Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Crete, Illinois

Friends: I crossed back into Illinois over the fairly stagnant Wabash River in the southern part of the state. Just after the governor's welcome a sign warned, "$2,000 fine for bootlegging cigarettes." Across Indiana, stores advertised cigarettes for the "Absolute legal minimum price," something over three dollars. In Kentucky certain local brands were selling for $1.79, dramatically less than the six dollar a pack prices in Chicago, not that I indulge.

After entering Illinois at the small town of Hutsonville I continued west two miles to Highway 1, turned right, and began a 250-mile home stretch run straight north along the eastern border of the state. Highway 1 eventually turns into Halsted Street, which runs virtually the length of Chicago, passing within eight blocks of my apartment. It was flat, wide open country of mostly cornfields. A few fields still had the now brown, withered stalks still standing that had provided more than adequate shelter for my tent and I through Indiana and Ohio on the first leg of this trip before I ducked down into southeast Ohio and West Virginia and began forest camping.

I gave extra welcome to whatever clusters of trees I came upon now, as they offered a break from the northerly winds that the pathetic looking corn stalks couldn't. It was the first serious head wind I had encountered in my month on the road, slowing my speed by several miles per hour and forcing me to increase my effort. I had chosen this route as my final stretch, as it took me through Paris, Ill., not so much for another Paris but because the librarian in Paris, Kentucky mentioned that the Paris, Ill. library was a Carnegie, as was his.

Carnegie libraries were one of the themes of these travels. After I encountered several in Indiana and Ohio, I began searching them out. There were quite a few more than I realized. According to Wikipedia, Carnegie funded the construction of 2,509 libraries between 1883 and 1929 all over the U.S. and the world. All but two states, Alaska and Delaware, have at least one Carnegie library. Of the 1,689 Carnegies built in the U.S., Indiana had the most with 165. California was next with 142, then Ohio with 111 followed by Illinois and New York with 106.

Not all the Carnegies are still standing or are still used as libraries. The one in Oberlin, Ohio is now used for the college's music department. The one in Cambridge, Ohio stands empty. Many of the Carnegies I visited have had additions over the years, some two or three. They are all distinctively grand, stately buildings, almost immediately recognizable as a Carnegie, though each has its own personality and flair. At the time of their construction, they were usually the most prominent building in a town--genuine temples honoring literature. They have aged very well and still retain their majesty, many adorned with columns and domes and fine stone work.

When I began inquiring about the history of the library in Paris, Kentucky, the librarian invited me back to his office to show me his collection of postcards of the library, all enclosed in protective plastic. Several had postmarks from the early 1900s, shortly after the library opened in 1904. He said whenever a postcard of his library appears on Ebay, he buys it.

He was very interested in my bike travels. When he was studying to be a librarian at a college in western Pennsylvania twenty-five years and twenty-five pounds ago, he intended to spend his summer vacation bicycling around the region visiting relatives. He had his route planned and all the equipment for the trip ready to go, but had to cancel at the last minute when he discovered he needed to take a course that summer if he wanted to graduate a year ahead of schedule. It is something he regrets not having done. Now he has hopes of bicycling to visit a brother in Louisville one hundred miles away.

He was the second person on this trip who told me such a story. The director of Winston-Salem's film festival, a younger man who served as the publicist for Chicago's film festival for two years several years ago, was all set to bicycle coast-to-coast across the U.S. after he lost his job with the Chicago Tribune. But he was offered a job out in Hollywood just before he was to set out that he couldn't turn down. Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein fame tells a similar story in the book "All the President's Men." He had wanted to bike coast-to-coast but pursued his journalism instead.

The Carnegie library in Paris, Ill., a most vibrant community of 9,000 residents, was one of the few that actually had Carnegie chiseled into its facade. Most are anonymous. Only a few even acknowledge Carnegie with his portrait hanging somewhere within their confines. The Paris, Ill. library was the only one I came across with the date of its construction in Roman numerals, MCMIV. The Carnegie in Ridge Farm, a town of just nine hundred, twenty miles north of Paris on Highway 1, was a rare one modestly constructed of red brick. Most were of white stone. The Carnegie in Bedford, Indiana, the"Limestone Capital of the World," was expectantly constructed of limestone. The Carnegie in Marietta, Ohio, a river town with character on the Ohio River just across from West Virginia, was perched on a former Indian mound in a residential area of the city.

A very tempting bicycle tour could be made of searching out all the Carnegies in a state or a multi-state tour visiting a Carnegie in each state. Such an idea has been festering ever since I came upon a Carnegie library in Texas a couple falls ago and then again this past summer in Scotland. Libraries are always at the heart of my U.S. travels, as they were in Iceland and Scandinavia and the British Isles, places that were also rich in public libraries.

I often drop in on two or three a day, even before they offered the Internet. They always provide a pleasant, warm sanctuary. Only twice on this tour have the librarians been less than hospitable. The library in Brownstone, Ind. was the only one that wanted money for the Internet and this library here in Crete initially wanted to limit me to fifteen minutes on the computer until I explained my situation. The young man helping me said he had to ask his supervisor though, for permission to let me have an hour, even though only two of the dozen computers were in use.

Rare is it that I have to ask someone directions to the local library when I'm passing through a town, as I'll invariably come upon the universal sign of a book being held up to be read with an arrow pointing the way. But if I do need to ask, I can count on getting an answer from whomever I ask. The only times I have failed is if the person does not live there, or once in Nevada when I asked a road construction worker and he responded, "Do I look like I'd know where the library is." When I reached the center of Crete and hadn't come upon the sign for the library I asked a pedestrian, a husky guy with a hooded sweatshirt. He told me it was a mile up the road on the right, and added, rather testily, "But it doesn't have a pay phone."

Danville, with a population of 36,000, was the largest city along Highway 1 back to Chicago. Every block or so through the center of the city there was a small sign attached to a light pole with the portrait of someone born in Danville who went on to achieve some sort of fame. Among them were Dick Van Dyke, Zeke Bratkowski of the Green Bay Packers and an astronaut by the name of Tanner. Danville wasn't the only town on Highway 1 expressing pride. The small town of Westville, shortly before Danville, mentioned it hosted the first night football game in 1928. A church in St Anne, a ways beyond Danville, laid claim to being the first shrine in the US.

As I neared the end of this trip, I wasn't disappointed at all that this had been my fall trip rather than a more glamorous ride from Istanbul to Cairo, as I had been contemplating. It was wonderful to see Ken and Laura and their delightful young children Iain and Clara in Oberlin and Tomas in Greensboro and Lyndon and Stephanie in Winston-Salem. I had wanted to visit all of them for years.

It was also nice to have finally gotten to the Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen, Ohio and also to have experienced the spectacular fall foliage of West Virginia and all the grandiose Halloween decorations in the small towns along the way. Kentucky and southern Indiana also provided unexpected superior cycling. My only regret was that I didn't bring along my down sleeping bag, forcing me to wear long pants and a sweater and a wool cap most nights in my sleeping bag, rated to only about 45 degrees. Otherwise, the camping was top-notch. It was a thoroughly satisfying month on the bike. I'd heartily recommend it to all. I'll have to do it again some time.

Later, George

Monday, November 5, 2007

Paris, Illinois

Friends: Biking through the Bible Belt I have been barraged by non-stop proselytizing, none of it though by the decent and kindly folk who have taken an interest in me. Not a single conversation diverted to the subject of religion, not even to ask if I was a believer or had been saved or if Allah was my lord. Rather, the proselytizing has come in the fairly benign form of advertising on the message boards in front of just about each of the many, many churches lining the roads I've been riding, giving sermon titles and other pronouncements.

Religion is easily the most predominant industry in these parts. Like any business, they need customers, and as any good businessman knows, it is important to advertise and to promote whatever he might be selling. The churches rival the fast food franchises with all their message boards trying to lure buyers with bargains (Whoppers 2 for $3) or some new product (Spicey Chicken Sandwich $1) or news (McRib Is Back). Some churches merely use their message boards to announce the times of their services or mention a rummage sale, but most offer much more, trying to turn heads and entice them into becoming a customer. The less imaginative merely post some verse from the Bible, but many strain to be clever and witty, not only to capture the attention and stir the thought of someone passing by, but also to make them think, "Hey, whoever came up with that could be fun and could perhaps be the pastor or congregation for me."

There is lots of competition out there, and the churches well know it. Some of the postings are stodgy, old-school, generic, tired, recycled cliches little more interesting than the Bible verses, but others are most contemporary keeping up with the lingo of the times, such as, "Not all answers can be found at google." Many are meant to give a chuckle, some combining humor with a sting--See you Sunday, unless you have something better to do." Some are wacky enough to qualify for a David Letterman Top Ten List--"Went to see Dad, back to see you later--Jesus." Many refer to that Jesus fellow--"Got Jesus? It's Hell without him," "Jesus--The equal opportunity saver," "Be an organ donor, give your heart to Jesus."

Some give warning--"Pray now or pay later," or threaten--"Life has many choices. Eternity has two. What is yours?" Some scold--"Quit griping about your church. If it was perfect you couldn't belong." Some rhyme--"Where God guides, He provides." Some speak of crime--"Sin carried far enough becomes its own punishment." Some advise--"Go out on a limb, that's where the fruit is." Some pose questions--"Where will you be if Christ comes today?," "Do you spend your time loving others or judging others?" Some are seasonal--"The best Ghost is the Holy Ghost." Some are double entendres,"Are you helping with the harvest?" Some ask hot, burning questions--"Is Hell real?" Some are libelous--"Try our Sundays, they're better than Baskin-Robbins." Some are provocative--"It takes guts to be a sinner." Some are definitive--"God said it. I believe it. That settles it." Some are inspiring--"A mighty fortress is our God." Some are Swedenbourgian--"Faith goes where eyes can't see." Some are puzzling--"Does temperance grow on your tree?"

