Tuesday, July 15, 2008

St. Gaudens, France

Friends: Every day following The Tour is rich in stories, of the race itself, my efforts to keep up, what I see along the way and the encounters I have. Here are the lead paragraphs of some of those I would have shared had I had the time or been able to find the Internet the last few days.

As I was taking down my tent early Sunday morning at a nondescript grassy atoll at a minor T intersection on The Tour route about 15 miles beyond Toulouse, that day's gendarme guardian of the intersection was dropped off, something I hadn't anticipated, though it was no cause for alarm. She gave me a nod and a smile. It was only 7:40 and the peloton wasn't due to pass for four hours. Their early posting is one of countless examples of how supremely well-organized this monumental event is. I passed quite a few lonely gendarmes at their early morning outposts in the miles to come. I frequently caught them in the act of glancing at their watch...

Even though there are only four Americans riding in The Tour, there is a strong American influence. Christian Vande Velde, who grew up in a Chicago suburb just as I did, is perhaps the surprise of The Tour, in third place and a genuine threat to end up on the podium. He's a veteran rider who has never had the opportunity to be a team leader in The Tour and wasn't given much consideration to have any impact on the race. He rode with Lance in his first Tour win in 1999 on the U.S. Postal team. Vande Velde was the youngest rider on the nine-man team. He wore the Tour's white jersey as the highest placed young rider for a short spell. He made a grievous mistake that year, crashing in the team time trial, skidding on a wet paint mark, a rookie mistake that no bike messenger would ever make. He rode only one more Tour with Lance in 2001 before transferring to the Spanish Liberty Segurus team of Roberto Heras and then to the Danish CSC team before joining Garmin-Chipotle this year.

Besides Vande Velde, the two American-sponsored teams, the most ever in The Tour, have been making their presence felt. Columbia, a sports clothing company headquartered in Oregon, shortly before The Tour started took over the sponsorship of the German Telekom team that Jan Ullrich last rode for. Columbia has been having a sensational Tour, at one point holding three of the four lead jerseys--yellow for the leader, green for the best sprinter and white for best young rider. The only one they didn't have was the red polka-dot jersey for best climber. Columbia was the early dominant team in the race. The English sprinter Mark Cavendish, riding for Columbia, has won two stages. He's not much of a climber though, as he was the last over the Tourmalet, more than 20 minutes behind the leader. Columbia has some sharp management to have seen the opportunity to take over the sponsorship of this team and gain all the publicity it has. If I were an investor I'd be examining its price to earnings ratio and its other vital statistics...

Of the hundreds of Tour vehicles of team cars and officials and campers that passed me, 20 or 30 per minute, in the 40-mile early-evening post-race rush from the Stage six finish in Chateauroux to the Stage 7 start in Figeac, only one gave a friendly toot--one of the team cars of the American team Garmin-Chipotle. Europeans reserve their horns for assertive, rather than friendly, gestures. But people did stick their arms out to wave or to give a double pump of a clenched fist, the silent version of allez-allez. It was a rollicking, mostly downhill ride from the fringe of the Massif Central along a river. I arrived in Figeac with enough light to continue on and gain 10 miles on the next day's stage before camping at dark just as a light drizzle began...

With Bastille Day, the French equivalent of July 4, on a Monday this year, I faced the prospect of not finding an open grocery store for two days. So I finally did it. I spent five dollars and twenty-five cents on a 12-ounce jar of peanut butter. With a jar of peanut butter and a jar of honey and a loaf of bread, I'd have almost enough provisions to get me through two days, if nothing else turned up. At least the peanut butter came in a plastic jar, rather than glass, as it more commonly does here, making it a little lighter for my Bastille Day climb up the Tourmalet.

I didn't need to make much of a dent in the peanut butter however, as I was able to supplement my supplies with some Sunday dumpster-diving. It has been chilly enough in the foothills of the Pyrenees that four liter-sized bottles of citrus-flavored water were still perspiring in the dumpster, not having cooled to air temperature. Four deli sandwiches in sealed wedge-shaped plastic containers with an expiration date of the day before were also refrigerator temperature. A bag of croissants and a day-old "L'Equipe," perhaps the prize of the dive, rounded out my harvest. They help the budget. It has taken a hit of late having to cough up three to five dollars for a drink to watch The Tour in a bar, as I have been falling short of late reaching the Finish Line and its giant screen before the racers. So far, I've been in bars for the conclusion of six of the ten stages. When I usually don't even spend ten dollars a day on food, five dollars for a drink is an extravagance...

I found a dream vantage point for the Bastille Day tenth stage, two-and-a-half miles below the summit of the Tourmalet, the most storied Tour climb in the Pyrenees, at the ski resort town La Mangie. It was beside the Relais Etape, a mini-Tour village set up somewhere along each day's stage, a tented area cordoned off for dignitaries and sponsors with food and entertainment, and, most important, a large screen carrying the cable feed of the day's race action. Sometimes the screen is situated so only the VIPs can see it, but here, those sitting along the road could watch as well, though not at the best of angles.

