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

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