One church felt the need to respond to AA's 12-step program--"The steps to happiness are the church steps." Some give mathematical formulas--"God's arithmetic--love, joy and peace multiply when you divide with others." Some advise where to look--"Feeling Down? Look Upward," "Keep looking up, God is looking down." And there are plenty of general advice--"Feed your faith and doubt will starve to death," "If a sibling of Christ has a problem, don't gossip, pray." Some offer words of consolation--"There is no problem when you have the answer," "Real peace comes from being in God's will." In rain-starved North Carolina one church simply announced, "Praying for rain." Another was more specific--"Let us pray for lots of gentle rain."

My travels coincided with Pastor Appreciation Week, so I had a minimal reprieve from the barrage that week, as many churches opted to put "We Appreciate Our Pastor" or "Thank You Pastor So and So" on their message board. There were so many churches along one road in eastern Kentucky, one every four or five miles, there was a special road sign warning there was a turn-off to a church ahead. I was never far from the religious tenor of the Belt. One town's welcome said, "Attend a church of your choice and be square all week and come 'round on Sunday." Businesses that posted their hours didn't simply say "Closed on Sunday," but might say, "Closed to give thanks."

With many churches under construction or expansion, religion is clearly a hearty growth industry. Besides the many simple, humble one-room school house-type churches, there were the occasional magnificent Taj Mahal edifices, often on a hill, surrounded by vast parking lots and sprawling, meticulously manicured lawns. They looked so nice that parishioners might have to remove their shoes before entering. I kept hoping I'd encounter some church or some message board pronouncement so enticing at service time, that I would be drawn within and might discover a Sam Kinnison of a preacher, the deceased screaming comedian who got his start on the preaching circuit. There was clearly a lot of talent drawn to the profession.

I might not have paid so much attention to the church message boards if I had had bumper stickers to occupy my thought and to be on the alert for, but they have become an extreme rarity. They were once virtual standard issue, providing a continual stream of amusement and insight into what were the issues of the day. Back in the era of the bumper sticker, when it was rare to see a vehicle without at least one to let all know what was important to its owner and what that owner thought was amusing, owning a car almost had some justification. One felt the need, if not obligation, to put some bumper sticker that spoke his mind on his vehicle. Mentioning a clever bumper sticker was a frequent topic of conversation and stand-up routines. The demise of bumper stickers might be partially blamed on answering machines, as their cute messages seemed to suck a lot of creativity from those who composed bumper stickers.

The passing of the bumper sticker is another sad fact of our homogenizing world and the crushing of individuality, as well as the fear that prevails. Some would say it is an indication that people no longer care enough about anything to make an issue of it, not even to express pride in their child the honor student or that they have a baby or an alien on board. The decline of the bumper sticker might be traced to the sticker, "My student can beat up your honor student." It said all about the violent and vengeful nature of our times, and reflected the fear people have to mention anything they care about lest it push someone's ignite button. In this trigger-happy society it doesn't take much to set off someone sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic listening to the bile of radio talk shows with hosts and callers venting their rage. A simmering and stewing driver trapped in traffic staring at a bumper sticker promoting something abhorrent to him, whether it simply be the call letters of a radio station he associates with evil, or something innocuous as "Keep your laws off my body," might turn him crazed, especially if that vehicle was a tad slow to respond to a light turning green or might have earlier slipped in front of him.

There are related reasons for the demise of the bumper sticker. One is that bumper stickers make it easy to identify and track down a motorist. Since anyone can be involved in a mishap they'd prefer not to have to be held accountable for, it is best to remain as anonymous as one can. Another reason is there are all too many who regard their automobile as a sacred object and wouldn't dream of desecrating it with a stuck-on object, even one that said, "Pray Now or Pay Later."

In all the miles I have biked the past month and thousands of vehicles who have wagged their rears in my face there was one that hearkened back to the good 'ol days of bumper sticker mania. Its brave and defiant driver had adorned her car with stickers approving gay rights and disapproving of war and one that read "Vegetarians Taste Better." The car belonged to my friend Stephanie in Winston-Salem. Her husband Lyndon's van was sticker-free, however. And he said he always felt like slumping low whenever he had to drive Stephanie's car, as he feared anyone seeing him would question his masculinity.

Later, George

Friday, November 2, 2007

Brownstown, Indiana

Friends: As I sat eating the lunch special (meat loaf and mashed potatoes) at a small cafe/general store in rural Kentucky that advertised "Plate Lunches," a series of seeming regulars, stopping in for a pack of cigarettes or cup of coffee or the special, paused to have a word with me, almost as if the odd site of my loaded bike out front had lured them in.

Some gave advice on where I ought to cross the Ohio River just a few miles away to Indiana. The options were either via the town of Madison or the Markland Dam Bridge. Most recommended Markland, as there was a river boat casino there, and as one said, "If you was lucky enough not to have been run off the road around here you ought to hit the jackpot with your luck." The boat was on the Indiana side, as Kentucky does not allow casinos. It has been voted down several times and most likely will lose again Tuesday. "The church-going folk are agin' it," one guy explained, "And there are more of them than us that want it. But it don't hardly matter, as they can't keep us from crossin' the bridge to Indiana. It's just a shame all our money is goin' to Indiana when we could use it here."

A tattoo parlor owner also lamented the influence of the church-goers. He was telling the guy taking everyone's money at the cash register that he was looking to open up another tattoo parlor because he knew the demand was there. "I know of eight people who are giving tattoos out of their houses, which is against the law," he said. "But the health inspectors can't go after 'em unless someone becomes infected and files a complaint, which just doesn't happen. If they get infected, they don't want to admit it. I've been lookin' all over to open another place, but its hard to find a location. People don't want a tattoo parlor in their neighborhood. You know their reputation--tattoos, drugs, whores, crime, they all go together, or at least that's what folks around here think, especially the religious types." An older guy in bib overalls sitting at the table next to me said, "Ain't nobody gonna put a tattoo on me. I get stuck enough by needles."

Conversation also drifted to the topic of tobacco. After some 100 miles of riding past horse farms in the central part of the state around Lexington, my final 50 miles of Kentucky was through tobacco country. It had been harvested and was presently hanging in partially open and well-ventilated barns, the large tobacco leaves darkening to a deep reddish brown. The "housing of the tobacco" can take a couple of months before it is fully cured. Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds buy up the bulk of the crop. It goes for about $1.50 a pound, down from two dollars just a couple years ago when federal subsidies were cut off. The price has also declined since the tobacco companies started buying it from China at a cheaper price. Carrolltown, the largest city in the area, on the Ohio River, where all the local buying and selling takes place, once had one of the three largest tobacco festivals in the world. It is still held every October, but with tobacco production way down in the area, it is no longer the grand, celebrated event it once was.

I had had so many interruptions in my meal, I was still eating when the lunch hour had pretty much past, allowing the cook to take a break and join me in conversation as she sat at an adjoining table with her meal. She had heard I was heading back to Chicago. She said she had been there once to attend a gathering of Long John Silver managers. She used to run the one in Carrolltown for 14 years until new management took over. She flew up to Chicago from Lexington, a 45-minute flight. She said she couldn't believe so many people could live in one place. She doesn't miss her days at Long John Silver at all. It was a job of many headaches. One of the biggest was having to hire a new high school kid every week or so. She was well into her 60s now. Working in this small cafe was like going into semi-retirement. As I was on my way she commented, "Thanks for coming in Sweetie. Come on by again."

Later, George

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Paris, Kentucky

Friends: I've wild-camped in some precarious and perilous spots over the years--on the fringe of a tiger preserve in India, downriver from a dam in New Zealand after a 5.9 earthquake as the region was being evacuated in fears the dam might break, at the top of a run-away truck ramp on the California coast, in the Botanical Gardens of Melbourne, at the trail head just off the road in the rebel territory of Laos, anywhere in Colombia, on a military firing range in France--but, some would say, none was more foolhardy than where I camped last night, in a Kentucky small town cemetery on Halloween.

I've camped in cemeteries before and was unscathed by the experience, but never on the night of the spooks and goblins. I didn't intend to cemetery-camp on Halloween, but I was down to my last few minutes of light, and the road the last couple of miles had been lined with small farmsteads, fenced and with dogs on the prowl. I was closing in on the town of Irvine, less than four miles away. But I had not a worry, just a heightened sense of expectation of what hallowed piece of turf awaited me that I could call my own for this night.

I knew something would turn up, as it always has, hundreds, no thousands of times, over the years. Half an hour before I was passing through Boone National Forest with deluxe wild-camping left and right, when I began an unanticipated two-mile, 20-minute climb. It was imperative I complete the climb, and especially the descent, before dark, as making that descent in the morning's 30-degree temperatures would have left my fingers and toes brittle enough from the semi-arctic 30 mile per hour wind-chill to break off. The climb had come as a surprise, as now that I was more than 100 miles beyond the mountains of Appalachia the terrain had been merely rolling and mostly flat on roads that lazily meandered along rivers and train lines. The cycling was so superlative and I was gobbling up the miles so effortlessly, I was spending more time pedaling than I had intended, and by the time I came to the cemetery I'd amassed an unexpected 100 miles for the day, my most in the 1,500 miles I've come since leaving Chicago three weeks ago.

I was in no rush to be anywhere, though if I wanted I could set my eyes on making it to Indianapolis by Sunday in time for the "Game of the Millennium" between the Patriots and the Colts. But I just wanted to take my time and enjoy the rural beauty and tranquility and linger a little longer at the cafes and libraries I sought for warmth, and to eavesdrop on the locals and read Paul Theroux's excellent travel book "Pillars of Hercules" about an 18-month journey around the perimeter of the Mediterranean from the Rock of Gibraltar to the Middle East and across the top of Africa to Morocco. He was enjoying it and was much less grouchy than he can be. It stirred many fond travel memories of my own, doubling my present travel pleasures by being in two places at once, here in Kentucky and over there. Each evening I was looking forward to reading more in my tent, but not so much as to quit riding early when the riding was as good as it was this day of Halloween.

When I came upon the cemetery I unhesitatingly seized upon it for my evening's campsite. It was a classic--unfenced, up a hill, with a few scattered trees amongst the graves. Back in a corner was a nice level spot beside a hefty tree that would partially shield my tent and provide a lean-to for my bike. There was a house across the street and another beside the cemetery below me surrounded by trees. I was fairly well-secluded, but I was slightly concerned about lighting my candle, as it gave a soft glow to my tent. If I didn't need the warmth it provided I would have stuck with my headlamp for my sole illumination.

