Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Paris

Friends: There were no signs in the Paris suburb of Montgeron, about fifteen miles south of La Tour Eiffel, directing pilgrims to the restaurant/hotel that was the starting point of the first Tour de France in 1903, but the receptionist at Montgeron's town hall unhesistantly told me how to find it. It was just a mile away, straight up the town's main street I'd been riding on, to its northern extremity, where it merged with National Highway number 6 on in to Paris.

It would have been hard to have missed it if I had kept on riding, as the round-about in front of the hotel featured a colorful, modernistic, metal sculpture of a rider on a bike formed by the contortions of the town's name. It was more of a gimmicky, than stately, monument to the Tour's inaugural departure site, but it was an eye-catcher. The grassy plot it resided in was
ringed by badly chipped enamel tiles with each winner's name and nationality and year of victory through 2002, as it was erected prior to the 2003 centenary Tour, the fifth of Lance's conquests.

A plaque on the restaurant also acknowledged the significance of the location. It being July, when much of France is on vacation, the restaurant was closed, so I plopped down on the sidewalk in front of it and had a can of ravioli. It hardly needed heating, as it was plenty warmed having spent half the day in my pannier baking in the intense heat.

These past few days, if I had a support vehicle supplying me with bottles of cold water whenever I wanted, as the Tour riders do, I could have easily outdone Landis' record of 70 bottles that he poured over his head and down his throat on his historic day in the Alps. Instead, I just remain on alert for cemeteries and their water faucets, remembering Yvon every time I take advantage of them and silently giving thanks for the best advice I have received in years.

The heat gives me delusions of fantasy, imagining a day when 7-Elevens, or some such convenience store, gains a toehold in Europe with their self-service soft-drink and ice machines. I continually recall one of my fondest cycling memories--a 64-ounce cup, half-filled with ice and then topped off with Gatorade and coke in the Mojave Desert, four pounds of fluid that my body effortlessly and joyfully absorbed. I long too for the small grocery stores of Thailand with their one kilo bags of ice. Here, the coldest drinks I can look forward to are barely tepid, refrigerated juices or sodas.

France is slowly becoming Americanized. Some grocery stores open on Sunday mornings and not all close for lunch. Both are such noteworthy features that they are prominently advertised on billboards. "Non-stop" or "sans interruption" is the phrase for not taking a mid-day break. The city of Tours had a couple of small convenience stores which stay open 24 hours, an almost scandalous innovation, but popular.

I was thwarted by the limited hours of the bike museum in Moret-sur-Loing, a small town about 50 miles south of Paris, as it was closed yesterday and didn't open until two p.m. today. If it were open this morning, I would have lingered, as it had a special exhibition on Rene Pottier, winner of the 1906 Tour, and local boy. The monument I visited with Yvon back in May, at the summit of the Ballon d'Allsace, was in his honor, as he was the first to crest the first major climb in Tour history. He was also the first Tour winner to commit suicide. He hung himself in his garage the year after winning the Tour, distraught over his wife leaving him for another.

Last night I camped in a forest in a residential area near Orly Airport with planes landing overhead until dark and resuming at seven this morning. Tonight, I will camp in a clump of trees alongside Charles de Gaulle Airport with jets landing not more than a hundred meters from me. I verified that my private encampment was in tact when I arrived in May, marked by worn out tires from my previous tours.

I look forward to home, but just as much to next year's Tour, which begins in London.

Thanks for reading, George

Monday, July 24, 2006

Auxere, France


Friends: Of the seven of us huddled in the patch of shade provided by the canopy of a food stand 200 meters from the finish line of Saturday's time trial, two were American and five French. The other American was Rod, a 45-year old from the Bay area who was attending The Tour for the seventh straight year via car and bicycle.


His modus operendi was to drive to within 25 miles of each day's finish line and then bike the rest of the way, arriving in time to watch the final three hours of the stage on the giant screen. It was a miracle we hadn't encountered each other before all these years, but now we'll be on the alert for each other. He stays in hotels that he has made reservations at before leaving for France, but is still doing it pretty much on the cheap.


