Friday, July 13, 2007

Bourg-en-Besse, France

Friends: It is Day Seven of The Tour and I'm still keeping up. I'm, in fact, four hours ahead of the peloton, awaiting their arrival here in Bourg-en-Bresse. I'm having my best Tour ever, averaging 125 miles a day and ten hours in the saddle since coming over from the UK. I'm lucky to get seven hours of sleep a night, riding until dark around ten, but I'm as well-trained as if I'd been following a Randy Warren regime.

Tomorrow brings the Alps. That will be the real test. It is well I arrived so early here as I desperately needed to find a bike store to replace my tires. The rear had 4,000 miles on it and the front 6,000. The rear had worn through the tread to the white inner layer. Finding an open bike store along The Tour route has been even harder than finding an Internet outlet. I thought I might have been saved when the support vehicle of an Australian-guided tour group I had ridden with for a couple of hours two days ago stopped at the summit of a category four climb this morning just head of me, awaiting its clients with food and drink. Unfortunately, the only tires they had were way too skinny for me.

But my tire held out for thirty miles more and then hallelujah, there was a Decathlon sporting goods store, a big European chain, on my way into Bourg-en-Besse, so I didn't even have to go out of my way to find a bike store. When I arrived at Compeigne three hours ahead of the peloton Tuesday, three days ago, I thought I had ample time to find a bicycle store and fulfill my Internet duties, but I was trapped on the wrong side of the barriers at the finish line in the Plaza de Gaulle, frustrating not only my pursuit of the bike store and the Internet, but also of food. It wasn't all bad, as I could sit in front of the monstrous screen televising the peloton's progress over roads I had just ridden and let my legs soak up some rest. The legs got an extra hour of it as the peloton took it easy on this 147 mile stage, the longest of this year's Tour, arriving an hour behind schedule at 6:30 rather than the usual 5:30, a valuable hour for me to get further down the road, but also an extra hour of respite for my legs.

As I sat there, I scribbled out what I would have been typing at a computer outlet while eating the only food I had left--two cans of baked beans and half a pound of nuts. I was able to supplement it, however, with pickings from the caravan--pretzels, a thumb-sized sausage, a packet of cheese and some candy. The only food I missed out on was a mini-bottle of yogurt. I scored big, as there were few people on my side of the barrier. I nabbed something from more than half the 45 sponsors tossing stuff, my best percentage ever. I've been stockpiling, so I can do some tossing myself to those who cheer me as I lead out the proceedings.

Anyway, here's what I would have sent on Tuesday could I have: Cops in three different countries have ordered me off my bike the past three days--England on Sunday, Belgium yesterday and today in France. I was close to where I needed to be along the road each time, so it wasn't too aggravating. It could have been catastrophic in England if I hadn't gotten as far out of London Saturday night as I did, as the English elected to close down the race course to bicyclists as well as motorists four hours before the racers were due to pass. The French policy has always been two hours. I was eight miles from the vantage point I wanted to reach, the closest point the route came to Dover and the ferry, about fifteen miles from the finish in Canterbury, and was able to find side roads to continue on. I was alarmed that this could be a new Tour policy, but an English cycling official explained that the English were overly concerned about course safety, as there had been a fatality in their national tour last year when a car slipped on to the course. They weren't about to let any such thing happen during The Tour with the world-wide attention it receives.

I was about the only one on a bike taking advantage of the closed route. There were already masses of people gathered, but little of the French tradition of decorating towns and homes and parked vehicles with something bicycle-related. Nor was there any writing on the road exhorting favorite riders and teams or causes, just an occasional banner from one of the several English bicycling organizations encouraging bicycle use. Transport for London was a leading sponsor of the race. It hoped The Tour would raise bicycling consciousness and "put the bike in the heart of Londoners." Signs and billboards advertised, "You're better off by bike" and "Extend your Life, Cycle." The latter was accompanied by an upright bike featuring a red, heart-shaped saddle. The Transport for London entry in the caravan was a float with a guy shouting most vehemently with machine-gun-rapidity to the thousands lining the course, "Get on your bikes! Get on your bikes!"

London's mayor is a strong bicycle advocate, a virtual zealot. He aggressively promotes bicycling to alleviate congestion and to clean up the air and improve health. He spoke at Friday night's team presentation. He said that in contrast to most cities who host the Tour, he was less interested in attracting tourists to London, than attracting people to the bicycle. His message in the program said, "I hope that it will inspire people to take up cycling for fun and to get around the city. It is, after all, a great way to improve your health and reduce your impact on the environment."

