Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tours, France

Friends: Of the twenty stages and Prologue of this year's Tour, I managed to make it to the finish line before the peloton for six of them. I witnessed the other fifteen finishes on television. Finding a television was often a saga of some sort, occasionally cutting it very very close. I was engaged in one of those races to the finish Sunday for The Tour's last stage. I had to ride seventy miles before I found an open bar, a genuine scarcity in France on Sundays.

I thought I might find one in Gençay after I'd biked a little over fifty miles, especially since it was large enough for there to be signs to a "Centre Ville." But that Centre was a ghost town, forcing me to push on to Poiters, a city of 120,000. Even it had me nervous, as it was dead and deserted for three miles from its outskirts until I reached its center. There were open bars, but the first three I came to did not have a television. The fourth had a pair of televisions, but they were tuned to something else, though no one seemed to be paying them any attention. I am always concerned I might encounter resistance when I ask a bartender to change the station to The Tour. I fear the bartender might be among those fed up with the doping, and is boycotting the race as some newspapers and TV stations and the Danes have done.

But not this one fortunately. It was 4:45 and the peloton was just reaching the Champs Elysees, over half an hour late, for the first of its eight laps, led out by Discovery elder Hincapie--a most pleasing site. I tried to scan the spectators looking for Roberto, but that was an impossible task with the racers flying by at thirty miles per hour. Roberto hadn't been able to come up with a ride the 250 miles to Paris from Angouleme for either of us, so he was going to try to get there by train.

As much as he loves to ride his bike, he likes even more close contact with the racers, as if some of their energy and power and mystique might fly off onto him as they speed past. As we were watching the time trial Saturday from the same hillside vantage I had watched the previous day's action, he excused himself after Leipheimer passed us fifty feet below, saying he wanted to be on the railing, close-up, when Evans and Contador came by, just inches away, as he knew he wouldn't be able to get so close to them the next day in Paris. I liked it just where I was, staring at the jumbo screen and seated right beside the exit route for the motorcycles and team cars leading and following each rider as they turned off the course ninety meters from the finish. The team cars often had guests in the backseat. Their faces were unfailingly wreathed with expressions of supreme delight, if not ecstasy, after having been in the wake of a rider for an hour who had been cheered non-stop for 34 miles by the thousands of fans lining the course.

My strongest memory of the day before was the Orange Euskatel team car when it passed by me leaving the course, its passenger side splattered with blood. Evidently one of its riders had taken a fall and was spurting blood while being tended to as he rode alongside it. Blood is not an uncommon site at The Tour. The Discovery water bottle I found along the road earlier in the week had blood on it. When I saw a close-up of the swollen, blood-clotted lip of Popovych as he left the starting ramp for the time trial, I knew whose bottle it had been.

Blood was in the face of those watching Friday's stage, as one of the four riders in the day-long breakaway, the French rider Sandy Casar, who won the stage, suffered an early crash when a dog ran out on the course. The pavement ripped a gaping hole in the right buttocks of his shorts, turning his flesh into red hamburger meat. Its a tough, demanding sport. The drugs make it no easier. They only allow the racers to push harder, making it harder on all of them.

Once the peloton entered the Champs, I had a final 55-kilometer, one-hour, dose of racing to watch in the Poiters bar, then an hour of post-race ceremonies--the various trophies awarded, interviews and the teams making a ceremonial circuit, some with their coaches accompanying them on bikes in their civilian clothes. The Contador, Evans, Leipheimer podium had to have been the least ecstatic, almost glum, podium in Tour de France history. They all looked uncomfortable and none-too-pleased.

Leipheimer, who finished a measly eight seconds behind Evans for the third spot, had just a hint of a forced smile, undoubtedly bemoaning those ten seconds he was penalized for hanging on to his team car while a mechanic pretended to be working on his bike. And besides those ten seconds, he had to be thinking of countless spots over the race's 2,000 plus miles where he could have gained another 21 seconds, which would have placed him atop the podium with all its glory and millions of dollars of endorsements. Third-place isn't much better than 25th.

The frog-faced Evans was utterly expressionless, staring blankly, unblinkingly, perhaps at a fly that he might suddenly leap at. Contador seemed embarrassed, barely summoning a smile, perhaps fearing that in a day or two the results of one of his drug tests would put an end to his fairy tale as happened to Landis last year. It wouldn't have been any happier of a podium if Rasmussen were still around. His results would have been tainted, not only by drug suspicions, but by the placement of the time trials later than usual in this year's race.

Ordinarily the first time trial comes before the mountains. If that had been the case this year, everyone would have been alerted that Rasmussen had transformed himself in this discipline and the peloton would not have let him escape on the second day in the Alps, as it has allowed the past two years, thinking he was just racking up King of the Mountain points without being a threat to the overall standings.

