Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Spa, Belguim

Friends: Its been an exceptional year for Belgian cycling fans. In May the Tour of Italy brought its first three stages to Belgium and now the Tour de France graces its roads for its stages three and four.

Two years ago when I biked into Belgium from Luxembourg, on the very same road the Tour is
following, my first reaction was, no billboard or monument of King Eddie Merckx welcoming me. My second reaction was to what a sorry state of disrepair its roads were in. There was still nothing of Eddie at the border. That doesn't come for 25 miles until the town of Stavelot. But the roads were in magnificent condition, just repaved for the Tour. When I was uncertain as to which road the Tour route followed all I had to do was look at the quality of the pavement and I knew.

There should have been no doubts with the yellow arrow markers indicating the way, but on rare occasions they have been prematurely scavenged. I did have one such incident today, going three-quarters of a mile before confirming I had missed a turn.

It is especially satisfying to be following those yellow markers in the evening when there is no one else on the road. I am as jubilant and light-hearted and song-happy as Dorothy and her three cohorts as they frolicked along their own yellow-themed road. I've been able to scavenge several of those yellow markers each of the past two years. I felt no need to do it again this year, but for the first time ever I came across one laying on the road that had blown down. Since I've garnered one, I'll have to add another, as one alone is a bit flimsy and prone to fracture lashed atop my tent and sleeping bag. I need at least one more to provide it backing and stability. I'll have no problem finding a home for them when I return to Chicago. It will give me great pleasure to imagine who I will bequeath them to.

For 25 miles the Tour followed a major highway through the heart of Luxembourg. At nine p.m. last night I was pulled over by a women cop telling me bicycles weren't allowed on the very road the racers would be riding. I had no clue that I was breaking the law, as it was not a divided highway and had no signs barring bicycles. It alternated between two and three lanes wide, depending on which direction was climbing and needed a passing lane. Being forced from the main, direct road cost me several extra miles at a most inopportune time . After tomorrow's stage there is a 65-mile transfer from the finishing city to the next day's start. That may be too much for me, ending this segment of my close-up Tour experience.

I rode several miles today with a retired New Zealand couple that is following the Tour with a car they bought in Paris and will sell back after a month's use--much cheaper than renting they say. They brought along their bikes, They ride a little of each day's stage. They'd noticed me the last couple of days and were just as happy to learn my story, as I was to learn theirs.

They wild-camp along the road at night just as I do. They are among the rare motorized followers camping in a tent. Most motorized followers are in RVs. There is an outside chance they could give me a lift to cover those extra 65 miles. They were wearing Discovery team jerseys and were not rooting for any of the Aussies. This was the second year they had followed The Tour in such a manner after going with an organized group one year--a thoroughly unsatisfying, and far more expensive experience.

As I pedaled through the town of Spa, where the Tour will pass in an hour-and-a-half, someone

shouted at me, "Hey, Yank." It was an Irish guy I met in Nice a month ago. He said he had been

thinking about me all this time. Our meeting had planted the idea of traveling by bicycle in his mind. He had been regretting he hadn't asked me more about it and was sorry we hadn't exchanged email addresses. He had been hoping my some miracle we might cross paths again. He had no interest in The Tour and just coincidentally found himself on the route. He is an avid motorcycle racing fan. Spa has a large track. That is what drew him to the town. But he was still thrilled enough to see the bicycle race that he spent five euros on a Tour hat, not knowing that he could well get one free from the caravan.

While watching the World Cup in a bar in Strasbourg I met a reporter for the Miami Tribune who is based in Lima, Peru and is here on vacation attending the World Cup, The Tour and the running of the Bulls in Pamplona, three mega-events. He used his credentials to get a closer view of The Tour, attending the Bjarne Riis press conference explaining the exclusion of Ivan Basso and drove the first stage in a press vehicle just ahead of the caravan of sponsors. He said it was an astounding experience seeing the gathered thousands for miles and miles awaiting the peloton. If he'd been covering the race, he would have liked to have done a story on someone such as me getting to experience stage after stage by bicycle. He was certain any editor would love such a story and asked for my email address to send to the Chicago Tribune.

Today's stage ends in the Netherlands. I will skip that and head directly to tomorrow's stage start city of Huy, about 30 miles from here, and see how far I can get into tomorrow's stage. I was on the road by seven this morning to get an early start on a Luxembourg road that may or may not have been legal for bicyclists. I'd ridden it two years ago without problem, but it was similar to the road I'd been ejected from last night. A police car passed me after half an hour going in the opposite direction. He let me be, possibly because it was near the end of his shift and he didn't want to bother with me as I was closing in on Belgium.

There was disappointingly little bicycle decoration along the roads today. But the crowds were already gathering, especially on the climbs. The Belgians rank right up there with the Italians as the most devoted and and knowledgeable of bike racing fans. They don't need to put up decorations to prove it. I received more cheers today on the climbs than anywhere along the route so far this year. Nothing like the Alps or Pyrenees, but still significant encouragement and acknowledgement.

Later, George

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