Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Paris (Ville Arriveé)

Friends: The image of men on bikes racing full-tilt, or near full-tilt, with their wide range of grimly contorted faces has been so firmly implanted in my consciousness from hours of close-up viewing on multiplex-sized screens at race stage finish lines these past three weeks that I have frequently found myself emulating those road warriors, pounding the pedals with more vigor than I ordinarily would with an extra bit of intensity etched into my face. My thought strays and when I am jarred back to the present, I suddenly realize my head is bent low and my eyes are pushed up under my eyebrows looking not much further ahead than the wheel that could be just in front of me and I'm pedaling like a man possessed.

I am in such a state of mind that when I reach for my water bottle, I don't casually pluck it from its cage, but grab it with a jerk, almost with fury, in the palm of my hand and give it a hard squeeze, barely tilting my head, just as do those prisoners of the peloton, doing their penance. I realize I have been transported from the tranquil world of the touring cyclist to the racer's realm of hardened determination chasing down a break or setting the pace for my team leader trying to drop the weak or riding off the front trying to stay away. It feels good to be riding hard with such zeal and purpose, all cylinders at near max. I don't want to let up, only wondering how long I can sustain such an effort or if I could possibly raise the tempo, though only mildly trespassing on the thresholds of pain the racers wallow in. I am surprised by this extra energy and want to enjoy it while it lasts. It's as if I've attained a higher level of consciousness, shedding some of those earthly bounds.

So it was again as I biked The Tour's final rural miles before reaching the Parisian metropolis of 12 million inhabitants, 20% of the country's population. Less than 25 miles from the Eiffel Tower The Tour route passed through forests being logged and fields with giant rolls of recently harvested hay, some still aligned to form bikes, and others stacked as viewing stands.

Earlier in The Tour one town along the way, in dairy country, had arranged their hay to form cows. Each had a sign with a pun on the word "lait" (milk). The only one I could appreciate was "pelaiton". I'm surprised I hadn't come across that spelling before, especially in US publications. With the high rate of cycling illiteracy in the US, peloton is frequently misspelled, often as "peleton". Lance's mother's autobiography spelled it that way. Even Bob Roll, former Lance teammate and commentator and author of a couple of books, spelled it "peleton" in an introduction he wrote for another's book, though that could be blamed on an editor. Since peloton is the French word for platoon, it ought to be easy to remember that is is spelled with two o's. If the word peloton had anything to do with soccer, the sport's association with Pele could easily cause people to misspell it with a pair of e's.

I did find a leftover caravan newspaper I was hoping for along the roadside, five of them in fact, here and there, each a little damp, but salvageable. The final of the 21 cartoons featured in each edition portrayed two riders flying through a narrow lane of sheep filling the page. I thought the editors might have been saving the best cartoon for the final issue, but it might have come the day before in the time trial issue. It showed a cyclist who had evidently just hit a severe pothole. He was kneeling beside a tree holding aloft his severely bent front wheel to catch the attention of a woman approaching on a bicycle. The wheel had been pretzeled into the shape of a heart. The cartoon would make for the ultimate cyclist's Valentine's Day card.

That final issue also included an interview with the prince of Monaco. He was attending The Tour, as Monaco will have the much sought after honor of hosting the start of next year's race. The last time The Tour visited Monaco was in 1964 on a stage won by Anquetil. It will be interesting to see what route the race will take from there. The Alps are just to the north and Italy to the east. Ordinarily the mountains aren't served up until the second week of The Tour. If The Tour follows tradition, alternating its direction around France, clockwise one year, counter-clockwise the next, it will head west towards the Pyrenees. But tradition also has it that the Alps and Pyrenees take turns in their order, so it is the Alps turn to come first. It could be a very creative route, perhaps a figure eight angling into the Massif Central from Monaco then looping over to the Alps. Usually The Race starts up north in the flat. A southern start is a rarity. We'll find out in October when the grand ceremony in Paris is held revealing the route and all the Ville Etapes.

I had to look hard to notice any litter along The Tour route to Paris less than 48 hours after it had been teeming with tens of thousands of fans. If I looked hard I recognized some Tour-related litter, an occasional Vittel plastic water bottle, Hariboo candy wrapper, but nothing worth salvaging other than those stray newspapers. The only real clues that The Tour had been through were occasional barriers at side roads that had yet to be picked up by road crews even though they had been moved aside. The sidewalks along the Champs Elysees, though, were still nearly fully barricaded and the stands remained too.

I arrived in Paris with hours to spare before the night's Open Air movie at the park by the Museé de la Musique on the outskirts of the city off Avenue Jean Jaures on the way to the airport and my wild campsite. It wasn't dark enough until 10:30 to start the program. The movie was "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" from 2005 starring Johnny Deep. Of the 35 films on the eclectic summer schedule it was the most mainstream and one of only three movies from the last ten years. It wasn't exactly a classic, as most on the schedule, but I didn't mind at all watching Tim Burton's fantasy extravaganza featuring song and dance numbers by Munchkin-type characters wearing suits. The French subtitles increased my vocabulary by a word or two.

The best French lesson I received on this trip, though, was in Brest during the rehearsal for the nationally televised rock concert the evening before The Tour started. It was outdoors and free. I and several thousand others arrived early enough to watch the rehearsal. Each of the dozen or so performers came on stage to sing a song and test the sound system. Several of the singers had the lyrics to their songs flash on a big screen as they sang, though not during the actual performance. It was a treat not only to be able to distinguish the sounds coming from their mouths but also how to pronounce the words on the screen. It was more exciting than the actual concert and not something I anticipated.

This was the 18th year of these outdoor movies in Paris, but a sign of the times was that for the first time admission was being charged--two euros. The lawn was still as packed as a year ago when I saw Steinbeck's "East of Eden" before my return to Chicago. The only difference was that there were less than 100 bikes in the valet parking area, compared to a couple hundred last year. Could be more people are locking their bikes to avoid the long wait to get their bike back as the bike appeared to be as popular as a year ago when the much acclaimed rental bike program was inaugurated. There were considerably more available for rent this year, many of the new outlets taking up former car parking. Ben and Jerry's is the chief sponsor of the outdoor movies. On three Friday nights of triple features they are giving away ice cream. One of the triple features is the Godfather series. Since each is nearly three hours long, the program will barely finish before dawn's light. A trio of Eastwood pictures is another and three by Almodovar is the third of the Friday triple feature.

The cornfield twelve miles from the outdoor theater I camped in last year was planted in hay this year, not high enough to hide my tent, so I had to push on a couple miles further to the forest by the airport. I didn't mind, other than it meant no sleeping in with jets roaring past me on the runway not more than 100 feet away starting at six a.m.

I've biked nearly 6,000 miles these past three months and, astoundingly, did not have a single flat tire, the luckiest I've ever been. Those German Continental Conti Touring tires are phenomenal. I'm lucky Rapid Transit Bike Shop just a few blocks from my residence keeps them in stock, and I was equally lucky to find a set in Brest four weeks ago when I needed to replace them.

One more night in the tent and then home tomorrow.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Etampes (Ville Depart)

Friends: Time trials offer a feast for the bicycle racing epicurean. One can sit in a single spot and for six hours watch racers fly past every couple of minutes. Invariably I connect with a fellow fan of the highest order at the time trials, especially those at the end of The Tour when the race is still at stake, as it has been the past three years in the post-Lance era.

Each of the previous four Tours I've attended I've had the good fortune of finding myself beside such a devotee at the final time trial, someone I can lose myself with talking bike racing and reliving the previous three weeks of The Tour. One year it was a bicycle race promoter from northern California who'd witnessed all seven of Lance's wins, following at least a week of each Tour with a rental car and bike. I've also shared the experience with an Englishman who hadn't missed a Tour in 25 years, a retired Dutch gent who assiduously scribbled the time splits at each of the checkpoints whenever one was flashed on the screen and a young German cyclist who knew all the essentials of every German in the race.

I feared my string of knowledgeable, English-speaking time trial companions had come to an end this year when I was sandwiched in a sliver of shade up against some bushes between an elderly French couple and a couple of guys speaking a language that sounded Eastern European. After about an hour one of the guys turned to me and asked in fluent English to borrow the sports section I had been annotating. He wasn't sure if I was an English-speaker either. "So you speak English," he happily noted. "That's good. We can communicate."

Its always a puzzle here in Europe what nationality someone might be. I was surprised to learn they were South Africans and had been speaking Afrikaans. They were the first South Africans I had ever met at The Tour. They were drawn to The Tour not so much to cheer the two South African participants, but mostly to bike L'Alpe d'Huez and to experience The Race first hand after watching it on television for years. "Ever since I saw LeMond and Hinault ride up L'Alp d'Huez in 1986 ahead of everyone else cheered on by thousands of people along the road, I've wanted to bike it," one said. He and his friend spent three days camped at the ski resort on L'Alpe d'Huez where the stage concludes. It was everything they imagined and more.

South Africa has no mountains to compare to the Alps. Those around L'Alpe d'Huez are as spectacular as mountains can be. They were overwhelmed on race day after their second night on the mountain to awake to a vast complex of a race village that hadn't been there when they went to sleep. At each race finish a vast network of buildings are erected to accommodate the 3,000 members of the print and electronic media covering the race and for the couple thousand more race officials and sponsors and dignitaries.

The South Africans and I had arrived early enough to the time trial to claim an optimum vantage point at the 100 meter sign to the finish line. We weren't quite ring side, as we chose to sit in the shade up against a fence ten feet back from the roadside barrier along the race course. But most importantly, we had a direct view of the giant screen showing all the action out on the course. We figured we were in for a historic day, possibly a closer finish than LeMond's eight second win over Fignon in 1989. The South Africans were pulling for Sastre to hold on to his advantage over Evans as I was. None of us cared for Evans' defensive, unaggressive racing and stunted personality. The South Africans had further reason to root against him, as they have a natural rivalry with Australia. South Africa and Australia were presently engaged in an annual rugby match that they had been following closely.