He wouldn't have gained those minutes that put him in the lead. And if he hadn't been in yellow, there wouldn't have been all the furor about his missed drug tests. He would have finished the race as King of the Mountains for the third straight year and Contador could have been an ecstatic 24-year old winner, the youngest since Ullrich ten years ago, and the racing world could celebrate this new great talent.

Roberto was very much soured on The Tour, pained that the rider's heroics were often fraudulent. When I met him Monday, before Rasmussen's dismissal and Vinokourov's positive drug test and the ouster of the Cofidis team when one of its riders tested positive, he thought following The Tour would be a life-long pursuit. Now he's not so sure. I told him I'd be back for at least one more year, as it was such a pleasure to bicycle in France. He said as much as he liked biking in France, he didn't like it that the road signs did not give distances to towns and also that the skimpy shoulders of the narrow roads were often gravely, unlike the roads of Germany.

The Tour is a French institution that the public fully embraces. It is an opportunity for a day-long gathering and road-side picnic when The Tour comes to their region. But if television interest plummets, the money-interests will withdraw and the magnitude of The Tour could be jeopardized. Money is at the root of the drug woes. There is so much to be gained, millions, by those who excel, that they are willing to take great risks and spend lots of money on means to artificially boost their performance.

That has been the history of The Tour from its very start. The first four finishers and eight others of the second Tour in 1904, including the previous year's winner, were all disqualified a month after the race for cheating by taking trains. The Tour was wildly popular even then and people feared it was dead. It will persevere, and I'm sure I'll be seeing Roberto next year. Now I get to enjoy the company of Florence and Rachid, as I've done the past three years here in Tours.

Later, George

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

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Cahors, France

Friends: If there hadn't been a newspaper laying around the bar/cafe where I was watching yesterday's final mountain stage, I would have been wondering where in the hell the Astana riders were in their distinctive turquoise uniforms. But I couldn't have missed the front page headlines of Vinokourov being the latest rider to be caught with banned substances in his veins. Like Landis last year, he was desperate for some results and evidently went overboard in his usual regime and tested positive after his startling two-minute win in Saturday's time trial after struggling the first two weeks of the race.

Its no great surprise that he has gone down, as it was his former director sportif Manolo Saiz last year who was deeply implicated in the Spanish Operation Puerto scandal. Saiz was caught on tape visiting the notorious Dr. Fuentes and also arrested with some 30,000 euros in a briefcase entering his office. Four of the nine riders on Vino's Spanish team last year were linked to Fuentes, resulting in the team being ejected from The Tour the day before it began, sending Vino to the sidelines even though he was one of the favorites to win The Race and a popular personality with his aggressive attacking style. Miraculously, Vino wasn't linked to Fuentes, when it was obvious that if the team director was dispensing illegal substances to his racers, he would have been dispensing them to everyone on the team.

Vino has long been a fan and French favorite. His name is written on the roads as much as anyone's, and he animates the racing, so The Tour organizers like having him in The Race. Now he must live in shame the rest of his life, though he is a bigger national hero in Kazakhstan than even Borat. There was no mention of Vinokourov and Astana during the two-and-a-half hours of the telecast I was watching with a mob of Germans in Lycra who were following The Tour with a tour group. The lone German hope, Kloden, was no longer in The Race, ejected along with the entire nine-man Astana team Vinokourov led. The Germans were all rooting for Rasmussen and cheered heartily when he soared away from the two Discovery riders Contador and Leipheimer in the last kilometer.

For the last six miles of the climb to the finish the race had boiled down to the top four riders in the general classification with Contador hoping to put a dent into his two minute deficit to Rasmussen, and Leipheimer hoping to edge past Evans to third place. Evans finally fell off the pace, but he labored most heroically, keeping his deficit to a minimum. He only lost seventeen seconds, plus the twelve second bonus Leipheimer received for finishing second in the stage, maintaining nearly a minute advantage on Leipheimer for that crucial final podium spot. Evans edged Leipheimer in Saturday's time trial, and, in fact, becomes its winner now that Vinokourov has been eliminated, so its not too likely that Leipheimer will be able to overtake him in a similar time trial this Saturday. The final standings most likely will be Rasmussen, Contador, Evans and Leipheimer. Evans will become the first Australian to podium.