As I began my dinner of sardine sandwiches and a can of baked beans, a dog below began barking, letting me know that he knew I was there, but not so frantically as to arouse the curiosity or concern of its owners. Still, I wished he'd desist, lest he betray my presence. When I called it a night a couple hours after dark, I knew there was the possibility the cemetery might attract some Halloween pranksters, but it didn't prevent me from promptly drifting off to sleep. If anyone came around, ethereal or otherwise, I wasn't aware of it. It was another great campsite after another great day on the bike. And I was happy, as always, to awake to my tires still fully inflated.

Kentucky has been treating me well since I crossed into it at the summit of Black Mountain, the highest point in the state at 3,500 feet. I reached it after a seven-mile climb up a road known as The Lonely Pine Trail. It could have been just The Lonely Trail, as I had it mostly to my self. It linked former coal mining towns that were now more dead than alive with the passing of the industry in this region. Not even the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in one of the small towns was attracting any one. But it made for fine cycling, especially the gradual descent after the initial steep plunge of several miles through a narrow valley past countless uninhabited two-story wooden houses that at one time were most respectable.


Kentucky has abounded with refreshing and heartening small towns allowed to be themselves, unmarred by cloned tract-house developments or gated communities on their fringes or glaring eye-sores of someone's dream house. There is no evidence of wealthy city-dwellers building quaint refuges from the urban jungle for themselves, so common in Wisconsin and Michigan and out west near ski resorts and quaint western towns. Not too many of the towns have libraries, but I still manage to come upon one or two a day. Several have offered their discards free for the taking. I picked up Studs Turkel's memoirs written thirty years ago and a book about athletes who overcame more than the usual adversity to achieve great success. It was written before the Lance story. Riding and reading, two pleasurable pastimes.



Later, George

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Appalachia, Va.

Friends: Not long after I crossed back into Virginia from North Carolina on my way back to Chicago I found myself on Route 58, a Highway with two names--"The Crooked Road" and "The Virginia Music Heritage Trail." The 34-mile stretch leading to Damascus, "The Friendliest Town on the Appalachia Trail," had so many squiggles there was a warning discouraging trucks. The speed limit was a mere 15 mph for 2.1 miles before Grayson Highland State Park.

Its high point of 3,500 feet at White Top is the starting point for a very popular bike trail, only occasionally visible from the road, that descends 2,000 feet to Damascus, 17 miles away, and then continues on to Abingdon for another 17 fairly flat miles. I stuck to the highway not aware of the bike path until it was too late. The bulk of the minimal traffic on the road was vans ferrying bikes and riders to the summit and transporting them back to Damascus from Abingdon. There are three bike rental and shuttle service companies in Damascus. The largest, Adventure Damascus, has a fleet of 300 bikes. Most weekends they are all booked--$17 for the bike and $23 for the shuttle. They have hourly departures and pick-ups.

The bike path has had several incarnations before evolving into its present, highest use. Originally, 250 years ago, it was a footpath for pioneers, including Daniel Boone. In 1900 a railroad was built on the trail bed to serve the logging industry. When logging died in the 1970s, it was converted to a bike trail. It is called the "Virginia Creeper National Recreational Trail," as the trains used to creep up its fairly gentle grade.

Abingdon, the oldest town in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was another of the many southern towns I've passed through featuring a statue of a Confederate soldier in a place of prominence. Here he stood beside the county courthouse. They are very similar to the statues of young men cradling a rifle in many French towns honoring those who died in the World Wars. Even though Abingdon has a population of only 8,000, it attracts enough visitors to have a 12-screen multiplex on its outskirts, along with a vintage 3-screen theater in its center. Along with many current releases, the multiplex was offering "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Ten Commandments." The downtown theater was showing that Southern favorite "Driving Miss Daisy" on one of its screens.

There are many other reminders that this is the South. Women regularly call me "Dear" or "Hun." Yesterday, the elderly waitress who served me a heaping plate of biscuits upon realizing I was traveling by bicycle gasped, "My goodness child, you're not actually biking in this weather, are you?" The temperature had dipped into the 30s that night and had barely climbed into the 40s. I awoke with a thick crust of frost on my tent and a layer of ice on the water bottle I left on my bike. People naturally and unhesitatingly offer me a friendly word, and more than the usual, "How fer you ridin'?"

As I sat eating a burrito at a Taco Bell a guy asked if that was my Lincoln parked outside, not recognizing a cyclist when he saw one, only that I wasn't from these parts and Lincolns aren't all that common. He said he wished he could afford such a car. A couple minutes later a 79-year old guy asked me if I were German. He noticed my Ortlieb panniers and the "Made in Germany" on them. Having never seen a touring cyclist, he assumed I must be a foreigner. He said he had two ten-speeds at home that he no longer used and had a spare tire which I was welcome to. After moving over to join me he said he had worked as a bicycle messenger in LA in 1946 when he was 18. He had traveled the world and spoke six or seven languages and was sorry he couldn't practice his German on me. Kentucky is just a few miles away.

Later, George

Friday, October 26, 2007

Winston-Salem, N. C.

Friends: Lyndon and Stephanie, who are both actively involved in the Arts, appropriately live just off the Avenue of the Arts, in Winston-Salem, known as The City of Arts. At one time the city was justifiably synonymous with tobacco, though not so much anymore. Still, there is plenty of evidence of its former dominant industry--tobacco warehouses and the name Reynolds everywhere. There is even a nearby town called Tobaccoville.

Even if I weren't staying with two people who are so artistically inclined, I would have been well aware of the prominence of art in this community. Biking in from Greensboro, I passed the North Carolina School of the Arts, then the large modern visitor center for Old Salem and as I began the climb into the downtown and its futuristic Wachovia Tower I passed a giant teapot. Trade Street (the Avenue of the Arts), just a couple blocks from City Hall and the heart of the city, was lined with galleries for several blocks. There were signs for the Reynolda Art Center where Stephanie works as a museum educator. Not far away is the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art, SECCA, where Lyndon has worked for years installing its exhibitions.

Lyndon was in the middle of hanging dozens of photographs for this weekend's opening of an exhibition featuring North Carolina photographers. He was eager to finish, as he had a friend who needed help preparing her gallery for a Friday opening of her own. And I was happy to lend a hand as his assistant for both projects. SECCA resides in the former mansion of the Hanes underwear family, who still live nearby. Several large, warehouse-sized galleries, that any curator would love to have, along with an auditorium, adjoin the family's former living quarters.

I've had a most satisfying and nourishing two days hanging out at SECCA with Lyndon and the SECCA staff in its grand galleries screwing hooks into the walls, putting up photos, mounting some behind Plexiglas, and walking around with a cup of white paint and a brush touching up all the scuff marks on the walls. Walking through a museum or gallery will never be the same after this experience. The only disappointment was that of the dozens of photos I helped hang only one contained a bicycle--a French gendarme at Versailles in 1971.

We found time to visit Stephanie at her museum in the former estate of the R. J. Reynolds family complete with a bowling alley, indoor swimming pool and shooting gallery. Its not too far from Wake Forest University. Stephanie was busy preparing for a Friday evening open house for Wake Forest freshman and their parents. President Truman took a nap on a couch at the house when he attended the opening of Wake Forest. Indonesia's ambassador will be visiting next week. Stephanie will show him around. Thursday night we attended a gallery opening of a local art organization. Many of the artists were in attendance. An art critic from New York helped curate and jury the exhibition, giving a $1,000 award to her choice of the best of the show. The place was jammed with SWAGs--Southern Women Aging Gracefully.

Lyndon and I have worked together for over 15 years at the Telluride Film Festival and have shared a condo a few of those years. He is easily the most beloved of the 500 Telluride staffers and the most genuinely friendly person I have encountered anywhere. He shone as brightly here in Winston-Salem as he does in Telluride. Everyone knows Lyndon at Telluride and it didn't seem much different here on his home turf. He has a kind word for everyone he comes across, friend or stranger. He also knows where to find a bargain for anything and everything. The prize was an all-you-eat Friday night flounder feed for six dollars in the small town of Lexington halfway between Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

As we were having breakfast Thursday morning at a local diner waiting for several of his cronies for their weekly gathering, he asked two elderly women at a nearby table what they had in a small brown paper bag on their table. "It's tomatoes," they said. Lyndon laughed and pulled a similar paper bag out of his sealed thermos showing them he too had smuggled in a couple of slices of tomato for his sausage biscuit, the house special, two for $1.10. Later in the meal as they left, they offered Lyndon an extra slice that they didn't need. For years I've wanted to experience Lyndon on his home turf. It has been as good as I could have imagined. I'm not altogether sorry I've waited this long to visit, as otherwise I wouldn't have been able to share the experience with his charming and delightful bride of seven months Stephanie. Now I can look forward to returning.

Later, George

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Greensboro, North Carolina

Friends: "Friendly Bicycles," one of the premier bicycle shops in Greensboro, takes its name from the street where it was originally located. But even if it weren't named for that street, one of the main thoroughfares of this city, it would be a most inspired name for a bicycle shop.

Even to the non-devotee the bicycle conjures images of warmth and friendliness. It is almost a universal symbol for youth and innocence and simpler times along with joy and freedom and flight from earthly concerns. With "Hospitality" virtually synonymous with the South, it was no surprise to find a street named "Friendly" here. I assumed it was as common a street name throughout the South as "Main" is everywhere else. But Les, the gray-haired proprietor of "Friendly Bicycles," explained the name was drawn from the early strong Quaker presence in Greensboro. The Quakers are known as the Society of Friends. They still maintain a college in Greensboro and continue to exert a strong influence on the community. Les didn't know if "Friendly" was a popular street name elsewhere, nor even if any other shops in Greensboro had adopted it, as he had.

