Friends: With the Australian Cadel Evans having finished second in The Tour the past two years and a favorite again this year, Aussie fans are in great abundance. I sat beside a trio of them at the Thursday night presentation of the teams. It was their first Tour. They had rented a car and planned on following the first four stages. They were already overloaded with souvenirs.
Saturday morning, as I was riding ten-mile time trial course that would be contested that afternoon I passed a pack of 25 or 30 Australian cyclists, most of whom were wearing Bikestyle jerseys, an Australian tour company I've encountered the past couple of years and drafted a few times. They were standing alongside the course receiving a briefing from one of their leaders.
A little later I caught up to a touring cyclist of my vintage with rear panniers and tent and sleeping bag piled atop--another Aussie, Vincent. This is first Tour de France and also his first cycling tour. He races, now in the masters class, and had long dreamed of coming to France to follow The Tour. His wife told him to quit talking about it and do it. He wasn't sure if he was really up to it. He had flown into Milan five days before and taken the train to the coast. He was staying at a hostel in Menton, six miles out of Monaco and had hardly done any riding. He was feeling rather homesick and on the verge of returning home, a month before schedule. This was just the second time he'd been out of Australia, the other a family vacation to Bali, just north of Australia. He was a hard working man--a chef and cab driver who had raised four sons. He'd accrued enough vacation time that he had to use it or lose it, so he took this plunge.
He was a true blue Aussie, quickly calling me "mate" and occasionally uttering a "fair dinkum!" when I mentioned something that astonished him. He'd only planned on watching the time trial and the start of the next day's stage leaving Monaco, but I tried to recruit him to join me and at least ride the first stage to tis finish. I told him I planned to get started in a few hours before the time trial started, as watching riders come by every minute or so wasn't all that exciting. Watching them as were now giving it a test was much more interesting. We could get thirty miles or so down the road and then stop at a bar and watch the last 90 minutes of the action. It was only ten o'clock and the time trial didn't start until four. I told him I would position myself at the extreme western end of the course so I could make a quick getaway after the caravan of sponsors had passed two hours before the first rider would set out and not be trapped behind barriers if he cared to meet up with me.
When I took up my position at noon Vincent came over and gave me the good news that he'd join me. The caravan of sponsors began their ceremonial procession and dispersal of trinkets at 1:30. With only 34 sponsors, down from 40, it only took them 35 minutes to go by. There was no reason for Vincent and I to wait two hours for the first racer to pass. We had seen them all out test riding the course. Vincent had seen his hero Evans pass by three times. He'd stationed himself at a corner, and Evans took it sharper each time, nearly sliding out the third time.
Vincent wasn't fully prepared to tour. He was riding one of his back-up racing bikes, rather than a bike designed for touring. He had only two chain rings and only a 28 as his largest ring on his cassette. His tires were narrow, with a 25 on the rear and a 23 on the front. He had considerably less rolling resistance than I and was much faster on the descents. But the climbs were a strain for him. Still, he had so many racing miles in his legs, he knew how to suffer and endure on the bike. He hadn't trained for this, but he was tough enough to hang in there and maintain his good-natured disposition. He was a jolly good riding companion.
We reached the town of Grasse, high above Cannes, right at six as I hoped we would and stopped at the first bar we came to. There were two guys playing pool and a blank large-screen TV. The bar tender kindly put the race on for us. It was a wonderful setting. There was niety minutes of racing to go and about sixty more racers to leave the starting blocks. Surprisingly, Leipheimer and Lance had already raced so we missed seeing them, but none of the other favorites had yet to go. Leipheimer had the best time at that point and Lance the third best, ten seconds behind.
The second to last racer to hit the course was the Swiss Fabian Cancellara riding for Team Saxo Bank, formerly CSC. He blasted the course, winning by a staggering eighteen seconds and catching Denis Menchov, recent winner of the Giro, who had started ninety seconds before him. Cancellera's victory wasn't totally unexpected, as he won the prologue in London two years ago and also the time trial at the last Olympics, but there were doubts that he could win on such a steep course since he is a very big guy.
If Cancellera hadn't had such an exceptional ride, Contador would have won the yellow jersey. But Contador had to be thrilled by his ride anyway, beating Lance by twenty seconds and Leipheimer by ten. Lance still finished tenth and Leipheimer sixth. The other surprises were Evans finishing fifth, a second faster than Leipheimer and also Andreas Kloden, teammate of Lance and Levi and Contador finishing fourth. They are both fine time trialists, but they weren't expected to outdo Lance and Levi. Astana had four riders in the top ten, quite an achievement. It was nice to be able to share all the excitement with Vincent, as he is a very knowledgeable fan. All four of his grown sons raced, so it is deeply ingrained in his blood. We have an exciting three weeks of racing to look forward to, though we probably won't share much more of it together after tomorrow.
We left the bar at 7:30 and cycled another hour, stopping just before we reached the summit of the third of four categorized climbs on the next day's stage. Vincent said he was "knackered." Still, we had ridden nearly fifty miles of the day's 120-mile stage, putting us in excellent position to reach the stage finish the next day before the course was closed. And we did, managing to make it Brinoles by 2:30.
We had those seventy miles mostly to ourselves, as it was too hot for most people, not only cyclists, but fans as well. It was a nice introduction for Vincent. He was thrilled to receive his first "allez-allez" and pass by The Devil and the various picnickers in whatever shade they could find. But we didn't see Skippy out riding, the first time in four days I hadn't seen him. Vincent had met him, as Skippy recognized that he was an Aussie by his jersey and struck up a conversation.
It is about forty miles from Brinoles to the start of tomorrow's stage start in Marseille. It is unlikely Vincent will make it. He unsurprisingly broke a spoke near the end of today's ride and was thoroughly exhausted. No complaints though, as he's had much more of a Tour experience than he anticipated. He flies home from London July 26, after The Tour has finished. We could well meet up again in the middle of the country on The Tour route or in the years to come.
Our ride together may have changed his life. He could be a natural, easily wild camping for the first time in his life. He had no problem eating cold ravioli out of a can, saying it was as good as some spaghetti he'd had in a restaurant a couple nights before, high praise coming from a chef. He's been impressed, too, by the French canned cassoulet stew, also part of my diet.
I spent half an hour at the finish line here at Brignoles watching some mid-race action on the jumbo screen before taking a break to send out this report. Alongside me was a married couple from Texas who are following the entire Tour by car. They'd done it several times before, but not since Lance's retirement. Now that I've completed this, I can head back to the finish line to see if the usual breakaway group has been caught by the hard-riding Columbia team setting up the sprint for Cavendish.