Friday, July 4, 2008

Brest, France

Friends: Six pedaling acrobats riding those French yellow postal bikes that French postal workers ride all across the country highlighted the opening ceremony for the 2008 Tour de France. The bikes and acrobats were dangling from three high wires strung high above the grand Place de la Liberte in front of the Brest's City Hall. Dressed as postal workers, they flung, with Tati-esque panache, envelopes to the gathering of several thousand cycling fans below.

Two fluttered into my lap, each with a special Brest Tour stamp. Inside each was a letter of tribute to The Tour written by a local school child. One was a nicely typed quote glorifying the bicycle written by Antoine Blondin, acclaimed L'Equipe sportswriter who has covered 27 Tours. The other envelope contained a kindergartenish drawing of a stick figure on a bicycle climbing a mountain. It will look great on my refrigerator.

After several minutes of the postal hoopla, the mayor and another local politician welcomed the crowd, concluding their remarks with a rousing "Vive Le Tour." Then Christian Prudhomme in his second year as Tour director spoke a few words before turning the proceedings over to Daniel Mangeas, long-time voice of The Tour. His voice is as ubiquitous as those postal bikes and as synonymous with The Tour as The Yellow Jersey and The Devil. He is at every stage start and stage finish rattling away for hours at a time a non-stop glorification of the racers, barely pausing to draw a breath. He is a phenomenon and much-beloved. He just wrote an autobiography. Several years ago The Tour route passed through his home town in his honor. He seemed extra revved since he was denied the Opening Ceremony microphone last year in London at the all-English presentation. Not hearing his act in English was last year's lone disappointment.

He introduced the nine riders on each of the twenty teams, one less than last year, starting with the lowest ranked team. That meant the first year American team, Garmin-Chipotle, was first to bike on to the vast stage and line-up nine across with their two directors in civilian clothes while Mangeas extolled the credentials of each. The team's best hope in the general classification, Christian Vande Velde, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, was the last to be introduced and will be wearing jersey number 191, while the rest of his teammates will be numbered from 192 to 199. Each team leader wears a number with the numeral one on his back, marking him as a rider to watch.

The teams were introduced in sets of five with a short break between each set for Mangeas to take a sip of water while a video of classic racing scenes played on a large screen beside the stage. The program was a fast two hours. Mangeas had notes, but didn't pause or hesitate once to consult them. He seemed to know every one of the 180 riders. Occasionally, when they were slow to bike off the stage, he would keep his patter going mentioning each again by name as they cycled past him, giving each a pat on the back. Several of the veteran riders shook his hand as they exited the stage. He got a laugh from Thomas Voeckler when he said he spent two weeks wearing the yellow jersey four Tours ago, as it was, in fact, only ten days.

The German Eric Zabel is this year's senior rider, competing in his 14th Tour, two less than the record held by the Dutch one-time winner Joop Zoetemelk. Three others competed in 15 and another three in 14. American George Hincapie, riding for Jan Ullrich's former German team T-Mobile, now sponsored by the American sportswear company Columbia, is lining up for the 12th time. Only six of the 180 starters have ridden in ten or more Tours. Besides Zabel and Hincapie, the others are the Australians O'Grady and McEwen, the Spaniard Garcia Acosta and Moreau of France. None are a threat to win it. Top threat is last year's runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia, who gets to wear the number one on his back.

If drugs hadn't wrecked havoc with the past two Tours, Floyd Landis could have been going for this third straight and The Tour would have had a heroic figure. There is no such figure these days. There might have been one if the Discovery team had known that Columbia was a potential sponsor. If they had grabbed them and continued intact, then we'd have last year's winner Contador and third place finisher Leipheimer to cheer. But the Discovery team disbanded when another sponsor couldn't be found, though the heart of the team joined the Astana team, fully expecting to receive an invitation to The Tour. However, Tour officials decided to penalize the Astana team for its drug violations last year, and not allow them to compete this year, even though it has a new directeur sportif and a largely new cast of riders.

The gathered throng gave polite applause to each of the riders with only a slight increase in decibels for the French riders Voeckler and Moreau and a few of the old-timers such as Zabel and Hincapie. The man sitting next to me, a former racer in his youth, now in his 40s, wasn't concerned about the future of the race or the devotion of the fans. He knew the race has suffered its up and downs over the years. Stimulants of a non-legal nature have always been a part of bicycle racing, as anyone who knows the sport is well aware. The testing has just gotten better, so the riders have to be more careful, he said. He was most upset that it had been 34 years since The Tour had been to Brest. He remembered well that Eddie Merckx had won the Prologue stage around the city back then.

There is no Prologue this year, the first time in years the race has started off with a genuine road stage. The man beside me said that less than 20 miles into the stage there is a significant category four climb, also a rarity for so early in the race, that will shake things up. Three more such climbs await the peloton on that first stage. Having the opening ceremony two nights, rather than one, before the race start is also something new. The racers can have a quiet night the evening before they are flung into the fray. It also allows Brest to have an extra ceremony.

