Monday, July 7, 2008

Nantes Le Tour

Friends: The first two stages with a fair bit of moderate climbing through Brittany have been a good early test of the fitness of the peloton, as well as my own legs. Valverde, co-favorite along with Evans, made a dramatic statement with his explosive blast past everyone on the climb to the finish line to win the first stage and assume the Yellow Jersey. He let it be known to all that there is no mistaking he has the desire as well as the legs to finally win this thing. It was an exhibition of power similar to Lance flying past Ullrich in the Prologue time-trial three years ago.

I too made a first stage statement as to my readiness and eagerness setting out at 9:15 pm the night before the racers would be unleashed from Brest to begin their three week race around France I biked for an hour until dark, camping in a luxurious field of rolls of hay and then was back on the course at seven the next morning. I rode 53 miles with only a couple of pauses to put on my rain coat, then shed it, and to snap a few irresistible photos and also to make a dash into a grocery store for a loaf of bread and paté and can of ravioli. Normally I ride 25 or 30 miles and take a food and rest break, so to go 53 miles straight without noticeable strain was a great indication that I've trained well these past two months for the three weeks ahead of keeping up with The Tour.

I actually stopped along the course well before the gendarmes ordered me to. I was under no pressure to push as far as I could, as I only needed to continue on another forty miles to link up with the next day's stage. This allowed me the rare opportunity of being able to choose where I wanted to watch the peloton pass. Rarely do I get the opportunity to witness the peloton pass through The Feed Zone, so it was an easy decision to make that my stopping point for this first stage. It has many attractions, the possibility of scavenging bottles and musette bags and energy bars.

I had several options of where to station myself at the Feed Zone. If I plopped down just before it I would have the chance of harvesting a water bottle from the blizzard of bottles the 180 riders fling aside in anticipation of replacing them with new ones. It is a spectacle and makes for great scavenging, though the competition can be highly aggressive. It was a little too early in The Tour to be filling my panniers with extra water bottles, plus I know I'll find an occasional one here and there along the road when I ride after the peloton has passed, so I didn't stop just yet.

I could also station myself amongst the team cars and the soigneurs who would be passing out musette bags of food and drink to their riders. The riders have to slow a tad as they search out their soigneur. It makes for an interesting chaos. When I arrived at the Feed Zone around noon, none of the team cars had arrived yet and there were already a fair number of fans lining the mile stretch of the Feed Zone. I had planned on pushing on just beyond the Feed Zone anyway, unless it had been more deserted, as just beyond the zone the riders are disposing of their team-emblazoned bag their soigneur hands them with all their goodies and they frequently toss aside energy bars and fruit and such that they don't have the hunger for.

But this being a Saturday afternoon and in Brittany where the locals know their cycling, the entire Feed Zone area was a popular draw, meaning there would be lots of competition for the left-overs, as well as the giveaways from the caravan of sponsors preceding the riders.
This was a rare occasion during The Tour where I sought out a sunny spot for my two-and-a-half hour break. The temperature hasn't been much above sixty my week in Brittany and the persistent wind always had a chill in it coming off one cold body of water or another. Frequently during these breaks I'm also concerned about running out of water, but not here in Brittany.

There was lots of competition for the offerings from the caravan. I ended up with only four items from the close to forty sponsors--a musette bag, a Euro Disney comic book, a pen and a key chain/bottle opener, nothing very exciting, though I had promised a young friend just learning French a comic book. As last year, the choice item besides the food, which I can always use, were reflective coiled wrist/leg bands.

After the caravan passed, the hundreds of people around me lining the road as far as the eye could see waited patiently for an hour until the riders flew past in a blur, preceded by an eight-man breakaway. They go past too fast to recognize. The best one can hope is to catch the numbers on their backs. Each rider has a team car following in case of a flat or problem, so if one can't identify the riders, one can at least identify which teams are represented. I was far enough beyond the Feed Zone, that most of the riders were back up to speed by the time they came by. Only one was still in the process of transferring his goodies from his bag to the pockets on the back of his jersey. I was nowhere near when he flung aside his bag.

But I was the beneficiary of a water bottle from a rider who didn't fully trust that there would be a bottle in his bag or feared the possibility that he might miss getting his bag. It was an orange Euskatel bottle, one that I don't have in my collection, and has been on the top of my wish list for years. The rider tossed it straight at me as if he were looking for me. It was still half-full of a tasty orange drink. If it had been empty he would have tossed it before the Feed Zone, so he wouldn't have to fumble with the replacement bottle, not having an empty cage on his bike to immediately place it. I didn't catch it on the fly, so it picked up a smudge from hitting the pavement at 25 mph, adding to its authenticity as a Tour find.

Once the hoard of team cars and medical cars and other official vehicles passed, the last van bearing "Fin de Course" on its back, I could mount my bike and follow in their wake. I and hundreds of others were all scanning the road sides for left-overs. There are isolated stretches where no is stationed, so it is possible to find some discarded stuff. And I did--two Clif bars, three Power Bars and a paté de fruit bar. A couple had been run over and pancaked, but at least half was protected within its wrapper. A couple also had one huge bike taken out of them. The teeth marks were so pronounced on the gooey Power Bars that a dentist could make an impression from them. The half-eaten bars were all along a descent when the riders had a chance to catch their breath and get some food down.

Stage Two I could have had another Feed Zone vantage, but it would have meant doubling back eight miles afterward to where I was headed next. I had to ride 53 miles due east from the middle of the Stage Two route to pick up the middle of the Stage 3 route, 66 miles from Nantes. Time was getting tight so I watched Stage Two in the large town of Pontivy right at the road I had to start riding east after the riders past. I arrived in Pontivy four hours early, giving me time to find a grocery store and a place to wash my clothes. In my search I stumbled upon the town's Muncipal Campgrounds, where I was able to get a free hot shower, my first since the Camino de Santigo. I've had several cold showers since at showers along the beach and swims in lakes and rivers and the ocean, but a hot shower is a rarity. I could exult afterward, "I'm clean, I'm clean."

Along side me in downtown Pontivy was a family of four with two small children in strollers. They arrived carrying a large shopping bag of food from McDonald's, including two Happy Meals with toys that kept the toddlers happy while they waited first for the caravan and then the hour interim for the peloton.

Both days after the peloton passed I was able to bike twenty miles and reach a town with a television equipped bar for the final thirty minutes of the race. Saturday I was in a bar jammed with 25 English cyclists in a tour group. Sunday off The Tour route I only had to share the television with two locals. Sundays can be a challenge to find an open bar, but the town I ended up in, Jovilly, was a bit of a tourist town. As I turned towards its center following a canal with flower boxes every 100 feet I was stunned to see a towering chateau ahead. It happens all the time, seeing some such unexpected glorious site in these French villages. The previous Sunday I couldn't even find a grocery store open in Brittany, even in the large city of St. Brieuc. I had to resort to my dumpster-diving skills, harvesting a dozen yogurts, some applesauce and bananas and strawberries.

I arrived here in Nantes five hours ahead of the peloton. I biked 130 miles in the past 21 hours to do it. As soon as the stage finishes I will bike thirty miles to Cholet for tomorrow's time trial. I'll only watch the first few riders tomorrow and then set out on the next day's 150 mile stage, watching the end of the time trial in a bar somewhere. The next day, Stage Six into the Massif Central will be my first big challenge and the peloton's too.

Later, George

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