So we were all pleased when Sastre rode strong and Evans failed to deliver the extraordinary effort that Sastre had produced on L'Alpe d'Huez when he won by over two minutes. That ride makes him a worthy champion. Its the third year in a row that a Spaniard has won the race, all due to extenuating circumstances that will not place their wins among the more valiant that The Race has known. The Race would have been quite different if the Astana team had been here with last year's first and third place riders Contador and Leipheimer. It would have been different too if the Colombian Soler, who won the mountain competition last year, hadn't been injured early in the race and had to quit. He would have animated the mountain stages, possibly wearing out Evans even more than he was. It was satisfying to see how well the American Vande Velde rode, finishing third in the time trial and fifth overall. If he hadn't had one bad day, a "jours sans" (day without), as the French call it, he would have finished second. That would have truly been extraordinary. Vande Velde's success had to have Leipheimer crying buckets not to be here since he knows he is a much superior rider.

But it has still been a fabulous three weeks of biking and riding around France. This is certainly the place to be in July. I'm already looking forward to next year. I've had by far my best Tour ever, seeing and riding 19 of the first 20 stages, only missing the second of the Italian stages. I am presently 30 miles south of Paris, preparing to ride the peloton's final 21st stage into Paris. Their route took them west first, not hitting the Champs Elysees until they'd ridden 50 miles. Then they rode eight four-mile laps. I found an open bar Sunday just as the peloton arrived on the Champs, a most climatic moment, especially since the winning team gets to ride at the front on that first lap. I failed to find an open bar or restaurant with a television in the first two towns I tried. But then found an unexpected restaurant/bar along the road in a town much smaller than the first two at precisely the moment in the race I would have liked to have started watching. I thought I'd have to wait until I went another ten miles to a town on the Loire that had a chateau that was a tourist attraction.

It is always a thrill to see that seemingly tiny pack of riders emerge on the world's grandest boulevard with the Arc de Triomphe in the background knowing all the miles and terrain and suffering they and I have endured the past three weeks. They share a bond with the millions of people who have glimpsed them along the way uniting the country in a way that no other event in the world does. Each of the 150 of the survivors of the original 180 is thrilled to have completed The Race and is glorying in those final miles. Each rider has something he can't wait to do. Andy Schleck, winner of the best young rider competition, said the first thing he was gong to do upon reaching Paris was to go to a McDonald's, or McDo, as the French call it. I am looking forward to attending the free nightly Open Air movie, whatever it might be and no matter what language it might be in. It will be the first movie I'll have seen since I saw 70 in 12 days at Cannes two-and-a-half months ago. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Now I am hoping to find a stray Caravan newspaper or two along the route into Paris, as each issue has had a full-page cartoon from a collection of a long-time cartoonist celebrating The Tour. They have all been superb and insightful. There is a shocking minimum of litter along the route despite the tens of thousands who have been encamped there for hours. But if nothing else, I might find one atop a trash can or in a plastic trash bag erected along the course. Since I have had nothing but good fortune all these weeks on the bike, as demonstrated once again yesterday, I am sure a caravan newspaper awaits me.

Later, George

Saturday, July 26, 2008

St. Amand-Montrond (Ville Arriveé)

Friends: I was anticipating a huge let-down after a high-voltage day on L'Alpe d'Huez, but as I stood at the 100 meter to go marker in St. Etienne the day after, gazing up at the giant screen with the throngs of thrilled fans all about me, the electricity of this sporting/cultural event had my skin tingling once again.

And the feeling was the same all along the road that day, as this was the much-anticipated day for all those in the vicinity of The Tour passing by, even though it was an inconsequential transitional stage. This was the highlight of the year, and possibly the decade, for many of those in these communities and there was no denying their glee and delight. Some locals had claimed their spot along the road as early as seven a.m. and were having a picnic breakfast, to be followed by their picnic lunch. Even after being submerged in The Tour for the past three weeks, as I border on physical exhaustion, I feel as thrilled as all those who only get a single dose of this monumental event.

I came close to bonking yesterday in the final kilometer of a measly category four climb early in the day. It was only 9 a.m., and I had biked just 30 miles since getting started at 6:30, but I was suddenly feeling very light-headed. My breakfast of a peanut butter sandwich and some sugar smacks and nuts had worn off and I was feeling the effects. I've had many days at this year's Tour when I've biked 60 to 80 miles nearly non-stop, racing to reach the finish line before the course was closed, so this came as a surprise. The nuts and sugar smacks in my handlebar bag that I had been nibbling whenever I wasn't straining on a climb weren't providing me the energy I needed, or else my efforts these weeks had finally caught up to me. Normally I have some madeleines to eat as well, but I had run out. I didn't realize what high octane fuel they provided. They are a doughy, egg-based snack. I was introduced to them last year by the Dutch cyclist/medical student I met in Japan and later met up with outside of Paris. They are tasty, highly-caloric and cheap--a pound for less than a euro--a touring cyclist's dream food. I will try never to be without.

As I felt my strength waning, I would have liked to have stopped and eaten, but my pride wouldn't allow it, as the climb was jammed with vehicles and people on both sides. I made it to the top, and after the descent found a secluded spot to eat. I knew I couldn't make it to the finish line before the peloton, as there'd been a 50-mile transfer between stage finish and stage start the day before. I completed 45 of those miles the night before, camping five miles before the stage start, a rare day when I wasn't at least 25 or 30 miles into the stage when I woke. It was a short 103-mile stage, but had an extra four miles tagged on to the start as a promenade through the town it started in. I didn't realize it wound around the city and ended up near the start before heading out of town and the official start about a mile afterward and could have saved myself those miles. But the entire way of that promenade had decorations and bike art celebrating The Tour making it most enjoyable in the tranquil seven a.m. hour.

I was so concerned with getting as far down the course before I was ordered off that I didn't even accept the offer of water from Skippy the Australian when he drove past, even though I was down to just one bottle. It was nice to have finally connected with him and to have him as an ally. I made it to the feed zone before being stopped. A 71-year old French cyclist, who had been following The Tour in a van painted with racers on bikes, said he kept seeing me and wondered if I was actually keeping up on my bike.

He was another of those arch-typical French lovers of the bike that I always enjoy meeting. He didn't care so much for any of the riders, he just loved the "atmosphere" of The Tour. He had worked in advertising as an artist and had painted the cyclists on his van. He had several books of portraits he had drawn of racers from over the years. His boyhood hero was Bobet, three-time winner of The Tour in the '50s whose museum and grave Craig and I visited last year.

I didn't reach yesterday's finish line until after 9 p.m. and then immediately headed north to St. Amand-Montrond, 35 miles away for today's climatic time trial. I pulled into town a little before ten, riding in an off-and-on drizzle. The course was already mobbed, three and four people deep from well beyond the one kilometer to go arch. And the caravan wasn't due for 45 minutes or more. I was able to get a couple bottles of water and the two newspapers that are passed out free and then headed back into town to buy food and hit the Internet. I only need to watch the last hour of the 33-mile time trial, as only the last six riders have any meaning, but I will park myself in front of the giant screen and soak up the atmosphere for the next five hours. Then it is on to Paris.

Later, George

Thursday, July 24, 2008

St. Etienne (Ville Arriveé)

Friends: The racing may have been restrained on L'Alpe d'Huez yesterday, with none of the contenders caring to chase down Sastre or mounting attacks of their own from their tidy little clot of nine riders that essentially stuck together the entire ascent, but the mass of several hundred Dutch fans clustered in what is known as Dutch Corner a little more than half-way up the climb, were anything but restrained. They were as wildly raucous and riotous as ever, dancing and singing their lungs out for hours.

For the first time in my three Tour visits to L'Alpe d'Huez I was in no rush to reach the finish line and was able to linger amongst this crazed and energetic throng of orange t-shirts and jerseys and zany outfits. I would have spent the whole day with them had there been a television to follow the day's racing over three beyond category climbs. But I did join them for over half an hour, soaking up and getting energized by their revelry, before continuing on just a bit further to a small village that had a couple of bars with television. I needed to make a quick getaway to start riding the next day's stage, so I didn't continue all the way to the summit and the giant screen as I have in the past. If I went all the way to the top, it could take better than an hour to navigate the descent among the hoards of bicyclists and gendarmes. I satisfied myself with stopping two miles from the summit, well before the fences started that separated the racers from the fans, meaning that I could be part of the narrow gauntlet of fans for the racers to pass through.

The location was also a more reasonable hiking distance for my friend Julie, who had driven ten hours from her small town of St. Cyprien in the Dordognne to join me. She neglected to bring her trusty Bike Friday, fearful she wasn't in shape for the climb. If I had known she had any hesitancy, I would have assured her that she could have managed it. Anyone who could bike up Mont Ventoux, a longer and equally steep climb, as she did last fall on her Bike Friday, could handle this climb. She was extremely fit then, having just returned from biking around Corsica, Napoleon's island birthplace. Even if she was less physically conditioned now, I knew that anyone who had conquered Mont Ventoux would have the fortitude and grit to conquer L'Alpe d'Huez as well, regardless of the miles in their legs. Even more people walk up the climb than bike it, so Julie had plenty of company. I walked with her the mile from our campsite in Bourg d'Osians until the climb began with a sudden 10% incline. The road was mobbed with eager, energetic fans, most tanned and fit. It was a festive atmosphere. "This reminds me of the Olympics," Julie commented, which she had attended in Athens four years ago.

Julie and I planned to meet just beyond the Dutch corner at a water spigot on the left side of the road, the only one on the climb other than the many natural springs spouting out of the mountain sides. It was a little further than I remembered, but still we managed to connect, our second semi-blind rendezvous amongst the hoards who always descend upon L'Alpe d'Huez when The Tour comes to town. Our first rendezvous the day before was a bit more of a challenge, as Julie and I had actually never met other than via email. We've been in contact over four years, introduced by a fellow ardent traveler and touring cyclist. We've followed each other's travels these past four years and have tried to meet up several other times.