I will be curious to see if Roberto, the German Tour fanatic, will still be wearing the Astana cap he was wearing when I met him three days ago. He was rooting for Kloden and also Vino. One of the many other strands of conversation I'll wish to pursue with Roberto when we meet up at Saturday's time trial in front of the big screen is the story behind the several bracelets he had on each of his wrists. He already told me about one, his yellow Livestrong bracelet. Noticing mine, he proudly pointed to his and said it had been on his wrist for three years, ever since Sheryl Crowe removed it from her wrist and presented it to him. It happened on the morning of the team time trial in 2004 that concluded in Amiens. Roberto had been camping in the town park when he noticed a slight woman out for an early morning jog. When she passed by him, he struck up a conversation. She was wearing a hood, so he didn't immediately recognize her, but when he did, she offered him her Livestrong band. He said he's had several brief encounters with Lance over the years with his access to the racers through his German television connection. He commented, "Lance has evolved from being a brash, arrogant, typical American to a decent guy."

Roberto is the second person I've met who met Crowe on the day of that team time trial. The other was a former professional racer from Ohio who was trying to follow The Tour by bike, pulling a Bob trailer. We rode most of the fifth stage together, the day after he had shared a pizza with Sheryl, her parents, and Lance's former coach, Jim Ochieweicz, who was a friend of this guy. He, too, did not immediately recognize Crowe, but was also impressed by how nice and down-to-earth she was.

My yellow wrist band has attracted comment as well. When I walked into one of the bars where I watched a stage, a waitress immediately zoomed in on it and ushered me over to a French patron who was wearing one. He heartily greeted me as if we were in the same brotherhood. I occasionally notice them on mechanics assisting racers during a stage. The French rider Moreau also wears one. The Lance era has faded in many respects, and his wristbands aren't anywhere as ubiquitous around The Tour as they were up until last year, but they are still a regular site.

Another indication that Lance is no longer at the forefront of people's thought is that not once this year has someone exclaimed as I rode past ahead of the racers "Lance" or "Armstrong" as I used to frequently hear. Now its mostly "Le Premier" or "Le Maillot Jaune." Some also draw a laugh from those around them when they respond to me with an exclamation of "Bobet" or "Pou-Pou" or "Jalabert," old favorite French riders, though never Anquetil or Hinault, who never really endeared themselves to the public as these others did, even though they were bigger winners.

Cahors is the start of tomorrow's stage. I'm 24 hours ahead of the peloton. It is 130miles to the stage finish in Angouleme, which will also be the stage finish for Saturday's time trial, starting 34 miles away in Chablis. After Saturday the peloton takes a TGV train to within one hundred miles of Paris for the finale. With luck I may be able to accompany Roberto there in the back of a German TV truck and see the peloton on the Champs for the first time.

Later, George

Monday, July 23, 2007

St. Girons, France

Friends: After Sunday's brilliant, no-holds-barred racing to the summit of the ski resort at Plateau de Beille, I have felt more honored and privileged than ever to be riding the same roads as these stunningly gifted and conditioned and driven athletes. It was amazing to witness the extra, extra, beyond human effort the elite of the peloton was summoning, trading punches as if there was no tomorrow, with one acceleration and attack and acceleration and attack after another, parried and countered, in an offensive display out-dazzling any Fourth of July or Bastille Day fireworks celebration, as the race leaders tested what each was made of and how much they could take. It was a knock-down, drag-out battle for miles, as the racers careened up an incline most people would struggle to walk up. The suspense was riveting--who would prevail, who would break, who could recover after lagging behind to catch their breath. New heroes were born while old heroes cracked.

Rasmussen proved he has the mettle of a champion, first by shocking all with his time trial performance the day before and then responding to the barrage of assaults against him the next day. And the Spanish Discovery rider Contador proved he is a future star. The Aussie Evans dropped from second to third overall, unable to stick with Rasmussen and Contador. Poor Vinokurov faded again, just as the headlines were proclaiming he was back after his remarkable time trial win. The Spanish hopes Valverde and Mayo fizzled even worse than they did in the time trial. Leipheimer stuck in there, but as has been his history, he was a non-aggressor. Still, he moved up to fourth overall, within striking distance of the podium. It was a great day for the Discovery team, with Popovich also being an instigator and moving into the top ten overall. This ought to bring the team a new sponsor, as Discovery is bowing out after this year after three years in the sport, still searching for a replacement.

There are two telling stages to go--another mountaintop finish on Wednesday and the final time trial Saturday. Today I watched the racers fly past just outside the town of Massat on the flats just after they had finished off the category-two Col de Port. The peloton was strung out, still sorting itself out with the field scattered and breakaways trying to form. It was all-out racing. My ears were singed by the heated words flung by riders not happy that someone ahead was not closing down a gap. I was shaking my head at the intensity level, something television can't fully capture, just as it can't come close to conveying the violence of football. You've got to be on the sidelines to appreciate it, as I did for four years as a football manager at Northwestern.