Les certainly lived up to the name of his shop, gladly chatting, sharing his vast knowledge of local lore while poring over a cycling map of the region, advising me what to see and how to get there. One of the places he recommended was the Guildford Courthouse National Military Park where a Carolina Cup criterium bicycle race is staged every September on a 1.9 mile course. I was hoping also to find the U.S.Pro Cycling Championship Course in the area, but I had my "Greens" mixed up. It is not held in Greensboro, but rather Greensville and in South Carolina, not North. That was a little disappointing, as I knew that George Hincapie, the only teammate of Lance to ride with him on each of his seven wins, lived near that race course. I was hoping I might encounter him out training. Other pros lived in the area and trained with Hincapie, making it a hotbed of US cycling.

But cycling still has some prominence here in Greensboro. The local Barnes and Noble bookstore had more cycling books, including several I was unaware of, than any book store I've encountered. It also carried the widest array of cycling magazines that I have seen anywhere outside of Europe. Along with several English publications there was a very polished racing quarterly from Australia. But it wasn't the cycling that brought me to Greensboro. It was rather, first, to visit my friend Tomas, long-time cycling compadre, and then Lyndon, long-time Telluride compadre, and his new wife Stephanie over in Winston-Salem, part of the Triad of cities including Greensboro and High Point.

I pushed hard yesterday, biking 86 miles from south of Roanoke, Virginia to arrive at Tomas' home 45 minutes before dark, happy the terrain leveled somewhat at the North Carolina border, allowing me to get my average speed for the day up to almost 14 mph, the best in days after the steep ups and downs of southeast Ohio and West Virginia and Virginia. It was the fourth different place that Tomas and I have had a reunion since meeting in Puerto Escondido, Mexico in January of 1981, back when Puerto Escondido was little more than a secret surfing spot and haven for vagabond travelers. I was wintering there with Crissy. Tomas had biked down from San Francisco on his way to Guatemala. I joined up with him for the 175-mile stretch over the Sierra Madres to Oaxaca on mostly unpaved road, what was then known as the roughest bus
trip in all of Mexico. It was a test ride for me before tackling the more than 1,000 miles of dirt and gravel of the Alaskan Highway that I planned to ride that summer.

Tomas and I have rendezvoused a couple more times over the years in Puerto Escondido. I also
visited him when he lived in Cupertino in Silicone Valley, as I bicycled down the Pacific Coast.
The past three falls we have met up at the Telluride Film Festival, where Tomas manages the
concessions stand at the Opera House. Tomas would somewhat like to be the bike bum that
I am, but he has engineering skills that are too much in demand. He is one of a handful of authorities in the world on flip chips, an integral part of cellular phones. He has worked all over the world for a variety of companies, including Motorola, taking bicycle breaks whenever he can. He took a job in Greensboro a little over a year ago with RF Micro Devices. One of the allures of the job was that it required him to oversee their plant in the Philippines, necessitating several visits a year. He just returned from a month there.

Tomas lends his engineering mentality to the bicycle and his given me countless equipment tips over the years. I have him to thank for my 48-spoke tandem rear wheel that has virtually alleviated broken spokes when I am touring. I also have him to thank for my deluxe Gore-Tex jacket, that he was able to get me for half-price when he was on sabbatical from the engineering, working at REI.We have so many shared interests and so much going on in our lives, we talked for hours last night without once having to reminisce on our past great rides together. Maybe we'll do that tonight, though not likely as we are set to have dinner with Lyndon and Stephanie over in Winston-Salem.

Later, George

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Rainelle, W. Va.


Friends: The rugged, mountainous terrain of West Virginia has blocked the radio waves of the larger stations carrying the baseball playoffs. About all I can pick up on my mini-radio in the evening hours in my tent are small local stations. One night I listened in on the inaugural broadcast of a community radio station in Clay as I camped a few miles out of the town along a river behind an abandoned shack of a house.


Three locals were encouraging everyone in the area to contribute to the station, if only as announcers reading commercials. One of the in-studio voices said, "We have a lot of talent in the area. Some people think we are all just a bunch of hillbilly hicks. But last summer when we had that music talent show there were a couple that were real professional." Someone suggested that the station would be a good opportunity to share recipes and gardening tips. Another suggested programs on canning and tanning animal hides.


If someone wanted to have a program on local history, there would be plenty of material.
Historical markers abound telling of the pioneers and town founders and of those of renown who have passed through. Much of it is Civil War-related. I've had the opportunity to camp several places where General Lee and his troops overnighted. It was still undeveloped and thickly forested, not much different than it was nearly 150 years ago. There have been plaques announcing George Washington slept here and that Gen. Stonewall Jackson's mother is buried nearby and that the town of Grantsville was named after Gen. Grant.


The luxuriantly forested mountainsides are a kaleidoscope of colors with the leaves changing.
Neither New England nor Door County nor any other region known for its fall foliage could be more spectacular. And W. Virginia tops them all, as it is uncontaminated by cutesy B & B's and boutiques and billboards and gawking tourists and signs advertising moccasins and fudge and cappuccino. Nor has the countryside been despoiled by trophy homes and cottages or designer log cabins. The residences are modest-sized, unpretentious homes and shacks and fortified mobile homes, nearly all with a dog on a chain or behind a fence. I can go the better part of a day without seeing a fast food franchise or other reminders of the runaway consumerist forces that dominate the lifes of most. I buy my provisions at general stores that have served their communities for decades. The planet hardly seems in peril off in these hinterlands.


This is a region of people who enjoy the out of doors. Kayaks on car rooftops are a common site.
People continue to appreciate seeing a touring cyclist, giving me friendly toots as they pass. I
still must be on the alert for evil forces. The devil comes in many guises. I've had several
encounters here in West Virginia, though none playing a fiddle. The first was a 30-year old guy driving a Jeep with a kayak on the roof and a bicycle on a rack on its rear. The driver stopped in the middle of the road after passing me on a long, steep climb. He jumped out and asked, "Would you like a ride? I've got space on my rack for another bike." I didn't even slow as I replied, "Thanks, but I'm having a nice ride." I stayed as far from him as I could, going around his parked Jeep on the passenger side, not caring to catch even a whiff of him. I did notice a bulge in the back of his baseball cap as he turned from me to get back in his vehicle.


Later that day as I sat outside a general store munching a peanut butter sandwich a woman with her hair in a bun driving a pick-up truck asked, "Can I give you a ride somewhere?" She hadn't even asked where I was coming from or where I was going. I had been hoping to make it to North Carolina by the weekend so I could go for a nice ride with my bicycling friend Tomas. But it was further than I anticipated and the going was much slower with all the climbing, so it didn't look like I was going to make it. Still I couldn't be tempted by Lucifer or any of his agents to abandon the bike.


Later, George

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Grantsville, W. Va.

Friends: That traveler's axiom that locals are friendliest where travelers travel least holds true for West Virginia. For the first time in ten days and over 700 miles through four states I have begun receiving friendly toots from motorists and twice I have been invited to spend the night at someone's home.

The first offer of lodging came just after I had crossed the Ohio River to St. Mary's, just a few miles up river from a double towered nuclear plant. As I exited the local IGA grocery store with my dinner of a can of baked beans, some potato salad and yogurt, a 40-year old man awaited me at my bike. He said, "Tell me about your travels." He said he had a touring bike, but hadn't done any touring on it. "Are you the town bicyclist?" I asked. "No, there are a couple others, but they like to ride harder than I do. They're always trying to get me to go riding with them though."

He warned me I had lots of hills ahead and wondered if I had ever done any climbing before. Rather than blowing him away with the facts, which he might have had a hard time believing, I merely replied in the affirmative. He asked if I knew about the website crazyguyonabike and wondered if might have contributed to it. I had an affirmative to that as well. He knew all about touring having read extensively of others' tours, but had yet to go off on one of his own. He hoped I could stay over and share some of my experiences. I wish I could have, if only to convince him to get on with it, maybe even the next day with me, but I had to tell him I was pressed to get to friends in North Carolina, and had to maximize my riding time.

I had to tell a retired World War II veteran the same thing the next day. He said a Japanese cyclist had passed through his town a few years ago and he let him stay in his tee pee in his backyard. He made the same offer to me. He was in a wheel chair and hadn't been on a bike in years. If I hadn't stopped to remove a link from my chain, I never would have met him. As I worked on my bike, he said I could do any repairs on my bike at his place, as he had every tool known to man. The site of all those tools was as enticing as spending a night in a tee pee. He ranted on about his displeasure with the war in Iraq and all else. He was particularly perturbed that Saddam Hussein was given a cell with carpeting and was fed better than he eats.

Although I passed some coal mining in the hilly terrain of southeast Ohio, I haven't encountered any coal trucks on these narrow roads of West Virginia, just a few logging trucks. Deer season is imminent. Quite a few stores advertise themselves as game control sites. The deer are quite plentiful and tame, not only around my tent at night but hopping across the road in broad daylight. Once the firing commences, I may have to be a bit more careful in my campsites.

Later, George

Monday, October 15, 2007

Oberlin, Ohio

Friends: Halloween may be a couple of weeks away, but its not too early for many homes out in rural and small-town America to already have transformed their front yards into some sort of tribute to the occasion. Ghosts and goblins and ghouls and graveyards with an array of tombstones abound. There is no shortage of pumpkins on display, some carved and others painted, along with a variety of giant plastic inflatables.

The decorations aren't as plentiful as those devoted to the bike along the Tour de France route,
but many are as ornate and extravagant and would most certainly attract the TV cameras if there were a parade or race passing by. Many are as passionate here about Halloween as the French are to their bike race. And the Ohioans are equally devoted to their Buckeyes. Once I crossed into Ohio from Indiana, I was greeted by flags and banners dangling from porches celebrating the number one-ranked gridiron Buckeyes. This is most certainly football country.

Only rarely have I noticed a bicycle on those porches or parked or ridden anywhere. For over 400 miles across Indiana and Ohio bicycles were an extreme rarity until I reached the college town of Oberlin, a town that announces itself as being home to the first school to accept students of both sexes and all races. It also has historical markers celebrating itself as a key stage in the underground railroad for liberated slaves.

