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

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