Rod is a passionate and knowledgeable fan, and didn't need to broadcast it to all around. He was able to fill me in on lots of background details I had missed. He promotes races back in the US and also teaches a spin class at a health club. One of his clients is Landis' brother-in-law. He fully expects that his club will soon have a Floyd-signed Phonak jersey hanging in its entry.


Only the last four or five riders of the day's 35-mile time trial were of consequence, but Rod and I were glued to the screen for all three hours of its coverage, intently following the times of the earlier riders of significance (Ekimov, Zabriskie, Millar, Hincapie, Honchak), riders who weren't competing for a place in the overall standings, but were a threat to place well in the time trial. The riders set out one minute apart until the final ten, who were separated by three minutes. Landis, starting out third from the last, was so assured of catching the two riders ahead of him, though one can never underestimate the motivating power of being clad in the yellow jersey, there was little suspense. Still, we cheered each second gained flashed on the screen until he had overcome his 30-second deficit and taken over the race lead.


We had a dog at our feet panting in the sweltering 90-degree heat. Rod spent a euro on an
eight-ounce bottle of water and periodically gave him a handful. "I have a dog back home," he explained. "I miss him more than my girl friend, but don't tell her that."


Rod's first Tour was the year after Lance's first victory. He was among the first wave of Americans that Lance drew to the race. Rod said this year was there were fewer Americans by far attending than race of the seven he had seen. He said one tour operator told him he had only six clients this year, compared to 60 last year.


Of all the dramatics he has witnessed, his most spine-tingling moments came this year watching Floyd's audacious 80-mile solo effort through the Alps. Not even "L'Equipe" could find a feat in the 103-year history of the Tour to compare. Rod was already at the giant screen when the Phonak team took charge of that stage, riding hard at the front, a favorite Lance tactic, before Floyd launched his premeditated attack at the foot of a category-one climb. I, unfortunately, missed the moment, not getting to a bar until there were two hours left in the stage and he had a four minute and increasing lead.


I watched yesterday's final ceremonial stage into Paris in a bar with a retired English couple who had been coming to France the past twenty years to watch the Tour. They were at a sharp corner of the time trial and witnessed four crashes, including Moreau, one of the two French riders to finish in the top ten. The couple pulled out their digital camera and showed me their photos of Moreau crashing into a barrier and catapulting head over heels.


A bike museum south of Paris awaits me and with luck I'll have the time to search out the commemorated starting point of the first Tour in 1903 on the outskirts of Paris. I'm heading north, but the heat is not letting up. Its been one scorcher after another. I'm taking full advantage of the cool of the late evening.


Two nights ago I suffered one of the moments I dread most, a flat just as it was getting dark before I had found a place to camp. It came in a city, so after replacing the tube I had to head out into the dark beyond the city limits to sniff out a camp site. There is so little traffic on these French roads, especially in the evening, that it wasn't as perilous as it might have been. It didn't take even five minutes to find a vacant field perfectly suitable for the night.


Later, George


Friday, July 21, 2006

Macon, France


Friends: Just when it was beginning to look like no one wanted to win this year's Tour, nor was worthy of winning it, Landis astounded everyone with a ride that ranks among the most amazing and heroic in Tour history, proving that he will be a most eminent champion.


He pulled himself up off the mat after a disastrous performance the day before, exploding on
the day's final climb, losing ten minutes (an eternity) and falling from first to eleventh, seemingly out of contention, and maybe so wasted that he might not even finish the race. All of France and European bikedom was rejoicing, or at least felt relieved, that not another American was about to win the Tour and establish a dynasty. Everyone had written him off and many were regretting having given him as much praise as they had.


Landis had to learn many things from Lance the three years they were teammates. Something he may have been reluctant to adopt, or that was contrary to his character, was to race with anger and rage, Lance's favorite motivational tools. But yesterday they fueled Landis to such an incredible ride that "L'Equipe" screamed "Incredible" and "The Ride of the Century." He set off on a seemingly suicidal solitary break, such as destroyed Pantani the year he and Lance had a tiff over Mont Ventoux. Landis made his bold attack forty-five miles into yesterday's stage, with eighty miles to go at the base of a category one climb. "L'Equipe" called it a "supreme act of defiance."