Julie lives in northern Michigan, but also owns a house in France. I've passed through her French town a couple of times, but never when she has been there. We had planned to meet this year on my way from Spain to Brest, but were foiled when she unexpectedly had to return to the US. L'Alpe d'Huez was a perfect place to finally meet and hear first-hand of all her travels and years working as a cycle touring guide. She presently divides her time between northern Michigan, France and northern Thailand, where she teaches English to Burmese refugees. Julie is that rare person who when she gets the bug to do something or go somewhere, forges ahead and does it, and doesn't find an excuse to remain stuck in her rut. She is a fearless doer-supreme. She has done much and longs to do much more. She has trekked Nepal multiple times. If there were an Aunt of the Year Award, she would have won it several years ago when she took her nephew on an around the world trip of several months. He'd never traveled. She knew that such a trip would change his life.

After I descended L'Alpe d'Huez the road was clogged with traffic the first ten or so miles as I headed to Grenoble 25 miles to the northeast, but I made considerably better time than if I had started out from the summit or if I had left my tent and gear in the park where we camped rather than lugging them up the mountain. I was able to get 50 miles down the road before dark. Each mile was crucial, as the next day's stage was 123 miles with a category two, eight-mile climb at the 100 mile point. Also easing matters was Jesse the Texan, who caught up to me around 9:30 this morning. With our combined efforts we reached the category two climb by 11 and had no worries about having the road closed on us before reaching the finish line in St. Etienne.

It was the third stage I had ridden with Jesse and the first time I had seen him with panniers. I was not surprised. It meant that things hadn't worked out with Skippy. He and his brother made it to Italy with him, but that was enough. They were back on their own, meaning that Jesse's brother was back carrying the bulk of Jesse's gear via train. It seems like a logistical nightmare, but they are pulling it off.

Jesse says he would never do it this way again, though he would love to return to The Tour, especially with his dad, who is a world champion in the biathlon (biking and running) in his age group. Without Skippy urging Jesse on and forcing the pace, we were able to have a non-stop several hour conversation that made the miles pass almost unnoticed. I learned that Jesse and his dad publish a newsletter analyzing index funds and that Jesse also gives prep classes for law school entrance exams. His brother CJ teaches German at the Texas high school they both attended and coach's the girl's soccer team. Their dad is also a podiatrist. There were two things he wouldn't let his sons do--play football or have a motorcycle.

Jesse's knees are still smarting, but he has no worries now about completing his ride as there are only a few nominal climbs in the remaining three stages. He did investigate getting a cortisone shot in Italy, but it didn't work out. He had scabs and bruises on his arm from a couple of crashes, one after a rear flat on a steep descent. One of his highlights was riding with the Spanish Euskatel team on the rest day while they were out scouting the stage over the La Bonette pass, the highest in France. Only twice before has it been included in The Tour. Whether or not we ride together again this year, we will surely keep in touch, and will be hoping to see each other again next year.

The headline of today's L'Equipe did not celebrate Sastre's two minute win on L'Alpe d'Huez and the assumption of the yellow jersey, but simply said "Until Saturday". Saturday is the time trial and that will decide all. The top three in the standings presently (Sastre, Schleck and Kohl) are not very good time trialists. The next three (Evans, Menchov and Vande Velde) are. The latter three all could vault over the present top three. It will be plenty suspenseful.

Later, George

Monday, July 21, 2008

Briançon, France

Friends: Those teen-aged boys along the road who like to shout at me "plus vite" (faster) and "attac" had to be thrilled, as I was, by yesterday's finish, a non-stop flurry of attacks and all-out racing the likes of which this year's race had yet to see on the seven-mile Category One climb to Prato Nevoso in Italy.

There was no holding back on this stage, the day before a rest day, and with the yellow jersey within smelling-distance of half a dozen riders. All the contenders were in on it, having left everyone else behind, and were in a pack of ten. They were storming up the climb led by Andy Schleck, younger brother and CSC teammate of Frank, who was in second overall, a mere second behind Evans.

There were attacks from the Spaniard Valverde and the Austrian Kohl. When the Russian Menchov attacked and opened a gap his bike slid out from under him on a rain slick corner. As tradition has it, the nine others slowed until he could catch up, refusing to take advantage of his misfortune. Again and again one rider after another surged off the front testing their own strength and the strength of their adversaries, seeing who was the strongest, the toughest, the most determined. This is where Lance excelled. With each attack Evans was slow to respond, but, as is his style, labored to catch up. But he looked vulnerable. This was bike racing at its finest.

Though not an animator, the American Vande Velde remained in the thick of it. A headline the day's "L'Equipe" stated, "Vande Velde is not afraid," referring to the days mountainous stage. Not too many sports, other than boxing, especially in the days of Mike Tyson, speak of fear. These mountains are certainly something to fear. They can inflict great suffering and punishment. They can break one's legs, as can stronger riders. Champion riders are often spoken of as "leg-breakers," as they break the legs of those trying to keep up, a feeling I know all too well, especially these past few days when I've been climbing, and, also on the flats, trying to keep up with baggageless riders.

Kohl was the day's prime agitator and leg-breaker, and biggest surprise, finally leaving everyone behind but the Spaniard Sastre, CSC teammate of Schleck and third place finisher the year Landis was stripped of his win, and presently in the top ten. He clung to Kohl's wheel, but offered no assistance, remaining loyal to teammate Frank. The two of them opened a big enough gap that Kohl could have possibly seized the yellow jersey. He would have become just the second Austrian ever to don those sacred threads. When he crossed the line, he collapsed in the arms of a coach, unable to stand, having expended every ounce of energy. It was an incredible performance. But Frank Schleck finished close enough behind to inherit the yellow jersey. Both he and Kohl move ahead of Evans in the overall and Vande Velde fell from 3rd overall to 5th. But the race is still wide open with at least half a dozen riders legitimate contenders. This may be the tightest race in years.

Even though Australian fans had to lament that Evans was no longer in yellow, they could cheer that one of their countrymen won the race, 28-year old Simon Gerrans riding for the French Credit Agricole team. He gave the most ecstatic finish-line celebration The Race has seen so far--a tremendous release of joy and exhilaration at accomplishing the near miraculous and realizing his greatest aspiration, a moment he had been visualizing as he rode at the head of the race for hours with three breakaway companions including the American Pate. At one point they opened a better than twelve-minute gap and were never caught. The drama among that pack of four up the road with attack and counter-attack was a significant side-story to the more important action further down the mountain between the overall contenders.

I watched the day's action in a bar packed with cycling fans in Briançcon, frequent Ville Etape and on the route of Wednesday's stage that finishes atop the crown jewel of the race, L'Alpe d'Huez. I was on hand for the day's start in Embrun in a drizzle. After the riders passed me two miles into the stage, still in a bunch, I headed thirty miles to Briançon with bumper-to-bumper traffic in a drizzle and with one long steep climb along the way.

I began my day with a demanding climb, as well, to reach Embrun, arriving by ten am, nearly three hours before the race start. There were already hundreds of people milling around the start area and its carnival atmosphere. For the first time in days I partook of the caravan. I don't bother when I'm at the finish line where the road is lined three deep fighting for the trinkets.

It was a tough but spectacular sixty miles to get to Embrun from Digne-les-Baines, where the previous day's stage ended. There were two major passes, the first through a gorge. I climbed most of it with a 65-year old Englishman in a Discovery team jersey. We met watching the action on the giant screen. He looked respectable and distinguished enough that I took him to be part of a cycling tour group. But he was on his own, other than a wife who was back in Embrun at their camper. He had driven to within fifteen miles of Digne-les-Baines and then biked in. He told me about a secondary road out of town that would have no traffic. It made for some of the best cycling of the trip. On his ride in to Digne that morning he said he nearly biked off the road when he came upon a group of topless young women frolicking in the river. He said, "I can't wait to tell the lads back home. I would have taken a picture, but I was afraid their boy friends might be around and come after me."

Malcolm had been making an annual pilgrimage to The Tour since the late 70s. His wife isn't a fan, so he can usually manage seeing just a couple of stages. This was his first glimpse of this year's race. Last year he chose the Pyrenees over a visit to the race start in London. He lives in northern England, near Hadrian's Wall. He's a school teacher who bikes fourteen miles to his school, and is regarded as a bit of an odd duck for doing so. Before he got into teaching he worked for Borg Warner. He spoke most fondly of a year he spent working in Los Angeles for Borg Warner working in 1967. He said his exposure to the US culture changed his life. It made him aware that he could aspire to more than he had originally. When he retires in a year or so, he will spend as much time on his bike as his wife will allow. High on his list of rides he'd like to make is the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.

Now its on to L'Alpe d'Huez, 45 miles away with another huge, but spectacular climb in between. The road will be thick with cyclists all the way there. Briancon is a magnet and a base for cycling enthusiasts all summer long, peaking of course with the arrival of The Tour.

Later, George

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Digne-les-Baines (Ville Arriveé)

Friends: As with any major sporting event the Tour de France has amassed a vast reservoir of statistics during its century of existence, enough to give any gathering of bicycle racing fans material to debate and recount and marvel over for hours.

And since the different route every year is as much a part of the race as the racers, there are as many statistics relating to the route as to its participants and their heroics. There are stats and related trivia on every mountain the peloton has climbed--the Tourmalet was one of the first included in The Tour and has been climbed more than any other mountain, even twice one year, once from each direction. There have been more than 500 Ville Etapes with ten new ones this year, more than usual. The longest Tour was 5,745 kilometers in 1926, compared to 3,500 this year. The total distance of all 95 editions (there were none during the two world wars) is 350,000 kilometers.

One statistic I haven't uncovered, though I'm sure its out there somewhere, is the number of miles of plane trees each Tour has biked past and the total number of plane tress included in each year's route. Today's route through Provence could have set a record, as much of the first half of this 122-mile stage was blessed by the shade and shelter of those magnificent trees that line many of the roads all over France, through towns and cities and out in the countryside. Many date to the Napoleonic era. It is said Napoleon planted the trees to make it cooler and shadier for his marching troops. We bicyclists enjoy them equally, appreciating not only their practical use but their regal beauty as well. One feels almost triumphant passing under the arcade of shade they provide for miles and miles.