If I hadn't included the Bicycle Museum of America on my route I might have been wondering if the bicycle was even known in these parts, or if it had been driven to extinction like the passenger pigeon. The dogs though knew enough to bark at me, and if unchained, to give chase, but with tailwinds all the way they had no hope of catching their prey or even giving it a fright.

I knew better than to hope I might encounter a fellow touring cyclist, as that is a breed virtually
extinct except in certain isolated pockets such as the Pacific coast line or the Bikecentennial Trail or New Zealand, but I had been hoping to see school kids out and about on their bikes and the occasional enlightened adult riding down Main Street to the P.O. or grocery store or wherever else people go in small towns that haven't been turned into dead zones by a Wal-Mart. White picket fences and expansive old trees with a swing and porches and bikes are supposed to be the emblems of small town America. Where was I? What would Norman Rockwell have to paint if he were still around?

In all these miles since leaving Chicago, the only person I came across upon a bicycle was a little girl riding on the sidewalk late in the afternoon in some small community. Her mother was walking beside her with a hand on her shoulder keeping her fledgling upright. Upon seeing me the girl jerked a hand from her handlebar and gave me an enthusiastic wave and hello, which I gladly returned.

And then in Oberlin I stayed with friends with a six-year daughter of their own who had just gained her wings and was eager to give a demonstration. She sped off down their driveway, not slowing for a couple of blocks, with her dad and I jogging along trying to keep up, not realizing she was going to be so speedy that we ought to have been on our bikes as well. She was thrilled when her dad said he and I would bike along with her to school, and so were we. Two small
drops of hope, not much, but at least something.

On to West Virginia, George

Friday, October 12, 2007

New Bremen, Ohio

Friends: The CEO of Crown Fork Lift, a Fortune 500 company, headquartered in New Bremen, Ohio rescued the majority of the Schwinn bicycle collection that was auctioned off at Sotheby's in Chicago over a decade ago and installed it at a museum he established in this small town of 3,000 near the Indiana border in central Ohio. It made for a nice three-day, 260-mile bike ride through rural middle-America from Chicago.

Jim Dickey spent nearly one million dollars at the auction and has spent quite a lot more since building up the collection to some 350 bikes. His most expensive acquisition was a Schwinn tandem from the 1890s that cost him $108,000 at another auction. It was accompanied by a photo of Schwinn founder Ignacz and his wife astride it along with a child on a baby seat. Dickey named his museum The Bicycle Museum of America. It is housed on three floors of a building that dates to 1891 in the heart of New Bremen.

Less than half of the museum's collection of bikes came from the Schwinn collection, not all of which were Schwinns, but there is a heavy emphasis on Schwinn throughout the museum, even Chicago street signs from around the Schwinn factory--Kildare, Wabanasia, Cortland, Kostner. There is a collection of Schwinn videos, including one of a company outing in 1952 to the Riverview Amusement Park, and assorted others from over the years meant for dealers. One of the prized bikes from the initial auction was the one millionth Orange Crate off the assembly line. Along with it was a photo of a couple dozen Schwinn employees celebrating the occasion.

The museum traces the bike's lineage from the bike's precursor, the 1816 Draisine from Germany, to a 2007 version of a Biria, also of Germany. There is a room full of "Collapsables," also known as fold-up bikes. There are two Bike Fridays. There is a room of trikes. There are two rare, highly sought after Bowden Spacelanders, a futuristic fiber-glass bike from 1960 designed by automobile engineer Ben Bowden. Only a few hundred were ever manufactured. There is a Lance exhibit featuring a local teen-aged boy who recovered from cancer and was befriended by Lance.

There was a tribute to Bikecentennial and the 4,000 cyclists who rode the coast-to-coast route it established in 1976 to celebrate the Bicentennial. The Bicycle Cow from Chicago's Cow Summer hangs from the ceiling of one of the larger rooms. There was a scrapbook with dozens of newspaper clippings documenting Raymond Bryan's record-setting coast-to-coast ride, New York to San Francisco, in 1940 sponsored by the American Bicycle League. The 20-year old was hoping to do it in 20 days. It took him 27 days and 11 hours, a record that stood for ten years.

Among the many exhibits and quotes celebrating and promoting the bicycle was Susan B. Anthony's: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance." The museum's vast library of books wasn't accessible, as the building housing them is being renovated. One of the main rooms was being set up for a luncheon to be attended by 42 tomorrow. The museum has even hosted weddings. Didi Senft, the German who masquerades as the Devil at the Tour de France, was acknowledged as the inventor of the largest known bike, 7.8 meters long and 3.7 meters high.

I would gladly return to the museum to see it all again and to see what may have slipped my attention. And I may have a chance in a couple weeks as I swing back this way after visiting friends in Oberlin, 200 miles away up by Cleveland, and then bike 500 miles south to other friends in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It will end up being a nice 2,000 mile fall trip. Its not as exotic as last fall's 4,000 miles around Japan, but it is always a happy time to be off on the bike, and in my tent night after night.

Later, George

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Mitry Mory, France

Friends: Its been an extra pleasure these past few days bicycling around Paris, sharing the streets with the legions of freshly reborn cyclists on rental bikes. Even if their battery-powered head-lights and tail-lights didn't make them so obvious, their shining exuberance, bounding about with the heightened zest of the recently unshackled, would distinguish them from the veteran cyclist and make them stand out. They all sat a little higher on their seats, proud and delighted, gazing all about as if amazed at how much there is to see freed of the confines of whatever metal box they had formerly been imprisoned in as they were transported about the city.

The locals are taking advantage of the bikes as much as, if not more than, those visiting-- shopping, running errands, commuting and venturing to locales they might not otherwise. Not all Parisians have space in their apartments for a bike, nor feel comfortable leaving a locked bike out over night, so easy access to a rental bike is meeting a tremendous need. And with the streets of Paris greatly diminished of motorized traffic in August, the city is presently a bicyclist's paradise. Even the pay toilets are now gratuit. Not even a rainy Monday could discourage the use of the rental bikes.

The rain had me marooned in my tent until two in the afternoon out in a cornfield twelve miles from the city line, where the night before I was amongst a crowd of a couple thousand in the Cité de la Musique park watching John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" from 1940 starring Henry Fonda on a giant inflated screen. Several hundred of us took advantage of the free, fenced-in valet bike parking. After the screening the six or seven people staffing it were literally sprinting to retrieve and deliver bikes as fast as they could, easing whatever impatience those of us in the long, long line in the post-midnight hour might have been feeling.

The rain kept me from tracking down the Tour de France offices, as had been one of my Monday objectives. Besides seeing how extravagantly bike-themed it might be, I was hoping to learn what town had won the best-decorated award and who the runners-up might have been. I was hoping too for an array of photos of their decorations either hanging or in an album. I was hoping also for a poster of this year's race, The World in Yellow, of the bike-configured continents. But that was no longer necessary, as I lucked into one Saturday when I biked out to Compeigne, 50 miles to the northeast, the stage 3 Ville Arriveé where I was trapped on the wrong side of a fence for four hours awaiting the peloton's arrival.

When I inquired at Compeigne's tourist office if the city had had any special exhibits or displays honoring The Tour, the woman at the desk rewarded my interest by taking down their "World in Yellow" poster and letting me have it. Little did she know how much it would be appreciated. One of the several reasons I was drawn back to Compeigne was to visit its Vehicle Museum, which included a bicycle collection. Getting the poster easily made up for the bad news that the museum was closed for renovation. Compeigne also lured me back, as it is surrounded on three sides by a ten-mile wide band of forest that was just begging to be camped, something I was unable to do a month ago in my race to keep up with The Tour.

Compeigne has been the start city for the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic the past thirty years. The race is older than the Tour de France and equally storied. The woman at the tourist office traced its route through the city for me so I could ride it myself, starting in the cobbled Plaza de General de Gaulle, going past the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), over the Oise River then off into the wind-swept fields of Flanders and its assorted stretches of cobbles that have earned the race the sobriquet "Hell of the North."

After a night in the forest, undisturbed by its population of deer, I returned to Paris on a road I had yet to try, that supplied the easiest access to the city of any that I have attempted. Before "The Grapes of Wrath" I went in search of Oscar Wilde's grave in the sprawling Pére Lachaise cemetery. After seeing the grave in "Paris Je T'Aime," a recent movie celebrating the twenty arrondisements of Paris, I wanted to verify that it was truly plastered with lipstick-stained kisses. Indeed it was, even more dramatically than the movie indicated, half-way up all four of the twelve foot high walls of the tomb. It was also splattered with graffiti of adoration in several languages. There was a steady stream of devotees, but no kissers, just photographers. The Dublin-born Wilde died in Paris in 1900 at the age of 46. An unnamed admirer paid for the tomb. Evidently the graffiti is accepted, otherwise the tomb would be fenced off as is Jim Morrison's in another sector of this cemetery. Morrison's grave remains the only one of thousands in the cemetery with a fence and a guard. While I stopped by Morrison's grave, a young woman gave the guard a potted yellow carnation to add to the forest of flowers adorning his grave.

Hanging out in the parks of Paris outside the tourist orbit, the city takes on the demeanor of a third world country. Their grassy expanses were packed with Africans, black and Arabic, and a few Asians. Occasionally I'd glance up from my book and have a momentary lapse forgetting where I was. If my eye caught a rare Caucasian, I'd think, "Ah, a gringo, I'm not the only one." Even as this trip draws to a close, flying back to Chicago tomorrow, the array of nationalities had me pondering travels elsewhere and contemplating where to next, perhaps that Istanbul to Cairo ride that Eelco, the Dutch cyclist, planted in my mind three months ago as I was setting out for Cannes.

Later, George

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Paris

Friends: Paris will soon become known as one of the premier bicycling cities in the world. Just last month, on July 15, the city initiated a bike rental program that has been a runaway success. The city scattered 10,000 bikes around Paris that can be rented any time, day or night, with a credit card for a mere euro per day. The most optimistic projections were that there might be 30,000 uses per day. There have been 70,000. The city is scurrying to put another 10,000 bikes out there.