I was standing across the road from the bicycling hostel, Pyrenean Pursuits, I visited two years ago. I had a grand reunion with the English owners, who I've maintained contact with. They'd been telling their guests about me, the bicycle messenger/touring cyclist from Chicago, that very day. I spent an hour watching the race on the television in the hostel after the peloton had passed, chatting with Austin and Sally and a couple of their guests, before heading down the road, promising to return next year for a longer stay with friends who promise to join me bicycling the Pyrenees in June before The Tour. I watched the final ninety minutes of today's racing over two category-one climbs on a large screen in the parking lot of a Champion supermarket, as Contador tested Rasmussen again, while Vinokurov took the win well ahead of the peloton up the road, as the true contenders let him escape since he was no longer a factor in the race having lost a staggering 28 minutes the day before.

I was joined by a German cyclist such as I've been hoping to meet since I began following The Tour four years ago. And he had been looking for someone such as me. We've both been biking The Tour route these years without encountering anyone else doing a similar thing, but hoping to find another. He said he had noticed me a couple of times, including over today's first summit, but we've never ended up at the same place at the same time. He's traveling much lighter than I without a tent, just throwing a sleeping bag down on the ground where he ends up at night. He has befriended a German television station covering The Tour, which occasionally provides him transport between stages and carries some of his extraneous gear. When German television abandoned The Tour several days ago, upset that another German rider failed a drug test, the German truck with his panniers headed home, so he has had to improvise, just lashing a bag on top of his rear rack.

He's following a different route than I will for the next couple of days, but we will meet up at Saturday's time trial. He said it may be possible for the two of us to hitch a ride with the remnants of the German crew covering the race the 250 miles from there to Paris for The Tour's final ceremonial stage concluding on the Champs Elysees. We talked non-stop for a couple of hours until well after today's stage finished, exchanging tricks and stories, and we barely got started. His name is Roberto. His email address,"girobertour", combines his name with The Tour and the Giro (the Italian version of The Tour), adding a "gi" to the front of roberto and "ur" to the back, as if he were born to be following the two of them, something he has been doing for five years.

Another highlight of the day was adding three team water bottles to my collection, including a Discovery bottle and a Quick Step bottle from Tom Boonen's team. Roberto pointed out that the Quick Step bottle had to have come from Boonen, as it had the world champion stripes on it, distinctive to him. He said he had noticed that Boonen was the only rider on the Quick Step team with such a bottle just a couple of days ago when he came upon the Quick Step team bus before the race and the riders were preparing to head to the start line. He had many, many such insider tips. He was a production assistant on the German documentary from 2003 on The Tour--"Hell on Wheels". We both agreed we had found our alter-ego.

Later, George

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Albi, France

Friends: I rejoined The Tour route last night about fifteen miles east of Albi, and I instantly knew it, what with campers parked bumper-to-bumper on both sides of the road, many flying national or team flags and their portable picnic tables already set-up roadside. I knew I was closing in on it, as the campers with The Tour course markers in their windows began passing me an hour earlier, back on the road after the conclusion of the day's stage, all hurrying to find a good place to park for the next stage. The Belgians were happy, as Boonen had won his second stage of The Tour, padding his hold on the Green Jersey. I was ready to camp at any moment, as it had been a most grueling day of multiple two to five mile seven per cent climbs on the southern fringe of the Cevennes, Craig country. I would have long ago been a puddle along the road if it hadn't been a miraculously cool, overcast day, the first sunless day since leaving England.

After a series of sweltering days of ninety degree riding, sixty degree temps were a most unexpected gift. It had been an exhausting three-day dash from Briançon to Albi, but with a 34-mile time trial (contre-le-montre) on tap, a loop starting and finishing in Albi, I had a day of relative rest ahead, at least until the evening when I'd head south 37 miles to the next day's start, beginning a three-day foray into the Pyrenees. I continued on to within ten miles of Albi before pausing to camp. I could have slipped in between any of the campers and set up my tent in the fields behind them, but I preferred some peace and privacy for a good night's sleep, so went down a side road a quarter of a mile until I came upon a field with huge rolls of hay, large enough to hide my tent, that always call out to me when I see them. I wasn't settled in even five minutes when a car swung off the road to join me. It drove up right alongside my tent. The driver had a question for me. He pointed at the roll of hay my bike was leaning against and asked if I smoked. I was posed the same question once in a sugar cane field in Brazil by someone likewise concerned that I might be a fire hazard. My negative reply both times earned me my camping privileges.

I quickly finished off the ravioli and couscous I had started at the summit of my last prolonged climb, five-and-a-half strenuous miles out of St. Sermin-sur-Rance, where I watched Boonen nip the ageless German Zabel at the line. I was more tired than hungry when I collapsed into my tent, but I forced myself to eat, then turned in before dark for the first time in days. I was in for a solid night's sleep. I was hoping Leipheimer would sleep as well on the eve of potentially the biggest day of his career. He, along with five or six of the remaining 167 riders in the race, would be going to bed with a realistic chance of taking the yellow jersey the next day. He would join LeMond, Lance, Landis, Hincapie and Zabriskie as the sixth American to achieve it. The stakes were huge. If he delivers the ride of his life his face will be plastered on the front page of "The New York Times" and "USA Today" and papers all over the world, and he knows it. It had me nervous and anxious myself.

