Thursday, July 24, 2008

St. Etienne (Ville Arriveé)

Friends: The racing may have been restrained on L'Alpe d'Huez yesterday, with none of the contenders caring to chase down Sastre or mounting attacks of their own from their tidy little clot of nine riders that essentially stuck together the entire ascent, but the mass of several hundred Dutch fans clustered in what is known as Dutch Corner a little more than half-way up the climb, were anything but restrained. They were as wildly raucous and riotous as ever, dancing and singing their lungs out for hours.

For the first time in my three Tour visits to L'Alpe d'Huez I was in no rush to reach the finish line and was able to linger amongst this crazed and energetic throng of orange t-shirts and jerseys and zany outfits. I would have spent the whole day with them had there been a television to follow the day's racing over three beyond category climbs. But I did join them for over half an hour, soaking up and getting energized by their revelry, before continuing on just a bit further to a small village that had a couple of bars with television. I needed to make a quick getaway to start riding the next day's stage, so I didn't continue all the way to the summit and the giant screen as I have in the past. If I went all the way to the top, it could take better than an hour to navigate the descent among the hoards of bicyclists and gendarmes. I satisfied myself with stopping two miles from the summit, well before the fences started that separated the racers from the fans, meaning that I could be part of the narrow gauntlet of fans for the racers to pass through.

The location was also a more reasonable hiking distance for my friend Julie, who had driven ten hours from her small town of St. Cyprien in the Dordognne to join me. She neglected to bring her trusty Bike Friday, fearful she wasn't in shape for the climb. If I had known she had any hesitancy, I would have assured her that she could have managed it. Anyone who could bike up Mont Ventoux, a longer and equally steep climb, as she did last fall on her Bike Friday, could handle this climb. She was extremely fit then, having just returned from biking around Corsica, Napoleon's island birthplace. Even if she was less physically conditioned now, I knew that anyone who had conquered Mont Ventoux would have the fortitude and grit to conquer L'Alpe d'Huez as well, regardless of the miles in their legs. Even more people walk up the climb than bike it, so Julie had plenty of company. I walked with her the mile from our campsite in Bourg d'Osians until the climb began with a sudden 10% incline. The road was mobbed with eager, energetic fans, most tanned and fit. It was a festive atmosphere. "This reminds me of the Olympics," Julie commented, which she had attended in Athens four years ago.

Julie and I planned to meet just beyond the Dutch corner at a water spigot on the left side of the road, the only one on the climb other than the many natural springs spouting out of the mountain sides. It was a little further than I remembered, but still we managed to connect, our second semi-blind rendezvous amongst the hoards who always descend upon L'Alpe d'Huez when The Tour comes to town. Our first rendezvous the day before was a bit more of a challenge, as Julie and I had actually never met other than via email. We've been in contact over four years, introduced by a fellow ardent traveler and touring cyclist. We've followed each other's travels these past four years and have tried to meet up several other times.

Julie lives in northern Michigan, but also owns a house in France. I've passed through her French town a couple of times, but never when she has been there. We had planned to meet this year on my way from Spain to Brest, but were foiled when she unexpectedly had to return to the US. L'Alpe d'Huez was a perfect place to finally meet and hear first-hand of all her travels and years working as a cycle touring guide. She presently divides her time between northern Michigan, France and northern Thailand, where she teaches English to Burmese refugees. Julie is that rare person who when she gets the bug to do something or go somewhere, forges ahead and does it, and doesn't find an excuse to remain stuck in her rut. She is a fearless doer-supreme. She has done much and longs to do much more. She has trekked Nepal multiple times. If there were an Aunt of the Year Award, she would have won it several years ago when she took her nephew on an around the world trip of several months. He'd never traveled. She knew that such a trip would change his life.

After I descended L'Alpe d'Huez the road was clogged with traffic the first ten or so miles as I headed to Grenoble 25 miles to the northeast, but I made considerably better time than if I had started out from the summit or if I had left my tent and gear in the park where we camped rather than lugging them up the mountain. I was able to get 50 miles down the road before dark. Each mile was crucial, as the next day's stage was 123 miles with a category two, eight-mile climb at the 100 mile point. Also easing matters was Jesse the Texan, who caught up to me around 9:30 this morning. With our combined efforts we reached the category two climb by 11 and had no worries about having the road closed on us before reaching the finish line in St. Etienne.

It was the third stage I had ridden with Jesse and the first time I had seen him with panniers. I was not surprised. It meant that things hadn't worked out with Skippy. He and his brother made it to Italy with him, but that was enough. They were back on their own, meaning that Jesse's brother was back carrying the bulk of Jesse's gear via train. It seems like a logistical nightmare, but they are pulling it off.

Jesse says he would never do it this way again, though he would love to return to The Tour, especially with his dad, who is a world champion in the biathlon (biking and running) in his age group. Without Skippy urging Jesse on and forcing the pace, we were able to have a non-stop several hour conversation that made the miles pass almost unnoticed. I learned that Jesse and his dad publish a newsletter analyzing index funds and that Jesse also gives prep classes for law school entrance exams. His brother CJ teaches German at the Texas high school they both attended and coach's the girl's soccer team. Their dad is also a podiatrist. There were two things he wouldn't let his sons do--play football or have a motorcycle.

Jesse's knees are still smarting, but he has no worries now about completing his ride as there are only a few nominal climbs in the remaining three stages. He did investigate getting a cortisone shot in Italy, but it didn't work out. He had scabs and bruises on his arm from a couple of crashes, one after a rear flat on a steep descent. One of his highlights was riding with the Spanish Euskatel team on the rest day while they were out scouting the stage over the La Bonette pass, the highest in France. Only twice before has it been included in The Tour. Whether or not we ride together again this year, we will surely keep in touch, and will be hoping to see each other again next year.

The headline of today's L'Equipe did not celebrate Sastre's two minute win on L'Alpe d'Huez and the assumption of the yellow jersey, but simply said "Until Saturday". Saturday is the time trial and that will decide all. The top three in the standings presently (Sastre, Schleck and Kohl) are not very good time trialists. The next three (Evans, Menchov and Vande Velde) are. The latter three all could vault over the present top three. It will be plenty suspenseful.

Later, George

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