Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ales, France

Friends: Just as I passed the summit of a five-mile climb, that would have been a category-two had it been on The Tour route, a sixty-year old cyclist in his club uniform was summitting from the opposite direction. We exchanged "bonjours" and then several moments later he was along side me on the descent, asking in French where I was headed. After his next question, I had to ask if he spoke English, and surprisingly he did, to a degree.

He appeared to be a local out for his daily ride, but he was actually on holiday from Strasbourg, over by the German border. This was an odd, isolated area, down from the Alps, to be vacationing, but he had a very good reason--he was a collector of cols (passes), and this region had an abundance of them. He had a career list of over a thousand, but he was a long way from conquering all that France had to offer--over eight thousand. He was having a banner day, having already climbed four new ones and had four more to go. He was enjoying a dream vacation, eight days of climbing cols, while his wife was having her own dream vacation 75 miles away in Avignon, attending its annual theater festival, watching plays all day. He was quite pleased with the arrangement.

Last year they holidayed together in Ireland and he only added two cols to his list all year. The year before they visited Yosemite and he had another paltry harvest. As we ended the descent he said, "There's a small restaurant up ahead, can I buy you a coffee?"

"Sure,"I replied, "If you can make it an orange juice."

We both hauled out our maps, he his detailed Michelin of the region with X's all over it of cols to climb, and me, my Tour de France route. He exulted over many of the passes the peloton and I had been over, knowing them well himself. After a spell he had to tell the waiter and those sitting at a nearby table of his great discovery--an American who was riding The Tour. It was jubilation all around.

The Tour would be passing within twenty-five miles of us in a few hours, but he was too busy with his own riding to go watch theirs. He did happily accept several of my offerings from the caravan--a Credit Lyonnaise musette bag/back pack, a deck of cards and a key chain. He was a most serious rider. A couple of years ago he and a friend rode 750 miles in 75 hours (three days and three hours) from Strasbourg across France to its southwestern extremity on the Atlantic at the Spanish border. They traveled light, and without support, staying at hotels, sleeping from nine p.m. to three a.m. their three nights. We were both excited to meet a fellow devotee of the bike and hope we might be able to ride together in the future.

Earlier in the day I was able to drop in on the peloton's "Ville Depart" of Tallard, a village of just a couple thousand inhabitants about ten miles south of the large city of Gap. It was an historic day for Tallard, probably the smallest host city of this year's Tour. I hadn't expected to be able to to arrive before the peloton's departure, as I had miscalculated, confusing kilometers with miles, thinking Tallard was one hundred miles from Briançon when it was sixty, still a goodly distance, but mostly downhill. After knocking off forty of them the night before after the stage finish, I was able to arrive in Tallard by nine the next morning, three hours before the peloton's departure. The road was blocked two miles from the town center to motorized traffic. I could bike on it alongside a steady procession of the faithful promenading into town as if it were Lourdes.

If I could be at several places at the same time during each day's stage, being at the start when the peloton set out would be one of them, but rarely am I afforded that opportunity, as I need to be putting in the miles getting down the course. There is always a tremendous sense of anticipation and delight at the stage start. Thousands gather for the send-off. Part of the daily ritual is for each rider to go up on a stage and sign in, while the official booming voice of The Tour, Daniel Mangeas, introduces them and rattles off an array of their accomplishments. It goes on for over an hour with the riders arriving in no particular order. Already there were several hundred people stationed in front of the stage, cameras warming up.

Tallard was aswarm with proud locals putting the final touches on all their preparations and all wearing a town Tour T-shirt featuring the poster, The World in Yellow, on the back. The town's chief attraction, a chateau/castle on a high promontory, had yellow jerseys danging all over it. There was bike art and bike sculptures and bike decorations up and down the streets of this medieval village. Everyone and everything was aglow on this glorious day. I would have loved to have lingered and luxuriated in it all until the riders set off, but I needed to start making a dent in the three hundred miles between Tallard and Albi, site of Saturday's time trial in three days. It will decide this year's race and is something that Rasmussen is probably already losing sleep over. Two years ago in a similar time trial with a podium spot at stake he crashed three times for one of the most disastrous time trials in Tour history. Even if he manages to stay upright this time, he could well drop four or five placings. There are a handful of those behind, including the American Leipheimer, who is one of the world's better time trialists, licking their chops.

Even after four years of following The Tour, I still find it nearly incredulous that just about any afternoon I wish in the month of July here in France, I can stop at most any bar and for hours watch on television the world's finest cyclists pedaling away with passion and fervor. With the 90-degree heat I elected to indulge in a prolonged two-and-a-half hour dose of it this day, even though the racing would be most predictable on the day's long flat stage to Marseille--an inconsequential breakaway group allowed to have the day, while the peloton rode leisurely recovering from yesterday's killer day in the Alps. It was recovery time for myself too, though the unair-conditioned bar was nearly as sweltering as it was being outside.

I've finally begun putting to use the hydration tablets provided by Joe of Quick Release, which have added flavor and some calories to my tepid water. They are great. I have 48 of them in four flavors to ration out over my remaining twenty days in France. My riding was also made a little easier yesterday following a river through a gorge for twenty-five miles. I stopped several times to take a plunge. Today is the first time in thirteen days, since The Tour presentation in London, that I haven't had direct contact with The Tour. But I have the television to look forward to as soon as I sign off here.

Later, George

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