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

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