Unfortunately, they didn't line the entire route today. I would have greatly welcomed them towards the end of the day's stage, when the day had heated up into the 90s. I was down to less than one bottle of very tepid water as I began the day's final climb, ten miles from the stage finish, as the sun beat down with a vengeance. Then a minor miracle. Just short of the summit I saw what I first took to be a mirage--a van slowly driving along dispensing two-liter bottles of water to the fans. I wasn't desperate, but I happily grabbed a bottle and partook of a few gulps of the sweet, fresh, cool water, expressing silent thanks to the great consideration of the race organizers. They truly are attentive to the most minor of details to make it a superlative experience for all. There is always water passed out to the fans lining the last kilometer of the course, to keep them there for the TV cameras if nothing else, but still a significantly caring gesture, something I've never experienced in the bleachers of a baseball game.

I was very nervous about making it to Digne-les-Baines before the course was closed down today. Having to cover 85 miles by two p.m. would demand my biggest effort so far. Plus the last 60 miles were a gradual ascent from 600 feet elevation to over 2,000 feet as we approached the Alps, somewhat like the gradual climb across the plains of the U.S. to Denver. There was no early tailwind today, as I've enjoyed the past few days. I was only averaging 12 mph, which meant seven hours in the saddle for me. Since I had started at seven a.m., that left no time for a break.

After an hour a group of 20 men, all but two wearing identical jerseys of some Australian corporation, flew past me at 20 mph. I recognized one of the two guys wearing the non-matching jerseys from years past, as he was a guide for the Australian tour company Bike Style and was wearing the company jersey. We've chatted before, but today he was too engrossed in being a guide to even acknowledge me with a "how ya doin' mate." I could understand, as he wouldn't want his clients learning that one could be doing this on their own for a pittance of what they were coughing up. Despite their speed, I was able to latch on to their pace line and stuck with them for ten miles or so until we hit a steep climb. There were two over-sized guys at the back, who I thought might struggle enough that I'd be able to hang on, but even though they lagged, they didn't lag enough. I let them go rather than kill myself to keep up.

About an hour later along came Jesse the Texan and Skippy the Australian. Turns out I have seen Skippy in the past and not only at The Tour but also at the Dauphine-Libere race. He's an older white-bearded guy, tall and grizzled with a bit of a paunch accentuated by the Lycra jerseys he wears. I had assumed was Italian, as he bore all the earmarks of the tifosi, not only in his dress and his high-quality carbon fiber bike, but also that he is a groupie of a sort, hanging out around the team cars before and after stages.

He rode with Jesse and I for a spell and then forged on ahead, pushing a big gear rather than spinning. We caught up to him as he stood beside a camper drinking a glass of wine. Jesse said he seems to know everyone following The Tour. He rode along with us some more and then took off. Again we passed him sipping a drink and talking with some folks. The next time he caught us he urged Jesse to speed it up and to latch on to his wheel so they could finish off the stage in time to start heading to the next one.

My two drafting sessions with the mini-Aussie peloton and then with Jesse and Skippy increased my average speed to nearly 15 mph and the conversation kept me on my bike rather than pausing to eat or rest as I otherwise might have, though I now could afford to take a quick break. By the time I crossed the final pass, the road had been closed to all but bicyclists. Still, every flic I passed from the summit into town looked as if he were itching to step out and order me off my bike. Jesse said he rode with an Australian earlier in The Tour who just barged past them at full speed shouting "Aussie, Aussie" if they tried to stop him.

I've beaten the peloton to the finish four straight days now, my best effort ever. Its always an exciting place to be and a good launch pad as soon the race finishes to start riding or heading towards the next day's stage. My string will end tomorrow as it is 60 miles from here to the start of tomorrow's stage in Ebrum, and those 60 miles include a couple of significant passes. I should arrive in Ebrum well before the day's start at 12:30. Ebrum is a first time Ville Etape, so it should be all gussied up. Rather than following the peloton into Italy, I'll head over to L'Alpe d'Huez, less than 100 miles away. There will be some tough climbs, but I won't have to push it as I have had to the past four days to reach the finish before the peloton.

Now its back to the finish line here in Digne-les-Baines, which I scouted out as soon as I arrived in town. I was in time for the hand-out of water and the two newspapers. Then I went to the grocery store and stocked up on food for the next 24 hours. The next order of business, as usual, was a visit to the tourist office to find the best way out of town when the race finishes and where Internet could be found and to see what exhibits or displays they might have or know of in town celebrating The Tour's visit.

Today's stage could well end in a sprint again. Cavendish will be going for his third straight win and fifth overall. He already holds the record for most stage wins by an Englishman in a single year and if this keeps up will have the career record soon too.

Later, George

Friday, July 18, 2008

Nimes (Ville Arriveé)

Friends: I've biked over 20,000 miles the past five years following and preparing for The Tour. I've visited every region of this hexagon of a country, crisscrossed its 90 departéments many times, climbed its five mountain ranges, passed through all its major cities, ridden along its many rivers and canals and gorges, and yet I am still regularly awed by a particularly scenic or tranquil stretch such as I biked last night and this morning in the rolling terrain around Montpelier. Not once was there a hint that a bustling metropolis throbbed nearby, a metropolis that on previous occasions had frustrated my efforts for a clean, direct passage through, leaving me happy and relieved to be done with it and not eager in the least to return.

I had to contend with an initial surge of traffic exiting Narbonne after the stage finish, the third sprint win by the young English rising star Mark Cavendish, who rides for the American Columbia team. The absence of Tom Boonen, last year's sprint king, has allowed him to become a dominant force at race's end on the flat stages. Today's Stage Thirteen route to Nimes included a most picturesque stretch along the Canal du Midi. Boats were docked bow to stern all along the way awaiting The Tour's arrival. Too bad it comes early in the stage preventing it from being featured on television. I biked once again until dark, gaining 44 miles on the 114 mile stage, camping on the fringe of a vineyard just after the first of the day's three category three climbs, as thickly lined with campers as the Canal du Midi was with boats.

The winds have been fierce and gusting the past three days, but mostly from the west, helping me considerably except on those occasions when they have knocked the course markers akilter. One that had been pointing straight up was knocked to the right at a small intersection in a village. Since most hard turns are indicated with a pair of markers I was suspicious. When I didn't see any markers for half a mile I dug out my map and doubled back.

The stage's second climb came 22 miles beyond my campsite. About half way up I was slowly passed by a cyclist with triathlon bars who greeted me with a "Bonjour" and "Bravo" with a hint of a non-French accent. He didn't have a small chain ring on his bike and as the going got steeper I caught up with him and discovered that not only was he an English-speaker, but an American, and one of the two Texan brothers, Jesse and C.J., that the couple from Pittsburgh had told me about. I figured I had to run into them eventually. They said one was mostly going by train and carrying his brother's gear for him. They no longer have to worry about trains, as just yesterday they linked up with an Australian with a car who is also biking the course. They saw me pass last night as they were camped along the road.

Jesse's brother pulled up along side us a couple of times in the car to offer water and check on his brother. I didn't realize at first he was at the steering wheel, as I hadn't noticed it was a right-hand drive vehicle. I did notice an Australian bumper sticker, leading me to believe at first that they were part of the Australian contingent, which greatly outnumbers the Americans this year. Their first order of business in Nimes was to find the local Decathlon chain sporting goods store to buy a bike rack for the car to accommodate their three bikes. Jesse and I parted five miles from the finish as I stopped to take advantage of a large grocery store, which aren't always easy to find and are generally on the outskirts of French towns. We hope to meet up either at the giant screen or somewhere down the road tonight. They'll be looking for me.

Jesse said the Australian, Skippy, has been following The Tour for eleven years and is a great raconteur. He could be just the person I've been hoping to link up with all these years. I'm curious to see if I recognise him. Jesse attended The Tour two years ago and saw three stages, including L'Alpe d'Huez. He's been having knee problems, partially due to his gearing, but also because early on he was pushing it too hard starting each day's route at sunrise forcing him to ride extra hard to reach the finish before the course was closed. Now he does as me and starts riding the course the evening before. He on his unloaded bike forced me to ride extra hard to keep up as we conversed, though I occasionally dropped back for a draft.

I pulled into Nimes at 12:30, over an hour earlier than I had hoped, but also feeling leg-weary from having pushed it. Jesse has never done any significant touring. Most of his riding has been training for and riding in triathlons. He rides at a hard training pace rather than touring pace, a style of riding that has done in others I have met up with at The Tour and ridden with elsewhere. It is hard for some to learn to let up a tad when they have to ride such long distances day after day and with weight on their bike.

Jesse had news that the young Italian Ricco, wearing the Polka Dot Jersey of the best climber, who has won two stages and ranked ninth overall and was a force to be concerned about in the upcoming three stages in the Alps, tested positive for EPO and was disqualified this morning. I later learned that his entire team withdrew from the race. He's the third rider to test positive this year. The first was former Lance teammate, the Spaniard Manual Beltran. More and more of Lance's teammates have been caught, pointing the finger of suspicion ever more strongly in his face.

Later, George

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Norbonne (Ville Arrivee)

Friends: There was a rare convergence of five touring cyclists under the giant screen at the Foix finish line yesterday. I was the first to arrive, staking claim to a shady corner spot up against a fence separating the VIPs from the commoners. I left my bike and went to fill two of my water bottles at a nearby fountain.

When I returned there were two young men with loaded bikes giving my bike the once over. They were Germans on the third day of their tour. They started out in Narbonne to the east near the Mediterranean, the peloton's next Ville Arrivee after Foix. The Germans had just pulled into Foix and were headed to the campgrounds, planning to return to see the race finish in four-and-a-half hours. They had only a little touring experience and had never ridden in mountainous terrain. They were fretting a bit about their climb out of Foix the next day. The had no intention of going anywhere near the Tourmalet knowing its forbidding reputation. They wondered if it was possible to climb it with a load such as mine.

When they returned a couple of hours later I was in conversation with a couple of wholesome young American touring cyclists from Pittsburg who were on their honeymoon. They too were early in their tour and were neophytes at it. They had flown into Paris and then took the TGV train to Pau. They had to scramble in Paris to get bike bags for the high-speed train, which aren't necessary for the regular train.

