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.