Sunday, July 8, 2007

Ashford, England

Friends: The London prologue course was extraordinarily fan-friendly. There were large screens all along the five-mile course, roughly three to the mile. In France there is usually just one at the finish line. London provided a further super-bonus with the non-stop, commercial-free commentary of Phil and Paul for over four hours. They kept it fresh, hardly needing to recycle their material, commenting on each of the 189 competitors as they were released on to the course, one per minute. They provided a wealth of most-illuminating information.

I alternated between the screen in front of 10 Downing Street, just two blocks from the ramp launching each rider, and the next screen down the course in the shadow of Big Ben in a park that an Iraqi war protester has been encamped at for four years causing quite a national ruckus. For two-and-a-half hours before the racing commenced I remained at a choice spot in the shade leaning against a course barrier. Riders were warming up and familiarizing themselves with the course. By the time the caravan of sponsors came by, the fans were three or four deep behind me. There weren't a great many goodies to grab, as England was only treated to a caravan-sampler. Not even half of the 200 plus vehicles of the caravan made the trip across the Channel. There were no Super Champion polka dot hats, as there was no need for the super market chain to waste its advertising in a country where they have no stores.

The biggest disappointment was the daily Tour newspaper, that is always full of interesting features, was not being distributed. I was curious if there would be an English version, or if it would remain in French. There were the usual magnets and candy and key chains, as well as the pair of floats spraying water on the crowd, but no wristbands in this sampler. Last year five of the 40 sponsors added to the glut of wristbands in the universe. The best new give-away was a mini-reflective bib that slips over one's head. It has a yellow-green triangle front and back, lined and dabbed with silver reflective material. And it was branded with the Tour logo. I will be trying for as many of those as I can get in the days to come.

I was joined at the railing by a slight 50-year old guy on crutches. He had gashed his ankle with the crank of his bicycle in a track accident a couple months ago. He'd been a life-long racer, starting as a fifteen-year old junior. We talked racing non-stop for two-and-a-half hours like a couple of Americans talking baseball in the bleachers during batting practice. He was a dream rail-mate. He grew up not far from Tom Simpson and had an encyclopedic knowledge and insight into the sport. He was fanatic enough to buy the French sports paper "L'Equipe" during the Tour, arriving early enough at the sports stand that carried it to nab one of the three daily copies it received.

All too much of our talk centered on drugs. He remained an amateur, so he wasn't drawn into that side of the sport, but he was well aware of it. Early in his career he was shocked to see a semi-pro, competing in a race he was riding, pull out a syringe after about three-fourths of the race, jab it into his arm, toss it into the pushes and then a couple minutes later tear off down the road, winning the race by a couple of minutes. In all our talk he expressed no outrage, just a bit of sadness, that that is the way it is and always has been. He has no doubt that even Indurain, the Spanish great who won the Tour five straight times and seemed invincible until deposed by Bjarne Riis, who recently confessed to having been EPO-accelerated, was also a drug-taker.

But still my English rail mate loved the sport. And the specter of drugs had no effect on the crowd. The course was mobbed. I rode the course at nine a.m. There were already thousands encamped at the choice spot in front of Buckingham Palace and elsewhere along the course six hours before the racers were due to begin passing. I asked my friend if there was word if the Queen would be watching from a balcony. "I doubt it," he said, "She'll probably be too busy sorting out another family dispute." I was surprised there was hardly anyone else taking advantage of the opportunity to ride the course as I was. The Quick Step team with Tom Boonen was the only team out that early, riding at a moderate enough pace that I could have latched on to the former World Champion's wheel and ridden along in his draft.

I reluctantly tore myself from the Prologue after 45 minutes, as I needed to load up my bike and start riding the next day's course so I would be far enough out of the urban sprawl by dark to find a place to camp. I got about 25 miles down the road past the Greenwich Meridan line, before I stopped at a bar to watch the last 40 minutes of the Prologue. For a while it looked like the American George Hincapie would finish second, just as he did last year, but the Swiss favorite,, Fabian Cancellara, stomped the field, earning the yellow, which he will probably keep for a few days. The two English hopes fell considerably short.

I'm now 100 miles down the course. The peloton will be here in three hours. I plan to ride a further twelve miles down the course after I sign off here and watch the caravan and peloton pass, then find a bar to watch the finish and then ride another twelve miles to Dover for the ferry to France. I ought to arrive on the Continent with an hour or so of daylight, enough time to get out into the country for a place to camp. Tomorrow's stage heads to Belgium. I'll ride the first half of the course and then cut over and start in on stage three ahead of the field. I am looking forward to not only the drastically cheaper prices of France, but also its respectful, or at least tolerant, drivers, in contrast to what I've encountered here.

The English don't recklessly tailgate as the French do or come flying out of nowhere as they do, which would have been highly treacherous with the hedge-lined winding narrow roads that give limited visibility, but the English rarely defer to the cyclist as the French do. They drive with great aggression despite the signs outside every town asking drivers to be considerate and the frequent signs along the road announcing the casualty statistics for the upcoming stretch--35 deaths in the next three miles over the past three years and such.

It was rare to have such a genuine give-and-take sharing conversation as I had preceding the prologue. More often than not what conversations I had with the English were one-sided affairs, and hardly conversations at all, more opportunities for someone to pontificate or preach. But those rare people who weren't so self-possessed were gems I could have developed a genuine friendship with. My racing friend could well turn into a lifelong email friend to discuss racing matters with. He offered me his email address even before I had a chance to ask him for it. It is just such people that make make these dates with the Tour such a great success. I know there will be many more to come.

Later, George

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