There will be a grand celebration Friday night outside the city's famed Oceanopolis starting at 8:30 p.m. and broadcast across the country with many of the country's leading entertainers honoring The Tour. It will be outdoors and free. It is only a couple miles from the bridge leading out of the metropolis that will be the official Tour start after a several mile promenade through the city's urban area Saturday just after noon. I'll watch a bit of the Oceanopolis ceremony and then start down the route in the final hour before dark. The yellow arrow course markers are already up, always an exciting site. There will be enough light to keep riding until 10:30 if I wish. I ought to camp somewhere around that first climb and then be up early to get as far down the course as I can before the gendarmes say no more.

I've had a semi-restful couple of days in Brest, tending to last minute details. I replaced my tires. They still had a few hundred miles left on them, but I didn't want to have to scramble during the race to find a bike shop, as I've had to do in the past. I was lucky that the first shop I happened upon as I entered the city had the same tires that have served me so well--Continental's Conti Touring tires. I haven't had a flat on this trip in 3,500 miles. When I pried the front tire off, I severely bent the rim, as its sidewalls had worn perilously thin. It was a rather shocking site to see. I was very lucky I hadn't had a front flat out on the road. I doubt I could have bent the rim back to hold the tire on. I was lucky, too, that the store had a reasonably priced replacement. The owner wasn't confident in its bearings, so he regreased them before turning it over to me. It seems as if good fortune has been a constant companion. When I replaced my chain a few hundred miles back, the new chain still agreed with the freewheel. That's always a tense moment, as I fear its teeth might have worn enough that it would need replacing too.

I exhausted my film on the Camino de Santiago. It is always a challenge to find slide film these days. I had to go to four stores before I found some. I was glad to have found it in time to capture those flying postmen. I also tracked down the local Emmaus resale store, another French institution similar to the Salvation Army. They are generally located on the outskirts of a town and can be a challenge to find, though some towns offer roads signs indicating the way. If there are no signs, I can ask just about anyone, as they are so well known, everyone knows where the local store is. Sometimes they're puzzled by my pronunciation, and surprised that a non-French speaker would be searching out a resale store.

I learned about Emmaus from Craig, who has one just a few miles from his small village in the Cevennes. I was in search of a light weight short sleeve shirt, as my other had ripped. And I hoped to replenish my reading supply. I succeeded on both accounts. The store had a large room devoted to books, but just a couple shelves to English. I was lucky to find something by Nadine Gortimer, Nobel Prize winner, among the Clancy/Grisham/King drek. And lucky too that they took three of my books in exchange for it. As do many of the local stores, the Emmaus display window paid tribute to The Tour. It featured a bicycle draped with all manner of yellow attire and has a map of France spread out before it.

Along with film, tires, shirt and book I was in search of reasonably priced peanut butter. It is hard to find peanut butter at all, and whenever I do it is generally beyond my budget--five dollars for a twelve ounce jar. And such was the case even in Brest.

There were three exhibits around Brest honoring The Tour--two at art galleries and one at a library. The galleries featured art work of locals--bike-related paintings and sculpture and photographs. One artist specialized in photographing small models of racers placed in unique settings--railings and rocks and roadways against incongruous backgrounds that made me either chuckle or gasp. One exhibit was in the terrific setting of an old chapel. On the former altar was a bust of The Tour's second director Jacques Godet, successor of Henri Desgrange. It was a small version of a much larger bust that graces the summit of The Tourmalet, the premier climb of the Pyrenees.

A library displayed a Tour fanatic's vast personal collection of Tour memorabilia--bikes, jerseys, clippings, knick-knacks, games, and more. There were quite a few oddities, such as a pack of Gino Bartali razor blades and key chains featuring the faces of Anquetil and Poulidor. The guy liked to build models. One was an exceptional recreation of The Tour passing through a small town complete with picnickers and gendarmes on motorcycles leading the racers and team cars with bikes mounted on the roofs and even a few racers fallen, laying in agony. The walls of the library were decorated with old jerseys and framed newspaper articles from the '20s and '30s. There was a bike from the 1964 Tour with a mere ten speeds and standard Mafac brakes and flimsy bar end shifters. There was a velodrome dice board game. Among the objects of art as seven chain rings bolted together on a stand forming a Picassoescque figure. The display of objects was as interesting as many bike museums.

I am excited that I am once again on the verge of riding The Tour route. It will be my fifth. As much as the heroics of the racers, I am looking forward to meeting the many devotees of The Tour and to seeing all the bike art and decorations that will adorn The Tour route. There is always plenty of original and boggling concoctions. Brest has done a fine job of leading off.

Later, George

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