No one could latch on to him when he made his move, nor could be much concerned that it would amount to anything. Landis may be respected, but no one believed he had such an effort in him. He caught up to an earlier breakaway group and then left them all behind, eventually finishing over seven minutes ahead the yellow jersey group, holding his lead over a beyond category climb while all the contenders worked as furiously together to try to catch him as they had the day before when they dropped him. He gained an extra twenty second bonus for the win, moving him up to third, thirty seconds out of first, about the amount of time he lost when his bike broke in an earlier time trial and he had to get another. The two ahead of him are very mediocre time trialists. He ought to easily overtake them in Saturday's time trial and ride into Paris triumphant in yellow.


When Landis crossed the finish line, unlike most winners, he did not rise off his handlebars to show off his sponsor's name and revel and exult with arms heavenward. Only his right hand left his handlebars in a ferocious round-house swing that could have leveled the Sears Tower. There wasn't a flicker of a smile on his face. "Take that," he was telling all the world, a world that had given up on him, just as Lance would have done. Besides, this was a mere stage win. He had more important matters to tend to. At the awards ceremony afterwards, though, he was all smiles. The fans responded with thunderous applause.

It was such an inspiring ride it kept me on my bike last night until 10:30, well after dark, riding more than half of the next day's 123-mile stage to Macon. After four days in the Alps with at least two category one or beyond category climbs a day my legs felt pulverized and the ovenish heat had further sapped my energy. My chain spent more time on the 34-tooth ring on my freewheel than usual the past two days. Like the peloton, I was happy that today's stage is the last of the climbing, and has only three rated climbs, with the worst a category two. When at 9:30 last night I encountered a three-mile category three climb, I barely noticed it. As always, it was a joy to be riding past all The Tour followers encamped along the road, some solitary and many in clusters sitting in lawn chairs outside their campers as the day finally cooled off.


My easiest day in the Alps was the day I climbed L'Alpe d'Huez, a beyond category eight-miler that I was able to do without gear, making it a ride to savor. There were thousands of us riding up it, all fulfilling a dream. There wasn't all the music from revelers along the road as two years ago. This year's feature was kids with squirt guns offering to cool riders off and adults who would pour a bottle of water over rider's heads. I welcomed them all. It took almost as long to descend L'Alpe d'Huez after the race as it had to climb it, as two miles from the top the gendarmes were halting the thousands of cyclists and then letting us go in groups, a worthwhile safety measure. Still, it was wheel-to-wheel bikes, two lanes wide, everyone riding their brakes at fifteen miles per hour, considerably slower than if the road were clear.


I went straight to my tent and rushed to take it down as dark clouds moved in. A local hotelier, who happened to be in the park, thought I was afraid to camp in the rain and offered me a room. He couldn't believe I was planning on setting off on my bike up the Col de Glandon, a climb twice as long as L'Alpe d'Huez and just as steep. The rain did come, but it was only a sprinkle, and it felt good as I strained up the climb, camping at a rest area half way up the climb that I had camped at two years ago. Climbing in the spectacular beauty of the high Alps was a wonderful way to end a day and start another. There were thousands of others also encamped on the mountain that night, claiming their spots for the next day's stage.


It is 45 miles from Macon to the end of tomorrow's time trial. I'll ride most of the way there in the cool of evening after the peloton arrives here in Macon in a couple of hours. Landis ought to don the Yellow Jersey once again and wear it into Paris on Sunday. I will have four days to bike the 300 miles to Paris for my flight home Thursday after another fabulous July in France.


Later, George

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Albertville, France

Friends: Two years ago when Lance was all the rage going for a record sixth Tour title, I was surrounded atop L'Alpe d'Huez by cocky, rich, know-it-all Americans and loud, obnoxious, drunken Germans all there for the event and making a spectacle of themselves. This year things were back to normal.

When I reached the summit at 11:30 yesterday, five hours before the racers were due, I was fortunate to find a spot in the shade under a ledge 250 meters from the finish linefwith a view not only of the final stretch but also with a view of the giant screen broadcasting the proceedings from 12:55 on, a bit after the racers set out from Gap. To one side of me were five Australians in their forties, four of whom were women. They had been biking about France the past month catching glimpses of The Tour here and there. They were all busy writing postcards. And when they weren't, we had hours of experiences to share. To the other side of me was a 23-year old German racing cyclist with shaved legs, who gave me the lowdown on each of the fourteen Germans in the race. And in front of us on a blanket were two Dutch couples in their sixties in orange Rabobank hats, sponsor of the Dutch team.