They saw the peloton depart Pau on Bastille Day and then started biking themselves, heading directly to Foix, staying north of the Tourmalet and the Pyrenees. There was still more climbing and steeper than they anticipated in the 150 miles to Foix. They biked well after dark with the aid of the moon and fireworks to reach the Foix campgrounds on their second night. They had no idea about wild-camping and had made hotel or camping reservations for each night of their two week trip. They needed the reservations for the Foix campgrounds as it was at capacity. When they arrived after dark they were told there was no room for them until they produced their reservation and were allowed to pitch their tent on a scrap of unoccupied grass. Poor souls could have had a whole field of rolled hay to themselves if they had known better.

After the Foix stage they were taking a train to Carcasonne for a day and then another train to Nimes the day after to watch the peloton arrive. We hope to rendezvous at the giant screen tomorrow. And if not there at L'Alpe d'Huez next Tuesday. They will have a fine time climbing it if they've been struggling on the modest climbs so far. Despite the strain of the cycling, they were in an elevated spirit experiencing the grandeur of The Tour. They kept looking around at the mobs of people and all the hoopla and saying, "We don't see any of this on TV. This is amazing."

Megan said she was suffering from sunburn, though it wasn't evident. She said she put sun-block on at least three times a day, but was still fried. She was happy to stay in the shade with me while Matt went exploring to see what free stuff he could collect from all the sponsors that he saw everyone else carting about. When the caravan finally arrived and started dispersing its goodies she was surprised, as she thought the steady stream of vehicles preceding it had been the caravan. I pointed out Raymond Poulidor when he was dropped off in front of us to go hobnob with the VIPs in the fenced in area behind us after having been driven along the race course as he is every day. She was enough of a fan to know who he was but she didn't know his nickname, Pou-Pou.

She and Matt were riding Raleigh touring bikes. Their first choice had been the Trek 520 as I ride, but there was such a demand for them, none were available until September. Nor could they find a Kona or Surley, their next choices. The nearest touring bike they could find to Pittsburgh was 200 miles away. But no complaints. Hopefully I will be able to share in their honeymoon delight a couple more times.

At the stage finish, I was perfectly situated to make a quick getaway and lead the charge to Lavenet, the next day's start 20 miles away. It was half an hour before the first team car passed me and the parade of Tour vehicles engulfed the road. Two miles from Lavenet the vehicles were backed up and moving at less than a crawl. There was hardly any traffic coming from the opposite direction, so I could ride down the middle of the road. I did the same descending the Tourmalet Monday. The bicycle is always the vehicle of choice, but never more so than on those two occasions.

There was music and Tour festivities enlivening Lavenet when I passed through at 6:30 pm. I had no time to spare to linger. I found the arrows leading out of town and started Stage 12. It was peace and quiet with only a sporadic vehicle for the next three hours. I knocked off 33 miles of the stage, stopping only to eat a thawed grocery store quiche, leaving me 72 miles to the stage finish the next day. And here I am in Narbonne, with the peloton due to arrive in two-and-a-half hours. I've scouted out tomorrow's route out of town and will be on my way to Nimes, 110 miles away, in less than three hours. Things could not be going better.

Later, George

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Foix (Ville Arriveé)

Friends: The first eight miles of today's ten-mile category one climb over the Col de Portet, another brute, is so narrow I never would have guessed it could possibly be on The Tour route. Its going to be a very tight squeeze for some of the float-sized vehicles in the caravan. Sections were so narrow I had to occasionally pull over and dismount when a rare car came along. It is no wonder that it has never been on The Tour route until this year.

There were just a few spots wide enough for Tour followers to have parked their campers or set up their tents for the night on those first eight miles. The final two miles, though, traverses a wide ridge with spectacular views of the distant high Pyrenees. It was wide enough to already have been packed bumper-to-bumper with campers 24 hours before the peloton would pass. There were a handful of cyclists giving it a ride, but nothing like the throngs on the Tourmalet. Both climbs attract enough cyclists for there to be signs every kilometer bearing a cyclist and the elevation and the grade for the next kilometer. If the grade was 9.5%, the next sign would show a gain of 95 meters in elevation. Since I knew I had to get to 1,432 meters starting from a little over 300 I was happy for every gain I made on the summit.

Tackling the Portet wasn't exactly the best way for me to spend a so-called rest day, and I could have easily skipped it by continuing on the more direct and flat main highway between St. Girons and Foix rather than following The Tour route that dipped down to one of the narrow, lightly-trafficked secondary roads that make The Tour so picturesque. This route was so idyllic, it was a wonder that The Tour had never gone this way before. Though it was a much greater expenditure of energy to go this way I was very happy to join with all those who had already gathered along the route and to glimpse the homages the tiny towns along the way had to offer.

Many of the mental photos I took along the way are sure to stick with me, as well as a couple I took with my camera. One was of a bare-chested hermit of a guy who had set up his tent on a nub of a grassy cliff overlooking the road. He was perched in his camp chair, soaking in the sun, while his team banners flapped in the breeze. I also snapped a shot of a small encampment of Belgians with their black, gold and red flag flying along with a large white bed-sheet stretched between a couple of trees proclaiming, "We Miss You Tom." Tom is Tom Boonen, who was denied entry to The Tour by its organizers for testing positive for cocaine in an out of competition drug test about six weeks ago. Its not an official suspension, just a choice of the Tour de France. Boonen is such a prominent figure in Europe that it was front page news in Spain while I was there.

Cycling's governing body did not sanction Boonen for the use of the recreational drug, but Tour de France officials arbitrarily decided to refuse him entry, not wanting their race tainted by a drug-taker of any kind, reasoning that he who uses any illicit drug will be inclined to take another. If this were the U.S., Boonen could well have sicced a peloton of lawyers on The Tour. As one of cycling's premier figures, Boonen is emerging as Belgium's greatest cyclist since the greatest of them all--Eddie Merckx. Belgium was so upset with Boonen's exclusion, it withdrew its ambassador from France in protest. Lucky for France Belgium isn't Germany. It might have prompted military action. Its been nearly 70 years since Germany last invaded France after doing it three times in less than 75 years. Some would say they are overdue.

After today the racers will enjoy a three-day reprieve from the mountains. Then on Sunday they take on the Alps, venturing into Italy for two stages. There ought to be relative calm in the standings until then, despite the mere one second difference between Evans and Schleck at the top of the standings. It is the mountains that provide the excitement and lustre to the racing. When I was circling around the vast plaza in Toulouse while crews were just starting to set up the elaborate departure structure in front of its grandiose Mairie several evenings ago, searching for the course markers indicating the route out, I couldn't spot them and had to ask. The first cyclist I encountered said he was just visiting and had no idea. The second was a homeless-looking guy on a Huffy of a bike. At my query, he instantly responded with a grand sweep of his arm pointing to his left and gleefully blurted, "Tomorrow they go to the Pyrenees," knowing that it implied The Race would truly begin. Then he directed me to the corner of the plaza the peloton would exit. It was a bit of a challenge to find the course markers through the large metropolis of Toulouse, one of France's five largest cities, but only once did I have to ask if I were still on course.

Today is much more of a rest day for me than yesterday. I ended up riding 80 miles of today's route. I finished it off this morning arriving in Foix by ten a.m. I will be off the bike until 5:30. Then I'll lead the charge to tomorrow's stage start 20 miles away and hopefully get at least 20 miles further down the road giving me a good chance to beat the peloton to the stage finish, allowing me the luxury of watching the peloton on the giant screen for a couple of hours as I will do today. The following two stages involve no transfer between finish and start, so I will be in great shape to have seen the peloton pass on each of the first 13 stages. I probably won't make it to Italy, but instead will head to L'Alpe d'Huez, which will be the third and final day in the Alps for the peloton. Hopefully I will find some Internet along the way.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

St. Gaudens, France

Friends: Every day following The Tour is rich in stories, of the race itself, my efforts to keep up, what I see along the way and the encounters I have. Here are the lead paragraphs of some of those I would have shared had I had the time or been able to find the Internet the last few days.

As I was taking down my tent early Sunday morning at a nondescript grassy atoll at a minor T intersection on The Tour route about 15 miles beyond Toulouse, that day's gendarme guardian of the intersection was dropped off, something I hadn't anticipated, though it was no cause for alarm. She gave me a nod and a smile. It was only 7:40 and the peloton wasn't due to pass for four hours. Their early posting is one of countless examples of how supremely well-organized this monumental event is. I passed quite a few lonely gendarmes at their early morning outposts in the miles to come. I frequently caught them in the act of glancing at their watch...

Even though there are only four Americans riding in The Tour, there is a strong American influence. Christian Vande Velde, who grew up in a Chicago suburb just as I did, is perhaps the surprise of The Tour, in third place and a genuine threat to end up on the podium. He's a veteran rider who has never had the opportunity to be a team leader in The Tour and wasn't given much consideration to have any impact on the race. He rode with Lance in his first Tour win in 1999 on the U.S. Postal team. Vande Velde was the youngest rider on the nine-man team. He wore the Tour's white jersey as the highest placed young rider for a short spell. He made a grievous mistake that year, crashing in the team time trial, skidding on a wet paint mark, a rookie mistake that no bike messenger would ever make. He rode only one more Tour with Lance in 2001 before transferring to the Spanish Liberty Segurus team of Roberto Heras and then to the Danish CSC team before joining Garmin-Chipotle this year.

Besides Vande Velde, the two American-sponsored teams, the most ever in The Tour, have been making their presence felt. Columbia, a sports clothing company headquartered in Oregon, shortly before The Tour started took over the sponsorship of the German Telekom team that Jan Ullrich last rode for. Columbia has been having a sensational Tour, at one point holding three of the four lead jerseys--yellow for the leader, green for the best sprinter and white for best young rider. The only one they didn't have was the red polka-dot jersey for best climber. Columbia was the early dominant team in the race. The English sprinter Mark Cavendish, riding for Columbia, has won two stages. He's not much of a climber though, as he was the last over the Tourmalet, more than 20 minutes behind the leader. Columbia has some sharp management to have seen the opportunity to take over the sponsorship of this team and gain all the publicity it has. If I were an investor I'd be examining its price to earnings ratio and its other vital statistics...

