Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Briançon, France

Friends: I had designs on camping beside the towering Henri Desgrange monument honoring the founder of the Tour de France on the Galibier last night, but it was cold up there at over 6,000 feet with lingering patches of snow, and even worse, strong, gusting winds, so I descended fifteen miles, almost to Briançon, where today's epic alpine stage concludes, camping besides a nice big roll of hay in a grasshopper-infested field.

The Galibier was Desgrange's favorite mountain pass, and is a Tour regular, with only the Tourmalet in the Pyrenees included more often. Desgrange said all other Tour climbs were gnat's piss in comparison. Its summit offers a spectacular panorama of snow-covered peaks in all directions. The climb to its summit is a brute, especially from the north, as this year's route followed. From that direction the beyond category climb up the Galibier is preceded by the category one Col de Telegraph with only a brief three mile relatively flat interlude through the ski town of Valloire, making it a virtually uninterrupted steep climb of nearly twenty miles, a most demanding test.

Yesterday was an absolutely perfect day to be climbing it. Even though it was the first of two rest day for the racers, the Galibier was already closed to motorized traffic other than official Tour vehicles and those on motorcycles. There were hundreds on bikes though, inching their way up the mountain. Motorists were allowed as far as Valloire. It wasn't so pleasant struggling up the 7.5 miles of the Col de Telegraph contending with the steady stream of cars, motor homes and trucks, but that made the surprise closure of the Galibier all the more sweet. It was necessary, as already the 11.5 miles of the Galibier climb were packed with motor homes and tenters in cars. With no L'Alpe d'Huez this year, the Galibier becomes the glamor climb and the wise flocked early.

Despite the steady file of cyclists, no one was going fast enough for there to be any drafting. Other than the occasional mountain bike, just about everyone but me was riding a super-light racing bike. Those already stationed along the road, as well as passing cyclists, accorded me a non-stop chorus of most genuine "Bravos" with the occasional "Chapeau" (a tip of the hat) and other comments of respect, including someone with limited English, assuming that was my language, saying "very good, respect." The topper was a guy giving an all-out effort himself on a light-weight racing bike, who gasped to his friends, "Fucking hell," at the sight of me on my bike with gear alone that weighed three times as much as the bike he was pedaling. The climb had me at my limit, leaving me the most exhausted I've been on this tour, but at least there were no killer, inhuman grades as in Wales and Scotland, though when it got to ten per cent for one short stretch up in that thinning air and after miles of climbing, it took a comparable extreme effort to keep the wheels turning.

I anticipated seeing people pausing at the one-third or half-way points of the two climbs as I thought I might, but few people paused at any point other than to take a photo here and there. The biggest congregation was two miles from the summit where "The Devil," in uniform, was painting his trademark tridents on the road, warning the peloton that he was imminent. An official Tour vehicle had even stopped. Its occupants joined the line to have their photograph taken with him. Despite his celebrity The Tour broadcasters don't seem to make an effort to include him when the peloton passes him.

Only once this year have I glimpsed him in the background hopping up and down, waving his trident, without any comment from the broadcasters. If they truly wished to give him a close-up, it would be easy enough to do with all the motorcycle cameramen on the course. His road graffiti is easily spotted from the air, so the helicopters shooting the race could notify the producers where he was. But he is a big enough star that he doesn't need any more air time other than what he receives. When I was in London, a half-hour BBC radio show devoted to the Tour was promoed with "The Yellow Jersey and the Devil come to London." If he spoke English, I would have shown him the photo of he and I that appeared in "The Reader," though he would probably have been nonplussed, since he so regularly turns up in cycling and other publications.

After today the Tour and I will part company for several days, as tomorrow's stage starts in a town 115 miles from here, the first long, long transfer between stage finishes and stage starts. Its no great disaster, as The Tour will leave the mountains for a week or so before reaching the Pyrenees. I've been lucky there hasn't been a transfer of over thirty miles so far this year, enabling me to keep up over the first ten legs, the best I've managed in the four years I've been doing this. Last year a fifty-mile transfer after the fourth stage did me in. After that it took me a week to catch back up. I'm hoping to regain The Tour this year on Saturday for the time trial in Albi. The ride there will be nice, as it always is in France, but it will be a marked contrast to the divine aura of being on the Tour route. There is truly nothing to compare.

Early Sunday morning, as I passed through Faverges on the Tour route, just before the category-two climb over the Col de Tamie, I came upon a couple of grandmothers outside the town bakery, clutching their daily baguettes, engaged in conversation. It was quiet enough I could hear their animated chatter as I approached. At the site of me, they both simultaneously blurted a quick, impulsive, "allez, allez," perhaps in mid-sentence, then resumed wherever they had left off. It was Tour de France day for their community and they were primed and ready.