In my four years of passing through Paris after the The Tour de France I have never seen so many bikes locked up and being ridden about the city. I was struck by the number of bikes to be seen immediately as I entered the heart of the city even before I learned of this new rental program. It is too early to assess what effect it has had on taxi and bus and subway use or the mental health of the city.

As I lingered in the plaza in front of City Hall along the Seine, just three blocks from Notre Dame, awaiting the evening's "Critical Mass" bike ride, a continual line of people stood waiting to rent one of the bikes locked up there. The bikes are of one size and style--a swooping woman's type frame with three speeds. Each comes equipped with fenders and lights and a front basket.

A similar program was given a try in Lyons, France's second largest city. It was so successful, Paris decided to try it as well. Part of the city's burgeoning bicycle consciousness may be attributed to the great popularity of its weekly "Critical Mass" ride. Most cities around the world stage the ride the last Friday of the month. Once a month isn't enough for Parisians. They have a ride every Friday. Most Critical Masses are scheduled to coincide with the rush hour commute. The Paris ride doesn't start until ten p.m., when traffic has considerably thinned and motorists aren't in such a frenzy. Nor is it called a "Critical Mass."

One of the organizers I spoke to was only dimly aware of the term. It is a critical mass though. The 800 riders on this ride took over the streets, remaining in a bunch riding through traffic signals as a unit as in every Critical Mass I've been a part of in Chicago. Each week's route is planned and available on the group's website. The guy I talked to was dumbfounded that rides elsewhere just randomly follow whoever is leading it, and can indeed be hi-jacked by whoever is at the front, even if there is a pre-determined route.

The Paris version is very organized. There were twenty or so very gung-ho young men wearing orange day-glow jackets who "cork" the intersections, standing guard through red lights holding back cross traffic. When everyone has passed, they race ahead to their next assigned intersection. As I awaited the ride's departure, one of the officials came over and asked me if I had ever been on the ride before and then briefed me on the procedure. He said the group would take an hour to ride twelve kilometers (7.5 miles) to a park, take a 20-minute break and then bike back to where we started following a different route, arriving back around 12:30. He warned that there would be officials flying past on the right or left calling out that they were passing. The feel of the ride wasn't much different from Chicago's Critical Mass, other than the later hour antagonizing fewer motorists. Unlike Chicago, hardly anyone wore a helmet or rode older, vintage road bikes. It was a much less anarchistic crowd as well, mostly mainstream, conventional-looking folk, and not the predominance of twenty-year olds as in Chicago.

My panniered bike attracted a bit of attention. I rode the entire ride with a woman who had just returned from three years of touring in South America. It was her first touring experience and she was still in a state of euphoria and most pleased to be able to share her experiences with someone who could fully appreciate them. She had set out on her travels as a typical backpacker with her Mexican boyfriend. After a couple of months they decided to exchange their backpacks for bicycles in Buenos Aries. They were immediate converts to traveling by bicycle, discovering what a richer experience it was, exalted by their freedom and independence, not having to rely on buses and trains and taxis to get where they wanted to go and being able to camp, freed from having to search out hotels.

She is busy saving money so she can get back at it. We talked about kids throwing stones at us in Bolivia and the winds of Patagonia and our favorite foods. She pointed out various landmarks along our route. She warned me that on the hour the entire Eiffel Tower would glitter with lights, a feature that was introduced for the Millennium and has been continued since. We rode right along side it as well as a few blocks down the Champs Elysees just as I hoped the ride would.

As I biked into Paris Friday afternoon, there was so little traffic and so few people about I thought it might have been a holiday. And it was to a degree. August is the month when many take their summer vacation and Paris becomes a semi-ghost town. All was desolate and quiet other than the tourist corridor along the Seine from the Eiffel Tower past the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay and Napoleon's Tomb to the Notre Dame Cathedral. With so few locals in town, I feared there might not be a Critical Mass ride. If there hadn't been, I was prepared to attend the the free outdoor movie, a nightly event all of July and August. But the officials at the tourist office were well aware of the bike ride, as it started right there in their plaza in front of City Hall, and assured me there would be one.

My evening's riding partner was staying with a friend in an apartment so cramped there wasn't even room for her bike, otherwise she said I could have stayed with her. Instead I got to camp. That was no tragedy. I knew of places to camp less than an hour's ride away out towards the airport. With a near full moon, I had no problem finding a spot in a field by 1:30 pm. As I headed out of the city, for the first several miles I passed a handful more people riding the rental bikes. Night riders in Paris had formerly been a rare site. Hopefully, they will all be full-fledged converts.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tours, France

Friends: Of the twenty stages and Prologue of this year's Tour, I managed to make it to the finish line before the peloton for six of them. I witnessed the other fifteen finishes on television. Finding a television was often a saga of some sort, occasionally cutting it very very close. I was engaged in one of those races to the finish Sunday for The Tour's last stage. I had to ride seventy miles before I found an open bar, a genuine scarcity in France on Sundays.

I thought I might find one in Gençay after I'd biked a little over fifty miles, especially since it was large enough for there to be signs to a "Centre Ville." But that Centre was a ghost town, forcing me to push on to Poiters, a city of 120,000. Even it had me nervous, as it was dead and deserted for three miles from its outskirts until I reached its center. There were open bars, but the first three I came to did not have a television. The fourth had a pair of televisions, but they were tuned to something else, though no one seemed to be paying them any attention. I am always concerned I might encounter resistance when I ask a bartender to change the station to The Tour. I fear the bartender might be among those fed up with the doping, and is boycotting the race as some newspapers and TV stations and the Danes have done.

But not this one fortunately. It was 4:45 and the peloton was just reaching the Champs Elysees, over half an hour late, for the first of its eight laps, led out by Discovery elder Hincapie--a most pleasing site. I tried to scan the spectators looking for Roberto, but that was an impossible task with the racers flying by at thirty miles per hour. Roberto hadn't been able to come up with a ride the 250 miles to Paris from Angouleme for either of us, so he was going to try to get there by train.

As much as he loves to ride his bike, he likes even more close contact with the racers, as if some of their energy and power and mystique might fly off onto him as they speed past. As we were watching the time trial Saturday from the same hillside vantage I had watched the previous day's action, he excused himself after Leipheimer passed us fifty feet below, saying he wanted to be on the railing, close-up, when Evans and Contador came by, just inches away, as he knew he wouldn't be able to get so close to them the next day in Paris. I liked it just where I was, staring at the jumbo screen and seated right beside the exit route for the motorcycles and team cars leading and following each rider as they turned off the course ninety meters from the finish. The team cars often had guests in the backseat. Their faces were unfailingly wreathed with expressions of supreme delight, if not ecstasy, after having been in the wake of a rider for an hour who had been cheered non-stop for 34 miles by the thousands of fans lining the course.

My strongest memory of the day before was the Orange Euskatel team car when it passed by me leaving the course, its passenger side splattered with blood. Evidently one of its riders had taken a fall and was spurting blood while being tended to as he rode alongside it. Blood is not an uncommon site at The Tour. The Discovery water bottle I found along the road earlier in the week had blood on it. When I saw a close-up of the swollen, blood-clotted lip of Popovych as he left the starting ramp for the time trial, I knew whose bottle it had been.

Blood was in the face of those watching Friday's stage, as one of the four riders in the day-long breakaway, the French rider Sandy Casar, who won the stage, suffered an early crash when a dog ran out on the course. The pavement ripped a gaping hole in the right buttocks of his shorts, turning his flesh into red hamburger meat. Its a tough, demanding sport. The drugs make it no easier. They only allow the racers to push harder, making it harder on all of them.

Once the peloton entered the Champs, I had a final 55-kilometer, one-hour, dose of racing to watch in the Poiters bar, then an hour of post-race ceremonies--the various trophies awarded, interviews and the teams making a ceremonial circuit, some with their coaches accompanying them on bikes in their civilian clothes. The Contador, Evans, Leipheimer podium had to have been the least ecstatic, almost glum, podium in Tour de France history. They all looked uncomfortable and none-too-pleased.

Leipheimer, who finished a measly eight seconds behind Evans for the third spot, had just a hint of a forced smile, undoubtedly bemoaning those ten seconds he was penalized for hanging on to his team car while a mechanic pretended to be working on his bike. And besides those ten seconds, he had to be thinking of countless spots over the race's 2,000 plus miles where he could have gained another 21 seconds, which would have placed him atop the podium with all its glory and millions of dollars of endorsements. Third-place isn't much better than 25th.

The frog-faced Evans was utterly expressionless, staring blankly, unblinkingly, perhaps at a fly that he might suddenly leap at. Contador seemed embarrassed, barely summoning a smile, perhaps fearing that in a day or two the results of one of his drug tests would put an end to his fairy tale as happened to Landis last year. It wouldn't have been any happier of a podium if Rasmussen were still around. His results would have been tainted, not only by drug suspicions, but by the placement of the time trials later than usual in this year's race.

Ordinarily the first time trial comes before the mountains. If that had been the case this year, everyone would have been alerted that Rasmussen had transformed himself in this discipline and the peloton would not have let him escape on the second day in the Alps, as it has allowed the past two years, thinking he was just racking up King of the Mountain points without being a threat to the overall standings.

He wouldn't have gained those minutes that put him in the lead. And if he hadn't been in yellow, there wouldn't have been all the furor about his missed drug tests. He would have finished the race as King of the Mountains for the third straight year and Contador could have been an ecstatic 24-year old winner, the youngest since Ullrich ten years ago, and the racing world could celebrate this new great talent.

Roberto was very much soured on The Tour, pained that the rider's heroics were often fraudulent. When I met him Monday, before Rasmussen's dismissal and Vinokourov's positive drug test and the ouster of the Cofidis team when one of its riders tested positive, he thought following The Tour would be a life-long pursuit. Now he's not so sure. I told him I'd be back for at least one more year, as it was such a pleasure to bicycle in France. He said as much as he liked biking in France, he didn't like it that the road signs did not give distances to towns and also that the skimpy shoulders of the narrow roads were often gravely, unlike the roads of Germany.