Of the hundreds of Tour vehicles of team cars and officials and campers that passed me, 20 or 30 per minute, in the 40-mile early-evening post-race rush from the Stage six finish in Chateauroux to the Stage 7 start in Figeac, only one gave a friendly toot--one of the team cars of the American team Garmin-Chipotle. Europeans reserve their horns for assertive, rather than friendly, gestures. But people did stick their arms out to wave or to give a double pump of a clenched fist, the silent version of allez-allez. It was a rollicking, mostly downhill ride from the fringe of the Massif Central along a river. I arrived in Figeac with enough light to continue on and gain 10 miles on the next day's stage before camping at dark just as a light drizzle began...

With Bastille Day, the French equivalent of July 4, on a Monday this year, I faced the prospect of not finding an open grocery store for two days. So I finally did it. I spent five dollars and twenty-five cents on a 12-ounce jar of peanut butter. With a jar of peanut butter and a jar of honey and a loaf of bread, I'd have almost enough provisions to get me through two days, if nothing else turned up. At least the peanut butter came in a plastic jar, rather than glass, as it more commonly does here, making it a little lighter for my Bastille Day climb up the Tourmalet.

I didn't need to make much of a dent in the peanut butter however, as I was able to supplement my supplies with some Sunday dumpster-diving. It has been chilly enough in the foothills of the Pyrenees that four liter-sized bottles of citrus-flavored water were still perspiring in the dumpster, not having cooled to air temperature. Four deli sandwiches in sealed wedge-shaped plastic containers with an expiration date of the day before were also refrigerator temperature. A bag of croissants and a day-old "L'Equipe," perhaps the prize of the dive, rounded out my harvest. They help the budget. It has taken a hit of late having to cough up three to five dollars for a drink to watch The Tour in a bar, as I have been falling short of late reaching the Finish Line and its giant screen before the racers. So far, I've been in bars for the conclusion of six of the ten stages. When I usually don't even spend ten dollars a day on food, five dollars for a drink is an extravagance...

I found a dream vantage point for the Bastille Day tenth stage, two-and-a-half miles below the summit of the Tourmalet, the most storied Tour climb in the Pyrenees, at the ski resort town La Mangie. It was beside the Relais Etape, a mini-Tour village set up somewhere along each day's stage, a tented area cordoned off for dignitaries and sponsors with food and entertainment, and, most important, a large screen carrying the cable feed of the day's race action. Sometimes the screen is situated so only the VIPs can see it, but here, those sitting along the road could watch as well, though not at the best of angles.

My site was made even more perfect with a W.C. Publique across the road. It had sinks with water spigots, which isn't always customary. It's always important to have a place to pee, whether a toilet or a secluded bush, and a source of water nearby when I have to stop for several hours awaiting the racers to pass. And my spot was made all the better by a large clan of the enthusiastic, flamboyant Spanish orange-clad Euskatel fans right beside me--children and adults. If my Stage 1 Euskatel water bottle wasn't buried deep in one of my panniers and stuffed with film and my third pair of emergency socks and underwear, I would have filled it with water and made it my bottle of choice for this stage and been one of them. It was 12:30 when I claimed my spot, three hours before the racers were due to pass and five hours before they were due to finish at the ski resort of Hautacam 35 miles beyond. Before the climbing began the peloton would pass through Lourdes, which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Virgin Mary visitations to a local young girl. The year-long celebration includes a film festival of movies featuring Lourdes. The Pope also plans a visit to commemorate the occasion.

I set up my sleeping pad/camp chair, plopped down and reveled in my setting, further highlighted by the surrounding snow-streaked, jagged peaks all around, a few laced with dormant chair lifts. Watching the procession of the wide-array of recreational cyclists struggling past was as entertaining as the racers to come. At one-third the speed, one could actually focus in on them and their features.

It had been an eight-mile climb, mostly nine and ten percent grade, from the small town of Sainte-Marie de Campon to this point. From the turn-off starting the climb it had been bicycles only. It was a wheel-to-wheel procession of cyclists plodding along at five to six miles per hour, mostly Lycra-clad on high-end racing bikes. There were a few on mountain bikes and lesser quality road bikes. A few had small day packs and there was one with a single pannier, but no one carrying my weight, fifty-pounds or so, including a two-pound can of cassoulet stew that I was lucky enough to buy at a small grocery store in Bagneres that was open on this holiday. The steep grade had reduced a few cyclists to walking their bikes.

I settled in for a couple of miles with a pair of English cyclists who were on their annual visit to The Tour. This was the first time, though, that they had ventured into the mountains. The Tourmalet was by far the biggest climb they had ever attempted any where, partially explaining why I was able to keep up with them. They were thrilled by the two stages wins of their countryman Cavendish. It had been front page news back home. They wanted to buy Columbia team jerseys, but the team is so new, none are yet available for sale. The Tour shops still have the team's short-lived High Road jersey for sale, and not at a discount. The team was known as High Road for a few months in its transition from being Telekom as it searched for a new sponsor.

After about 20 minutes the two guys said they were going to stop and wait for their two companions. I asked if they knew when the road was going to be closed to cyclists. They didn't, nor did they know about the ski town below the summit. I stopped for a mini-rest myself five miles into the climb and to have a bite to eat. I'd scavenged a couple of discarded Powerbar gel packs that I 'd saved for this climb, one that was laced with caffeine and promised instant action. And it delivered. The last two-and-a-half miles were almost easier than the first five. For the first time I was passing riders and feeling no pain.

It looked for a spell that it was going to be a glorious Bastille Day for all of France when the upcoming young French rider Remy DeGregorio broke from the peloton and led all up the Tourmalet. He didn't have enough to hold on for the win, but he did have an hour or more of glory. The riders were spread out over 20 minutes on the Tourmalet. Whenever an Euskatel rider passed my companions went berserk shouting out the rider's name and encouragement, earning an instant smile from the poor, suffering soul.

And today is a much anticipated rest day for the peloton, so I am under no pressure to find a bar with a television or reach a Finish Line by mid-afternoon. I'll still do 50 or more miles on the way to Foix, tomorrow's Stage 11 finish. I've done at least 100 miles four of the last five days, so my legs will enjoy only doing half that and be under no strain to reach any specific point by any specific time.

I'm having my best Tour ever, having kept up through ten stages. This morning's ride has been a bit of a challenge, as the course markers have yet to be posted. I know it is going on at this very moment somewhere behind me. When I send this off and resume my riding, it is very possible that the crew putting up the markers may have passed me by. I'm hoping I'll catch them in action, something I've very much wanted to witness.

I'm especially interesting in seeing the tool that spits out the wire that holds the signs to the posts. I'm curious, too, how many people are in the crew. Is it simply a driver and a poster or are there more. I'd like to ask them if they are supplied with a map designating where arrows should be placed, or is it up to their discretion. I'd love, too, to see the huge stack of markers they have in their truck, and to learn how many they ordinarily post on a stage and what their records are for the most and fewest for a stage.

Later, George

Friday, July 11, 2008

Aurillac (Ville Arriveé)

Friends: Rather than continuing on to Super Bresse after the peloton passed me to the Stage 6 finish line, I left The Tour route at St. Saues at the 86-mile mark of the 122-mile stage, and headed due south for 75 miles to Aurillac for the Stage 7 finish. I didn't feel totally Tour-deprived, as there were others taking the shortcut as well. Some were fans following The Race in their campers with The Tour course markers in their rear windows. There were also official Tour vehicles with ID numbers on their back or sponsor logos on their side.

Even off route there was Tour scavenging. I found a course marker laying on the side of the road. It had scotch tape on two of its edges, indicating someone actually tried to tape it to the outside of their window. I also found a green Agritubel team water bottle, my second bottle of the day, both from French teams. The other was a bland, mostly white Cofidis bottle.

I didn't suffer too much withdrawal going 75 miles without bike tributes along the road, as I was still reveling from a very healthy dose the past couple of days. There was a great sense of community spirit up on the Massif Central and a contagion of Tour fever. Many of the small towns had similar, almost copycat, bike decorations in front of homes and businesses. Bikes adorned with boxes of geraniums atop their front and rear wheels were a popular display.

I encountered my first zealot of a gendarme (a true "flic," French slang similar to "cop") after I'd biked 38 miles yesterday. It was 11:05. He said the course had closed at eleven and I would have to stop riding even though the caravan wasn't due for over two hours and the racers three-and-a-half hours. He obviously hadn't been informed that the eleven o'clock closing did not apply to those of us on bicycles. I simply walked for five minutes until I was out of his vision and then continued on for over an hour-and-a-half passing dozens of sensible and benevolent gendarmes, just reaching my goal of the day's feed zone at the 70-mile point of the course before I was ordered off my bike again, this time by two gendarmes on motorcycles who precede the caravan by about fifteen minutes. I was helped by being able to draft a hard-riding father and son for an hour or so.

I was spent, as it was a hard day over two category four climbs and lots of other climbing. I was so intent on making it to the Feed Zone before the caravan that I didn't even stop at a cemetery to fill my water bottle. I still had two full ones, but with it now warming up, I was concerned they might not be enough to get me through my two-hour interlude waiting for the riders.

There is a water sponsor in the caravan with four floats dispensing half-liter bottles of water. When they passed I was fully prepared to be as aggressive as need be to grab their offering. Luck was with me as I nabbed a bottle from both of the floats passing on my side of the road. They pass at 25 miles per hour and hold the bottles out, rather than tossing them. It can sting when it hits the palm of one's hand. I knew better than the others around me to be at the ready and to assertively reach out for the water. Most of the other sponsors toss their goodies at our feet. A coffee sponsor also hands out their containers. PMU likewise delivers their over-sized green hands into the palms of the roadside fans.