A while later, well up the six-mile climb, a trio of teen-aged boys accorded me the similar double-pronged greeting. I was ready, tossing them a spare trinket from the caravan I had been hoarding, a model car. I could see them scramble for it, and then maybe five or six seconds later, after I was well up the road and they'd had a chance to examine it, I heard a shout of "Merci Monsieur," which I acknowledged with a wave of my hand without even looking back. The "Merci" was nice, but the added "Monsieur" even nicer, a testament to the French politeness and respect.

Riding the Tour route, my day abounds with such incidents, any of which would make my day. Any time a site attracts my camera, I am again struck by the sensation that there is no place I would rather be. On the outskirts of a logging town in the mountains the locals had constructed a "Vive Le Tour" sign spelled out in logs. Just beyond was a logo of 2007 arranged to look like a person on a bike with the 0s the wheels and the 2 and 7 superimposed to be the rider. I had to stop a second time in the middle of the town for another photo, when I came upon an even larger version hanging from a crane with a large sign beside it saluting a local rider who had won a stage of The Tour in the '60s.

Cranes are frequently enlisted for a salute of some sort. A factory along the route was framed by two towering cranes 100 feet high to form a gigantic, utterly boggling, arch of suspended bicycles, over 100 of them, with twenty or so wheel-to-wheel across between the two cranes and another fifty dangling from each. It had to be a huge undertaking to collect all the bikes and then link them together. It would have been even more spectacular if the peloton could have ridden underneath it, but there wasn't the space on either side of the road to anchor both cranes, so they had to remain in the yard of the factory. It was just another of the countless examples along The Tour route demonstrating the French love for The Tour and the extremes they go to express it.

Early in the day towns are bustling with locals putting the final touches on their decorations, hanging banners and streamers and bunting and balloons and ribbons and flowers, real and artificial. One town lined their Tour route with recently cut sun-flowers each in a pail of water. Another town wrapped every lamp post with yellow paper eight feet high with a green bow on top.

The route is also alive in those early hours with the army of Tour workers putting up barriers and straw bales protecting hazards. They also mount arches at the various sprint points and at the summits of the climbs, as well as signs announcing one and five kilometers to the sprint and the summit and the feed zone. They also erect gigantic inflated arches twenty-five and twenty and ten kilometers from the finish. Workers are also busy hanging sponsor banners that go on for 100 meters or more on barricades along the course.

Another early morning feature of the race is the dispensing of the gendarmes. It can be a minor bane getting caught behind the bus dropping them off at every road that intersects the route, no matter how inconsequential. There can be a line of cars caught behind it making it even more of a headache. The gendarmes often take up their posts by nine a.m., hours and hours before the racers will pass. It is a long day for them, standing out in the sun in the middle of nowhere for eight hours or more.

Although it would be nice to be up there on the Galibier today as the racers pass, it will be even nicer to be at the finish line here in Briançon in front of the giant screen watching their progress up the Telegraph and the Galibier and the moment by moment dramatics of attacks and riders being dropped. Sunday I had the pleasure of watching the final three hours of the day's stage over three category one climbs in a bar in Albertville, forty miles into the day's stage. I had just ridden those forty miles, which included climbs of categories two, three and four, arriving in Albertville with ample time to find the Internet before the caravan, then the racers passed through. But it being a Sunday, the town, even one as large as this, was virtually closed down. As soon as the peloton passed, I sped to a bar for the rest of the day's action.

The announcers could barely keep up with all the stories unfolding up and down the course--the Dane Rasmussen breaking away, assuming not only the polka dot jersey but the yellow, the Aussie Rogers crashing on a descent while in the lead group of five with Rasmussen and having to abandon several miles further in tears, the great French hope Moreau repeatedly attacking but getting no support, the Spaniard Mayo breaking away from the chase group, the Katzathan favorite Vinokurov failing to respond to the attacks as the announcers exclaimed "The favorite of The Tour is in trouble," Vinokurov's German teammate Kloden sacrificing his own chances trying to pace him back to the leaders or at least limit his losses while not having to expend energy on his own, the American Hincapie hanging in there with a chase group for a while and later two of his Discovery teammates looking like threats, the German yellow jersey wearer lagging behind. And all the while, as they were climbing close to their limits, we're all waiting to see who has what in them to keep up or to get away. It was bike racing of its highest form and there will be more today. I can hardly wait.

Later, George

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