My site was made even more perfect with a W.C. Publique across the road. It had sinks with water spigots, which isn't always customary. It's always important to have a place to pee, whether a toilet or a secluded bush, and a source of water nearby when I have to stop for several hours awaiting the racers to pass. And my spot was made all the better by a large clan of the enthusiastic, flamboyant Spanish orange-clad Euskatel fans right beside me--children and adults. If my Stage 1 Euskatel water bottle wasn't buried deep in one of my panniers and stuffed with film and my third pair of emergency socks and underwear, I would have filled it with water and made it my bottle of choice for this stage and been one of them. It was 12:30 when I claimed my spot, three hours before the racers were due to pass and five hours before they were due to finish at the ski resort of Hautacam 35 miles beyond. Before the climbing began the peloton would pass through Lourdes, which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Virgin Mary visitations to a local young girl. The year-long celebration includes a film festival of movies featuring Lourdes. The Pope also plans a visit to commemorate the occasion.

I set up my sleeping pad/camp chair, plopped down and reveled in my setting, further highlighted by the surrounding snow-streaked, jagged peaks all around, a few laced with dormant chair lifts. Watching the procession of the wide-array of recreational cyclists struggling past was as entertaining as the racers to come. At one-third the speed, one could actually focus in on them and their features.

It had been an eight-mile climb, mostly nine and ten percent grade, from the small town of Sainte-Marie de Campon to this point. From the turn-off starting the climb it had been bicycles only. It was a wheel-to-wheel procession of cyclists plodding along at five to six miles per hour, mostly Lycra-clad on high-end racing bikes. There were a few on mountain bikes and lesser quality road bikes. A few had small day packs and there was one with a single pannier, but no one carrying my weight, fifty-pounds or so, including a two-pound can of cassoulet stew that I was lucky enough to buy at a small grocery store in Bagneres that was open on this holiday. The steep grade had reduced a few cyclists to walking their bikes.

I settled in for a couple of miles with a pair of English cyclists who were on their annual visit to The Tour. This was the first time, though, that they had ventured into the mountains. The Tourmalet was by far the biggest climb they had ever attempted any where, partially explaining why I was able to keep up with them. They were thrilled by the two stages wins of their countryman Cavendish. It had been front page news back home. They wanted to buy Columbia team jerseys, but the team is so new, none are yet available for sale. The Tour shops still have the team's short-lived High Road jersey for sale, and not at a discount. The team was known as High Road for a few months in its transition from being Telekom as it searched for a new sponsor.

After about 20 minutes the two guys said they were going to stop and wait for their two companions. I asked if they knew when the road was going to be closed to cyclists. They didn't, nor did they know about the ski town below the summit. I stopped for a mini-rest myself five miles into the climb and to have a bite to eat. I'd scavenged a couple of discarded Powerbar gel packs that I 'd saved for this climb, one that was laced with caffeine and promised instant action. And it delivered. The last two-and-a-half miles were almost easier than the first five. For the first time I was passing riders and feeling no pain.

It looked for a spell that it was going to be a glorious Bastille Day for all of France when the upcoming young French rider Remy DeGregorio broke from the peloton and led all up the Tourmalet. He didn't have enough to hold on for the win, but he did have an hour or more of glory. The riders were spread out over 20 minutes on the Tourmalet. Whenever an Euskatel rider passed my companions went berserk shouting out the rider's name and encouragement, earning an instant smile from the poor, suffering soul.

And today is a much anticipated rest day for the peloton, so I am under no pressure to find a bar with a television or reach a Finish Line by mid-afternoon. I'll still do 50 or more miles on the way to Foix, tomorrow's Stage 11 finish. I've done at least 100 miles four of the last five days, so my legs will enjoy only doing half that and be under no strain to reach any specific point by any specific time.

I'm having my best Tour ever, having kept up through ten stages. This morning's ride has been a bit of a challenge, as the course markers have yet to be posted. I know it is going on at this very moment somewhere behind me. When I send this off and resume my riding, it is very possible that the crew putting up the markers may have passed me by. I'm hoping I'll catch them in action, something I've very much wanted to witness.

I'm especially interesting in seeing the tool that spits out the wire that holds the signs to the posts. I'm curious, too, how many people are in the crew. Is it simply a driver and a poster or are there more. I'd like to ask them if they are supplied with a map designating where arrows should be placed, or is it up to their discretion. I'd love, too, to see the huge stack of markers they have in their truck, and to learn how many they ordinarily post on a stage and what their records are for the most and fewest for a stage.

Later, George

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