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

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