I was joined along the road on Sunday out in rural England by a pony-tailed Frenchman who had taken the ferry over with his bike that morning. He hadn't planned on coming to England for The Tour, but after seeing the tens of thousands lining the Prologue course the day before, he had to experience the English fervor himself, rather than waiting for The Tour to come to France. He was bubbling with pride at the tremendous reception it had received, comments I have heard from many others the past few days. The French are truly thrilled at the English response. It wasn't quite true of all the English though. One lunatic radio host was upset that his commute was delayed by The Tour road closures. He ranted and raved, "London has been in total gridlock for a race that has nothing to do with us." What will he say about the Olympics in 2012?

My French fellow comrade-of-the-bike and I gazed out on a road that was a virtual dead zone, bemoaning the wasted opportunity for cyclists to enjoy such a rare tranquility as they would in France. He was a life-long devotee of the Tour. Last year he had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ride in a sponsor's car just behind the caravan the entire race route past the thousands and thousands along the road. He called it, "the best souvenir of my life."

Hardly a Tour is staged without a swing into Belgium, as the Belgians embrace it even more fervently than the French. The moment I entered Belgium, ten miles into Monday's stage that began in Dunkirk, the road was mobbed by a throng of boisterous fans, cup of beer in hand, even though it was only eleven and the peloton wasn't due for three hours.

The Belgian town of Oost-Cappel is my early favorite to win the award for best decorated town of the Tour. I could have spent a couple of hours photographing all the bicycle displays adorning virtually every business and home I passed in the town. Yellow and red polka dots and decorated bikes were everywhere. The coup de grace was a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome made of bicycle frames.

I was pressed for time with course closure hanging over my head like a guillotine, so I had to pass up one spectacular photograph after another that abounded in Belgium--clusters of pre-teens Lycra-clad in their club uniforms eagerly awaiting their heroes, a white car decorated with red dots, a phalanx of nursing home residents in wheel chairs, the fire department hosing manure off the road, a red polka dot jersey on the hood of a car secured by a windshield wiper parked in a field with no other fans or cars in sight, elaborate picnic arrangements and on and on. Watching the racers pass gives a jolt of a thrill, but that is almost incidental to all these manifestations of devotion to the race and to the bicycle.

I only rode the first thirty miles of Monday's 105-mile route, halting at the point closest to where I could diverge toward the next day's route, which wound back into France. It was 98 miles due south. After the peloton passed me at 2:30, I had about 24 hours to bike 151 miles to reach Compeigne, tomorrow's stage finish. It was my first big challenge of this year's Tour, putting my fitness and good fortune to the test, and almost qualifying me for Paris-Brest-Paris if I pulled it off. I lost about an hour trying to navigate my way through the sprawling city of Lille in the evening rush hour after watching the crash-marred finish to Monday's stage, won by a Belgian, though not the favorite, Tom Boonen. He was nipped at the line by his team-mate and lead-out man Gert Steegman. Only several times before had a Belgian won a stage on home turf in the past 50 years--reason for great celebration there. Steegman was clearly ecstatic and Boonen clearly crestfallen, though he could have been happy for his teammate's success and also that his second consecutive second place finish had earned him the green jersey for the points classification of the race. But he is paid to win and that is where the glory is.

With the terrain relatively flat and the hint of a helpful northerly breeze, I knocked off 76 post-stage miles riding until 10:15, giving me 126 for the day, 21 more than the peloton. That left me 75 miles to the next day's finish line in Compeigne, which lies about 50 miles northeast of Paris and is the starting point for April's Paris-Roubaix classic. I was up at seven and off pedaling half an hour later. It was 22 miles to Ribemont, where I rejoined the race route and had those glorious markers guiding me the next 53 miles past early-arriving picnickers, many of whom were happy to "Bravo" the touring cyclist. I made it to within 250 meters of the finish line, where a swarm of gendarmes descended upon me. I had only one direction to go, off to the left, and that put me in a no-man's land where I was trapped for the next four hours.

After the racers arrived at 6:30 with Cancellera in yellow winning the sprint I went off in search of the town's lone Internet cafe. It was closed. It was no easy task finding the route out of town towards the next day's start town twenty miles away. As I headed in the direction I needed to go battling the throngs of fans, I ended up where all the team cars and buses were stationed. They were just preparing to head out. I was able to join in with them. I didn't arrive at the next town until after nine. I was in desperate need of food. Most grocery stores in France close by seven. I was forced to check the dumpster of the lone supermarket in the city, but it was behind a high barbed wire fence. I luckily happened upon a small Turkish fast food place selling felafel's. Then I went in search of the course markers and started biking the next day's route. I managed ten miles before dark, camping along side a field of potatoes.

And then got to get up and do it all over again.

Later, George

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