There were a few Americans, but they were a rarity. There was a couple from Colorado, who had rented a camper to follow the final week of the Tour. They had nearly canceled their plans when Basso and Ullrich were non-starters, but they were extremely happy that they hadn't. They were avid cyclists, occasionally riding with Tyler Hamilton on their training rides in Boulder. This was their first stage. Also seeing their first stage was a young couple from Florida, who had biked down from Grenoble. They were exhausted, even though it had entailed little climbing. Both couples were thrilled and in awe to be here at L'Alpe d'Huez, recognizing it as the shrine that it is. They were a marked contrast to their American counterparts of two years ago, the big swinging-dick, master-of-the-universe types, who thought it was their divine right to be there, gloating in the supremacy of Lance, as if they had contributed to it.

Two years ago anyone who had attended a stage at L'Alpe d'Huez before raved that it was the largest gathering by far that they had seen there. They weren't exaggerating. Even though there were several hundred thousand people there this year, it seemed about a third as many as two years ago. I camped in a small park with a children's playground three blocks from the center of Bourg d'Osians. There were eight or nine other tents in the park with loads of room for more. Two years ago there had been fifty or sixty tents crammed into the park with little space between.

Still, there were thousands of cyclists biking around and clogging the lone supermarket less than a mile from the start of the climb. One could hardly imagine that it could be more mobbed, though it certainly had been. Just as two years ago there was a huge migration of thousands cyclists up the Alpe the morning of the day's stage, dwarfing any group ride, even New York's Five Boroughs Ride or Chicago's Bike the Drive. It is the ultimate ride for many. There were several professional photographers taking photos of every cyclist who passed at one scenic bend near the summit, handing cyclists a coded card if they wished to purchase a photograph of their momentous ride.

Unlike two years ago, the route wasn't totally lined by vehicles and spectators. If I had known there was space, I could have made the climb the night before and camped along the road or in one of the fields overlooking the route. And if I had, I would have been treated to the site of Lance anonymously riding up the course that evening with Jake Gyllanhall. I had a chat with a couple of Germans wearing Postal Service jerseys who had seen him. They were ecstatic at the memory of it.

I could have had another worthy Lance experience if I had been willing to linger in Gap on Monday's rest day before biking the 75 miles to Bourg d'Osians. A local cycling club was hosting a "Le Passage Armstrong" ride of forty-five miles that included Lance's overland detour in the 2003 Tour. It was a fund raiser for the Lance Armstrong foundation, entry fee ten euros.

The Aussies beside me were avidly rooting for their countryman Cadel Evans and the German for his countryman Kloden, who both had aspirations for the yellow jersey. At one point they and Landis were in a pack of their own for several miles of the eight-mile Alpe climb. Kloden, who had finished on the podium two years ago, was leading, with Landis on his wheel and Evans behind. Kloden had an expression of agony while Landis seemed to be riding effortlessly, looking as serene as if he hadn't a worry in the world.

We had no close-up of Evans, but Landis must have sensed him weakening, as after a couple of miles he finally attacked. Evans couldn't respond. When Landis looked back Kloden was gaining on him. He allowed Kloden to rejoin him for a partnership the rest of the way. The two were riding so well together it looked as if they would overtake the breakaway leaders whose three plus minute lead at the base of the climb had faded to forty seconds with less than two miles to go. Lance certainly would have, but that would have just been frosting for Landis, as he had once again shown to be stronger than all who were a threat to him. He and Kloden ended up fourth and fifth one minute back.

Landis bore an expression of such ease, in contrast to Kloden's agony, I expected him to ride away from him at any moment. But for the second mountaintop finish in a row, Landis declined or was incapable. He also failed to win the sprint at the finish line for third place and its eight second bonus against a rider who had faded from the three-man breakaway. He did hold off Kloden and gained time on all his rivals, reclaiming the race lead and the yellow jersey. Once again, Landis rode a very tactical and conservative race, not expending more energy than he needed to. He is new to this leadership business, and may be resisting overly exerting himself and doing anything dramatic that might put himself in trouble the next day or day after. He doesn't have the brash Lance personality that needed to deliver a knockout blow, demoralizing all contenders as well as the French and the race organizers.