The Massif Central is the least populated region of France, so there were fewer people along the road than usual. By the time the caravan reached the Feed Zone they were extra generous with their giveaways, as they were still well-stocked. I had my best haul yet, 21 items. I nabbed my first pretzels of The Tour. I was running low on food, as I hadn't been able to stop at a grocery store, so they were welcome too, as was the candy.

I scored key chains from six of the sponsors, one of my favorite items as they are small and lightweight. They are easy to carry in my pocket and then toss the next day to fans along the route, as I redistribute whatever non-consumables I gather. I'll have a good stock to pass out tomorrow. I may not get too far along the course though before the peloton, as there is a forty mile gap between today's stage finish and tomorrow's stage start. Hopefully the terrain will be less demanding than it has been.

I am a petit pre-caravan on those days when I'm riding the course just a few hours ahead of the peloton, giving those lining the course an early taste of what is to come and an unexpected thrill. I am selective who I toss to. I ignore the campers that are following The Tour knowing they get loads of stuff. I seek out children or people who are extra enthusiastic cheering my approach. Many of the older folks get a hearty laugh at my gesture, recognizing it for what it is. Others shout out a gracious "merci."

I biked for 90 minutes after the peloton passed and made it to a restaurant/bar for the final 40 minutes of the stage. For a couple miles after the Feed Zone, I collected a few energy bars tossed by riders who didn't need them, including a traditional home-made rice patty wrapped in tin foil that probably came from one of the two Belgian teams in the race. There is a new caffeinated coconut Power Bar that is popular with the riders. It is so potent, one bite is all they need, leaving the rest along the road for us scavengers. Mini-cans of coke, about four ounces worth, is the drink of choice. They are downed almost immediately after the Feed Zone in one quick gulp and then discarded along the road. I've never found an unopened one.

For a few kilometers the American Christian Vande Velde was a threat to grab the yellow jersey and achieve instant fame across the U.S. He was part of a two-man breakaway on the final category two climb. If he had been able to stay away it would have been a tremendous coup. His American team, Garmin-Chipotle, has been the surprise of The Tour. They are leading the team catergory. The other American team, Columbia, is second, followed by CSC, which won the honor last year. Its a token award that isn't given much attention, but it still has its significance.

Two Americans remain in the Top Ten overall, Vande Velde and Hincapie. Vande Velde might actually be able to hang in there. Maybe it will prompt some Americans to get over here. I have yet to see an American flag along the road. There have been a fair number of Australia flags, along with the usual abundance of French, Belgian and German flags waved by fans along the road or mounted on their campers.

I've met two sets of Americans at Ville Etapes, both overwhelmed by the extravagance of this event. Its enormity is beyond comparison. One was a trio of students from Virginia biking around Europe. They just happened upon The Tour and had no intent of seeing any more of it. The other was a 40-year old guy from San Diego, who also just stumbled upon it. He was a cyclist and would have loved to have been riding, but his wife wasn't much of a cyclist. They were staying at 150 euro a night hotels, enough to cover all my expense for better than two weeks.

Later, George

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Chateauroux (Ville Arriveé)

Friends: Whoever has been placing those hallowed course markers along The Route this year has been doing an exceptionally stellar job, above and beyond the postings of my previous four Tours. Not once yesterday as I biked the Stage Five route while the peloton was time-trialing in Cholet did I go astray or even fear I'd gone astray. I covered one hundred miles without having to consult a map, a rarity. It was so easy to follow the course it was almost as if some fairy godmother had come along with a magic wand and transformed the way to Chateauroux into a yellow brick road.

I did suffer one momentary alarm when I came to a sign warning the road ahead was barricaded and those black arrows still pointed in that direction. As I neared the barrier I saw a crew putting down a fresh layer of asphalt on the very route the peloton was due to ride in less than 24 hours. It was on the outskirts of Thouars. Rather than taking a detour I rode on the sidewalk the few blocks of the paving and remained on course.

In contrast to year's past there has consistently been a course marker one hundred yards beyond each turn the route takes to confirm that one is on the right road. It can be confusing at times which artery to take out of a roundabout, as its possible to be distracted and suffer a lapse of attention and make a mistake. This year, if I have any doubts, I can quickly confirm I took the correct artery.

At particularly sudden or sharp turns markers are often posted in pairs, one on top of the other, so there is no missing them. This year, they have been occasionally posted in triplicate. Whoever has been doing the posting may have biked the route last year and knows how tricky it can be to stay on route when following the course a day ahead of time before it is lined with fans and gendarmes and barricades and bales of hay. Or perhaps he is being paid by the number of signs he puts up. Each one takes some effort. It would be easy to be lazy and try to get away with putting up as few as possible. There has certainly been no skimping this year. I'd gladly buy the poster a beer or a "L'Equipe" for his efforts. There have also been more markers on those long straight stretches that can go on for miles, each assuring those following The Route that they are on course. It always gladdens my heart to see one. There are times when my thought can go astray and a marker jerks me back to reality of where I am--in France biking The Tour.

If I could, I would gladly accompany the crew that puts up the markers, just for a day though. Its not a full-time job I'd want, as the posters never get to see The Race, always a day ahead. The dream Tour job, the dream summer job of any French youth, is riding on one of the caravan vehicles tossing freebies to the goody-craving masses along The Route every day. They get to cover every mile of The Route every day at peak intensity and get to make a lot of people happy.

I departed Cholet yesterday at noon after seeing a handful of the riders set out on their 28-mile ride against the clock. They began at eleven and continued until 5:30. My goal was to reach Richelieu 65 miles away by 4:45 and find a TV to watch the crucial final ten riders. I had the road practically to myself for thirty miles or so, as anyone who lived within that sphere would have flocked into Cholet for the day. Those first thirty miles were a virtual death zone of no activity.

If my legs ddin't have it in them, I could also stop at Loudun, eleven miles before Richelieu. But the terrain was relatively flat and the wind was with me, so I met my goal. Richelieu was another of those astoundingly picturesque French towns with cathedral and chateau and plaza. Any tourist who stumbled upon it would want to stay for days and claim it as their own and rave the rest of their lives of their "discovery," since it isn't one of those name destinations that a travel agent or guidebook would have sent them to. After I passed over a canal and through a narrow walled entrance leading to the plaza I spotted three bars. One had the PMU logo on it for parimutuel horse racing. It would have televisions, but only tuned to horse racing even though PMU is the sponsor of The Tour's sprint competition. Another bar had an ice cream machine out front and tourists sitting at tables. The third was the Bar des Sports. There were no bikes in front, but I went straight to it.

The Tour was on the lone television. There was a newspaper laying on one table. It wasn't L'Equipe, the daily national sports newspaper, but a regional paper that was so packed with Tour stories, it could well have been. It was on the front page, the inside page, the feature page and three pages of the sports section. The headline of one story was that The Tour honored the region with going through it. There was also a headline saying that all of France was proud of its two local heroes yesterday, the French rider who won the stage and the French rider who assumed the Yellow Jersey. There were multiple stories giving the life story of both these unknown riders.

Several locals drifted into the bar as the Time Trial reached its climax. The rider in yellow, the last to start, so expended himself the day before he finished 169th out of the 178 riders left in the race, maybe the worst performance by the yellow jersey in a time trial ever. The American Frishkton also finished near the back, though Hincapie and Vande Velde, two of the other four Americans in the race, both finished in the top ten.

Valverde made his statement of how ready he was on the first stage, and today Evans did the same, finishing a surprising one minute and seven seconds faster than Valverde. Evans finished third for the day. Valverde is a better climber, so his fans needn't be too concerned. I may have to become one of them, as Valverde is one of the few riders wearing a Livestrong bracelet. Tomorrow's stage ends with a dramatic category-two climb. That will make for some exciting racing.

I will be hard pressed to make it to the finish line ahead of the peloton as I've managed the past three stages. After today's finish, it is thirty miles to the start of tomorrow's stage. I will be lucky to make it by nine p.m. Hopefully I'll have the energy to get at least ten miles into the course before stopping to camp. It will be an exciting thirty miles to tomorrow's start as it will be bumper-to-bumper with team cars and Tour staff and Tour followers.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cholet (Ville Etape)

Friends: William Frishkorn, one of just four Americans riding this year's Tour, the fewest in years, came within a tire's width of Tour immortality yesterday in Nantes, nipped at the finish line by the French rider Samuel Dumoulin. Frishkorn was part of an all-day, four-man breakaway he initiated that managed to hold off the charging pack by two minutes, an extremely rare occurrence.

When the giant screen near the finish line came to life at 2:30 with 75 miles left in the stage, it revealed four men 14 minutes up on the field 55 miles into the stage. Their jerseys represented Cofidis, Barloworld, Agributel and Garmin-Chipotle. I had to wait for the graphics to learn who the four were, not even recognizing the representative of the American team Garmin-Chipotle. When their names came up there were French flags by two of them, an Italian flag by another and the Stars and Stripes by the fourth, a most thrilling site. My thrill though was nothing compared to the thrill fueling the 27-year old Frishkorn's effort, riding his first Tour, on center stage at the sport's premier event, in the midst of his life's ultimate dream.

It was a great day for France as both French riders in the break achieved an immortality of their own--Dumoulin, who won the stage and Roman Feillu, who finished third, but assumed the yellow jersey. Both Feillu and Dumolin are young, relatively unknown support riders, and oddly enough the two smallest French riders in the race. The papers the next day had multiple articles on both of them. This day could well be the highlight of their careers. For the rest of their lives they will be introduced as a Tour stage winner and someone who wore the yellow jersey in The Tour, an introduction they will never tire of and will thrill those who they meet. I wonder though who was the happiest at the end of the day, the stage winner or the bearer of the yellow jersey, or who earner the biggest paycheck. Feillu will be a King for at least a day in yellow.

Watching the peloton snake through the exquisite French countryside on that giant finish line screen surrounded by scores of life-long devotees to The Tour is one of the many sublime pleasures of attending this monumental event. France is 60% farmland and 25% forest. It is dotted with over 35,000 villages. Viewing such scenery from the helicopter and motorcycle cameras following those cyclists pedaling with such poetry and grace is a mesmerizing experience. I'm struck by occasional pangs of longing, wishing to be riding through those landscapes myself rather than observing it. Then I quickly remember I have just ridden those miles I'm now witnessing and I'll be soon heading out for more.

