Saturday, July 26, 2008

St. Amand-Montrond (Ville Arriveé)

Friends: I was anticipating a huge let-down after a high-voltage day on L'Alpe d'Huez, but as I stood at the 100 meter to go marker in St. Etienne the day after, gazing up at the giant screen with the throngs of thrilled fans all about me, the electricity of this sporting/cultural event had my skin tingling once again.

And the feeling was the same all along the road that day, as this was the much-anticipated day for all those in the vicinity of The Tour passing by, even though it was an inconsequential transitional stage. This was the highlight of the year, and possibly the decade, for many of those in these communities and there was no denying their glee and delight. Some locals had claimed their spot along the road as early as seven a.m. and were having a picnic breakfast, to be followed by their picnic lunch. Even after being submerged in The Tour for the past three weeks, as I border on physical exhaustion, I feel as thrilled as all those who only get a single dose of this monumental event.

I came close to bonking yesterday in the final kilometer of a measly category four climb early in the day. It was only 9 a.m., and I had biked just 30 miles since getting started at 6:30, but I was suddenly feeling very light-headed. My breakfast of a peanut butter sandwich and some sugar smacks and nuts had worn off and I was feeling the effects. I've had many days at this year's Tour when I've biked 60 to 80 miles nearly non-stop, racing to reach the finish line before the course was closed, so this came as a surprise. The nuts and sugar smacks in my handlebar bag that I had been nibbling whenever I wasn't straining on a climb weren't providing me the energy I needed, or else my efforts these weeks had finally caught up to me. Normally I have some madeleines to eat as well, but I had run out. I didn't realize what high octane fuel they provided. They are a doughy, egg-based snack. I was introduced to them last year by the Dutch cyclist/medical student I met in Japan and later met up with outside of Paris. They are tasty, highly-caloric and cheap--a pound for less than a euro--a touring cyclist's dream food. I will try never to be without.

As I felt my strength waning, I would have liked to have stopped and eaten, but my pride wouldn't allow it, as the climb was jammed with vehicles and people on both sides. I made it to the top, and after the descent found a secluded spot to eat. I knew I couldn't make it to the finish line before the peloton, as there'd been a 50-mile transfer between stage finish and stage start the day before. I completed 45 of those miles the night before, camping five miles before the stage start, a rare day when I wasn't at least 25 or 30 miles into the stage when I woke. It was a short 103-mile stage, but had an extra four miles tagged on to the start as a promenade through the town it started in. I didn't realize it wound around the city and ended up near the start before heading out of town and the official start about a mile afterward and could have saved myself those miles. But the entire way of that promenade had decorations and bike art celebrating The Tour making it most enjoyable in the tranquil seven a.m. hour.

I was so concerned with getting as far down the course before I was ordered off that I didn't even accept the offer of water from Skippy the Australian when he drove past, even though I was down to just one bottle. It was nice to have finally connected with him and to have him as an ally. I made it to the feed zone before being stopped. A 71-year old French cyclist, who had been following The Tour in a van painted with racers on bikes, said he kept seeing me and wondered if I was actually keeping up on my bike.

He was another of those arch-typical French lovers of the bike that I always enjoy meeting. He didn't care so much for any of the riders, he just loved the "atmosphere" of The Tour. He had worked in advertising as an artist and had painted the cyclists on his van. He had several books of portraits he had drawn of racers from over the years. His boyhood hero was Bobet, three-time winner of The Tour in the '50s whose museum and grave Craig and I visited last year.

I didn't reach yesterday's finish line until after 9 p.m. and then immediately headed north to St. Amand-Montrond, 35 miles away for today's climatic time trial. I pulled into town a little before ten, riding in an off-and-on drizzle. The course was already mobbed, three and four people deep from well beyond the one kilometer to go arch. And the caravan wasn't due for 45 minutes or more. I was able to get a couple bottles of water and the two newspapers that are passed out free and then headed back into town to buy food and hit the Internet. I only need to watch the last hour of the 33-mile time trial, as only the last six riders have any meaning, but I will park myself in front of the giant screen and soak up the atmosphere for the next five hours. Then it is on to Paris.

Later, George

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