I would have loved to have slept late and lingered in my tent, but with the caravan setting out at 8:50 and the first racer a little after ten, I knew the gendarmes would be eager to close down the course early this morning, so I was back on the bike at 7:45, cringing whenever I saw a gendarme ahead, fearing he would step out into the road with arms crossed or his arm out-stretched with a finger pointing at the side of the road wearing a stern expression on his face. I made it to within two-and-a-half miles of the finish before I was stopped. I agreed to continue walking along with the pedestrians filing in. After I'd gone a couple of blocks and was out of his vision I remounted and made it all the way to the 250 meters to go sign, passing dozens of tolerant, unfazed gendarmes.

The arbitrariness of the gendarmes can be infuriating. The most absurd abuse of a gendarme's authority this year, other than in England, occurred on stage four, miles from any town, 90 minutes before the caravan was due and three hours before the racers. It was as if the cop was lonely and wanted some company. I wasted no time protesting, quickly dismounting and agreeing to continue on foot, wagging my fore and middle finger at him, imitating a pedestrian, as gendarmes have done to me. I warned him that he should be ready for a group of twenty cyclists at any moment. I was hoping they'd arrive while I was still in his range, as I was eager to see if he could corral them.

They were part of an Australian-led group (Cycle Style) I had ridden with for a few miles until they stopped for a group piss. I was in no need at the time, so chose to continue gliding along at a more leisurely pace until they caught back up to me and I could rejoin their pace line. When they first passed me I was all set to speed up a bit and fall in behind the first two that passed me with bonjours until two more passed and two more and two more, some greeting me with a g'day, until ten pairs had gone by. With my speed upped from 14 mph to 18 just like that thanks to such a nice big drafting machine, I thought I was fully assured of making it 61 miles down the road to the peloton's feed zone, as was their destination.

I hadn't gone more than ten steps when they came roaring past the overwhelmed gendarme. I leapt aboard my bike and caught back up to them. All was fine until we came to a significant hill. Then the group splintered like a broken vase. I was among those off the back, settling into a pace with a 50-year old lawyer from Bermuda who wasn't much of a climber, what with the highest point on his 21-mile long island just 300 feet high. With a population of 36,000 it has yet to produce a Tour de France rider and has had only one Olympic medal winner, a bronze in boxing in 1968. After a few minutes we were all by ourselves. A few miles later we were stopped by a cop, three miles from our destination. I quickly told him we were part of the larger group that had passed and only had five kilometers to go. He kindly relented, telling us just to hurry.
After we resumed I remembered that I was accompanied by a lawyer and I should have let him handle the arbitration. He said that was okay. A couple years ago he'd had an altercation with French police in Paris that ended up with him being detained. He hadn't followed the protocol for the Paris subway and didn't have his passport with him and was hauled off to the police station.

As we approached the feed zone, a tour leader awaited my companion along the road, directing him to the group's gathering spot. I had made such good time and expended less energy than I expected, I didn't really need to stop to eat or rest, so risked pushing on. I was stopped a couple more times by gendarmes in populated areas, but once I got out into the long rural stretches with few side roads and gendarmes I was able to push on an extra 17 miles before gendarmes on motorcycles warned me the caravan was imminent, less than five minutes way. It was a record extra 34 miles for me after the first time I was ordered to stop riding. That will be a hard one to beat.

Later, George

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 6, 2007

London

Friends: Tom Boonen, Tour de France veteran and leader of the Belgian Quick Step team, looked out over Trafalgar Square and told the gathered that he had never seen such a large crowd at a Tour de France presentation. Me neither. The crowd spilled down the surrounding half dozen streets that radiate out of the plaza and beyond.

Since early in the day Friday, all streets within half a mile of the Square had been closed off to motorized traffic, once again proving the magnitude and the power of the Tour. It dwarfs all else and draws like nothing else. More than a million people are expected to line the five-mile prologue course tomorrow, rivaling the numbers for the L'Alpe d'Huez time trial a couple years ago. It starts just down the street from Trafalgar on Whitehall, goes past Ten Downing Street, then over and around Hyde Park, before heading back to near its starting point with Buckingham Palace in the background.