The headline in yesterday's "L'Equipe," the sensational sports daily newspaper, was "Judgement Day in the Alps." Landis passed that test. Today he has one more big test to pass with the Tour's final mountaintop finish at another ski resort, preceded by a fifteen-mile climb over another pass that I just finished off. It would be nice to be there at the finish, but I'm already thirty miles into tomorrow's stage, the last mountain stage of the race. After today four stages remain, the last the ceremonial ride into Paris that doesn't count, and also a time-trial the day before, where Landis has been dominant. I look forward to seeing Landis on Letterman. He's also due to race in Downer's Grove in August, though he could well bow out and get that hip surgery taken care of.

Later, George

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

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
Leipheimer
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

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Chateauroux, France

Friends: The French were far less carried away with the euphoria that would grip just about any other country playing in a World Cup Final. Biking through Tours, a sizable city 150 miles southwest of Paris, the afternoon of the match, there was no indication whatsoever that his was the day of the championship game, climaxing the month-long tournament that captivates much of the world every four years. Anywhere else, people would be walking around wearing team jerseys and colors and would be draped by their country's flag. The flag would have been dangling everywhere and there would have been a giant screen in the town plaza for the citizens to gather at.

At the cluster of eight-story apartment complexes where Florence and Rachid live on the outskirts of Tours, there was just one lone window with a paper, sunbleached French flag taped to its inside. None of this was any indication that there was no interest, as much of the nation would be watching, but the French were most restrained in their fervor. Rachid explained it was partially so they wouldn't be too disappointed if they lost.

Rachid made for a perfect viewing companion, as he had watched every one of the sixty plus games of the tournament, about two a night for a month. His intensity was contagious, allowing me to share in his tension and excitement. When the French star and tournament MVP Zadine was ejected from the game with the score tied and just minutes left, he at first wanted to turn off the TV. It was Zadine's final game of his career. What an ignominious way to end it. But he did the same thing in a game when 17 cameras were focused on him from start to finish for an entire
game for a 90-minute documentary that played at Cannes. Certain aggressive fouls warrant ejection, which this 34-year old veteran player knows full well. Whether he thought he could get away with it, or whether his manhood demanded retaliation is unknown, but it gave the French plenty to talk about after their overtime loss.

The French president attended the game and was interviewed afterward. He forgave Zadine and congratulated the team on their effort, as it was close the whole way and could have gone either way. It is assumed the French public too will forgive Zadine and that he will not lose any of his 25 million dollars of annual advertising contracts either.

Monday was a rest day for the peloton and me too, though Florence and Rachid and I took a leisurely 35-mile ride on a bike path along the Loire. It is part of a path that will one day go from the Atlantic to Budapest. We pedaled past corn fields and fields of sunflowers and scattered red poppy flowers. We also rode past a couple of motor home encampments of gypsies. Since they are a homeless people without a country, they are allowed to camp in open fields throughout Europe. Such encampments are a common site around larger cities.

Tomorrow is the first significant stage of the Tour, as it makes its first incursion into the
mountains--the Pyrenees. Floyd Landis could seize control and become just the fourth American in history to wear yellow. He was the only American to have a good time trial Saturday, finishing with the second best time and moving up to second place. The only person better, and the only person presently ahead of him, is a 36-year only Ukranian who rides for the German T-Mobile team, but isn't much of a threat in the mountains. Lance at 34 last year was the oldest person to win the Tour in decades. None of the Discovery team riders finished in the top ten of the time trial, a major upset.

Later, George

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

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

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

Monday, July 3, 2006

Luxembourg

Friends: I beat the peloton to the finish here in Luxembourg for stage two by three hours and have a few minutes on a free computer that I can't fully fathom.

