household name throughout the world. If he can hold on to the jersey until Paris, which is strongly likely, he will become the third great L in American cycling along with Lance and LeMond.

It was a further great day for American racing fans as another L (and a double L at that), Levi
was there at the end with Landis and just one other, the Russian Menchov, battling it out the last few miles up the steep, crowd-packed mountain. All three of them made periodic stabs of a Lance acceleration, but none could ride away from the others as Lance so often did. It was high drama all the way up the climb as the lead group of seven at the base of the mountain was whittled down and the chasers all faltered.

That the Russian, one of four in the race, compared to eight Americans, won in the final sprint, just nipping the two Ls, hardly mattered, as Landis had ample time in hand on him to take the yellow jersey, though he had to sweat it out as the Frenchman who had assumed the jersey the day before had to finish over four minutes behind Landis. That too wasn't of great consequence,
as Landis had asserted his strength, shedding all threats to his supremacy. If he hadn't donned yellow this day, he had shown it was inevitable.

The next significant stage isn't until Tuesday, the second of three summit finishes in this year's race, this one atop the legendary L'Alpe d'Huez. The last time the Tour made a visit there was two years ago. It is partially because of events of that day, the time trial when Lance overtook Basso who had started three minutes before him, that Landis is riding for the Swiss Phonak team rather than Discovery. Landis had been a teammate of Lance's for several years up until last year. Landis had been ordered to take it easy on that day's time trial to save himself for the next day's hard stage through the Alps. He still turned in a superlative time. Both Lance and team director Johan Bruyneel made mocking comments about his good time at the team meal, which rankled Landis, as he maintained he did not give an all-out effort.

Landis, raised as a Mennonite in Pennsylvania, has always had a fiercely independent streak and is as tough as they come. He has a badly arthritic hip due to a bike accident that he will have replaced after The Tour. He intends to compete next years with an artificial hip. He continues in the tradition of Lance, with his cancer, and LeMond with his near fatal hunting accident, as great American cyclists who've had to overcome monumental physical setbacks. His biography will be a best-seller too.

I took a slight detour of about 25 miles on my ride down from Tours, swinging west of Clermont-Ferrand for a close look at the Puy de Dome, one of the most storied of Tour climbs. It is one of a cluster of small volcanoes (puy is French for volcano) on the Massif Central. It is not the
highest in the area, but it is the most dramatic and perfectly formed. The departement (the equivalent of French states) it is in, is named Puy de Dome. There is a weather station at its summit and hang gliders can be seen circling it.

Yvon had warned me that bicycles are only allowed to ride up its four-mile toll road on one special day of the year, but I still wanted a close-up look, and with all the climbing I had been doing, I was hoping that the day of my arrival would not be that day. The Puy de Dome hasn't been included in The Tour for awhile, as its summit is too small to host the sprawling Tour village that now hosts the thousands of journalists and sponsors that accompany the Tour, and its unlikely that it will ever be included in the Tour again, as the Tour couldn't simply pass over it on the way to somewhere else as it can on Mont Ventoux, as the same road that goes up the Puy de Dome is the road that one must descend on.

I did learn, however, that bicyclists are now allowed on the road from seven to nine a.m. on
Wednesdays and Sundays. There is a plaque at its summit commemorating some of the dramatic Tour stages that took place on its slopes. The shoulder-to-shoulder battle between Anquetil and Poulidor in 1964 is considered the greatest Tour stage of all time. Merckx was slugged by a spectator on the climb in 1975, effectively costing him the Tour. The Spanish

climbing great Bahamontes won a stage there, which put him in yellow.

Rain last night spoiled Bastille Day celebrations, though I could still hear fireworks off in the distance. A couple of nights before, as I sat in my tent, I thought I was witnessing the preview of a fireworks display, as all of a sudden, on the darkening horizon at ten p.m., I saw an orange glow. Within a minute it had grown into a spectacular bright orange full moon.

Later, George

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