Sunday's first stage will be equally dramatic, passing Big Ben and the Parliament Building and The Eye before crossing the Tower Bridge on its way to Greenwich and its Meridian Line, then heading out of town to Cantebury 125 miles away. I'm headquartered just a few blocks from the Tower Bridge, staying with a film friend from Chicago who lives along the Thames across the street from Helen Mirren. It is a sensational location, just three miles from Trafalgar. Tom couldn't be a better host. He scoured "Time Out London" before I arrived looking for all the bike-related events going on this weekend. There are loads--three galleries showing Tour photos, a bike ballet, a bike play and a bicycle fair grounds along with all the racing.

Its been exciting to meet all the racing enthusiasts at the various events and out riding the course. They've all been exceptionally well-informed and fanatical, but none more so than Graham Watson, bicycle racing's premier photographer since the LeMond era. One of the galleries hosted an exhibition of over 100 of his photos. He was just hanging out in his shorts, happy to talk. As much as his photography, I enjoy his monthly column in a British cycling magazine. He writes with a frankness that ordinary writers can't. We'll be looking for each other along the course the next three weeks.

Later, George

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Stevanage, England

Friends: When the Coventry Transport Museum opened in1980, it was called the National Motor Museum and was devoted to Coventry's role in spearheading Britain's car and motorcycle industries. That was an outrage to cyclists, as the site of the museum was the former bicycle factory of James Starley, considered the father of the bicycle industry, which spawned Coventry's motorcycle and auto industries. Advocates of the bicycle gained a toehold in the sprawling museum that is dominated by hundreds of vintage cars and motorcycles, altering some of the museum's focus to the bicycle and its importance and also were responsible for the renaming of the museum.

Coventry has long acknowledged Starley. It erected a statue in his honor in 1884, three years after his death. Starley was the owner of a sewing machine company when someone brought a bicycle to his attention in 1869, a year after Michaux father and son in France were the first to attach pedals to a two-wheeled contraption that was the predecessor of the bicycle. Starley made further innovations, which evolved into the Penny Farthing. He started up a bicycle factory and others followed. Before long Coventry was the "Cycle Capital of the World." By 1891 it was Coventry's largest industry with 77 bicycle factories in operation.

Over the years there have been 271 manufacturers of bicycles in Coventry. A Role of Honor in the museum lists them all and their years of operation and where they were located. The Role of Honor also has a list of the 111 motorcycle makers and 136 car manufacturers of Coventry, which included Triumph and Daimler. In 1898 the first car in England was manufactured in Coventry, dooming the bicycle industry. By 1950 there were only four bicycle companies remaining in Coventry and today there are none.

Besides Starley, the museum gives tribute to others from Coventry who were instrumental in the evolution of the bicycle. Henry Sturmey (1857-1930), a master mechanic and inventor, was in on those early years, and is a name that lives on today with hubs and a company still bearing his name. Starley's nephew J.K. is credited with inventing the safety bicycle in 1885, adapting the lofty, treacherous Penny Farthing to the diamond-shaped frame, which remains the standard, with equal-sized wheels and independent front-wheeled steering and incorporating the chain drive to the rear wheel.

I thought I would be able to just duck into the museum and give its few bikes a look, but I ended up spending a couple hours there, as there was much, more more biking material than I anticipated. Bikes are sprinkled throughout the museum amongst the hoards of automobiles before one comes to a hall opened just two years ago devoted to the bike called Cyclopedia. It was a surprise, sudden, paradisaical oasis, too good to be true after having been immersed in a seeming endless nightmare of car after car, enough to make any autophobe nauseous.

Fortunately, the periodic bikes sprinkled throughout the museum provided a slight antidote all the way. Without their calming effect paramedics would have to be on standby to appease those stricken by the horror and terror of all those deadly beasts. Those monstrous, deadly hunks of metal seemed even more sinister and soulless than normal with the contrast of the recent addition of bicycles. The dichotomy of car and bike was a constant reminder of the outrageous absurdity of using such a huge hunk of metal to transport one's self, when right there beside them was a perfectly viable, most appealing alternative. The bike never looked so friendly and frisky. How could one resist them or possibly return to an automobile after this experience. It seemed inconceivable that anyone in their right mind would choose to venture inside one of those coffins on wheels when he could cheerfully perch himself atop a bicycle.

The bicycle advocates have made an array of remarkable statements, some subtle and some not so subtle, with their modifications to the museum. There are two short pro-bike films done in silent era style that shockingly the automobile interests haven't suppressed. "Rowley's Ride" recounts the first bicycle to come to Coventry and Starley's epiphany upon seeing it. "Hurry Up Harry" tells the story of the first car to come to Coventry and the horror it wrecks, terrorizing and knocking down pedestrians and bicyclists. People shout "Infernal Machine" at it. A police officer on a bicycle chases after the evil, sinister driver and arrests him. The movie concludes with him behind bars and inter-title, "Harry ends up in jail where he belongs."