Yesterday was an all round sensational day, riding the first 35 miles of the course, watching the peloton pass, riding two hours more to a town large enough to have open bars on a Sunday so I could watch the final hour of the race and then riding 40 miles afterward until 9:30 just before sunset. It's well nigh impossible to rank the many daily episodes that give me a jolt of pleasure and delight following The Tour, but there is nothing more sublime than those evening hours of riding when the roads are especially quiet and the temperatures are cooling off and I have already had a momentous day to reflect on as I'm having a few more pleasurable hours on the bike.

Yesterday was further highlighted with George Hincapie, long-time Lance super-domestique slipping into the yellow jersey thanks to a two second bonus he picked up finishing third in an intermediate sprint. I didn't actually get to see him put on the yellow in the post-race ceremony, as the TV coverage was preoccupied with focusing on the former yellow-wearer Hushold.
He was gushing blood after having been accidentally hit by a green cardboard sign of a hand held by a fan along the road just before the finish. There might have been a delayed broadcast of it, but I couldn't afford to wait around in the bar too long, as I needed to be on my way knocking off miles on the next day's route, a 142-miler, the second longest stage of this year's Tour.

It took me six tries before I found a place to watch the race. The first bar didn't have a TV and the next two weren't open in the afternoon. The fourth had the race on, but it was only open to a private party unrelated to The Tour and was closing shortly. The fifth had an audience watching music videos, who had no interest in switching stations. Finally the sixth had a TV that was off, as everyone was sitting outside, but the bartender was willing to turn it on for me. I could then settle in to the joy and thrill of watching the peloton fly along roads I had just ridden, past crowds who have also cheered me.

I will be able to watch today's finish simultaneously live and on the giant screen that carries the cable feed. Today's route abounded with stacks and rolls of hay in the form of bicycles. Yesterday's route was themed with stacked bikes on poles as well as lines of bikes dangling from fences.

I was fortunate to be camping far enough from the city center of Strasbourg Saturday night that the horn blowing after France beat Brazil at eleven p.m. that went on for at least an hour was a mere distant roar that didn't keep me up. I watched the match with a mob on the campground TV. There were several Italian fans that were a menace, chanting "Italia, Italia." Italy wasn't playing, but it is one of the remaining four teams. Otherwise it was an orderly crowd of many nationalities, many there for The Tour. I was tempted to start a "Basso" chant in response to the Italians, but they were deranged and drunk enough that they might have stood outside my tent all night chanting something or other.

Later, George

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Prologue

Friends: The Tour proves once again it is bigger than any rider or scandal, as today's four-and-a-half mile route was thick with enthusiastic fans. Everyone I encountered was thrilled to be there and were all looking forward to the next three weeks with great anticipation, even though the two favorites, Ullrich and Basso, are out along with three other team leaders who were all a threat for the podium. New heroes will be made and this makes it more wide open than ever, with no longer all the focus on the anticipated Basso-Ullrich battle for first and second and only third place in doubt.

My friend Yvon and his wife Francoise drove over from Mulhouse 50 miles away to join me. They brought along a friend and his wife. For three-and-a-half hours we watched the 176 of the original 189 riders whiz past us at 30 miles per hour at one minute intervals with nary a complaint about the diminished field or heckles from the crowds. Exuberant Yvon maintained a chatter with everyone around us. They were all French except for myself and a retired Dutch fellow smoking a cigar who hadn't missed a Prologue since 1995. There was only initial comment about the tragedy of losing all the favorites, but then all attention was focused on the talent at hand. With an hour left in the time trial we moved to the big screen. We were lucky to find a spot with a vantage of it. It was jammed. I spotted the first Americans I had seen since I arrived in Strasbourg three days ago. Only then did we know who had had the best times, though it didn't matter too much, since the best riders were yet to ride. George Hincapie, the last rider to leave the starting gate, missed by less than a second of beating the best time of 8 minutes and 21 seconds and earning the yellow jersey.

I arrived at the course by nine before it was closed to the public and was able to give it a ride myself. I was passed by the Brit Robert Millar, a former Prologue winner, giving it an early look.
This year's caravan of sponsors is up to 51, ten more than last year, further indication of the sport's popularity and good health. At least two of the sponsors were tossing wrist bands--the London travel bureau, as London will be hosting the Prologue next year was giving out black ones, and Euskatel, a Spanish sponsor was tossing out orange bands..

Later, George