It is impossible to rank the countless Tour moments that make it such a uniquely captivating event. Nothing is more intoxicating than riding The Tour route just hours ahead of the peloton past all the home-made signs of tributes and altars to The Bike and The Tour and the thousands of fans picnicking and partying and communing, all in a festive, joyous, light-hearted-spirit, showering me with a variety of benedictions--Bravo, Chapeau, Allez-Allez, Tres Bien, Pou-Pou, Bon Courage, Le Premier...

Riding The Route in the tranquility of the late evening, way ahead of The Riders, lifts the soul to equally lofty spheres. It is a quiet, heavenly bliss in contrast to the supercharged day-of-the-race energy. They are more leisurely, generally bonus miles, past enclaves of genuine Tour pilgrims in their campers and tents. Many are relaxing, sitting in lawn chairs, soaking up the still countryside in the dimming light. I have the road practically to myself and pass by the solitary and communal encampments almost like an apparition. They still call out an occasional greeting, though much more gentle and sincere than during the day. It is a privilege to be fit enough to be able to spend so many hours on the bike, experiencing The Tour in such a manner. Those who park themselves along the road for a single stage, whether as an all-day or several hour affair, are only capturing a puny sniff of the vast grandeur of The Tour.

I had my first Devil sighting yesterday, 30 miles from the finish line. He was out of costume, slumped in the front seat of his Devil-Mobile--a van with his life-sized image on the back and both sides, in mid-leap, waving his trident and eyes bulging. It was raining, so he hadn't painted his series of trademark white tridents on the road yet.

The concept of ghost bikes hasn't been introduced to France yet, or at least to the town of Guern. It was a spooky experience seeing clusters of bikes spray-painted white beside the road leading into this village along The Tour route and then throughout the town. If it had been Chicago each bike would have represented a bicycling fatality. They are becoming an all too common site with at least two more in Chicago since I left two months ago.

If I didn't associate a spray-painted white bike with a fallen comrade, rather than feeling as if I were at a Holocaust Memorial, I would have felt another surge of delight at another Bike/Tour tribute. All along The Route bikes are decorated and placed on pedestals or altars (giant wine barrels, stacks of hay, posts, fountains) or dangled from ahigh, or stacked to form a totem, honoring it as an object of great reverence. No matter how simple or extravagant, such a site never fails to gladden the heart. I can't get enough. The occasional truly original tribute gives me as strong a jolt of delight as any of my Tour experiences.

Today Frishkorn will once again be riding in prime time, the third to the last rider to embark on the time trial route, as his effort yesterday moved him up to third in general classification. He'll no doubt plunge in the standings, but he will have had a spectacular 24 hours that could well be the highlight of his life.

Later, George

Monday, July 7, 2008

Nantes Le Tour

Friends: The first two stages with a fair bit of moderate climbing through Brittany have been a good early test of the fitness of the peloton, as well as my own legs. Valverde, co-favorite along with Evans, made a dramatic statement with his explosive blast past everyone on the climb to the finish line to win the first stage and assume the Yellow Jersey. He let it be known to all that there is no mistaking he has the desire as well as the legs to finally win this thing. It was an exhibition of power similar to Lance flying past Ullrich in the Prologue time-trial three years ago.

I too made a first stage statement as to my readiness and eagerness setting out at 9:15 pm the night before the racers would be unleashed from Brest to begin their three week race around France I biked for an hour until dark, camping in a luxurious field of rolls of hay and then was back on the course at seven the next morning. I rode 53 miles with only a couple of pauses to put on my rain coat, then shed it, and to snap a few irresistible photos and also to make a dash into a grocery store for a loaf of bread and paté and can of ravioli. Normally I ride 25 or 30 miles and take a food and rest break, so to go 53 miles straight without noticeable strain was a great indication that I've trained well these past two months for the three weeks ahead of keeping up with The Tour.

I actually stopped along the course well before the gendarmes ordered me to. I was under no pressure to push as far as I could, as I only needed to continue on another forty miles to link up with the next day's stage. This allowed me the rare opportunity of being able to choose where I wanted to watch the peloton pass. Rarely do I get the opportunity to witness the peloton pass through The Feed Zone, so it was an easy decision to make that my stopping point for this first stage. It has many attractions, the possibility of scavenging bottles and musette bags and energy bars.

I had several options of where to station myself at the Feed Zone. If I plopped down just before it I would have the chance of harvesting a water bottle from the blizzard of bottles the 180 riders fling aside in anticipation of replacing them with new ones. It is a spectacle and makes for great scavenging, though the competition can be highly aggressive. It was a little too early in The Tour to be filling my panniers with extra water bottles, plus I know I'll find an occasional one here and there along the road when I ride after the peloton has passed, so I didn't stop just yet.

I could also station myself amongst the team cars and the soigneurs who would be passing out musette bags of food and drink to their riders. The riders have to slow a tad as they search out their soigneur. It makes for an interesting chaos. When I arrived at the Feed Zone around noon, none of the team cars had arrived yet and there were already a fair number of fans lining the mile stretch of the Feed Zone. I had planned on pushing on just beyond the Feed Zone anyway, unless it had been more deserted, as just beyond the zone the riders are disposing of their team-emblazoned bag their soigneur hands them with all their goodies and they frequently toss aside energy bars and fruit and such that they don't have the hunger for.

But this being a Saturday afternoon and in Brittany where the locals know their cycling, the entire Feed Zone area was a popular draw, meaning there would be lots of competition for the left-overs, as well as the giveaways from the caravan of sponsors preceding the riders.
This was a rare occasion during The Tour where I sought out a sunny spot for my two-and-a-half hour break. The temperature hasn't been much above sixty my week in Brittany and the persistent wind always had a chill in it coming off one cold body of water or another. Frequently during these breaks I'm also concerned about running out of water, but not here in Brittany.

There was lots of competition for the offerings from the caravan. I ended up with only four items from the close to forty sponsors--a musette bag, a Euro Disney comic book, a pen and a key chain/bottle opener, nothing very exciting, though I had promised a young friend just learning French a comic book. As last year, the choice item besides the food, which I can always use, were reflective coiled wrist/leg bands.

After the caravan passed, the hundreds of people around me lining the road as far as the eye could see waited patiently for an hour until the riders flew past in a blur, preceded by an eight-man breakaway. They go past too fast to recognize. The best one can hope is to catch the numbers on their backs. Each rider has a team car following in case of a flat or problem, so if one can't identify the riders, one can at least identify which teams are represented. I was far enough beyond the Feed Zone, that most of the riders were back up to speed by the time they came by. Only one was still in the process of transferring his goodies from his bag to the pockets on the back of his jersey. I was nowhere near when he flung aside his bag.

But I was the beneficiary of a water bottle from a rider who didn't fully trust that there would be a bottle in his bag or feared the possibility that he might miss getting his bag. It was an orange Euskatel bottle, one that I don't have in my collection, and has been on the top of my wish list for years. The rider tossed it straight at me as if he were looking for me. It was still half-full of a tasty orange drink. If it had been empty he would have tossed it before the Feed Zone, so he wouldn't have to fumble with the replacement bottle, not having an empty cage on his bike to immediately place it. I didn't catch it on the fly, so it picked up a smudge from hitting the pavement at 25 mph, adding to its authenticity as a Tour find.

Once the hoard of team cars and medical cars and other official vehicles passed, the last van bearing "Fin de Course" on its back, I could mount my bike and follow in their wake. I and hundreds of others were all scanning the road sides for left-overs. There are isolated stretches where no is stationed, so it is possible to find some discarded stuff. And I did--two Clif bars, three Power Bars and a paté de fruit bar. A couple had been run over and pancaked, but at least half was protected within its wrapper. A couple also had one huge bike taken out of them. The teeth marks were so pronounced on the gooey Power Bars that a dentist could make an impression from them. The half-eaten bars were all along a descent when the riders had a chance to catch their breath and get some food down.

Stage Two I could have had another Feed Zone vantage, but it would have meant doubling back eight miles afterward to where I was headed next. I had to ride 53 miles due east from the middle of the Stage Two route to pick up the middle of the Stage 3 route, 66 miles from Nantes. Time was getting tight so I watched Stage Two in the large town of Pontivy right at the road I had to start riding east after the riders past. I arrived in Pontivy four hours early, giving me time to find a grocery store and a place to wash my clothes. In my search I stumbled upon the town's Muncipal Campgrounds, where I was able to get a free hot shower, my first since the Camino de Santigo. I've had several cold showers since at showers along the beach and swims in lakes and rivers and the ocean, but a hot shower is a rarity. I could exult afterward, "I'm clean, I'm clean."

Along side me in downtown Pontivy was a family of four with two small children in strollers. They arrived carrying a large shopping bag of food from McDonald's, including two Happy Meals with toys that kept the toddlers happy while they waited first for the caravan and then the hour interim for the peloton.

Both days after the peloton passed I was able to bike twenty miles and reach a town with a television equipped bar for the final thirty minutes of the race. Saturday I was in a bar jammed with 25 English cyclists in a tour group. Sunday off The Tour route I only had to share the television with two locals. Sundays can be a challenge to find an open bar, but the town I ended up in, Jovilly, was a bit of a tourist town. As I turned towards its center following a canal with flower boxes every 100 feet I was stunned to see a towering chateau ahead. It happens all the time, seeing some such unexpected glorious site in these French villages. The previous Sunday I couldn't even find a grocery store open in Brittany, even in the large city of St. Brieuc. I had to resort to my dumpster-diving skills, harvesting a dozen yogurts, some applesauce and bananas and strawberries.

I arrived here in Nantes five hours ahead of the peloton. I biked 130 miles in the past 21 hours to do it. As soon as the stage finishes I will bike thirty miles to Cholet for tomorrow's time trial. I'll only watch the first few riders tomorrow and then set out on the next day's 150 mile stage, watching the end of the time trial in a bar somewhere. The next day, Stage Six into the Massif Central will be my first big challenge and the peloton's too.

Later, George