Cyclopedia included commentary promoting and encouraging a return to the bicycle, whose use plummeted in the mid-1950s in Britain with the proliferation of the automobile. One sign chided,"The benefits of cycling were forgotten as the comfort and convenience of the car took over." Token, tho pathetically feeble, hope was offered by a statistic saying from 1987 to 1996, the last time such a survey was conducted, the number of adults who said they had ridden a bike in the previous month had increased from 8% to 11%. If people will wake up, maybe the car won't drive them to extinction. It also pointed out that people once treated the bicycle as a genuine means of transportation. Now most people just bicycle for pleasure.

And the bicycle interests are far from done with plans of expanding this bicycle exhibit. It already includes a variety of videos, one of a dinner conversation around 1900 discussing women riding bicycles and the attire they should wear. There was also a series of videos of notable English cyclists discussing biking. Tour de France commentator Phil Liggett was among them, recalling his favorite Tour de France--1989 when LeMond won by 8 seconds. There are also plans to move the James Starley statue, presently residing on the fringe of a small park just outside the city center, to the front of the museum. Right now there is a lone statue at the apex of the large plaza facing the museum of the man who invented the turbo jet engine.

I had been drawn to Coventry by the Starley statue, not knowing anything about the Transport Museum and its bicycle riches. And I had a further bonus--a statue of even greater renown than Starley's, that of Lady Godiva, naked, sitting atop a horse. It was under a canopy in the heart of the city outside the entrance to a mall. It was sometime after1043, the year she and her husband founded a Benedictine Abbey in Coventry, that she rode naked through the streets of the city to protest taxes. She warned the townspeople of her intentions so no one would take a peek, or so goes the story. One man dared though, and was struck blind. His name was Tom, and thus was born the term Peeping Tom.

Later, George

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Bedford, England

Friends: The caretaker of the cemetery outside the small ex-coal mining town of Harworth was pruning its hedge when I dropped in upon it the other morning. As I sauntered over to him, still wearing my helmet, he could have pointed and said, "It's one of those two black ones over there," but he waited for me to ask,"Is Tom Simpson buried here?"

Harworth was his home town. I had come to visit his museum, but I didn't know if he was buried here too. Happening upon the cemetery on the way in to town, I decided to give it a look and fill my water bottles. Even if there had been no one at the cemetery, I would have had no problem finding Simpson's grave. I twas one of the more prominent ones, marked by a slab of glistening black marble with an etching of him on his bike in downhill flight. It was 40 years ago he collapsed and died at the age of 30, a kilometer from the summit of Mont Ventoux, during the 13th stage of the Tour de France on July 13 wearing the number 49, whose digits add to 13, as the exhibit honoring him in town noted.

The epithet on his grave read, "His body ached, his legs grew tired, but still he wouldn't give in." Such could be said of every champion cyclist or any who have risen to the ranks of the pro peloton. The sport demands one to push one's self to their limit an beyond and not to give in. Man y resort to any means to reach those ends, risking the ultimate, their very life, as did Simpson, who died with pills and vials in his jersey pockets and their contents in his veins. It takes extreme effort to excel at this sport, or even to keep up. The body must be conditioned and convinced to withstand the suffering. At a certain point many cyclists say they can't take any more of it and rather than quitting the sport turn to the needle.

The latest in the recent rash of racers to confess to drug use, the ten-year veteran Jorg Jaksche of Germany rationalized, "Cycling per se is not fun. It always hurts. The sport is a lot about pain, physical pain." But enduring the pain can lead to great, almost religious, ecstasy, as seen on the faces of those triumphantly crossing the finish line first. No other athletes burst into such sudden exhibitions of exhilaration.

Simpson remains the greatest English cyclist ever, the first to wear the yellow jersey in The Tour and the only one to win the road World Championship and such classics as the Tour of Flanders (Belgium's most important race), Paris-Nice (an early-season, week-long stage race in which he beat Merckx), and the two great Italian races Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy. Any of those victories would be the highlight of most cyclist's careers. Twice he ended the season as the second ranked cyclist for the year.

Besides directing me to Simpson's grave, the caretaker revealed, "I knew Tom. We went to school together and were members of the local cycling club." They joined as 13-year olds. Even though the club had over 100 members of all ages and both sexes, the town wasn't big enough to have a bicycle shop then, nor now. The nearest one was ten miles away. The club still exists, but only has a handful of members. "Its hard to get kids to want to ride a bike on these roads with all the traffic these days," he said. "I don't even ride any more."

He gave me directions to the Simpson museum. It was actually just an exhibit at the local Sport and Social Club, a pub of a sort, at the town's athletic grounds. "Take a left at the second round-about and then go through town and past the pit and you'll see it on your right," he explained. The pit was the old coal mine, right in the center of the town, with all the town's shops on a two block strip right across the mine. There wasn't much vitality left in the town, tho it did have a library and other social services. The liquor store doubled as a music store--Rhythm and Booze.

