Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Etampes (Ville Depart)

Friends: Time trials offer a feast for the bicycle racing epicurean. One can sit in a single spot and for six hours watch racers fly past every couple of minutes. Invariably I connect with a fellow fan of the highest order at the time trials, especially those at the end of The Tour when the race is still at stake, as it has been the past three years in the post-Lance era.

Each of the previous four Tours I've attended I've had the good fortune of finding myself beside such a devotee at the final time trial, someone I can lose myself with talking bike racing and reliving the previous three weeks of The Tour. One year it was a bicycle race promoter from northern California who'd witnessed all seven of Lance's wins, following at least a week of each Tour with a rental car and bike. I've also shared the experience with an Englishman who hadn't missed a Tour in 25 years, a retired Dutch gent who assiduously scribbled the time splits at each of the checkpoints whenever one was flashed on the screen and a young German cyclist who knew all the essentials of every German in the race.

I feared my string of knowledgeable, English-speaking time trial companions had come to an end this year when I was sandwiched in a sliver of shade up against some bushes between an elderly French couple and a couple of guys speaking a language that sounded Eastern European. After about an hour one of the guys turned to me and asked in fluent English to borrow the sports section I had been annotating. He wasn't sure if I was an English-speaker either. "So you speak English," he happily noted. "That's good. We can communicate."

Its always a puzzle here in Europe what nationality someone might be. I was surprised to learn they were South Africans and had been speaking Afrikaans. They were the first South Africans I had ever met at The Tour. They were drawn to The Tour not so much to cheer the two South African participants, but mostly to bike L'Alpe d'Huez and to experience The Race first hand after watching it on television for years. "Ever since I saw LeMond and Hinault ride up L'Alp d'Huez in 1986 ahead of everyone else cheered on by thousands of people along the road, I've wanted to bike it," one said. He and his friend spent three days camped at the ski resort on L'Alpe d'Huez where the stage concludes. It was everything they imagined and more.

South Africa has no mountains to compare to the Alps. Those around L'Alpe d'Huez are as spectacular as mountains can be. They were overwhelmed on race day after their second night on the mountain to awake to a vast complex of a race village that hadn't been there when they went to sleep. At each race finish a vast network of buildings are erected to accommodate the 3,000 members of the print and electronic media covering the race and for the couple thousand more race officials and sponsors and dignitaries.

The South Africans and I had arrived early enough to the time trial to claim an optimum vantage point at the 100 meter sign to the finish line. We weren't quite ring side, as we chose to sit in the shade up against a fence ten feet back from the roadside barrier along the race course. But most importantly, we had a direct view of the giant screen showing all the action out on the course. We figured we were in for a historic day, possibly a closer finish than LeMond's eight second win over Fignon in 1989. The South Africans were pulling for Sastre to hold on to his advantage over Evans as I was. None of us cared for Evans' defensive, unaggressive racing and stunted personality. The South Africans had further reason to root against him, as they have a natural rivalry with Australia. South Africa and Australia were presently engaged in an annual rugby match that they had been following closely.

So we were all pleased when Sastre rode strong and Evans failed to deliver the extraordinary effort that Sastre had produced on L'Alpe d'Huez when he won by over two minutes. That ride makes him a worthy champion. Its the third year in a row that a Spaniard has won the race, all due to extenuating circumstances that will not place their wins among the more valiant that The Race has known. The Race would have been quite different if the Astana team had been here with last year's first and third place riders Contador and Leipheimer. It would have been different too if the Colombian Soler, who won the mountain competition last year, hadn't been injured early in the race and had to quit. He would have animated the mountain stages, possibly wearing out Evans even more than he was. It was satisfying to see how well the American Vande Velde rode, finishing third in the time trial and fifth overall. If he hadn't had one bad day, a "jours sans" (day without), as the French call it, he would have finished second. That would have truly been extraordinary. Vande Velde's success had to have Leipheimer crying buckets not to be here since he knows he is a much superior rider.

But it has still been a fabulous three weeks of biking and riding around France. This is certainly the place to be in July. I'm already looking forward to next year. I've had by far my best Tour ever, seeing and riding 19 of the first 20 stages, only missing the second of the Italian stages. I am presently 30 miles south of Paris, preparing to ride the peloton's final 21st stage into Paris. Their route took them west first, not hitting the Champs Elysees until they'd ridden 50 miles. Then they rode eight four-mile laps. I found an open bar Sunday just as the peloton arrived on the Champs, a most climatic moment, especially since the winning team gets to ride at the front on that first lap. I failed to find an open bar or restaurant with a television in the first two towns I tried. But then found an unexpected restaurant/bar along the road in a town much smaller than the first two at precisely the moment in the race I would have liked to have started watching. I thought I'd have to wait until I went another ten miles to a town on the Loire that had a chateau that was a tourist attraction.

It is always a thrill to see that seemingly tiny pack of riders emerge on the world's grandest boulevard with the Arc de Triomphe in the background knowing all the miles and terrain and suffering they and I have endured the past three weeks. They share a bond with the millions of people who have glimpsed them along the way uniting the country in a way that no other event in the world does. Each of the 150 of the survivors of the original 180 is thrilled to have completed The Race and is glorying in those final miles. Each rider has something he can't wait to do. Andy Schleck, winner of the best young rider competition, said the first thing he was gong to do upon reaching Paris was to go to a McDonald's, or McDo, as the French call it. I am looking forward to attending the free nightly Open Air movie, whatever it might be and no matter what language it might be in. It will be the first movie I'll have seen since I saw 70 in 12 days at Cannes two-and-a-half months ago. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Now I am hoping to find a stray Caravan newspaper or two along the route into Paris, as each issue has had a full-page cartoon from a collection of a long-time cartoonist celebrating The Tour. They have all been superb and insightful. There is a shocking minimum of litter along the route despite the tens of thousands who have been encamped there for hours. But if nothing else, I might find one atop a trash can or in a plastic trash bag erected along the course. Since I have had nothing but good fortune all these weeks on the bike, as demonstrated once again yesterday, I am sure a caravan newspaper awaits me.

Later, George

No comments: