Thursday, July 6, 2006

San Quentin, France

Friends: The Tour and I are back in France for the rest of the race except for a little side trip into Spain. There was no official indication on the small rural road The Tour was following that it had left Belgium and was back in France about 80 miles into yesterday's 130-mile stage. But when I began to see the official Tour yellow plastic garbage bags strung along the road, I knew I was back in The Tour's homeland. That and the gendarmes.

The course was noticeably lacking in cops through Belgium, allowing me to push it much further than usual before I was ordered off the course. The course monitors in Belgium were old men who looked like they were school crossing guards, and they all smiled at me. I was able to keep riding a good half hour longer than usual, right up until just before the caravan caught up to me, finally ordered off the course by a series of officials on motorcycles clearing the way.

I was around the half-way point of the day's stage, caught out in an unshaded no-man's land between towns. It actually turned into an excellent scavenging point as the closest people to me were 50 yards away on both sides. As the caravan passed, the dispensers of booty had just enough time to reload and toss a goody to me after pleasing the family just up the road. On the four previous stages I had been in towns amongst hoards of people and was lucky to get a couple items each day, not that I was really trying. But by now I know who is giving away what, and which I should be on alert for and what is worth making an effort to go after.

Food is high on my list and today I scored two packs of a thumb-sized sausage and a bag of pretzels. I missed out on the cheese and crackers and the chocolate bars. Many of the sponsors in the caravan have multiple vehicles giving away stuff, and since they fly by at 25 miles per hour, the same speed as the racers, they don't monitor if one of their cohorts has already tossed one of their items to somebody. I was able to score two yellow wrist bands, a cheaper, glossy version of Lance's, from the French company Le Faillitaire. Two other sponsors are giving out wrist bands, though I have yet to get either. But I did nab a Credit Lyonnaise musette bag, a key chain, a couple of Nestle X necklaces, which are surprisingly classy, and a couple of other items.

They all paled in comparison, however, to the six course markers I grabbed after the peloton passed. I could have had twice that many if I really wanted, as people surprisingly weren't immediately pouncing on them. I may have to test what they are worth on e-Bay.

After the 200 vehicles of the caravan passed, it was about an hour before the peloton arrived. Without gendarmes posted every 100 meters or so as in France, I could get back on my bike and push on down the road during this lull. After about six miles I came to a gas station, just what I needed. I took full advantage of its washroom to refill my water bottles, do my wash and also use a bucket of water to find a slow leak in one of my tubes I couldn't locate by ear or feel. It was one of two tubes I had to patch. The other had a small interior slash from a spoke hole that the rim tape had backed off of and exposed, a most unlucky puncture. It happened earlier that day on a steep, high-speed descent on my front wheel. Such a flat is my worst nightmare, a fear that visits me whenever I'm flying down a mountain or steep hill. I'm always clutching the handlebars, trying to enjoy the descent, but muttering, I don't want a front flat now.

Its the first time it's ever happened, and I was fortunate to come out of it alive. Luckily, it wasn't an instant blow-out. I could feel the tire going soft, so I could squeeze the brakes and bring myself to a gradual stop. I had been trying to hold my speed back anyway, as the road was wet from an early morning rain and a sign warned that the descent was a most perilous eleven per cent grade. Still I was at 35 mph. I couldn't bring the bike to a complete stop in the middle of the descent, but had to hop off it when I got down to under ten mph, as the tire went fully flat and I had little control over it. I was surprisingly calm when it was all over. As a messenger I've had close calls with motorists that have had my heart pounding triple time for minutes afterwards. Here I was most upset at losing 15 minutes on a day when every second was precious, as I needed to do 120 miles to reach the stage finish before dark.

I would have succeeded if it hadn't started raining about an hour-and-a-half before dark, right about the time the France-Portugal semi-final World Cup match was to start. I was hoping to be able to see some of it. I had already ridden over 100 miles for the fourth straight day, and when I saw a soccer field along the road with a forest behind it, it looked like the perfect place to camp while everyone else in France was watching the most important soccer game it had competed in since the Cup final eight years ago. When I heard horn tooting two hours later I knew France had won and I'd have the Final to look forward to Sunday.

There were many signs and messages written on the road devoted to the soccer team, many exhorting its star Zidane and the team, "the blue", as they are known. The Tour passed through the home town of retiring director Jean-Marie LeBlanc yesterday. They were many signs celebrating him, some simply saying "Merci Jean-Marie."

I didn't have to spend a couple euros on a drink in a bar to watch the end of yesterday's stage, as I came upon a tent with a large-screen television for the villagers of a small town. The day before in Belgium the crowd in the bar I ended up in let out yelps of delight when it was announced that their hero Tom Boonen had assumed the yellow jersey thanks to his time bonus in the final sprint. If he sustains his career, he could rank right up there with Merckx. At least half the home-made signs along the route through Belgium were devoted to him.

As much as I'm tempted to hop a train and catch up to the Tour, I will remain faithful to the bicycle and forgo first-hand encounters with The Tour for the next week as I head over towards the Alps before meeting up with it again. It'd be nice to be in Brittany for Saturday's time trial when Hincapie and Landis have a good chance to take the yellow jersey. Instead I will watch it on television, and that too will be a noteworthy experience here in France. My camera will get a rest. Every day is highlighted by photos of fans picnicking along the road. Yesterday's winner was of a mom and dad and their teen aged son sitting at their portable table alongside the road half-way up one of the day's climbs while a herd of 25 cattle sprawled in a field just inches behind them.

Later, George

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