The Tour is a French institution that the public fully embraces. It is an opportunity for a day-long gathering and road-side picnic when The Tour comes to their region. But if television interest plummets, the money-interests will withdraw and the magnitude of The Tour could be jeopardized. Money is at the root of the drug woes. There is so much to be gained, millions, by those who excel, that they are willing to take great risks and spend lots of money on means to artificially boost their performance.

That has been the history of The Tour from its very start. The first four finishers and eight others of the second Tour in 1904, including the previous year's winner, were all disqualified a month after the race for cheating by taking trains. The Tour was wildly popular even then and people feared it was dead. It will persevere, and I'm sure I'll be seeing Roberto next year. Now I get to enjoy the company of Florence and Rachid, as I've done the past three years here in Tours.

Later, George

Friday, July 27, 2007

Angouleme, France

Friends: The roads were lined as thickly as ever today, as if the French wanted to say their support and love for The Tour is undiminished despite the ever unfolding scandals and the death knells of the press. As I watched the final three hours of the stage on the giant television at the finish line, I paid particular attention to the crowds along the road up on the screen making sure they were applauding as usual as the racers passed. They most certainly were.

As I biked the final sixty miles of the stage I thought I might see an extra amount of syringes and EPO painted on the road and other drug allusions, but there was only one syringe, which The Tour officials this year have painted over before the racers and television pass. The only home made sign relating to the current state of affairs I noticed read, "The Tour is good, and even better without dopage." And there were the usual "Vive Le Tour" signs.

One young woman was brandishing a card board sign that read "Courage." She jumped out from a group she was partying with about one-third the way up a pesky category-four climb and waved the sign at me and cheered. It was like an alert to those lining the road ahead. I was bombarded by "allez-allez" and one lone "plus vite" from a teen-aged boy who thought I could be riding faster. As I neared the summit a woman stepped forward and held out a brownie for me. To make sure I understood, she pointed at it with her other hand. I grabbed it and popped it right into my mouth. I was breathing too hard to chew and swallow, so I just bit it in half and tongued the two segments into my cheeks, waiting for the descent to swallow it.

It's the first food I've ever been offered while biking past all the picnic spreads. A couple times when I've stopped to watch the end of a stage on someone's television I've been offered food, but never while biking. As enthusiastically as people respond to me as a touring cyclist, few must have done any themselves, otherwise they would know what a voracious appetite a touring cyclist has and would quickly grab a sample from the food heaped on their picnic tables and make an offering.

I arrived at the finish line a little after one. It was already mobbed. I provided myself a bit of shade in the vast expanse facing the giant screen by leaning my bike against a pole and then leaning against one of my rear panniers. I remained there for five hours reveling in the atmosphere and the enthusiasm of the fans. The slight hillside was elbow-to-elbow with several hundred others, while just below us the finishing straight was mobbed two or three deep the final half kilometer.

Just about the loudest cheer I've ever heard from a French crowd came when the lone French rider in the four-man breakaway sprinted away from the three others just before reaching us to win the stage. The French are as nationalistic as any. The first week of The Tour when the French rider Moreau was still in the top ten, the television ratings sky-rocketed. When Moreau fell off and the highest ranked French rider in the race was only 23rd, the ratings plummeted, even during the most exciting racing of all in the mountains.

Yesterday and today were the first days since I left London nearly three weeks ago that I didn't once need to consult my map as I had the course markers to guide me all the way. But first I had to ride 45 miles from the previous day's finish in Castelsarrasin to the next day's start in Cahors. The black-arrowed course-markers are put up a day in advance. I was a day ahead of the peloton and riding the course shortly after it had been marked. People are remarkably conscientious about respecting the signs and leaving them up, even though they are a prized souvenir that disappear quickly after the racers pass, when they do become fair game. Nearly every camper following the race has a sign or two in their windows and I have one on the back of my bike.

Occasionally, some dastardly soul dares to prematurely plunder a sign. I can not imagine a more heinously disrespectful act. I was early enough on the route that I had no such problems yesterday, and only one today. If some prankster truly wished to play havoc with The Tour, he could switch the direction of signs, but that seems to be an absolute taboo. Tonight I'll camp a few miles outside Angouleme on tomorrow's time trial course. It concludes on the same finishing stretch as today's stage, a real rarity, making things easy for those of us following The Tour and even easier on those who set up the vast finish line village. Then its on to Paris.

Later, George

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Cahors, France

Friends: If there hadn't been a newspaper laying around the bar/cafe where I was watching yesterday's final mountain stage, I would have been wondering where in the hell the Astana riders were in their distinctive turquoise uniforms. But I couldn't have missed the front page headlines of Vinokourov being the latest rider to be caught with banned substances in his veins. Like Landis last year, he was desperate for some results and evidently went overboard in his usual regime and tested positive after his startling two-minute win in Saturday's time trial after struggling the first two weeks of the race.

Its no great surprise that he has gone down, as it was his former director sportif Manolo Saiz last year who was deeply implicated in the Spanish Operation Puerto scandal. Saiz was caught on tape visiting the notorious Dr. Fuentes and also arrested with some 30,000 euros in a briefcase entering his office. Four of the nine riders on Vino's Spanish team last year were linked to Fuentes, resulting in the team being ejected from The Tour the day before it began, sending Vino to the sidelines even though he was one of the favorites to win The Race and a popular personality with his aggressive attacking style. Miraculously, Vino wasn't linked to Fuentes, when it was obvious that if the team director was dispensing illegal substances to his racers, he would have been dispensing them to everyone on the team.

Vino has long been a fan and French favorite. His name is written on the roads as much as anyone's, and he animates the racing, so The Tour organizers like having him in The Race. Now he must live in shame the rest of his life, though he is a bigger national hero in Kazakhstan than even Borat. There was no mention of Vinokourov and Astana during the two-and-a-half hours of the telecast I was watching with a mob of Germans in Lycra who were following The Tour with a tour group. The lone German hope, Kloden, was no longer in The Race, ejected along with the entire nine-man Astana team Vinokourov led. The Germans were all rooting for Rasmussen and cheered heartily when he soared away from the two Discovery riders Contador and Leipheimer in the last kilometer.

For the last six miles of the climb to the finish the race had boiled down to the top four riders in the general classification with Contador hoping to put a dent into his two minute deficit to Rasmussen, and Leipheimer hoping to edge past Evans to third place. Evans finally fell off the pace, but he labored most heroically, keeping his deficit to a minimum. He only lost seventeen seconds, plus the twelve second bonus Leipheimer received for finishing second in the stage, maintaining nearly a minute advantage on Leipheimer for that crucial final podium spot. Evans edged Leipheimer in Saturday's time trial, and, in fact, becomes its winner now that Vinokourov has been eliminated, so its not too likely that Leipheimer will be able to overtake him in a similar time trial this Saturday. The final standings most likely will be Rasmussen, Contador, Evans and Leipheimer. Evans will become the first Australian to podium.

I will be curious to see if Roberto, the German Tour fanatic, will still be wearing the Astana cap he was wearing when I met him three days ago. He was rooting for Kloden and also Vino. One of the many other strands of conversation I'll wish to pursue with Roberto when we meet up at Saturday's time trial in front of the big screen is the story behind the several bracelets he had on each of his wrists. He already told me about one, his yellow Livestrong bracelet. Noticing mine, he proudly pointed to his and said it had been on his wrist for three years, ever since Sheryl Crowe removed it from her wrist and presented it to him. It happened on the morning of the team time trial in 2004 that concluded in Amiens. Roberto had been camping in the town park when he noticed a slight woman out for an early morning jog. When she passed by him, he struck up a conversation. She was wearing a hood, so he didn't immediately recognize her, but when he did, she offered him her Livestrong band. He said he's had several brief encounters with Lance over the years with his access to the racers through his German television connection. He commented, "Lance has evolved from being a brash, arrogant, typical American to a decent guy."

Roberto is the second person I've met who met Crowe on the day of that team time trial. The other was a former professional racer from Ohio who was trying to follow The Tour by bike, pulling a Bob trailer. We rode most of the fifth stage together, the day after he had shared a pizza with Sheryl, her parents, and Lance's former coach, Jim Ochieweicz, who was a friend of this guy. He, too, did not immediately recognize Crowe, but was also impressed by how nice and down-to-earth she was.

My yellow wrist band has attracted comment as well. When I walked into one of the bars where I watched a stage, a waitress immediately zoomed in on it and ushered me over to a French patron who was wearing one. He heartily greeted me as if we were in the same brotherhood. I occasionally notice them on mechanics assisting racers during a stage. The French rider Moreau also wears one. The Lance era has faded in many respects, and his wristbands aren't anywhere as ubiquitous around The Tour as they were up until last year, but they are still a regular site.

Another indication that Lance is no longer at the forefront of people's thought is that not once this year has someone exclaimed as I rode past ahead of the racers "Lance" or "Armstrong" as I used to frequently hear. Now its mostly "Le Premier" or "Le Maillot Jaune." Some also draw a laugh from those around them when they respond to me with an exclamation of "Bobet" or "Pou-Pou" or "Jalabert," old favorite French riders, though never Anquetil or Hinault, who never really endeared themselves to the public as these others did, even though they were bigger winners.

Cahors is the start of tomorrow's stage. I'm 24 hours ahead of the peloton. It is 130miles to the stage finish in Angouleme, which will also be the stage finish for Saturday's time trial, starting 34 miles away in Chablis. After Saturday the peloton takes a TGV train to within one hundred miles of Paris for the finale. With luck I may be able to accompany Roberto there in the back of a German TV truck and see the peloton on the Champs for the first time.

Later, George

Monday, July 23, 2007

St. Girons, France

Friends: After Sunday's brilliant, no-holds-barred racing to the summit of the ski resort at Plateau de Beille, I have felt more honored and privileged than ever to be riding the same roads as these stunningly gifted and conditioned and driven athletes. It was amazing to witness the extra, extra, beyond human effort the elite of the peloton was summoning, trading punches as if there was no tomorrow, with one acceleration and attack and acceleration and attack after another, parried and countered, in an offensive display out-dazzling any Fourth of July or Bastille Day fireworks celebration, as the race leaders tested what each was made of and how much they could take. It was a knock-down, drag-out battle for miles, as the racers careened up an incline most people would struggle to walk up. The suspense was riveting--who would prevail, who would break, who could recover after lagging behind to catch their breath. New heroes were born while old heroes cracked.

