Thursday, July 17, 2008

Norbonne (Ville Arrivee)

Friends: There was a rare convergence of five touring cyclists under the giant screen at the Foix finish line yesterday. I was the first to arrive, staking claim to a shady corner spot up against a fence separating the VIPs from the commoners. I left my bike and went to fill two of my water bottles at a nearby fountain.

When I returned there were two young men with loaded bikes giving my bike the once over. They were Germans on the third day of their tour. They started out in Narbonne to the east near the Mediterranean, the peloton's next Ville Arrivee after Foix. The Germans had just pulled into Foix and were headed to the campgrounds, planning to return to see the race finish in four-and-a-half hours. They had only a little touring experience and had never ridden in mountainous terrain. They were fretting a bit about their climb out of Foix the next day. The had no intention of going anywhere near the Tourmalet knowing its forbidding reputation. They wondered if it was possible to climb it with a load such as mine.

When they returned a couple of hours later I was in conversation with a couple of wholesome young American touring cyclists from Pittsburg who were on their honeymoon. They too were early in their tour and were neophytes at it. They had flown into Paris and then took the TGV train to Pau. They had to scramble in Paris to get bike bags for the high-speed train, which aren't necessary for the regular train.

They saw the peloton depart Pau on Bastille Day and then started biking themselves, heading directly to Foix, staying north of the Tourmalet and the Pyrenees. There was still more climbing and steeper than they anticipated in the 150 miles to Foix. They biked well after dark with the aid of the moon and fireworks to reach the Foix campgrounds on their second night. They had no idea about wild-camping and had made hotel or camping reservations for each night of their two week trip. They needed the reservations for the Foix campgrounds as it was at capacity. When they arrived after dark they were told there was no room for them until they produced their reservation and were allowed to pitch their tent on a scrap of unoccupied grass. Poor souls could have had a whole field of rolled hay to themselves if they had known better.

After the Foix stage they were taking a train to Carcasonne for a day and then another train to Nimes the day after to watch the peloton arrive. We hope to rendezvous at the giant screen tomorrow. And if not there at L'Alpe d'Huez next Tuesday. They will have a fine time climbing it if they've been struggling on the modest climbs so far. Despite the strain of the cycling, they were in an elevated spirit experiencing the grandeur of The Tour. They kept looking around at the mobs of people and all the hoopla and saying, "We don't see any of this on TV. This is amazing."

Megan said she was suffering from sunburn, though it wasn't evident. She said she put sun-block on at least three times a day, but was still fried. She was happy to stay in the shade with me while Matt went exploring to see what free stuff he could collect from all the sponsors that he saw everyone else carting about. When the caravan finally arrived and started dispersing its goodies she was surprised, as she thought the steady stream of vehicles preceding it had been the caravan. I pointed out Raymond Poulidor when he was dropped off in front of us to go hobnob with the VIPs in the fenced in area behind us after having been driven along the race course as he is every day. She was enough of a fan to know who he was but she didn't know his nickname, Pou-Pou.

She and Matt were riding Raleigh touring bikes. Their first choice had been the Trek 520 as I ride, but there was such a demand for them, none were available until September. Nor could they find a Kona or Surley, their next choices. The nearest touring bike they could find to Pittsburgh was 200 miles away. But no complaints. Hopefully I will be able to share in their honeymoon delight a couple more times.

At the stage finish, I was perfectly situated to make a quick getaway and lead the charge to Lavenet, the next day's start 20 miles away. It was half an hour before the first team car passed me and the parade of Tour vehicles engulfed the road. Two miles from Lavenet the vehicles were backed up and moving at less than a crawl. There was hardly any traffic coming from the opposite direction, so I could ride down the middle of the road. I did the same descending the Tourmalet Monday. The bicycle is always the vehicle of choice, but never more so than on those two occasions.

There was music and Tour festivities enlivening Lavenet when I passed through at 6:30 pm. I had no time to spare to linger. I found the arrows leading out of town and started Stage 12. It was peace and quiet with only a sporadic vehicle for the next three hours. I knocked off 33 miles of the stage, stopping only to eat a thawed grocery store quiche, leaving me 72 miles to the stage finish the next day. And here I am in Narbonne, with the peloton due to arrive in two-and-a-half hours. I've scouted out tomorrow's route out of town and will be on my way to Nimes, 110 miles away, in less than three hours. Things could not be going better.

Later, George

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