There was a guy outside the Sport and Social Club sweeping its deck and a woman inside cleaning up from the night before. Upon entering one is greeted by a wall-sized glass-encased display of Simpson memorabilia--photos, newspaper articles, jerseys, trophies and the bike he was riding when he expired. It was a Peugeot PX-10, the very bike, other than the sew-ups and the pine cone cluster, I biked coast-to-coast across the US on and up the Alaskan Highway. Otherwise it was the same white, black-trimmed Reynolds 531 frame with the identical TA cranks and Simplex derailleurs and handlebars and leather seat. The display case included the leather hairnet "crash hat" he wore when he competed on the track in the six-day races. On another wall was a photo from 1951 of the town's cycling club with a 14 year-old Simpson and the caretaker of the cemetery.

Although his training grounds in this region were fairly flat, his first prominent victory was the English Junior National Hill Climbing Championship in 1955. The plaque he was awarded was also on the wall. I camped in what's left of Nothingham Forest the night before, not far from Robin Hood Airport.

Later, George

Monday, July 2, 2007

Doncaster, England

Friends: I'd been engrossed in the National Museum of Film, Television, Radio and Photography for about 45 minutes when a security guard approached me and asked,"Is your bike the one with the load on it? I moved it from against the building over to the railing. With the events of the past two days we have to be careful about such things. I just didn't want you to think it had been nicked."

With its great popularity and peripheral theme of extolling Western culture, the 20-year old, seven-story museum in Bradford in the heart of the country could make an inviting, tho not likely, terrorist target. The country is on high alert after the events at Glasgow's airport. Of much bigger concern is the Tour de France, which ranks right up there with the Olympics and the World Cup and the Oscars as far as international attention goes. Saturday's prologue will be in the heart of London and Sunday's first stage will leave London and head towards Dover and the Chunnel. Security ought to be overwhelming for those two days.

The guard interrupted me just as I had finished watching a most moving and powerful 15-minute compilation of "Iconic Moments" that had been televised over the past 50 plus years. Among them were the collapse of the World Trade Towers, the explosion of the Challenger, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Queen Elizabeth's 1953 coronation, the moon landing, Princess Diana's wedding and funeral, England's 1966 World Cup victory. They were just one of many offerings on the floor "TV Heaven." The floor's most popular attraction was an archive of over 1000 of television's most significant programs ranging from Monty Python to Michael Moore and many of the BBC's acclaimed documentaries that one could request to view in one's own private screening area. Or one could just wander about watching random clips being shown on a multitude of screens. There was the woman answering the question, "Which king was married to Eleanor," that made her the first million pound winner in 1999 on the English version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." There was the first English commercial and much, much more.

The exhibits devoted to film were far less comprehensive luckily or else I would have wanted to spend a week or two at the place. But there were some very worthwhile things on offer. There was a special exhibit devoted to Indian cinema. It was largely posters from its earliest days to the present, but there was also an 18-minute program of clips from 16 seminal films starting with Awaara from 1951 up to Being Cyrus and Page 3 from 2005 with Lagaan and Mother India and of course an offering from Satyajit Ray in between. There were a handful of the opulent song and dance numbers that have been the hallmark of Indian cinema since its first talkie, Almara in 1931 with seven such numbers. A handful of small children watching couldn't help but dance along with them.

In the adjoining movie theater was a special exhibit to Roy Alon from neighboring Yorkshire. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he is the world's most prolific stuntman. He had more than 1,000 credits. There were photos of some of his stunts from the Indiana Jones films and Superman and Pink Panther and James Bond. The museum has an IMAX Theater and an exhibit devoted to it, including a window into the projectionist's booth. IMAX was invented by a group of Canadian film-makers and debuted at the 1970 World Expo in Osaka. The seven kilowatt lamp in the projector emits a beam of light so powerful Neal Armstrong could have seen it from the moon.

Another film exhibit was devoted to David Puttman, British producer whose first great success was "Chariots of Fire" in 1981 winning the Oscar for best picture and two other Oscars. There was a photo of my drying beach at St. Andrews with a flock of runners accompanying the exhibit. Puttman went on to produce The Killing Fields, The Mission and Midnight Express. He was knighted in 1995.

Along with terrorism, the big story in England is the weather. Its been raining incessantly. I'm in a region now with excessive flooding, making the camping a little more challenging. There was a 43 car pile-up on a highway a day ago. Some of the superhighways that are are recessed have filled with water making them more desirable for vehicles with hulls than with wheels. But the terrain has flattened and I'm fast closing in on London.

Later, George