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

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