Rasmussen proved he has the mettle of a champion, first by shocking all with his time trial performance the day before and then responding to the barrage of assaults against him the next day. And the Spanish Discovery rider Contador proved he is a future star. The Aussie Evans dropped from second to third overall, unable to stick with Rasmussen and Contador. Poor Vinokurov faded again, just as the headlines were proclaiming he was back after his remarkable time trial win. The Spanish hopes Valverde and Mayo fizzled even worse than they did in the time trial. Leipheimer stuck in there, but as has been his history, he was a non-aggressor. Still, he moved up to fourth overall, within striking distance of the podium. It was a great day for the Discovery team, with Popovich also being an instigator and moving into the top ten overall. This ought to bring the team a new sponsor, as Discovery is bowing out after this year after three years in the sport, still searching for a replacement.

There are two telling stages to go--another mountaintop finish on Wednesday and the final time trial Saturday. Today I watched the racers fly past just outside the town of Massat on the flats just after they had finished off the category-two Col de Port. The peloton was strung out, still sorting itself out with the field scattered and breakaways trying to form. It was all-out racing. My ears were singed by the heated words flung by riders not happy that someone ahead was not closing down a gap. I was shaking my head at the intensity level, something television can't fully capture, just as it can't come close to conveying the violence of football. You've got to be on the sidelines to appreciate it, as I did for four years as a football manager at Northwestern.

I was standing across the road from the bicycling hostel, Pyrenean Pursuits, I visited two years ago. I had a grand reunion with the English owners, who I've maintained contact with. They'd been telling their guests about me, the bicycle messenger/touring cyclist from Chicago, that very day. I spent an hour watching the race on the television in the hostel after the peloton had passed, chatting with Austin and Sally and a couple of their guests, before heading down the road, promising to return next year for a longer stay with friends who promise to join me bicycling the Pyrenees in June before The Tour. I watched the final ninety minutes of today's racing over two category-one climbs on a large screen in the parking lot of a Champion supermarket, as Contador tested Rasmussen again, while Vinokurov took the win well ahead of the peloton up the road, as the true contenders let him escape since he was no longer a factor in the race having lost a staggering 28 minutes the day before.

I was joined by a German cyclist such as I've been hoping to meet since I began following The Tour four years ago. And he had been looking for someone such as me. We've both been biking The Tour route these years without encountering anyone else doing a similar thing, but hoping to find another. He said he had noticed me a couple of times, including over today's first summit, but we've never ended up at the same place at the same time. He's traveling much lighter than I without a tent, just throwing a sleeping bag down on the ground where he ends up at night. He has befriended a German television station covering The Tour, which occasionally provides him transport between stages and carries some of his extraneous gear. When German television abandoned The Tour several days ago, upset that another German rider failed a drug test, the German truck with his panniers headed home, so he has had to improvise, just lashing a bag on top of his rear rack.

He's following a different route than I will for the next couple of days, but we will meet up at Saturday's time trial. He said it may be possible for the two of us to hitch a ride with the remnants of the German crew covering the race the 250 miles from there to Paris for The Tour's final ceremonial stage concluding on the Champs Elysees. We talked non-stop for a couple of hours until well after today's stage finished, exchanging tricks and stories, and we barely got started. His name is Roberto. His email address,"girobertour", combines his name with The Tour and the Giro (the Italian version of The Tour), adding a "gi" to the front of roberto and "ur" to the back, as if he were born to be following the two of them, something he has been doing for five years.

Another highlight of the day was adding three team water bottles to my collection, including a Discovery bottle and a Quick Step bottle from Tom Boonen's team. Roberto pointed out that the Quick Step bottle had to have come from Boonen, as it had the world champion stripes on it, distinctive to him. He said he had noticed that Boonen was the only rider on the Quick Step team with such a bottle just a couple of days ago when he came upon the Quick Step team bus before the race and the riders were preparing to head to the start line. He had many, many such insider tips. He was a production assistant on the German documentary from 2003 on The Tour--"Hell on Wheels". We both agreed we had found our alter-ego.

Later, George

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Albi, France

Friends: I rejoined The Tour route last night about fifteen miles east of Albi, and I instantly knew it, what with campers parked bumper-to-bumper on both sides of the road, many flying national or team flags and their portable picnic tables already set-up roadside. I knew I was closing in on it, as the campers with The Tour course markers in their windows began passing me an hour earlier, back on the road after the conclusion of the day's stage, all hurrying to find a good place to park for the next stage. The Belgians were happy, as Boonen had won his second stage of The Tour, padding his hold on the Green Jersey. I was ready to camp at any moment, as it had been a most grueling day of multiple two to five mile seven per cent climbs on the southern fringe of the Cevennes, Craig country. I would have long ago been a puddle along the road if it hadn't been a miraculously cool, overcast day, the first sunless day since leaving England.

After a series of sweltering days of ninety degree riding, sixty degree temps were a most unexpected gift. It had been an exhausting three-day dash from Briançon to Albi, but with a 34-mile time trial (contre-le-montre) on tap, a loop starting and finishing in Albi, I had a day of relative rest ahead, at least until the evening when I'd head south 37 miles to the next day's start, beginning a three-day foray into the Pyrenees. I continued on to within ten miles of Albi before pausing to camp. I could have slipped in between any of the campers and set up my tent in the fields behind them, but I preferred some peace and privacy for a good night's sleep, so went down a side road a quarter of a mile until I came upon a field with huge rolls of hay, large enough to hide my tent, that always call out to me when I see them. I wasn't settled in even five minutes when a car swung off the road to join me. It drove up right alongside my tent. The driver had a question for me. He pointed at the roll of hay my bike was leaning against and asked if I smoked. I was posed the same question once in a sugar cane field in Brazil by someone likewise concerned that I might be a fire hazard. My negative reply both times earned me my camping privileges.

I quickly finished off the ravioli and couscous I had started at the summit of my last prolonged climb, five-and-a-half strenuous miles out of St. Sermin-sur-Rance, where I watched Boonen nip the ageless German Zabel at the line. I was more tired than hungry when I collapsed into my tent, but I forced myself to eat, then turned in before dark for the first time in days. I was in for a solid night's sleep. I was hoping Leipheimer would sleep as well on the eve of potentially the biggest day of his career. He, along with five or six of the remaining 167 riders in the race, would be going to bed with a realistic chance of taking the yellow jersey the next day. He would join LeMond, Lance, Landis, Hincapie and Zabriskie as the sixth American to achieve it. The stakes were huge. If he delivers the ride of his life his face will be plastered on the front page of "The New York Times" and "USA Today" and papers all over the world, and he knows it. It had me nervous and anxious myself.

I would have loved to have slept late and lingered in my tent, but with the caravan setting out at 8:50 and the first racer a little after ten, I knew the gendarmes would be eager to close down the course early this morning, so I was back on the bike at 7:45, cringing whenever I saw a gendarme ahead, fearing he would step out into the road with arms crossed or his arm out-stretched with a finger pointing at the side of the road wearing a stern expression on his face. I made it to within two-and-a-half miles of the finish before I was stopped. I agreed to continue walking along with the pedestrians filing in. After I'd gone a couple of blocks and was out of his vision I remounted and made it all the way to the 250 meters to go sign, passing dozens of tolerant, unfazed gendarmes.

The arbitrariness of the gendarmes can be infuriating. The most absurd abuse of a gendarme's authority this year, other than in England, occurred on stage four, miles from any town, 90 minutes before the caravan was due and three hours before the racers. It was as if the cop was lonely and wanted some company. I wasted no time protesting, quickly dismounting and agreeing to continue on foot, wagging my fore and middle finger at him, imitating a pedestrian, as gendarmes have done to me. I warned him that he should be ready for a group of twenty cyclists at any moment. I was hoping they'd arrive while I was still in his range, as I was eager to see if he could corral them.

They were part of an Australian-led group (Cycle Style) I had ridden with for a few miles until they stopped for a group piss. I was in no need at the time, so chose to continue gliding along at a more leisurely pace until they caught back up to me and I could rejoin their pace line. When they first passed me I was all set to speed up a bit and fall in behind the first two that passed me with bonjours until two more passed and two more and two more, some greeting me with a g'day, until ten pairs had gone by. With my speed upped from 14 mph to 18 just like that thanks to such a nice big drafting machine, I thought I was fully assured of making it 61 miles down the road to the peloton's feed zone, as was their destination.

I hadn't gone more than ten steps when they came roaring past the overwhelmed gendarme. I leapt aboard my bike and caught back up to them. All was fine until we came to a significant hill. Then the group splintered like a broken vase. I was among those off the back, settling into a pace with a 50-year old lawyer from Bermuda who wasn't much of a climber, what with the highest point on his 21-mile long island just 300 feet high. With a population of 36,000 it has yet to produce a Tour de France rider and has had only one Olympic medal winner, a bronze in boxing in 1968. After a few minutes we were all by ourselves. A few miles later we were stopped by a cop, three miles from our destination. I quickly told him we were part of the larger group that had passed and only had five kilometers to go. He kindly relented, telling us just to hurry.
After we resumed I remembered that I was accompanied by a lawyer and I should have let him handle the arbitration. He said that was okay. A couple years ago he'd had an altercation with French police in Paris that ended up with him being detained. He hadn't followed the protocol for the Paris subway and didn't have his passport with him and was hauled off to the police station.

As we approached the feed zone, a tour leader awaited my companion along the road, directing him to the group's gathering spot. I had made such good time and expended less energy than I expected, I didn't really need to stop to eat or rest, so risked pushing on. I was stopped a couple more times by gendarmes in populated areas, but once I got out into the long rural stretches with few side roads and gendarmes I was able to push on an extra 17 miles before gendarmes on motorcycles warned me the caravan was imminent, less than five minutes way. It was a record extra 34 miles for me after the first time I was ordered to stop riding. That will be a hard one to beat.

Later, George